Monday, June 24, 2013

The Lost Arch-Brook Mansion -- East 75th Street and Avenue A

The rural setting included a wooden pump and log outbuildings that stood in stark contrast to the sophisticated mansion -- Valentine's Manual of New York 1866 (copyright expired)
In the 1630s, in the countryside far north of New Amsterdam, a rushing stream emptied into the East River.    Over two centuries later it would run below East 74th Street; but for now it caught the eye of Dutch settlers who used the water to power a sawmill.   With no wagon roads on which to transport the finished lumber it was sailed down the river to New Amsterdam.

The stream earned the name Saw Kill, or Saw River, and in 1677 the mill was acquired by George Elphinstone and Abraham Shotwell who converted it for leather manufacturing.  Later the land became the property of Alderman Cox who developed it into a farm with a summer house.  Upon his death the property passed to his wife, Sarah Bradley Cox, who eventually married the notorious pirate, Captain William Kidd.

Captain Kidd had a city house on Pearl Street; but used the Saw Kill farmhouse for several summers.   On his way back to New York on July 6, 1699, Kidd was arrested in Boston.  A year later he was hanged in London for piracy and murder.  Sarah Bradley Cox Kidd and the Captain’s daughter lived on in the farm until Sarah married Christopher Rousby in 1703.

The house and farm changed hands rapidly.  Rousby passed the farm to John Gurney, a New York banker, who soon died.  His widow, Mary, sold it on September 23, 1708 to Thomas Hook, Jr. “gentleman” of New York for 400 pounds.

Hook would own the farm until 1730 when he sold it to John Devoor.  Devoor lived in the house for half a century, during which time upper Manhattan saw the appearance of vast summer estates of New York’s aristocracy, side-by-side with working Dutch farms.  

By the end of the century the property was owned by David Dickson and Andrew Stockholm.  They constructed expansive cotton mills on the Saw Kill here in 1791 and brought in experienced workmen from Manchester, England.  The ambitious project failed.

Isaac Gouverneur took over the land on December 26, 1799; but he too ran into financial difficulties.  On March 6, 1806 the property was sold at $30,000 in foreclosure to three brothers-in-law—Richard Riker, John Lawrence and John Tom.   A year later John Tom was dead and Riker and Lawrence divided the large farm in halves.  Lawrence renovated the old Sawmill Kill farmhouse on his section and in 1811 Richard Riker built “a fine stone dwelling,” as described by historian James Riker in 1881, on his land.

Riker’s primary residence was on Fulton Street between Broadway and Nassau Street.  He had been Deputy Attorney-general of the State of New York, and afterward a Supreme Court Commissioner.  In 1815 he was appointed Recorder of the City. 

Although historian Charles Haynes would later recall that “He was universally respected as a clear-headed and upright judge,” his stern approach was noticed.  “In sentencing culprits he was apt to remark, they ‘must suffer some,’ and the frequent repetition of this was taken up by the people and it became a byword,” said Haynes.

Riker’s elegant Georgian-style summer residence facing the East River would rival all others.   Two and a half stories of brick and stone sat above a high basement housing kitchens, pantries and other service areas.  The double-height veranda featured an up-to-date Chinese Chippendale railing.  Accessed by a wide flight of steps, it caught the river breezes.   Inside, according to The Sun decades later, was “a wealth of fine wainscoting and carved woodwork.” 

The landscaped lawn sloped gently to the riverbank.  In her 1875 book “Old New York, from the Battery to Bloomingdale,” Matilda Pratt Despard noted that “A brook ran through the grounds, and wound its way through the lawn to the river; and after he had built his house, Mr. Riker, in order to make a wide slope of unbroken lawn, threw  over this brook an arch of solid masonry.”  The distinctive stone arch over the stream lent its name to the house: Arch-Brook.

The grounds of Arch-Brook swept steeply down to the river -- sketch from "Old New York, from the Battery to Bloomingdale" 1875 (copyright expired)
The Riker family summered for years at Arch-Brook and it was here that son John H. Riker was born in 1818.   Riker’s elevated position as Recorder brought him into contact with celebrated figures of the time and the mansion was the scene of elegant entertainments.  

Among Richard Riker’s esteemed friends was the Marquis de Lafayette.  In 1824 the Riker family accompanied Lafayette to the Park Theatre on Park Row.  The General sat in the family’s box and the entire house rose to honor him when the band played “Lafayette’s Return: or The Hero’s Welcome.”

Riker’s daughter, Elizabeth, later reminisced “The play, I presume, was well performed, but I thought the most attractive feature of all was the appearance on the stage of nine pretty little girls, modestly dressed, who formed in dancing the letters of Lafayette’s name.”

print from "Reminiscences of an octogenarian of the city of New York, 1816-1860" (copyright expired)
As the city grew, sanitation and safe drinking water became a problem.   In 1832 cholera broke out and between July 24 and October 1 about 3,500 residents died.  Discussion arose about the possibility of bringing drinking water from the Croton River upstate.

The always-opinionated Richard Riker had other thoughts.  Charles Haynes wrote “When the question of introducing water into the city was discussed, he dissented from the general opinion as to the necessity of such action, and cited in support of the goodness and sufficiency of the Manhattan water, then in use in some streets, that he drank a tumbler of it every morning.  For this he was criticized, caricatured, and lampooned for many years after.”

print from the NYPL Collection
On October 16, 1842, Richard Riker died at Arch-Brooke at the age of 69, the same year that the massive Croton Reservoir he had railed against was completed.    By not the city was rapidly approaching, replacing the farms and estates north of 14th Street with streets and avenues. 

The Riker family divided the estate into city lots; however Arch-Brook was preserved.  It sat within the city block of 74th and 75th Streets, between Avenues A and B and a stone wall was built to protect it.

Arch-Brook became the home of John Matthews who had made a fortune in the soda water business.  As a young man in the 1830s he perfected the art of carbonating.  His simple equipment included a cast iron box lined with lead in which carbonic acid gas was generated by the interaction of marble chips with sulfuric acid.   The gas was passed through a tank of cool water which he rhythmically rocked.

When the monumental white marble St. Patrick’s Cathedral was begun, he negotiated the purchase of all the marble chips.  It was estimated that by the time the cathedral was completed its chips had produced 25 million gallons of soda water.

Arch-Brook was no longer a summer estate.  It was now a city house surrounded by rising rowhouses and business buildings.  In 1875 Matilda Pratt Despard wrote “But the city has destroyed the beauty of that region; the Riker House and the Lawrence homestead and the lovely Arch Brook are hardly to be discerned, and have been all long ago passed from the possession of the families who made them.”

As the city grew around it, the Matthews family lived on in Arch-Brook tended to by a staff of servants.  Along with the immediate family in 1883 was 24-year old Frederick Matthews, a nephew of John and a member of the firm.  By now the company was “one of the first and wealthiest of its kind in the country,” as reported in The New York Times.

Young Frederick had much to live for that summer.  He was engaged to be married in July and his uncle had “specially fitted up” the family country estate in the Adirondacks for the newlyweds to spend their honeymoon.  On July 25 he returned home from work “in excellent spirits,” according to his cousin Emily.

Around 2:00 in the morning Emily was awakened by “a noise as if a shutter had been blown against the house.”  She got up and listened at her aunt’s door and, hearing nothing, went back to bed.

Frederick had asked a servant to arouse him at 7:00 for breakfast because he had an appointment with a real estate broker regarding property to buy.  When he did not come down by 8:00 Emily went up to check on him.

“The door of the room not being fastened, I looked in,” she told investigators.  “I thought he was sleeping, and attempting to arouse him, found that he was dead.  I then came down stairs and told my aunt.  She told me that he could not be dead, and to return and feel his heart and give him some brandy.  When I went to feel his heart I found that he was dead.  He was lying on his right side, and a revolver with one chamber empty was lying near him.”

Frederick’s fiancée, Miss Field, was summoned “by a dispatch informing her that her affianced was very ill.”  As she alighted from her carriage, she noticed the undertaker’s wagpn on the ground of Arch-Brook.

“She tried to articulate a question, but fell fainting on the door-steps before she could make herself understood,” said The Times.  “It was a long time before she was restored to consciousness.”

The Times explained the unpredictable tragedy saying “All the circumstances surrounding the suicide tend to show that the unfortunate young man had become suddenly insane during the night,” and added “The taint of suicidal insanity seems to have been inherited by young Matthews.”  The newspaper then rehashed the suicide four years earlier of Frederick’s father who had been despondent over the death of his brother for days.

Joy returned to the house the following year when George Matthews Jr., Elizabeth Matthews’ grandson, was married to Grace Birmingham in the house on October 29.

By the 1890s Arch-Brook was a strange but quaint anomaly—a Georgian country home sitting within a pastoral oasis in the city.  It was a miniature estate encompassing a full city block surrounded by a stone wall.  Inside, life continued for Elizabeth Matthews and her family.  On April 19, 1891 The Sun printed a want ad:  “Cook—Young woman as competent first class cook; must be able to take entire charge; French, German, or English preferred; family and house strictly private; steady place and good wages; best references required.  Call from 10 till 12, Arch Brook, foot of East 75th Street.”

Times would, eventually, catch up with the former Riker estates.

While Elizabeth Matthews was seeking a new cook, the Manhattan Elevated Railroad company held a monopoly over the city’s growing elevated transportation system.  As the operation expanded, additional electric power was needed.  The bank of the East River at 75th Street was ideal for a power plant, as it had been in 1630s (albeit it on a much smaller scale).

Following Elizabeth Matthews’ death, the house sat vacant and neglected.  Finally, on July 7, 1899 The Sun reported “Another of New York’s old houses is passing in the destruction of the Matthews cottage, at the foot of East Seventy-fifth street, where a new power house is being built.”

The article noted that “Arch-Brook was surrounded by a high stone wall which of late years has been much dilapidated.  The grounds occupied about a city block and were terraced to the river.  It is years now since anyone lived in the house, which was built early in the century, and was of the rambling cottage style…In the time of the father of George Matthews, the last owner, there was a fine old library there, comprising rare black-letter Bibles and other tomes of the early days of printing.” 

In reporting the eminent demolition, The Sun touched upon the German-Hungarian ethnicity of the neighborhood of late.  “The house was one of those which, with the Jones and Schermerhorn mansions, made an aristocratic locality of Jones’s Wood, later given over to beer and the dancing pavilion revelry of the ‘spieler.’”

The massive Manhattan Elevated Railroad powerhouse was completed in 1903, erasing an especially gentile page of Manhattan history.
Now operated by Con Edison, the old plant remains today -- photo by Manhattan Railway Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York


  1. One almost feels a sense of loss at the retirement of these grand fragments of history. Thanks for reviving the house and family to share with us.

  2. I inherited a whole bunch of books that have “John Matthew’s” signature and a “arch brook foot of east 75th st New York” sticker on the inside. Book number x/x. Seems like a personal library. This is the only article I have found on related information. Very interesting stuff.