Monday, January 28, 2013

The Lost McGown's Pass Tavern - Central Park

Nearly a century before the idea of a Central Park was sparked, Catharine McGown purchased the old stone tavern and ten acres of land from Jacob Dyckman, Jr., in what would become the northern section of the park.  The tavern was just one of several roadhouses along the route from the city to the farthest point on the island; and in 1905 historian Edward Hagaman Hall pointed out that they were “eloquent testimonials of the consuming thirst generated by the journey from one end of the island to the other, and the pressing need for frequent places of alleviation.  And we may conclude that Dyckman filled the proverbial ‘long felt want’ when he opened the pioneer inn on the heights.”

Catharine was the widow of Captain Daniel McGown who was lost at sea in 1759.  She operated the tavern, which became known as McGown’s Pass, with the help of her son Andrew.   The inn would play host, like it or not, to British outposts on September 15, 1776, the day before the Battle of Harlem Heights.

Not long after the war, the tavern was run by a man named Legget, and a road map of 1789 named it “Legget’s Halfway Tavern.”   Finally on December 1, 1845 the McGown family sold the tavern and land to Thomas B. Odell for $6,000.  The new owner held the property for little more than a year, passing the deed on April 1, 1847 to the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul.  The hill and acreage around it that had long been known for its tavern was now called Mount Saint Vincent.  Edward H. Hall wrote “At the time of the occupation of the McGown’s Pass property by the Academy and Convent of St. Vincent, a fine growth of sixty-four years had clothed the hills and valleys with verdure.  The advancing tide of population of the great city was still five or six miles distant, and the region still possessed its rural charm.”

Construction started almost immediately and by 1855 there was an entire campus—a two-story residence for the chaplain; a Free School; a building containing a study hall, recreation hall, and class rooms; and lastly a “stately brick edifice, containing a beautiful chapel and large dining rooms.”

But “the advancing tide of population” was less threatening to the convent and academy than was Central Park.  In 1853 the law authorizing the construction of the park, from 59th Street to 106th Street, was passed.    Just one year after the completion of Mount Saint Vincent’s large brick building, the Sisters of Charity bought the Edwin Forrest estate called Font Hill and in 1858 they held their last Commencement Exercises at McGown’s Pass.  (The name still stuck and an illustrated description of Central Park printed in 1859 noted “The extreme northwest corner of the Park is occupied by a large hill, which bounds McGown’s Pass on the west.”)

The Mount St. Vincents buildings were used as a hospital in the Civil War; then in 1866 they were converted to a refreshment house for Park visitors, and the chapel was used as a statuary gallery and museum.  But on the morning of January 2, 1881 fire broke out and the complex was destroyed.

The ruins sat for five months before the Commissioners ordered them cleared away and the area planted with ground cover.  A controversy erupted between the New York Municipal Society against the building of another refreshment house, and those who wanted a new restaurant.   Eventually the restaurant promoters won.   In 1884 the grand and sprawling Mount Saint Vincent Hotel was completed.

The name concerned Mother Jerome of the Sisters of Charity who did not care to have it connected with a liquor establishment.  She requested that the Commissioners abolish the name from the Central Park map, and they formally complied on April 16, 1884.  The hotel, however, was less accommodating.

On October 8, 1885 Patrick McCann, former dry goods merchant, took over the lease with big plans in mind.   The New York Times piled compliments on the structure and McCann’s improvements.  “The building, which is owned by the city…is admirably adapted for use as a pleasure resort either in Winter or in Summer.  In its present condition it probably has no superior as a road house.  Mr. McCann has adorned it and furnished it with liberality and rare taste.”

The newspaper noted that the hotel was an essential stop on a sleigh ride.  “No matter how fast the team nor how elegant the equipage a turn ‘on the road’ is not done in proper shape unless it includes a bite or a sip in the Mount St. Vincent.”

The writer took note of the scene on the previous day.  “What seemed to charm the ladies most was the huge pile of blazing and crackling logs in the broad fireplace in the hallway.  The cozy little parlor, with its rich crimson plush drapings and furniture, was well filled and the waiters were kept busy in the large dining hall.  Many of the armchairs in the cafĂ© were occupied by portly gentlemen who own good horses, keep good bank accounts, and who know what real comfort is.  Such is the class of persons to which the patrons of the Mount St. Vincent chiefly belong.”

Indeed, the new proprietor intended his patrons to be of the upper class.    In describing the eight private dining rooms on the second floor, The Times cautioned “The use of these rooms will only be permitted to persons of known respectability.  Mine host McCann has no use for any other kind of persons.”

The new establishment boasted cutting edge amenities, heated by steam and lighted “by Edison’s incandescent lights.”  The Times said “In the cold weather the piazza in front of the house is inclosed [sic] with glass screens, and visitors can sit there in comfort and watch the passing equipages.  In the large dining hall on the first floor the rippling waters of a fountain patter down upon fresh green plants.  Light and pretty screens of willow ware enable the occupants of the different tables to enjoy partial seclusion if they so desire.  On the walls are broad mirrors of plate glass, heavy draperies and fine pictures, and scattered here and there on the floor are soft fur rugs.”

photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The Mount St. Vincent Hotel attracted the up-scale clientele McCann desired.  But by May 1890 there was trouble.  The Parks Commissioners accused him of refusing them access to his accounting books; he in turn claimed “he had been promised an offset for the money he had expended for necessary repairs and refurnishing.”  The Parks Department said he owned “his returns for April and eleven days in May” while The Evening World reported “Instead of owing the Department he claims that the Park Department owes him several thousand dollars.”

It was not a dispute that would end well for the restaurateur.    Police barricaded the building and McCann could only stand and watch as “All day men were busy taking out goods from the hotel back to the stores and offices from which they had come.  The stock ticker went first; then a man came to take out the electric annuniciators on the doors and the telephone with Richard Croker’s number leading the list.  There were also brewery wagons and grocers’ wagons and ice cream dealers’ wagons.  McCann’s brindled bulldog wandered about disconsolate and only awoke to give chase to a ragged Maltese cat that approached the house,” reported The Sun on May 14.

The Commissioners had had enough of the restaurant on Park grounds.  “Park Commissioner Hutchins said yesterday that the work of tearing down the building would not begin for a couple weeks,” reported the newspaper.  Only five years old, the building seemed doomed.  The Evening World summed it up in one sentence:  “Mount St. Vincent, that favorite resort of frequenters of the Central Park, is to be demolished.”

Five days after McCann was ousted he held an auction of the furnishings and artwork.  Some of the mirrors, his auction ad claimed, had originally cost $1,600 each—a staggering $35,000 today.

The Sun, May 19, 1890 (copyright expired)
The Commissioners had a last minute change of heart, however, and the lease was given to Gabriel “Gabe” Case.   Case had run a road house on Jerome Avenue and had given rise to a yearly tradition.  In 1896 The New York Times would recall that “The trip across the Harlem being a pretty long one, even from the nearest up-town stable, the men who took the drive were sure to be hungry, as well as thirsty, when they reached Case’s famous hostelry.  In consideration of this the Falstaffian landlord gave a big mince pie, along with [a bottle of] champagne, every Winter, to the road driver who arrived first at his place on runners.”

In a brilliant marketing coup, Case continued the practice (omitting the pie) in his new inn.   And each year with the first substantial snowfall, teams were quickly hitched to richly colored sleighs as New Yorkers raced to be the first to reach the inn and win the bottle of champagne.

Perhaps to erase all traces of the somewhat uncomfortable ending of the Mount St. Vincent Hotel, Case now called upon the site’s history and renamed it McGown’s Pass Tavern.    But the proprietor had other issues to deal with.  The Excise Commissioner complained to the Police Board on September 29, 1891 “that Gabe Case’s McGown’s Pass Tavern in Central Park is unlicensed, and that if liquors are sold there it is in violation of the law,” reported The Times.  But the newspaper pooh-poohed the threat, saying “it was long ago decided by the Corporation Counsel that the place is within the jurisdiction of the Park Department, and that the Police Department has no official business there.”

It would be an ongoing issue, however.

Four years later it was not the selling of liquor that bothered investigative reporters; it was the selling of liquor on the Sabbath.  An article was published accusing McGown’s Pass Tavern of breaking the excise laws.   Case was “chafing” according to The Times and wrote to Parks Commissioner James A. Roosevelt in his own defiant defense.  Park officer Sergeant Ferris visited the tavern on a Sunday afternoon in April 1895 and Park Police Captain C. C. Collins subsequently wrote to Roosevelt with his findings.

“As to McGown’s Pass, I am satisfied, from the report of Sergt. Ferris, that the excise law was obeyed; that no liquor was sold there, and that any statement to the contrary is at variance with the truth.”

The issue of liquor at McGown’s Pass Tavern was eventually put to rest.

The Tavern was solely responsible for the formation of a new election district in 1895.  The City Constitution required that there be an election district that covered any area that contained voters.  The new district, the 21st, covered the area within Central Park bounded by 96th and 110th Streets, between 5th and 8th Avenues.  “There were four voters in this territory last year,” explained The New York Times.  “They are men employed in McGown’s Pass Tavern.”

In the meantime, nearby on 124th Street just off 7th Avenue was the boarding stable owned by John J. Quinn, whom The Times called “a Yankee with a good Hibernian name.”  Quinn hailed from Manchester, New Hampshire but had lived in New York long enough to have already won Case’s champagne bottle trophy ten times.   A change in venue would not deter him.

And he continued to be unbeatable.  On January 12, 1896 The New York Times reported on his sixteenth consecutive winning of “the coveted bottle” which “is now on his desk at the stable.”  It would not be the last bottle John Quinn won in the opening sleigh ride of the season.

Riders assemble at McGown's Pass Tavern in 1899.  Notice the large stone block to assist gentlemen in mounting -- from The New Metropolis, 1899 (copyright expired)
Snow fell on New Year’s Eve 1900; but The Times said the roads were “not sufficiently covered with snow to warrant taking out a sleigh” on New Year’s Day.  That did not deter John Quinn, however.  “Several horsemen made a start early in the morning for McGown’s Pass Tavern, in the Park, for the purpose of winning the annual bottle of wine.  John Quinn reached the tavern in his sleigh first, but as there must be sleighing the day following the arrival of the first sleigh at the tavern, there may be another race for the bottle.”

Whether the lack of snow necessitated another run for the champagne was of little matter; John Quinn would win.  The following year the first snow was on November 29 and, as usual, Quinn won the magnum.  As a matter of fact, noted The New York Times the following day, “Mr. Quinn has won this magnum every year but one for twenty-five years.”

Times were changing as evidenced by the motorcar and the horse-drawn buggy --NYPL Collection
The carriage trade continued to patronize the Tavern and in 1902 Mrs. Edward Lyman Short devised a “outing dinner club” that included society names like Schieffelin, Delafield, Rutherford and Van Rensselaer.  The concept was to meet at different high-class restaurants throughout the season as a diversion to the conventional mansion dinner parties.  McGown’s Pass Tavern was one of the first places the group patronized that year.

It seemed like a good place for Howard Gould to meet his wife for lunch on the afternoon of April 7, 1904, before leaving town.  Mrs. Gould was to meet her husband at 3:30; however she “did not leave the Waldorf-Astoria, where they have been living, until after the appointed hour,” according to the newspapers.  Already late, she ordered the chauffeur to hurry.  And he did.

Unfortunately his speed caught the attention of mounted Policeman John Murphy within the park.  Just two blocks from the Tavern, the driver was stopped and, although Murphy intended only to warn him about exceeding the speed limit, “the chauffeur gave an insolent answer, which led to an altercation, during which Murphy placed the man under arrest,” said The New York Times.

Mrs. Gould insisted that her driver be allowed to take her the two blocks to the restaurant; but the policeman was equally insistent on taking him to the station.  Because the socialite was, apparently, unable to walk the two blocks on her own, she went to the police station at No. 25 West 56th Street as well.

Mrs. Gould, in a huff, intended to wait inside her limousine while the untidy affair played out inside the police station.  But that did not work out either.  “When the big automobile pulled up in front of the court it at once became the centre of a large crowd of people, who made remarks and stared so at Mrs. Gould that she determined to wait in the courtroom for her driver.  The room was almost empty and Mrs. Gould paced up and down impatiently while the case was being heard.”

In the meantime, Howard Gould waited, equally impatiently, in McGown’s Pass Tavern for his long-delayed spouse.

After hearing the case in which Murphy claimed the chauffeur was reaching speeds of 20 miles an hour and the driver insisting he was going only 8 (the speed limit in the Park), Magistrate Baker imposed a fine of $10.  Except the driver had no money.  Mrs. Gould searched her purse, only to find that she, too, had no cash.

The judge and the policeman offered to call a cab to take the irate woman to the Tavern; but she refused “saying that she only wished to have her husband informed of her plight and the chauffeur’s.”  A few minutes later Gould arrived.  He told reporters that “the arrest of his chauffeur and the treatment of Mrs. Gould in being compelled to suffer the indignity of having to sit around in a courtroom was outrageous.”

He promised to have Murphy dismissed from the force, denounced the fine (although he paid it) and the three climbed into the limousine headed directly for Grand Central Station.  A quiet lunch at McGown’s Pass Tavern was not to be.

Gabe Case had been suffering from Bright’s Disease and a month before the unfortunate Gould affair he passed control of the Tavern to his partner, John L. Scherz.  Case’s condition worsened and on June 2 he died in the Tavern.   Although Scherz carried on the traditions; it was the beginning of the end of the venerable inn.

By 1915 Max Boehm was running the Tavern and that year the Parks Commissioners felt they needed the property for city use.  “If the old Arsenal is torn down, as Commissioner Ward has stated that he intends it shall be within a short time, the McGowan’s [sic] Pass house may be used for the park police station.”  Max Boehm was issued an order to vacate.

On March 1, 1915 The Sun said “Max Bohn [sic], who has been running McGown’s Pass Tavern as a roadhouse and restaurant, will move out to-day.  Once the highball high tide swashed about in the neighborhood of the tavern back in the days when joy rides were taken behind an animal known as the horse.  But with the coming of the automobile everybody feeling the need of something began to scoot out to Long Island and Westchester roadhouses.  So Max believes that the time has come to call quits.”

On March 9 an auction was held.  “All of its relics and curiosities, oil paintings, and sporting prints, together with ‘Old Gabe,’ the aged green and yellow parrot, were knocked down to the highest bidders.  Intrinsically the stuff was not worth much, as the entire furnishings of the tavern brought barely $1,500,” said The Times.  “Many of the articles, and particularly the pictures, possessed, however, a sentimental interest, recalling a fund of reminiscences of early trotting and sleighing days to many of those present.”

The Tavern had a brief reprieve, long enough for William H. Allen, Director of the Institute for Public Service to complain to Mayor Mitchell about the sale of liquor and dancing in Central Park.

But that dogged issue of liquor in Central Park was put to rest when the grand and imposing structure was finally razed in 1917.   In a humiliating act for the once-proud building, its foundations were not destroyed.  Instead, the foundation stones that once upheld the Tavern where New Yorkers in silk top hats and fur stoles found relief from the chill outside now serve to contain the Park’s compost pile.


  1. Love this post, thank you Mr. Miller.

  2. Thank you for posting. Can you imagine if this was still here? Such a shame NYC just demolishes everything good.

    1. You are utterly right, too many beautiful places gone forever.