Monday, February 6, 2017

The Lost Aaron Burr House - 11 Reade Street

In the 1890s a barber shop operated from the parlor floor, while a painter had his shop in the basement.  The hinged, 12-paned dormer windows open inward, unlike the double-hung 6-over-6 windows below.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Until 1804 Aaron Burr was wealthy, politically important and well-respected.  He entertained lavishly in his country estate, Richmond Hill, and could boast having been Attorney General, a New York Senator, and Vice President under Thomas Jefferson.  That all ended when he fatally wounded Alexander Hamilton in the infamous duel.  Antagonistic public opinion forced him to abandon New York and on July 27, 1804 a newspaper reported "He has for the present, and we trust forever, fled from the city and the State."

A decade earlier the cemetery which would become known as the African Burial Ground had been closed and a year later, in 1795, the land was subdivided and sold for house plots.  The graves were filled over in preparation for residential development.  Reade Street, named for Trinity Church warden Joseph Reade, was opened in 1797 and within the next two decades it filled with handsome brick-faced homes.

Among these was No. 31, a modest two-and-a-half story residence with splayed stone lintels, a plain fascia board below the roofline and two rather severe dormers which poked through the peaked roof.

Perhaps surprisingly to many, the 56-year old Burr returned to New York in 1812, reopening his law offices on Reade Street near Broadway in June that year.  The former Vice President struggled.  No one had forgotten the duel and clients were scarce.  In 1831, when he moved his office and home into No. 31 Reade Street, he was in serious financial difficulty.

In 1832 wealthy French-born merchant Samuel Jumel died in a carriage accident.  His wife, Eliza (known popularly as Madame Jumel), came to Burr's office "to consult him as a real estate lawyer," according to The Sun decades later.  At the time Burr owed back rent on No. 31 Reade Street and was facing a lawsuit for unpaid debts.  Despite the significant different in their ages--the widow was 58 and Burr was now 78--the unlikely couple married in the splendid Jumel mansion in 1833.

Eliza Jumel would quickly regret the union.  According to The New York Times decades later, “He abused her confidence, lost a portion of her fortune, and she summarily dismissed him within a year.”

Aaron Burr and his partner, William D. Craft, had closed their law practice at No. 31 Reade Street in 1832, not long after the romance had blossomed.  By the first years of the 1850s it was home to the young couple Theodore and Mary Elizabeth Humbert.  The 25-year old woman died in the house on Sunday, April 18, 1852, and her funeral was held in the parlor two days later.

In 1856 Reade Street was widened and extended between Broadway and City Hall Place, requiring a renumbering of the addresses.  The former Burr house became No. 11 Reade Street.

At the time what had been a quiet residential block half a century earlier was quickly seeing the rise of office buildings and the renovation of houses for business purposes.  No. 11 escaped demolition and in 1863 its owner petitioned the Board of Aldermen for a paved sidewalk.  On June 9 that year the Board resolved "That the sidewalk in front of No. 11 Reade street, be flagged."

The house was used as a barrel and wooden bucket making shop around this time.  But in 1870 the owner was ready for retirement.  On March 24 he placed an advertisement in The New York Herald offering "For sale--Good chance, cheap for cash, old established Cooper Shop 11 Reade street, between Centre and Broadway, with Stock, Tools and Work, as the owner wants to get out of business."

The upper floors continued to be rented as living space.  It was the home of the Connor family in 1873.  On Christmas Day that year Hugh and Margaret Connor's eldest daughter, Elizabeth, died in the house at the age of 21.  Her funeral was held here two days later.

In 1890 the house had been owned by the Alexander T. Stewart estate for decades.  The millionaire merchant had died in 1876; but the family continued to own and lease it.  Two families lived upstairs--those of W. S. Haskins and R. Ford--on May 4, 1890, when fire broke out just before 8:00 p.m.  The following day The New York Times reported "A fire last night burned through the roof of the little three-story house at 11 Reade Street.  The loss was $1,000.  There was no insurance."  The loss to the Stewart estate would equal about $27,000 today.

Charles Mielatz sketched the house in 1898.  Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from the Fine Arts Library, Harvard University
On April 4, 1895 The New York Times reported that William Platt had purchased "the old Aaron Burr house, 11 Reade Street" for $36,650.  The newspaper noted "Mr. Platt represents the owner of adjoining property."  As is the case today, when property owners began bundling real estate it often signaled a future development.

The Sun jumped the gun in reporting of the imminent demolition of the house on May 31, 1897.  Saying that several vintage downtown buildings were to be torn down "in a few weeks, and there will be nothing left to mark their sites," the article noted "One of these is at 11 Reade street, where Aaron Burr's law office was...An Italian baker now occupies the front 'parlor' of Burr's old office building, and a plumber, whose shop is in the basement, lives with his family on the second floor."

That plumber was John T. Martin who landed a stable position as "attendant" (today's maintenance man) with the Manhattan Municipal Court by 1898.  His yearly salary of $1,000 would translate to about $30,000 today.

The Martin family and the Italian bakery would soon have to find new accommodations.  The house was offered for sale at an auction in March 1898, but according to The Iron Age, the building "formerly the house of Aaron Burr, was passed, as no bid could be got for it."

On September 23, 1903 The Northwestern Miller published a cleaned-up depiction of the old house.  (copyright expired)

But less than a month later the City purchased the property as part of the site for the new Hall of Records building; also engulfing No. 9 Reade Street and Nos. 29 and 31 Chambers Street.   As workers began demolition of the old house, The Sun noted that "tradition...even points out the spike holes in the wall by the door where [Burr's] shingle swung in sight of his legislative triumph."

The magnificent Hall of Records, seen here from Chambers Street, replaced the venerable Burr House.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.
American interest in landmarks was limited mostly to battlefields and military sites.  While newspapers and magazines described the Burr House as "old-fashioned" or "curious;" the term "historic" was never used.  After the turn of the century groups first began taking note of other important structures like Fraunces Tavern.

In November 1903 The Northwestern Miller lamented "A little way north of the city hall at 11 Reade street stood until recently a small, low, brick building, and though dingy with age, and hardly noticeable to the casual passer-by, is surrounded with memories of Aaron Burr...This old house was recently demolished to make way for improvements, thus one by one the old land-marks are gradually disappearing to make room for the new, taking with them the memories which connect them with the events of other days."

1 comment:

  1. Maddening to think how many Revolutionary era buildings and structures associated with notable events and historical figures were not part of anyone's thoughts or consideration. I used to think the demolition of Federal Hall was a thoughtless mistake, but it's hard to imagine the taverns, shops and residential structures of so many textbook figures were once so abundant in NYC. NYarch