Monday, May 2, 2016

The Lost James Monroe House - Prince and Lafayette Streets

No. 63 Prince Street as it appeared in the 1820s. Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, June 1877 (copyright expired)
In 1820 Maria Hester Monroe was married in the Oval Reception Room of the White House.  The youngest daughter of President James Monroe, she was just 17 years old and hers would be the first White House wedding.  The groom was Maria’s cousin, 20-year old Samuel L. Gouverneur.  His father, Nicholas Gouverneur was the husband of Maria’s aunt, the former Hester Kortright.  Hester was the sister of Maria's mother, Elizabeth Kortright Monroe.

The New York Herald described the bride, who had been educated in Paris, as “endowed with the hereditary grace and beauty of the Kortrights.”  The newspaper hinted at the groom's wealth, saying he was “very handsome and very opulent.”

Marrying the daughter of the President of the United States had advantages.  James Monroe appointed Gouverneur Postmaster of New York.  The newlyweds relocated to Manhattan and in 1823 Gouverneur purchased two undeveloped lots from Philip Brasher.   They were located at the northwest corner of Prince and Orange Streets, in the area between Houston and Canal Streets—a section just seeing the rise of handsome brick homes.  (Orange Street would later become Marion Street, then Elm Street, and finally Lafayette Street.)

Samuel Gouverneur paid Brasher $2,159 each for the 25-foot wide lots (a little over $50,000 today).   He erected two fine residences, one of which, the preferable corner house, became the Gouverneur home.

The elegant Federal-style structure left no doubt about the financial class of its owner.  Two-and-a-half stories tall above an English basement, it featured the extras expected in high-class homes.  The arched entrance included sidelights and a delicate fanlight, the brownstone lintels were handsomely paneled, and the commodious attic level was lighted not only by the two high dormers, but by an attractive arched opening at the side.

Despite James Monroe’s impressive military and political career—two terms as President, Minister to France and to England, Envoy to Spain, Secretary of State, and author of the Monroe Doctrine, for instance—he was burdened with financial difficulties following his departure from office.  Following the death of his wife, Elizabeth, on September 23, 1830, Monroe was forced to sell his Virginia plantation and move to New York to live with his daughter and step-son.

Decades later The Sun would remark, “as the Gouverneurs were among the socially elect of New York it was the scene of festivities and the gathering place of men of distinction, especially while it was the home of the ex-President.”

Less than a year later, at 3:30 on the afternoon of Monday, July 4, 1831, the 73-year old former President died in the Prince Street house.  A newspaper reported “For several days his death had been momentarily expected” and that “he expired without a struggle.”   His death on Independence Day, following the demise of both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on July 4 five years earlier, was remarkable.

The funeral, on Thursday July 7, was the largest ever held in New York up to that time.  Following what The Illustrated American later described as “a public funeral from his residence,” the casket was removed to City Hall.  After addresses there, the cortege moved along Broadway to St. Paul’s Church where the second funeral was held.

The New York American reported “When it was concluded, the coffin was brought out and placed in the hearse, which waited at the north door of the front entrance of the church; and after a brief interval the procession commenced in the designated manner at about half past five o’clock.  It was computed to extend two miles.”  The former President was buried in a Gouverneur plot in the fashionable Marble Cemetery.

On April 16 the following year Samuel Gouverneur sold No. 63 Prince Street to Miles R. Burke for $10,750.  Fabulously wealthy, Burke lived in the house until his death in 1835.  The extent of his fortune was reflected in the “handsome legacies” of his will.  He left to the Sunday School of St. Thomas Church $3,000 (nearly $80,000 in 2016); and $2,000 each to the Institution for the Blind, and the Orphan Asylum.

Burke's estate sold the house to John Ferguson for $12,000.  Ferguson, who had six sons, lived in the residence with his wife until his death in July 1846.  The family retained possession until March 18, 1873 when it was sold to John H. Contoit for $32,500.

By now the neighborhood had succumbed to commerce.  Wealthy families had moved northward and former mansions were taken over by business.  John Contoit was the proprietor of the pleasure garden known both as the New York Garden and Contoit’s Garden.  (In his 1896 Reminiscences of An Octogenarian of the City of New York, Charles H. Haswell remembered that at Contoit’s one could get ice cream, pound cake and lemonade and “you could be served with a glass of veritable claret, and, if I recollect right, one of cognac too.”)

The elegant parlors, bedrooms and dining room of No. 63 Prince Street were now occupied by small factories and a restaurant.  Pubic interest in historic locations in the 19th century rarely turned to residences—other than exceptional homes like Mount Vernon.  The focus most often was on battlefields and other military spots.  So when newspapers and magazines first began pointing out No. 63 Prince Street as the “Monroe House” around 1890, it was rather remarkable.

In 1900 a massive billboard has been painted on the Lafayette Street side.  The faded sign below the second floor advertised a now-gone Billard Table Factory -- Early New York Houses, 1900, (copyright expired)
On February 20, 1900 The New York Times wrote “Probably not one in a thousand citizens recognized in the recent sale of the house at 63 Prince Street, the old residence of President Monroe when he retired from the White House after his eight years of service.”  The article said that the house “looks much the same as it did when it was the residence of President Monroe, only more dilapidated.  One still sees the Colonial columns and the fluted arch over the doorway, looking now like soiled bits of cast-off finery.”

In the building at the time of The Times article was a furrier and a Hungarian restaurant.  Signs were plastered on the fa├žade and across the once-dignified doorway.  But a movement among at least one historic group was stirring.   And in the spring of 1905 the Women’s Auxiliary to the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society planned a bronze memorial tablet for the house.

The New York Times, on April 2, admitted “The old Colonial house, 63 Prince Street, where Monroe died, is falling to decay.  There is a cheap restaurant in the once beautiful drawing-room, a shoe factory occupies the second floor, and from the quaint old dormer window swings the sign of a small furrier.  In the restaurant, which the proprietor has agreed to clean up and vacate for the day, the Auxilliary Committee will hold its exercises.”

The ceremonies were held on April 28, 1905, the President’s 147th birthday.  Along with military dignitaries and soldiers, mounted police and society figures were what the New-York Tribune deemed “an interesting group of the old statesman’s descendants.”  The unveiling of the plaque was executed by young Gouverneur Hoes, Madison’s great-great-grandson. 

An impressive crowd watched the unveiling of the tablet (between the first and second floors) on April 28, 1905. New-York Tribune (copyright expired)

After the impressive ceremonies, everything returned to normal.  The historic nature of the house slipped into the background once again as employees upstairs got back to work making furs and shop workers grabbed lunch on the first floor.

Four months after the plaque was installed, fire broke out in the cellar at around 1:00 in the morning of August 15.  The Times reported “The cellar is occupied by Vessa & Daddata, dealers in rags.”  Luckily, the fire did not spread beyond the basement and damage was limited to about $500.  But it would be just the first of a string of fires in the venerable structure.

Despite the abuse, restoration of the historic property was well-within reach.  photo by Samuel Landsman from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1919 the entire block of properties along Prince Street between Lafayette and Crosby Streets was scheduled to be sold as a unit.  The impending deal almost certainly doomed the building and sparked renewed interest by historical groups.

On November 2, 1919 The Sun commented “unless some historic society comes to the rescue it will very likely pass from its present regime as an old rag shop to utter obliteration and a modern structure will rise on its site.”

The problem of saving it “from the maw of commercialism” was the $200,000 necessary to buy the entire row of properties.  The article explained “If the house could be purchased of itself there probably would not be much difficulty in raising the necessary funds.”  One solution, however, was offered by Louis Annin Ames, president of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution.  He thought that rest of the buildings could be razed and made a commemorative park to Monroe.

The block of real estate was sold on November 12, 1919 to “an unknown speculator,” according to The New York Times.  “The sale created great interest among patriotic societies, who desire to preserve this famous landmark,” said the newspaper.  The fact that a speculator, rather than a developer, purchased the site created hope—since he would most likely hold it for resale rather than erect a new building.

And, indeed, the old Federal mansion survived.  But, as it turned out, it was not the wrecking ball which was the immediate threat, it was fire.  On October 4, 1922 a fire broke out in the vacant building which was quickly extinguished.  Then another occurred on February 28, 1923.  And another on May 5, 1923.   Despite the troubling coincidence, fire investigators did not suspect arson.

“It was thought that the building was used by a gang as a poker club, and that the first two fires…were caused by accident.  Later the building has been carefully watched and no one has been seen to enter or leave," reported The Times.

Finally in May 1925 the block front was sold to developers.  The Times reported they “will raze the historic residence and erect a loft building.”  The newspaper listed the names of individuals and groups who had been fighting for the preservation of the house—including the James Monroe Memorial Association (formed in 1923), the Women’s Monroe House Memorial Association, Governor Al Smith, Mayor John Hylan and the now-deceased President Warren Harding.

The loss of the dilapidated old mansion seemed inescapable.  “The buyers will erect a fifteen-story loft to cost $1,600,000,” reported The Times.

Less than a month later, on July 29, 1925, the house suffered its fifth fire within two years.  “The fire started in a bale of old newspapers collected by Mario Matera, the present occupant,” reported a newspaper.  Once again the fire was extinguished before serious damage could result.

Undeterred, preservation groups forged on in hopes of saving the Monroe House.  Almost miraculously, funds were raised to purchase the building and a lot at No. 65 Crosby Street was obtained.  Plans were set forth to move the old mansion and in October it was carefully raised from its century-old foundation and placed on a flat bed truck.

One dormer has been stabilized in anticipation of the coming move. The original eight-panel door from 1823 still survived.  From the collection of the New York Public Library

The New York Times reported “on account of the age of the building the movers were compelled to exercise the utmost care and progress has been slow.”  The progress was slow indeed.  Three weeks later the one-block move was still in process.  And then came tragedy.

On November 20 the movers realized that a fire escape on the northeast corner of Prince and Crosby Streets projected too far to allow the building to pass.  Everything halted as workmen attacked the problem.

“The fire escape was dismantled and workmen were swinging the old house in when part of the upper floor collapsed,” reported The Times.  Bricks that rained down onto Crosby Street were “carefully salvaged” and the public was promised that the house would be restored completely when it was placed in position.  But the weakened structure could not endure the move of only a few more feet.  The roof caved in and the back wall collapsed.

The ruined building sat until September 1927 when all hope was given up.  It was offered for sale, raising the ire of State Senator Thomas F. Burchill and Assemblyman Frederick L Hackenburg, the latter denouncing “This could never happen abroad.”

photo American Craft Council
Among America’s earliest attempts at preservation of a historic residence, the embattled Monroe House was demolished to be replaced by a modern loft building.


  1. Tom, pls reread 1st paragraph. Nicholas was married to Hester, Elizabeth's sister wasn't he?

    1. whoops! Thanks for catching that!

    2. Elizabeth Kortright Monroe, not Madison. Sorry, I always mix them up too.