Monday, June 25, 2012

The Lost 1824 Henry Eckford Estate in Chelsea

Eckford's pastoral grounds would not last long; replaced by the bustling Chelsea neighborhood.--print NYPL Collection from D. T. Valentine's Manual of 1860

At only 16 years of age, Scottish-born Henry Eckford was placed with a naval ship builder in Quebec where he learned the craft.  By the time he came to the United States, ten years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, he was 21 years old and was aware of highly-important improvements in ship design and construction.  Almost immediately he took the lead in the New York ship-building industry as his vessels were stronger and speedier than those of his competitors.

During the War of 1812 he rose to national prominence through his contracts for building U.S. Naval vessels for the Great Lakes.  Afterward, in 1822, he built the steamer Robert Fulton—the first steam vessel to make the voyage from New York to New Orleans and Havanna.

Eckford’s fortune grew and he lived in a fine Federal-style home on Water Street, near the homestead of Henry Bergh, another ship builder.   Not far away were the shipyards on the East River, extending as far as 13th Street.  Valentine’s Manual of Old New York in 1916 would recall that “At the immense fire place (it was so large that a man could easily sit in the chimney) in the Bergh house Henry Eckford was a frequent visitor.  Indeed, Bergh’s principal amusement was in going to see Eckford, and Eckford’s principal amusement in going to see Bergh.”

In 1820 Eckford was appointed naval constructor.  Working at the Brooklyn Naval Yards, he designed warships which were considered, according to “Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography,” “the finest in the world.”

Henry Eckford in a painting reproduced years later by Harper's New Monthly Magazine
A falling-out with the naval commissioners led to Eckford’s resignation and his designing of military vessels for European and South American countries, including Brazil and Venezuela.

Wealthy New Yorkers in the first decades of the 19th century still maintained sprawling country estates north of the city.  Continuing the tradition and asserting his position in society, Henry Eckford purchased 22.6 acres from Clement C. Moore in November 1824.  Eckford paid the astounding sum of $22,000 for the portion of Moore’s ancestral estate of Chelsea,  The property stretched from what now is 7th Avenue to 8th Avenue, from about 21st to 26th Streets. 

Friends of the ship architect were somewhat surprised at the purchase.  The area was low-lying and retained water, “so much so that the location as a residence was unhealthy,” said historian Charles Haynes Haswell in 1896.  His friends teased him about his “cow pasture” and asked if he intended to raise frogs there.

Despite the banter, Eckford built a large home on a raised plot of ground, surrounded by breeze-catching porches.  American Architect and Architecture would later remember that “One reached this ample villa, a building like the old plantation houses down South, by Love Lane, a road that turned toward the Hudson from Broadway.”  The house was never named, but was generally called The Love Lane House.

The residence was entered through a central doorway above a broad flight of steps from the lawn.  The two identical wings on either side of the central portion with their peaked roofs made the house look, from the road, like two identical homes.

Eminent thinkers of the day were guests here, such as inventor Robert Fulton.  But writers and poets, whom Eckford found most interesting, were most often found in the parlor and dining room.  The New York Times said, on November 14, 1920, “During Mr. Eckford’s occupancy of the home it was frequented by some of the best-known literary lights in the city, including the poet, Fitz-Greene Halleck, James Rodman Drake…Charles P. Clinch, the author and early in life private secretary of Mr. Eckford and Dr. James E. DeKay, the eminent Naturalist.”

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine agreed, saying that “Many jovial evenings were spent by these young gentlemen under the roof of the rich Scotch ship-builder, and two of the number became his sons-in-law.”

Inventor Robert Fulton painted a portrait of Henry Eckford--NYPL Collection

Indeed, James Rodman Drake married Eckford’s daughter, Sarah, making the summer house even more of a magnet for the literati of the day.   Dr. DeKay would marry the other daughter, Janet.

Despite the “jovial evenings,” the house on Love Lane would also be a place of tragedy and sorrow.

Joseph Rodman Drake  died of consumption at the age of 25, leaving Sarah a young widow.  One evening while suffering from a fever, she rested before a fireplace at the Love Lane home.  Sleeping in another room was her brother, John, who had just returned from abroad.

A spark from a crackling log erupted from the fireplace.  Sarah awoke to find her clothing in flames.  Panicked, she rushed into her brother’s bedroom.  John agitatedly tried to extinguish the fire with his bare hands, but it was too late.

Sarah died and John’s extensive burns led to serious infections that eventually killed him.

Henry Eckford busied himself with the reorganization of the United States Navy for President Andrew Jackson; then prepared a publication on Naval Architecture.    Around the same time he donated $20,000 to establish a professorship of Naval Architecture at Columbia College.

In 1831 his talents were brought to the attention of Sultan Mahmoud of the Ottoman Empire, who commissioned Eckford to build a sloop-of-war.  Afterwards, he was given the office of Chief Naval Constructor for the Empire.   A year later he traveled to Turkey where he established a navy yard, but then suddenly on November 12 at the age of 57--just as he was about to be made a Bey of the Empire-- he died.

The house on Love Lane became the object of long legal battles.  Eckford’s detailed will had not been updated to remove the several members of his family who had died since it was written.  Finally, on May 30, 1839 an auction was held of the estate—what was now 161 city lots.  Charles Haynes Haswell noted in his diary that day “This sale gave an average of a little in excess of fifty dollars per city lot.” 

A "Mr. Hone" disagreed with the accounting, saying that the lots “brought very big prices, a total of $224,045, averaging over $1,500 a lot.”

The country mansion held the least interest to the property buyers.  Streets and avenues were advancing northward and the potential land values for development were now more important than rural estates.   Before long Love Lane would be straightened and renamed 21st Street.

When 25th Street was laid out, it cut off the southern portion of the house.  And before long the rest was gone as well.   The attractive house with the wide verandas lasted less than three decades.   Its jovial evenings and tragic events came and went without a trace.

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