Monday, September 4, 2017

The Lost Seaman Mansion - Broadway at 216th Street

The house as it appeared in 1895 after being acquired by the Suburban Riding and Driving Club Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, November 1895 (copyright expired)
The northernmost reaches of Manhattan in the first half of the 19th century were still rural.  Interspersed within the long stretches between villages like Bloomingdale and Harlem were working farms, like that of the Dyckman family who had worked their land since 1661, and country estates of the city's wealthy.

James T. and John Ferris Seaman were two of Dr. Valentine Seaman's 11 children.  By the time of their father's death in 1817 he had made significant breakthroughs in medicine including introducing small pox vaccinations to America (his obituary noted "The first white child vaccinated in New York was his own son), writing several books, and serving for many years as a surgeon at New York Hospital.

In 1851 the brothers purchased the hilltop property around what is now Broadway and 215th Street in the district then known as King's Bridge, sometimes spelled Kingsbridge.  They began erecting an imposing summer residence constructed of white marble quarried nearby.   Outbuildings, including the stables, were constructed of marble as well.

Exactly when the Italianate villa was completed is unclear; however by 1856 the estate had been up and running long enough that John was able to enter a three-year old bull into the exhibition of the American Institute of the City of New-York.  He won a silver cup and $10 for third place.  The Institute listed his address simply as "Kingsbridge,"

The estate was about one hour's drive from the southern edge of the recently-planned Central Park.  Its gatehouse took the form of a marble triumphal arch, with its windows facing the rear.   Modern amateur historians are fond of purporting it to be a copy of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris; however the two structures have little in common and both were among hundreds of such arches constructed during the 19th century, based on ancient Roman prototypes.

From the gatehouse a winding drive one-eighth of a mile long led to the mansion.  The gardens were terraced, with marble staircases and gravel paths.  The carriage drive curved around to the front of a deep porch that provided a balcony to the second floor of the house.

Inside were 30 rooms, according to Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly years later.   Upon entering, according to the magazine, "one finds himself in a hall, baronial in proportions and extending from front to rear."  Off the hall were the drawing room and the library.  The library was lined with built-in mahogany bookcases and along the upper portions of the walls were marble busts of thinkers such as Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, Byron and Scott.  Off the library was the conservatory "in which grow all the choicest plants known to the tropics, as well as many of our own zone, and beautiful flowers of every description."  (It was from that conservatory that the potted palms, de rigueur in mid-19th century interior decor, would have been cultivated.)

The Seaman family were reverent Quakers and on the second floor, overlooking the porch and drive, was a chapel.

Harper's New Monthly Magazine mentioned the house in November 1861, calling it a "palatial mansion of gleaming marble" and saying it was "imposingly in view at all points."

The city residence of John and his wife, the former Ann Drake, sat among the mansions of Manhattan's wealthiest citizens.  By the early 1870s their address was No. 16 East 53rd Street, steps from Fifth Avenue and what would become known as "Vanderbilt Row."  But John was apparently deeply involved in the Kingsbridge district.  In the summer of 1860 he was appointed to the city's commission "to lay out that portion of the City lying north of One Hundred and Fifty-fifth-street."  Also on the committee was his relatively-near neighbor, Isaac Dyckman.

By 1866 James was no longer mentioned in connection with the estate.  That year Andrew H. Green, the comptroller of Central Park, mentioned the Kingsbridge mansion in a communication to the Park's commissioners.  "Above Tubby Hook Valley, between the hills on the Hudson and King's Bridge Road, a range of land, surmounted by the residence of John F. Seaman, Esq., rises about 100 feet above tide."  There was no mention made of James.

John had greenhouses erected on the property and enjoyed vegetable gardening here.  When the American Institute held its exhibition in 1871 John submitted his grapes "grown under glass," and his "tolly Qua" cucumber.  (He received three first place awards for his grapes that year.)

John F. Seaman died on the morning of May 20, 1872.  Interestingly, two funerals were held on May 23rd--one in the fashionable Trinity Chapel downtown at 9:30, and another at 1:00 at "his late residence at Kingsbridge," as announced in The New York Herald.

Ann inherited her husband's vast real estate holdings that included several residential properties.  The year after his death she was on a steamer on the Harlem River when she was pushed "accidentally by a crowd," according to The New York Herald, into the water.  She was rescued, however the accident seems to have hastened a mental decline in the 70-year old widow.

Although she appears to still have been active in charities the following year when she donated "1 barrel of flour and 50 loaves of bread" to the Sparta Club's Soup House, she increasingly grew reclusive and eccentric.  Her behavior as described by visitors strongly suggests she suffered the onset of dementia.

On March 4, 1878 Ann died in her city mansion.   The New York Times instructed friends to "assemble at the house at 9:30 A.M." on March 7 before heading to the Trinity Chapel funeral.

Ann's will seemed, at least at first glance, to fairly distribute her massive $4 million estate (more than $99 million today).   She named 36 relatives, who each received property (many of them getting houses) and other items.  Mary M. Drake received the "house and grounds on the south side of Fifty-third street, east of Fifth Avenue, with all the furniture therein, all the diamonds and jewelry," for instance.

But it was the unexpectedly large slice of the estate pie awarded to Lawrence Drake the irked other relatives.  The will bequeathed him "the marble house and grounds at Kingsbridge, in this city, and all the furniture therein, the store and lot on the southwesterly corner of Reade and Washington, and all the premises belonging to the testatrix bounded by Market, Monroe and Hamilton streets."  The final line of the well, after enumerating the other heirs, read "The rest and remainder of her estate she gives to Lawrence Drake."

A throng of relatives arose to contest the will, insisting that Drake had "unduly influenced" Ann in disposing of her property.   Lawrence Drake came to a "compromise" with the plaintiffs that ended the suit.  But other relatives did not stay quiet for long.  The case was reopened early in 1891.  It did not come to court until November 5, 1893 when The Evening World estimated the number of plaintiffs and defendants at "nearly three hundred."

Ann, who had suffered the confusion and forgetfulness of old age was suddenly painted as feeble-minded.  The newspaper explained "The trouble all grew out of the death, March 4, 1878, of Mrs. Ann Drake Seaman, who fell off a Hudson River steamboat, was nearly drowned, and came out of the water little better than an imbecile, according to the complainants."

The relatives complained that Drake "a distant relative, got the baronial marble mansion on the Inwood bluff...and other nice slices of the $4,000,000 property left by Mrs. Seaman."  They alleged that Ann "became a drivelling imbecil" and "Lawrence Drake forced himself upon Mrs. Seaman" and directed her to write the will.  But the will was upheld and, according to The American Lawyer, the "disappointed relatives" were forced to pay Drake $2,000 and court costs.

In May 1894 Drake sold the marble mansion to the Suburban Riding and Driving Club (of which he was a member).  The club had been trying to acquire the former McCormick mansion at 172nd Street and King's Bridge Road but were unsuccessful.  In reporting on the sale on May 18, The New York Times poo-pooed the loss.

Harper's Bazaar depicted the mansion following its conversion to the clubhouse, in November 1896.  (copyright expired)

"This place, which is by far handsomer in every respect than the McCormick place, contains twenty-six acres of ground.  The house, of thirty rooms, is being finely furnished.  The excellent stabling facilities will be increased with fifty box stalls."  The club spent $10,000 in refurbishing the mansion, stables and grounds--about $295,000 in today's dollars.

Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly said that the club was "scarcely a year old--and yet it is already as powerful as it is popular" and noted "The mansion is a beautiful structure of white marble, with a view from any part of the house or grounds across the Hudson to the Palisades.  A lawn sweeps down from the main entrance to the edge of Spuyten Duyvil Creek."  The magazine reported "There are many fine oil paintings and several charming pieces of marble statuary" within the new club.

To the left of the entrance hall was the new "Ladies' reception room."  The gilded plasterwork and ceiling fresco from the Seaman residency survived.  Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, November 1895 (copyright expired)

The article added "The ladies' reception room, at the left of the main entrance, is furnished in a style to correspond with the rest of the house" and noted that the former Seaman chapel had been converted to a ladies' dressing room.   The drawing room and the library became to dining rooms and a cafe was included for the male members.

Upstairs the bedrooms were converted to private dining rooms.  The conservatory was made into a "smoking and 'sun' room," according to Harper's Bazaar.   The magazine added that a golf course had been installed on the grounds.

Frank Leslie's gushed on: "With such a palatial edifice; with all the luxuries and the finest restaurant in the world; with all the comforts of a fireside; with all the companionship and social jollity of a selected membership of ladies and gentlemen; with all the breezes that blow from any direction to cool the heated brow on a summer's day; with all the perfumes of the wild flowers that grow in the meadow and climb on the rocks and creep up the hillside to greet the nostrils and by their beauty to enchant the eye...[who] would hesitate to take a drive of an hour from Fifty-ninth street to the portals of the Suburban Riding and Driving Club?"

A coach laden with club members heads through the gatehouse in 1895.  A glimpse of the mansion can be seen behind.  At the time Frank Leslie's described an outing here as "a day in the country."  November 1895 (copyright expired)

Members of the club who enjoyed the former Seaman mansion came from the highest echelons of Manhattan society, with names like Beekman, Schieffelin, Oelrichs, Goelet, Dodge and Clews.  Harper's Bazaar noted "During the winter the wives and sisters of the members make the place attractive by a series of receptions at the clubhouse, while sleighing and driving parties frequently stop there."

In an interesting side note, Ann Drake Seaman's will was once again contested in 1900.  James W. Drake filed papers stating that he was next of kin of Ann, and that he was entitled to $2 million of her fortune.  A court order demanded that he produce proof of his relationship.

In 1905 the Kingsbridge property was sold to wealthy contractor Thomas Dwyer.  He used the mansion as his year-round house and eventually converted the gatehouse for his offices.

At the time of this photo, around 1911, the marble gatehouse had not yet been converted for the contractor's offices.  Motorcars now drove through the arch used by elegant coaches and carriages a decade earlier.  from the collection of the New York Historical Society.

The Kingsbridge district became known as Inwood in the 20th century.  As the city inched northward, the once bucolic neighborhood filled with commercial structures.  Following World War I Kingsbridge Road, renamed Broadway, in front of the former Seaman gatehouse was lined with tawdry, low brick buildings.  The Dwyer family left during the Depression, selling the property to developers in 1938 who demolished the mansion and erected apartment houses on the former estate.

Seen here on October 26, 1927, the gatehouse had an additional story, installed by Thomas Dwyer when he converted it for his business.  The once-grand arch is surrounded by tacky businesses already.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
But somehow the marble gatehouse survived--more or less.  Engulfed by business buildings, it was sorely abused.   By the 1960s the gatehouse was part of the the Jack Gallo Auto Body shop complex.  Gutted by fire in 1970, its interiors were never rebuilt and the roof never replaced. 

The gatehouse in 2015.  photo by Beyond My Ken

The humiliated marble gatehouse rots away behind the Gallo's auto body shop.  It is the last vestige of the magnificent Seaman estate and of a far different period in Inwood.

many thanks to reader Ted Leather for prompting this post

1 comment:

  1. I'll bet this place was gorgeous in it's time. It's pretty stately looking in that old photo, but I imagine the effect of all that white marble was even more impressive in person. Although I've read several articles about the disused gatehouse and it's current decrepit condition, until now I'd never seen an actual image of the mansion itself. So thanks for posting!