from The Manual of the Corporation of the City of New-York, 1853 (copyright expired)
John George Leake came to America with his parents, Ann and Robert Leake, from his native Scotland around 1767. (Ann was John's step-mother. His mother, Margaretta, had died on May 12, 1754.) After studying law in the office of James Duane, he became a eminent lawyer.
Leake's fortunes were greatly increased upon the death of Ann Leake, now widowed, in 1784. Other than a few bequests, she left John "and his heirs," her entire estate, including:
...the messuages, lands, tenements, and heriditaments, situate[d], lying, and being with the city and county of New-York, and in the counties of Bergen and Essex, in the late Province, now State of New Jersey.
Like all wealthy New Yorkers, John established a summer estate north of the city. He purchased his, The Hermitage, from Matthew Hopper around 1780.
The estate engulfed about 80 acres, stretching from the Hudson River to the Bloomingdale Road (later Broadway). The northernmost point of its diagonal northern boundary was around 48th Street and its southern point at 39th Street. The Georgian style mansion house featured a two-story veranda with a classical pediment and fanlight.
Leake kept his financial affairs to himself. In 1851 the Documents of the Assembly of the State of New-York mentioned that he was "remarkably close and reserved upon the subject of his immense property, his relatives, and heirs. With the aid of a broker and collector of rents, he managed his large estates himself."
As he got older, the life-long bachelor seems to have given up his town house and lived permanently at The Hermitage. The estate was appropriately named. John G. Leake became increasingly solitary, the Documents of the Assembly of the State of New-York saying, "He never visited, and was seldom visited, except upon matters of business. His circle of acquaintances was very limited, and with the exception of Philip Brasher, John Leake Norton, and John Watts, he had few or no associates. In his latter years he was almost forgotten."
Just inside the entrance to the house was an iron chest, the key to which Leake kept on his person. It in were his "most valuable family papers, jewelry and money for family expenses." The 1851 Documents said "He was in the daily habit of opening it and examining the papers it contained, and neatly folded them up again; arranging and methodically replacing them back again in to his chest."
Around May 20, 1827, Leake performed his nightly chest inspection, but this time, according to his "servant man," Casey, he removed several papers and burned them in his bedroom fireplace. It would be the last time Leake opened his precious chest. He was becoming ill and never again left his bedroom.
Leake's self-imposed reclusion lasted until his last breath. The Documents said, "In his last moments, it is said he was permitted to die neglected and alone. To a man of wealth and far from his kindred, there was a melancholy tragical fitness in the closing scene of his life." Only his servant, Casey, was with him. "During his whole sickness no one sat up with him during the night, and no physician attended to administer relief and alleviate his pain." He died at the age of 75 on the evening of June 2, 1827, leaving an estate valued at about $16 million in today's money. He was buried in Trinity Churchyard
The Leake chest was taken downtown to the Franklin Bank and opened in the presence of a public administrator, a judge, and the executors. It was then discovered that the document Leake had burned was his will. In its place was a new, unsigned version, "which cut off John Leake Norton, the god-son, and the relatives of the deceased."
Instead, Leake left the bulk of his fortune to, Robert Watts, the the son of his best friend, with the stipulation that the young man would change his surname to Leake. Watts did so, but died intestate only a few months later. The Leake inheritance now passed to Robert's father, John Watts, as next of kin. That money was used to found the Leake & Watts Orphan Asylum.
Leake left Hermitage Farm to a niece, Martha Norton. She was married to Samuel Norton and had three sons, John Leake Norton (the disinherited godson), Robert Burridge Norton and Samuel John Leake Norton. When Martha died in 1797, The Hermitage was passed in equal shares to her sons.
In 1871 the Leake estate was fully plotted out with building lots. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Samuel J. L. Norton had inherited the portion of the "farm" that held the mansion, and it appears he and his family lived there until his death in 1805. The city was still significantly to the south, as reflected in the advertisement his brother placed in The Evening Post two years later:
To Lease, the Mansion House called the Hermitage, situated at the extremity of the Greenwich road, with about 11 acres of land, abounding with [a] great variety in the choicest fruits, flowers and ornamental shrubbery--Enquire of John L. Norton, 78 Broad-street.
In 1825 John L. Norton began selling off portions of The Hermitage. He testified in 1838 that he "also at the same time improved the streets and avenues running through the said estate, comprising about twenty acres of land, and conveyed them to the Corporation, for which he received no consideration."
On June 19, 1849 John L. Norton sold at public action the portion of "the farm called the Hermitage," from Eleventh Avenue to the Hudson River, and from 48th Street to the estate's southern border. John and Robert had now essentially sold off John George Leake's once sprawling estate.
It is unclear exactly when the Leake mansion was demolished. On June 30, 1888, a journalist of The Evening Post remarked on the site of the recent Metropolitan Opera House at 39th Street and Broadway, saying,
It was a part of the Hermitage Farm, and this was reached on either side by [Fitz-]Roy Road and Verdant Lane, while a pretty little brook purled under the calm in the vicinity of Forty-second Street. It seems only yesterday that we boys used to get apples at the Hermitage Farm and fish for minnows in the brook.
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