Monday, January 11, 2021

The Lost Henry Delafield House -- 77th Street and Avenue A


from Valentine's Manual of the City of New York, 1862 

In 1677 the Governor of the Province of New York, Sir Edmond Andros, granted 46 acres of land far north of the city to Abraham Shotwell.  Known as the Saw Kill Farm it spread from approximately what is 76th Street today to 81st Street, and from west of First Avenue at its westernmost point to the East River.

In 1684 the farm was acquired by William Cox, whose widow, Sarah, married Captain William Kidd.  According to The New York Times centuries later in 1921, "Her brother, Samuel Bradley, Jr., joined Captain Kidd in his voyage of adventure in 1695, which terminated in their being hanged as pirates."  Before the two left New York, Captain Kidd and Bradley transferred their share of the farm to Sarah's father, Captain Samuel Bradley, Sr.

By the mid-18th century the "farm" had was one of several elegant summer estates that dotted the district.  Its location near the river provided respite from the insufferable heat and odors of the city.  At some point in the 18th century a handsome two-story and attic Georgian style home was erected which would have been the scene of dances, dinners and teas for neighbors like the Gracie, Schermerhorn, Winthrop, King, and Wilkes families.

The irregular borders of the estate were possibly dictated by the topography centuries before the area would be graded.  from An Introduction to The History of Dentistry in America, Volume II, 1948

It may have been Mary Ellis (who changed the name of the property to Sans Souci) who erected the house.  After she sold it to Dr. John Baker in 1790 for 3,600 pounds, he renamed it Baker's Retreat.

Baker was nearly-arrived in Manhattan, having established a sterling reputation as a dentist in Philadelphia.  He was about 60 years old at the time and it appears that he relocated to retire, as no advertisements for his services appear in New York papers.  

Five years later, on September 20, 1796, apparently aware that death was looming, he made out his will.  He died four days later.  He left his extensive properties, including Baker's Retreat, the house downtown, and real estate in "Great Britain, the Island of Jamaica, the State of Virginia, the State of Pennsylvania...or elsewhere" to his wife, Mary."   Perhaps concerned that the weight of managing such a vast estate would be too much, he instructed that she "advise in all difficulty with my friends," John Delafield, Thomas Jones, and John Bannister.

Four of the Baker servants were slaves.  But it appears that Baker treated them as indentured servants rather than property.  Dr. Bernhard Wolf Weinberger, in his An Introduction to the History of Dentistry in America, wrote:

In the will of September 20, he expressed a desire that his wife retain all of his negro servants, but "in any case they were not to be sold as slaves."  If certain of them were still on the farm after the death of his wife, Mary, "James was to receive a dollar per week, and Dinah one-half dollar per week during their natural lives."

He further instructed that $400 be put aside following Mary's death "that my four negro servants, James and Dinah and John and Mary and their children shall have a living support and maintenance off and from my said farm during their respective lives."

John Delafield, with whom Baker posthumously instructed his wife to consult, was a close friend.  His country estate, Sunswick, was located across the river, within sight of the Baker estate.  In his 1907 Historic Homes and Institutions, historian William S. Pelletreau explained "As countrymen by birth, the family of Dr. Baker and that of John Delafield became intimate.  Dr. Baker appointed Mr. Delafield the executor of his will, and dying childless, bequeathed, subject to the life of his wife, who died in 1831, his country place, first to Henry Delafield."

The John Delafield summer estate, Sunswick, was directly across the East River from Baker's Retreat.  Historic Homes and Institutions, 1907 (copyright expired)

Henry and William Delafield were twins, burn at Sunswick on July 19, 1792.  The two, according to Pelletreau, "resembled each other so closely that only intimate friends could distinguish one from the other."  They were partners in the shipping firm of Henry & William Delafield--their merchant ships sailing to England, China, South America and the West Indies.

A bachelor, Henry at first considered simply leasing the property.  On February 26, 1831 an advertisement in The Evening Post read:

To Let or Lease--The Country Seat and Farm of the subscriber on the East River, five miles from the city.  The House is large and commodious, and is well calculated for a large family, boarding house, or school.  The Farm consists of 45 acres tillable land, and has coach house, stable, barn and other out houses.  The whole will be put in good repair and possession given immediately.  The House and Farm will be let separately or together.  For terms apply to
                                    Henry Delafield, No. 88 Front st.

He changed his mind at some point and spent considerable time in the summer months here.   He renamed the estate Hurlgate, the name originally applied to the East River.  It was a corruption of the Dutch Helle Gadt.   

A hint of the beautiful gardens that surrounded the house can be gleaned from a report on the exhibits at the Fair of the American Institute which opened on October 18, 1845.  Among the listing in The Brooklyn Evening Star were "two baskets of Dahlias; two bouquets of Roses" grown by William Armstrong, "gardener to Henry Delafield, Hurlgate."

Within a decade of the exhibition the city was creeping nearer and nearer to Henry's estate.  On October 9, 1854 he appeared before the Common Council proceedings to petition "against opening and paving Seventy-eighth-street," as reported in The New York Times.

The Delafield brothers.  Henry is at the far right.  Historic Homes and Institutions, 1907 (copyright expired)

No doubt to the surprise of everyone, the 73-year old bachelor married on February 9, 1865.  The wedding took place in the house of his brother, Joseph, at No. 475 Fifth Avenue.  His bride was Mary Parish Monson, the daughter of Judge Levinus Monson.  She was 27-years old.

The days of summering at Hurlgate had passed by now.  The newlyweds went to Saratoga that summer season.  Henry had earlier leased the estate to the New York Protestant Episcopal Public School at an annual rent of $1,500 (a significant $50,700 per year today).

The townhouse of Henry and Mary Delafield was at No. 269 Fifth Avenue.  It was there that a baby girl, Mary Frances Henrietta, was born on June 9, 1869.  Her mother died a year later in the mansion, on May 16, 1870 at the age of 32.

Of the seven children of John Delafield, only three were still alive in 1875.  Then, remarkably, Edward died on February 13, Joseph on the 14th, and Henry Delafield died on February 15.  The three brothers were interred in the family vault in a single ceremony on February 16.

Henry's will bequeathed Hurlgate to the Trinity Church School.  It was shortly divided into building plots, the mansion demolished, and the property sold off.

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