Monday, October 14, 2013

The Lost Van den Heuvel Mansion -- Broadway at 78th Street


watercolor from the collection of the New York Public Library
Far from his homeland of Holland, Jan Cornelius Van den Heuvel was doing quite well for himself in Demerara until 1790.  He was the governor of that Dutch colony on the Demerara River in South America (Demerara would later become Georgetown and the colony British Guiana).   In addition to his governmental position, he owned two plantations and established himself as a Dutch West India merchant.   According to a historian over a century later, he had “made a fortune.”

But he made a life-changing decision in 1790 to leave Demerara.  The colony was being ravaged by a yellow fever epidemic and he sailed to New York City to wait out the danger.   Van den Heuvel brought with him his wife, son Jacob Adriaen, and two daughters, Charlotte and Margaret.  Another son, Isaac Guysbertus Herman van den Heuvel, still lived in the Hague. 

According to the New-York Tribune decades later “he intended to remain in New-York only a little while and return to his home, but he was charmed with the country” and stayed.  It was probably not merely the charm of the country that induced Van den Heuvel to remain in New York.  He quickly established himself as a major player in New York trade and finance.  The former governor purchased a home at No. 87 Liberty Street; then began scouting out property for a country estate—a must-have for New York’s wealthiest citizens.

In 1792 his wife, Justina Henrietta Baerle Van den Heuvel purchased 400 acres from James McEvers in the Bloomingdale area of upper Manhattan.  The rolling country was named by Dutch settlers “Bloemendael” and was dotted with the estates of the gentry as well as long-standing farms of the old Dutch families.

The Van den Heuvels’ closest neighbor was Charles Apthorp who had sold the parcel in 1767.  Writers for decades would credit Van den Heuvel (he took on the Anglicized “John”) with erecting the fine mansion on the land.  But early documents point to the fact that the house was already there.

Around 1819 Charles Etienne Pierre Motte created the charming "Mr. Van Den Heuvel's Country Seat" -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWRER3BZ&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894
When Apthorp had sold the parcel to McEvers on October 30, 1767, the deed listed “houses, outhouses, kitchens, barns and stables” on the property.  “Valentine’s Manual of the City of New York” would impress in 1918 that evidence suggested that the mansion “was built by Apthorp, instead of by Van den Heuvel as has been assumed.”

Whichever man was responsible for the house, it was a grand summer manor.  Two stories tall with a steep gabled roof it was constructed entirely of “solid stone.”  Black oak logs from the property were stripped of their bark and used as supporting beams beneath the structure.  To compensate for the natural tapered shape of the logs, wooden wedges were used to build up the narrower ends.

The builder imported the 9-inch-square bricks from Holland.   A writer described the care of construction and the costly interiors.  “All the laths used in the house are of the ‘split’ variety, none sawed, and the nails and hinges were all hand made.  There were fine fireplaces and handsomely carved mantels in many of the rooms.”   Fine carved paneling and delicate turned stairway balusters graced the interiors.  The maple flooring was constructed of boards 22 inches wide and two inches thick.

“The mansion was remarkable for its magnificence among the many beautiful places of Bloomingdale,” said "Valentine’s Manual of the City of New York” in 1918.  “The front stoop, which faced the Bloomingdale Road, was reached by four brown stone steps and at the porch entrance stood four white columns of white cedar hewn from logs of trees grown on the estate.”

“As one entered the house he was confronted with a wide graceful staircase, the steps of which were low and broad, with turned and carved balustrade of colonial type.  The main floor had a broad arched central hall 20 feet wide paved with marble slabs…A drawing room opened into this hallway on one side and opposite was located a lofty dining room.”

Upstairs were four large rooms and in the gable were bedrooms.  Around the fireplaces were tiles “composed of squares having on each a Scriptural subject.  The Dutch-type construction and architecture were reflected in the heavy window sashes, the solid indoor shutters and the window seats, and the small square panes in the windows."

The house had reportedly been used during the Revolutionary War by George Washington and his troops for one night.  Accounts say they quickly moved on as the British closed in behind them.  “They had hardly been encamped on the grounds when the British advanced, and the place was evacuated.”  The British then set up headquarters for a while in the mansion and in their own quick abandonment of the property left parts of uniforms behind.

Justina Van den Heuvel would not enjoy the summer estate for which she paid for very long.  She died a year later on Monday, March 25, 1793.  After an appropriate period of mourning, Van den Heuvel (called “Baron” by some writers) married Charles Apthorp’s daughter Charlotte.   The couple set out adding to the family.  Four children—Maria Eliza, Charles Apthorp, Justine, and Susan Annette—were born within the next few years.

In 1801 Van den Heuvel was elected a director of the U. S. Branch Bank “although a new arrival and hardly to be considered to be in touch with American affairs,” as editorially noted by “Valentine’s Manual.”  The family moved to the northwest corner of Broadway and Barclay Street for its city dwelling (the site now occupied by the Woolworth Building).   The Van den Heuvel’s city residence reflected their stature and wealth.  “Valentine’s Manual” said “This was a model house and furnished in better style than any other at that date.  Citizens ‘from the remotest parts’ says the record, which meant as far out of town as Chambers Street, felt such pride in it that they came to visit it.”

Furnishing in style extended to the summer mansion as well.    An extensive parlor set was crafted for the house by one of the city’s master cabinetmakers.   The New York Times would later describe the Sheraton-style furniture  as “an exquisitely beautiful set, made in the best style of the master of the art of furniture designing…For the purpose a quantity of Brazilian rosewood, which is as hard as lignum vitae and has a beautiful grain, was imported from South America.”

The Van den Heuvel children married well.  Maria Eliza married John Church Hamilton, son of Alexander Hamilton; Justine became the wife of Gouverneur S. Bibby; Susan Annette married South Carolinian Thomas S. Gibbes; Charles Apthorp Van den Heuvel married the daughter of Thomas Morris, signer of the Declaration of Independence.   Susan and Thomas Gibbes’ daughter, Charlotte Augusta Gibbes spent, summers in the house before growing up to marry John Jacob Astor III.

Although John C. Van den Heuvel’s will, dated March 20, 1822, gave his wife, Charlotte, “the gift to her of the use of his farm and mansion at Bloomingdale so long as she should remain his widow;” she died three years before he did.  Following his death the property was divided into nine parts to be shared by his children “share and share alike.”

Rather than dissect the property into relatively small lots, the heirs sold it to Francis Price for $25,758.85 on May 1, 1827.   Price and his wife Jane almost immediately did what the Van den Heuvel family avoided—they divided the land.    Within the month they sold a section of the land (20 building lots) including the mansion to Robert T. Dixon for $3,121.25.  Dixon’s property stretched from “the Road” to what would become West End Avenue, from 78th to 79th Street.

Robert Dixon conveyed the property to Sara Dixon, apparently a relative, in October 1834 for the sum of $4,000.  “Denominated a single woman,” as described by “Valentine’s Manual,” she leased the house in 1839 to William Burnham, thus beginning its life as a roadhouse.   He paid Sara $600 a year rent for the house which became known variously as Burnham’s Mansion House, Burnham’s Hotel and Burnham’s Tavern.

By the time of this sketch the roof had been raised to a full third floor -- "The New York of Yesterday" by Hopper Striker Mott, 1908 (copyright expired)

It gained a reputation as an elegant, respectable hostelry.   Frank Bergen Kelly in his 1909 “Historical Guide to the City of New York” remembered that it was “a favorite resort for driving parties” in the days when coaching in the country air was a favorite weekend pastime for well-to-do New Yorkers.   It was most likely at this time that the gabled roof was replaced by a full third floor.

A writer at the time reported on the virtues of the establishment.   “Burnham’s was fitly styled the family house on the drive.  On each fine Summer afternoon the spacious grounds were filled with ladies and children who sauntered at their leisure, having no fear of annoyance and confident of perfect immunity from affront.”

Abram C. Dayton in his "The Last Days of Knickerbocker Life in New York” in 1882 remembered “Thousands of middle-aged men and women of today recall the many gambols they enjoyed in childhood on Burnahm’s lawn; they cannot fail remembering with vividness the smile of welcome they received from the kind old host and his motherly wife who were always at the door ‘to welcome the coming, speed the parting guest.’  The girls will not have forgotten the large square parlor where the cake and lemonade were dispensed after the hearty run to and from the summer house on the bank, or their protracted stroll through that old-fashioned garden, with its box borders and its profusion of gay native flowers.

“The honest, high-toned reputation of the host and his family acted as a most-efficient police, and was indeed a terror to the evil disposed.”

Although the roadhouse changed hands a few times in the next four decades, it retained the name Burnham’s. 

Sara Dixon sold the property in 1853 to French-born George W. Poillon for $27,500.  Poillon and his wife, Rachel Ann continued to lease the property to the Burnham Hotel proprietors until 1879 when it was purchased by John Jacob Astor, whose wife Charlotte remember the house from her childhood.  The following year the Clarke family rented the house for its florist business.  Greenhouses were installed along most of the block between 78th and 79th Street along Broadway and West End Avenue.

In the attic the Clarke’s found red British uniform jackets that had lain undisturbed for a century.  The military coats were donated to the 82nd Street Public School No. 9 and unruly boys were required to don one of the bright red coats.  “No worse punishment could befall a boy than this,” commented historian Henry Collins Brown in 1918.

When Astor died in 1890, the property was passed on to his son William Waldorf Astor.  Although now the richest man in America, an intense feud between him and his aunt Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor prompted him to move his family to England the following year.   Before leaving he visited the house where his grandmother had spent much of her childhood.  He had the large Dutch weather vane on the barn removed and shipped to England where it was installed on the stables of his estate.

The finely-wrought balustrade of the staircase was photographed just prior to the demolition of the house -- photo The New-York Tribune, October 20, 1901 (copyright expired)

Living abroad did not stifle Astor’s real estate activities in New York.   The Clarke lease was due to expire in May 1902 and already, on October 20, 1901, the New-York Tribune predicted the demolition of the venerable mansion.  “It is believed that the house will then be torn down and the ground broken to make way for modern structures.”

The mansion seven months prior to demolition -- photo The New-York Tribune, October 20, 1901 (copyright expired)

Indeed, Astor wrecked the old house shortly after Marshall Clarke’s lease expired.  The New York Times later noted “It was from this old mansion that William Waldorf Astor, one of the family, took everything that could be transported in the way of woodwork and carried it across the water to build into his house, Cliveden.”

On the site of the Van den Heuvel mansion Astor built a mammoth apartment building that engulfed the entire block.  Named the Apthorp, it gave a nod to the early history of the site, although neglecting his distant relative by marriage, Jan Cornelius Van den Heuvel.

Interestingly, four years later a wealthy socialite purchased some fine pieces of Sheraton-style antiques.  The New York Times on May 20, 1906 said “The woman, who knows fine old furniture, discovered this in an out of the way place and bought it for its intrinsic worth, not learning its history until later.”  Investigation proved it was part of the extensive parlor suite from the Van den Heuvel mansion.  The discovery came about when the woman had an elderly cabinetmaker do some repairs.

“His enthusiasm knew no bounds,” said The Times.  “He had not seen anything like the set since the early days of his work, when fine pieces of the kind were more often seen.  He brought others of his craft to see the gems, which they regarded with the reverence shown to an art treasure in a museum.”

Unlike the magnificent country mansion it once graced, the colonial furniture survived as a Van den Heuvel family legacy.
A massive apartment building engulfed the site of the old mansion -- photo by Alice Lum

2 comments:

  1. Wonderful! It almost takes you back. Thank you so much.

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  2. Thank you for this. I stumbled across Sarah Dixon's will while looking for something else. It was contested and so the proceedings are very lengthy. "Burnhams" figures in it, and seems to be part of the reason she disinherited her nephews. She still owned 4 lots on 80th street and 4 on 117th in 1865. The will litigation runs to about 1869.

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