Monday, August 8, 2022

The Lost Libbey Castle (Woodcliff) - 196th Street and Fort Washington Avenue


from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

Augustus C. Richards's vast wealth was reflected in the $25,000 in personal taxes he paid in 1857, according to the New York City Tax-Book.  That year his spectacular country home was completed far north of the city west of the Kingsbridge Road (later Broadway) near what today is 196th Street.  He had purchased the land two years earlier from the estate of Lucius Chittenden.  Designed by architect Alexander Jackson Davis, the New York Herald later described Woodcliff as "a four story stone mansion, massive and costly in construction."  Davis typically worked in historic styles, and Woodcliff mimicked a Norman castle with an imposing tower and crenellated battlements.  The World later wrote, "This mansion was built from the rock quarried away for its foundation...It is a veritable castle, turreted and picturesque."

It was undoubtedly Richards who commissioned this unsigned painting of Woodcliff, completed prior to 1869.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.

Like many other affluent businessmen, Richards became involved in relief efforts during the Civil War.  His interest was highly focused on loyal American refugees from the South who were arriving in New York City.  He was an active member of the Committee In Aid of the Union Refugees from Florida.  The New York Times described the refugees as having been "stripped of large portions of their property by forced levies for the support of a cause which they heartily abhorred."

Simultaneously, he lobbied for a project much closer to home.  On March 5, 1863 he was appointed a vice-president of a group of residents and property owners of the Manhattanville, Carmansville, Fort Washington, and Tubby Hook districts "to advocate the construction of a distributing reservoir for the upper end of the City," according to The New York Times.

Richards added oil wells to his business interests around 1863.  He was president of the California Petroleum Company, an 18,000-acre property of "natural oil wells of the largest size," according to an article in The New York Times on March 4, 1865.  The San Francisco Mercantile Gazette placed the output of the wells in 1863 at $14 million--just under $300 million in today's money.

Richards sold Woodcliff on February 26, 1869 to Civil War General Daniel Butterfield for $275,000 (about $5.4 million today).  Butterfield had just resigned as Assistant Treasurer of the United States following a scandal that connected him with Jay Gould and James Fisk in the scheme that resulted in the panic of collapsing gold prices known as Black Friday, on September 24, 1869.

General Daniel Butterfield, from the collection of the Library of Congress

Butterfield's ownership would be extremely short-lived.  Only weeks after taking title, he sold it to Tammany Hall leader William Magear Tweed.   His residency, too, was brief.  According to The World later, "Tweed never inhabited this beautiful home, but sold it to his son."  The New York Herald had a slightly different slant to the story, saying, "When William M. Tweed jumped his bail it was from this house that he escaped."

Whichever version is true, "Boss" Tweed's downfall began in 1871.  Influential publications like the New York Times and Harper's Weekly relentlessly attacked Tweed Ring corruption, and Tweed was arrested in October for fraud.  Released on $1 million bail, he fled to Europe.  (He was later tracked down, and returned to New York.  He died in jail in April 1878.)

Tweed's son sold Woodcliff to millionaire drygoods merchant Alexander Turney Stewart, whose magnificent marble city house sat across 34th Street from the brownstone mansion of William Backhouse Astor, Jr.   But, like Butterfield and Tweed, he and his wife, the former Cornelius M. Clinch, would enjoy their country estate only briefly.  Around the first of April 1876, Stewart contracted a cold which progressed to what the The New York Herald indiscreetly described as an "inflammation of the bowels."  On April 10 the newspaper reported that "the great merchant millionaire" was critically ill in his Fifth Avenue mansion.   Later that same day the tycoon died.

Cornelia Stewart sold Woodcliff to her husband's business partner, William Libbey.  Born on March 7, 1820, Libbey and his wife, the former Elizabeth Marsh, had three sons, William Jr., Jonas and Frederick.  Libbey's family had been in America since 1630 when John Libbey first came from England.

Reputedly Libbey brought back Alexander Jackson Davis to modernize and enlarge the mansion.  It was used as William's and Elizabeth's year-round home following William's retirement in 1883.  Only Jonas was still unmarried at the time.  He was the editor and owner of The Princeton Review.  William Jr. was a professor in the College of New Jersey, and Frederick was associated with his father "in looking after various investments," according to America's Successful Men in 1895.

from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

By the end of the 19th century, as the city swelled northward and engulfed the former country estates, the house now known as the Libbey Castle, had become a landmark.  On July 8, 1894 the New York Herald remarked, "Mr. and Mrs. William Libbey occupy the most conspicuous residence on the ridge.  It is known as Libbey Castle and is situated on Fort Washington avenue at what would be about 194th street."

The article addressed the many urban legends surrounding the house.  "All sorts of questions are asked and as many different answers are given with regard to the castle.  It is often taken for an old fort as anything else.  It looks cold and uninviting, but its surroundings, with its granite walls covered with ivy, are very beautiful."  A writer for the New York Herald four years earlier had said, "A chance acquaintance...once told me it was used during the late war as a prison for Confederal captives...The first driver who ever took me over the road gave me still another version of the old mansion's history.  It was built in Revolutionary times and rebuilt many years ago."

Local myths aside, Libbey Castle was a comfortable and luxurious home.  In 1895 America's Successful Men said, "Mr. Libbey spends his leisure time in the enjoyment of his beautiful home on Washington Heights on the upper part of this island overlooking the Hudson."  Ironically, that same year on November 7, The Sentinel reported, "William Libbey, A. T. Stewart's partner, died Tuesday of apoplexy at his home, the Libbey Castle, New York."

Nine years later Frederick A. Libbey sold the portion of property on which the mansion stood to former New York City Mayor Hugh J. Grant for a reported $300,000 ($9 million today).  On December 8, 1904 the New York Herald reported, "He is to make his home in the castle, which is a celebrated structure, occupying an imposing site."  The article noted, "Besides the mansion the grounds contain a stable and some fine hothouses."  The New-York Tribune reported on the size of the property the Libbeys had sold:

It is on a plot of more than 750 feet in depth, running from Broadway to Fort Washington-ave., with a frontage of 320 feet in Fort Washington-ave. and 510 feet in Broadway.  As the streets have not yet been cut through the tract, it is difficult to say just what would be the street boundaries of the parcel.

In 1917, John D. Rockefeller began buying up large parcels in the Fort Tryon district with the intention of developing a majestic park with sweeping views of the Hudson.  Among the first of his acquisitions was Libbey Castle.  While he worked on amassing an adequate amount of land, he leased the mansion to the Paulist Choristers and Father Finn's Paulist Choir School.  The house accommodated 50 live-in students as well as faculty.  

Musical American, June 18, 1921 (copyright expired)

On June 15, 1930 The New York Times reported on the progress of Rockefeller's plan, including additional land from the Libbey heirs.  "His first offer was made in June, 1917, to Mayor Purroy Mitchel.  The present offer includes four or five additional acres in the southern section, acquired by Mr. Rockefeller in 1922 from the estate of James M. Libbey, and it exempts four acres on the site of the Revolutionary Fort Tryon."

The mansion looked a bit beleaguered not long before its destruction.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

Rockefeller commissioned the landscaping firm of Olmsted Brothers to design what would become Fort Tryon Park in 1931, the year he donated the land to the City of New York.  Construction began that year and was the park was dedicated in 1935 by Rockefeller and Robert Moses.   Although The New York Times had earlier reported that Libbey Castle would be used as a museum, it was demolished.

A photograph dated 1931 documented the demolition Libbey Castle.  image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog


  1. Too bad they didn’t have the foresight to keep it, as with its pseudo Norman look, it might’ve been used to exhibit other medieval things.

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