Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The 1854 Robert Bayard House -- No. 83 Jane Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1804 much of the rural countryside north of New York City was taken up by sprawling country estates of British officers and wealthy townspeople.   Two such properties, the Bayard and Ludlow estates, abutted one another near Greenwich Village.    Jane Street, a country lane running essentially east-west which lead to the Jayne Farm, separated the two estates—Bayard’s being to the north and Ludlow’s on the south.

The sumptuous nature of Bayard’s home was hinted at when newspapers reported on a lightning strike to the residence on June 10, 1775.  “Last Sunday week the House of William Bayard, Esq., at Greenwick [sic], was struck by Lightning, which occasioned considerable damage.  In several apartments large Pier glasses were broken, and a quantity of silver plate contained in a chest was pierced and otherwise affected without doing the least injury to the chest.”

While engaged in a particularly fierce political debate that year, Aaron Burr challenged Alexander Hamilton to a duel.  Hamilton accepted.   The duel was fought in Weekawken, New Jersey and Hamilton was fatally wounded.  He was ferried across the Hudson River to the nearest house—that of his close friend William Bayard, where he died.

By the 1820s both the Bayard and Ludlow families were dissecting their estates into building plots as the development of Greenwich Village flourished.   Little Jane Street, a country road two decades earlier, was soon lined with brick-faced homes.  And by the middle of the Civil War, popular lore would insist that Alexander Hamilton died in William Bayard’s home at No. 82 Jane Street—an address that did not exist in 1804.

William Cullen Bryant later wrote “there is a prevalent error in regard to the house in which Hamilton died, which is worth correcting, if only to show how little tradition is to be trusted.”

The Bayard Farm had been established by Nicholas Bayard, a relative of Peter Stuyvesant, in the 17th century.   He owned thousands of acres of land outside of Manhattan; but his estate here encompassed 200 acres.  By the time of Hamilton’s death, the country house was owned by William Bayard, Jr. and change was on the way.

In 1833 William Bayard’s heirs sold the family house and much of the land to Francis B. Cutting for about $50,000.  In April, two years later, Cutting divided his property into 175 lots which he sold at auction for $225,000.  The Bayard mansion was demolished.

In 1853 William’s youngest son, Robert, began construction of a fine four-story brick home at No. 83 Jane Street for himself and his wife, the former Elizabeth McEvers.  The house would sit opposite the fabled No. 22 (and on the Bayard side of the street).  The Bayards’ two daughters, Ruth Hunter and Elsie Justine, were both grown and married by now.  Son William had died a decade earlier at the age of 21.
photo by Alice Lum

Completed a year later, the Bayard house distinguished itself from the other homes on the street with a full-width cast iron balcony at the second floor and the noticeable absence of a steep stoop.   Designed in the up-to-the-minute Anglo-Italianate style, the entrance was essentially at sidewalk level.

Robert Bayard owned other lots on Jane Street, closer to the Hudson River (then called the North River) and in the decade prior to the Civil War leased three lots to the City of New York as a “corporation yard.”
Unlike its neighbors with raised parlor levels, No. 83 was accessed at street level -- photo by Alice Lum

Despite its relative proximity to the waterfront, the Jane Street block maintained its respectable status throughout the 19th century.    In 1884 Jennie M. Campbell lived at No. 83.  She was a teacher in Primary School No. 9 across town at No. 42 First Street.

Five years later the house was home to Terrance Shields.  Shields was a “parkkeeper” who earned $2.75 per day from the City.   His salary today would translate to approximately $17,500 per year.

During the Great Depression the luxury of spacious private homes was unaffordable to nearly all but the wealthy.  In 1937 the house was converted to apartments—one per floor.   Later, in the mid-1950s into the 1960s, F. Thomas Heller lived here.  Heller was a nationally-known seller of rare and vintage books.

In the 1970s the house was converted to a duplex on the first two floors and two full-floor apartments above.  In 1998 the owners put it on the market for $2.6 million and sold it a year later for $2.45 million. 

In reporting the sale The New York Observer ran the headline “Alexander Hamilton’s Deathbed.”  Having caught the readers’ eye, however, the Observer clarified that “Alexander Hamilton was brought to this neck of the woods to die in 1804…”

The new buyers reconverted the handsome house to a single-family home. 

In the meantime, in 1936, across the street at No. 82 a plaque was affixed to the 1886 apartment building that replaced the former house there.  The bronze tablet—still there today--reads “82 Jane St.  Site of the William Bayard House where Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury, died after his duel with Aaron burr, July 12, 1804.”

Although the Bayard mansion sat far back from the little country lane that divided his estate from Ludlow's, popular lore is cast in bronze on the Victorian building at No. 82 Jane Street -- photo by Alice Lum
In William Cullen Bryant’s words, the plaque is a wonderful example of “how little tradition is to be trusted.”

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