Monday, August 10, 2020

The Lost 1770 Walter Franklin House - 1-3 Cherry Street

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society 

Cherry Street got its name from Cherry Hill, an area near the East River which reportedly once blushed with cherry blossoms every spring.  By the second half of the 18th century it was, according to Gas Logic later, "the home center of New York aristocracy."  

Engulfing two building lots at Nos. 8 and 10 Cherry Street (renumbered 1 and 3 around 1830) was the elegant Georgian style home of Walter Franklin.  Erected around 1770, it sat on the northeast corner of Queen Street (later renamed Pearl Street).  Looking back in 1893, The New York Times wrote "It is said to have been completely filled with simple but elegant furniture, and there was an extensive garden attached."  It was considered to be one of the finest homes in the city.

from the collection of the New York Public Library
Like at least one of his near neighbors, Thomas Leggett, Walter Franklin was a Quaker.  He was the senior partner in the firm of Franklin, Robinson & Co., whose ships brought goods from China and the South Seas.  He was also actively involved in the Revolution and its earliest aftermath.  On May 1, 1775 he was elected a member of the Committee of One Hundred to represent New York "in all affairs growing out of the complications then arising between the colonies and the mother country," according to The New York Times generations later.  "He was also a member of the first Provincial Congress of the Province of New-York, which met in New-York City May 23, 1775."

The New York Times added, "He retired from business comparatively early in life with a very large fortune.  His heart remained free till (so the story is told by Mrs. 1845, his great-granddaughter,) he accidentally met a pretty milkmaid on Long Island."  Taken with the young Quaker girl, he drove his buggy to the home of her father, Daniel Bowne.  "While the two were talking, [Maria] came in to make tea for the city friend, with the romantic result that she 'made tea' for him ever after."

The couple married and had two daughters, Maria and Hannah.  Franklin died on June 8, 1780.  Around 1786 Maria Bowne Franklin married Samuel Osgood, a lawyer, and the family continued living in the Cherry Street house.  The ample size of the home would be necessary--Samuel and Maria would have six more children.

Samuel Osgood, from the collection of the Library of Congress
Osgood had been an active revolutionist.  He led a company of minutemen into the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775 and saw action in the Siege of Boston.  By the end of the war he had attained the rank of Colonel.  He served two terms in the Massachusetts State Senate beginning in 1780 and he was as a delegate to the Continental Congress from 1782 until 1784.  He returned to New York City in 1785 to take on the position of a commissioner of the Treasury.

On April 14, 1789 George Washington received word at Mount Vernon that he had been unanimously elected the first President of the United States by the Electoral College.  In preparation for his arrival in New York, Congress looked for a suitable home for the "Presidential Palace."  (The term was still in use decades later when the White House was being erected.)  The Osgood residence was selected and leased for $845 a year (about $22,300 today).  As part of the deal Osgood was told to "put the house and furniture thereof in proper condition for the residence and use of the President of the United States."

Harper's New Monthly Magazine, October 1899 (copyright expired) 
The drawing room was enlarged and Maria set about selecting furnishings.  Many of the existing pieces were simply reupholstered while cabinetmaker Thomas Burling provided some new "Mahogany Furniture."   The inventory of Government-owned furniture included "inlaid" pieces as well as "plain" furniture.  The inlaid furniture included a tea table and a breakfast table which would most likely have been in the neo-classical style, while the "plain" pieces were more common Chippendale or Hepplewhite chairs and tables.  In total Congress spent $8,000 to prepare the mansion (a little more than $200,000 today).

Before the arrival of the President, Maria Osgood's niece, Sarah, visited.  In a letter to her friend Kitty Wistar on April 3o, 1789 she wrote:

Uncle Walter's house in Cherry Street was taken for him [i.e., Washington], and every room furnished in the most elegant manner.  Aunt Osgood and Lady Duer had the whole management of it.  I went the morning before the General's arrival to look at it.  The best of furniture in every room, and the greatest quantity of plate and china I ever saw; the whole of the first and second stories is papered, and the floors covered with the richest kind of Turkey and Wilton carpets.

Sarah noted "There is scarcely anything talked of now but General Washington and the Palace."  

George Washington had left Martha behind at Mount Vernon to supervise the packing of things to be shipped to their new home.  Historian Liela Herbert wrote in the October 1899 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine, "the President brought on by sea from Mount Vernon a quantity of pictures, vases, ornaments, S√®vres china, and silver."

Martha eventually made the journey, arriving a month after her husband with two grandchildren, Nelly and George Washington Parke Custis.  She apparently approved of Maria Franklin's efforts, for she called the mansion a "handsomely furnished house."  She gave her first reception on May 29, 1789.  The "systematic entertainments," as described by Liela Herbert, included "levees, dinners, and Drawing Rooms, with pretty ceremony, oiled with wealth and sustained with dignity."

Generations later, on November 19, 1893, The New York Times attempted to recreate in words the atmosphere:

Delicious, festive days [were] those of the Spring and early Summer of inauguration year.  There is an atmosphere about that era impossible to emulate now, or even thoroughly conceive, when fetes and balls and receptions kept the town giddy and what was, after all, a decorous and fastidious gayety.  Imagine, please, the high-caste dames and pretty 'buds' of yore, treading stately minuets, clad in stiff silks and satins and brocades, with swains in uniform, or clad in such garments as light-blue French coats, with high collars, large gilt buttons, double-breasted Marseilles vest, (or waistcoat,) nankin colored cassimere breeches, shining pumps, big ruffles, and ponderous cravats.

Martha had a large staff to assist her.  Seven slaves had been brought from Mount Vernon, and Samuel Fraunces, the steward (who formerly owned Fraunces Tavern), oversaw a staff of about 20 (these included indentured servants, other slaves, and some paid domestics).

This nearly life-sized family portrait was painted by Edward Savage based on sketches he made in the Cherry Street house.  collection of the National Gallery of Art
Every Thursday at 4:00 in the afternoon a state dinner was held.  Liela Herbert wrote "From ten to twenty-two persons were expected besides the 'family.'" (The "family" included Washington's closest associates, who also lived in the Cherry Street house--his private secretary, Nelson; Robert Lewis, his nephew and secretary; and his speechwriter, Colonel David Humphreys.)  Herbert described: 

[Samuel Fraunces's] fine dishes of roast beef, veal, lamb, turkey, duck and varieties of game, and his many other inviting viands, and the jelly, the fruits, the nuts and raisins--the body of the dinner, in short--were placed, before the guests came in, upon the table, with careful respect to appearance.  Upon the central table ornament, sometimes a long mirror made in sections and framed in silver, were 'chaste mythological statuettes.'  A piece of bread was placed below each napkin.  The china and linen were fine...The waiters, five or six or more in number, wore the brilliant Washington livery, and served with quiet and precision.

Martha Washington held a "Drawing Room" every Friday from 7:00 to 9:00.  The stiff formality of society was strictly obeyed.  "At seven o'clock on Friday evenings, carrying neither sword nor hat, as being unofficially present, the President took his stand beside Mrs. Washington.  The ladies, attended always by gentlemen, came in, curtsied low and silently, and sat down."  Once each guest had been received, Washington would walk about and speak to the guests individually.  "No very young girls came--those only that had formally entered the social world."

The decorum was not even broken by a most terrifying accident that befell a Miss McIvers, described by one historian as "a belle."  Liela Herbert recalled the incident:

The chandeliers, their myriad candles burning softly in high transparent globes, hung low.  Miss McIvers's fashionable head-dress, monstrous tall, caught fire one evening as she stood beneath the lights...Major Jackson rushed to the rescue, clapped the burning plumes in his hands, and saved the lady as gallantly as possible.  There was no undue rustling of stiff brocades or ruffling of pretty manners.  It was then, as now, good form for ladies to be perturbed only by mice and cows.

Major Jackson comes to the rescue of the Miss McIvers. Harper's New Monthly Magazine, October 1899 (copyright expired) 

It was from the Cherry Street house that in October 1789 Washington wrote the first Thanksgiving proclamation, setting aside a Thursday each November as a national holiday.

Despite its elegance, the Cherry Street mansion proved too small for the President's household.  The French Minister to the United States, the Comte de Moustier, resided in a larger house owned by Alexander Macomb at Nos. 39-41 Broadway.  When De Moustier returned to France in 1790 Washington seized the opportunity and that February the executive mansion was moved to the Macomb residence.

Harper's New Monthly Magazine, October 1899 (copyright expired) 
Walter and Maria Franklin's eldest daughter, Maria, married DeWitt Clinton in 1796.  Their other daughter, Hannah, married his younger brother, George Clinton, Jr.  For a time Maria and DeWitt resided in the house on Cherry Street.  The mansion remained in the family until 1856 when Hannah Clinton's heirs had it demolished and replaced by stores.

The mansion had been converted for commerce by the time this etching was created in 1853.  D. T. Valentine's Manual, 1853 (copyright expired)
That building and scores of others were demolished for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.  Fearing that the importance piece of American history would be forgotten, the Mary Washington Colonial Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution had a bronze tablet cast to commemorate the site.  On May 2, 1899 The New York Times reported that it had been affixed to "one of the big stone arches of the Brooklyn Bridge.  The site is at the junction of Cherry and Pearl Streets, on Franklin Square."  About two feet square, it read:

The First
Presidential Mansion
No. 1 Cherry Street.
Occupied by
from April 23, 1789
to February 23, 1790.
Erected by the Mary Washington Colonial Chapter,
April 30, 1899

A century later it was endangered.  On November 1, 1998 Bernard Stamler, writing in The New York Times reported "nothing remains of America's first Presidential home except for a brass [sic] plaque on the Manhattan anchorage of the bridge, noting the site's historic significant...Now the plaque--already inaccessible, and tarnished from neglect--is threatened with total obscurity."  The city had begun the process of erecting six new arches under the bridge to shore up the steelwork.  One of them would sit directly in front of the plaque.

The plaque survives, although essentially ignored and unnoticed.  It is the only indication that the first Executive Mansion stood on the spot.


  1. "It was then, as now, good form for ladies to be perturbed only by mice and cows."

    What was it about cows that caused such alarm?

    1. I imagine that genteel ladies were unfamiliar with livestock close up and the size of a cow can be formidable.

  2. In those days most cows were Roman Catholic, therefore socially unacceptable.

    This was a great posting, by the way. I learned a lot from this one.

  3. good web page about the first peoples' house from 1789 in New York!

  4. Who was Walter Franklin? What did he trade as a merchant, any skills of the time era. How did he build the three stroy wood Georgian colonial home?