Every couple of months, for as long as I can remember, I dream that I am walking around northern Manhattan in another era. Prowling around suburban villas in the West 150s, scaling the cliffs below Boulevard Lafayette, cutting through woods along the Bolton Road, I know what I’m seeing does not exist today. I was so obsessed one morning by a house on a suburban corner of West 183rd Street, that I hauled myself over to the New York Historical Society, certain I’d find a photo of it. (Alas, no luck). I’ve never dreamt of the Jumel mansion, glimpsed above at the foot of Sylvan Terrace, a renovated cul de sac on the approximate line of West 161st St. Unlike my phantom of 183rd Street, it stands firmly in the present.
Here’s a closer view, taken from Jumel Terrace, a cobbled 2-block lane between 160th and 162nd Streets. The mansion on its super lot stands on one side, appealingly unmutilated brownstones on the other. The mansion seems to turn wistfully from the encroachments of the 19th century city, gazing instead across a panorama that stretches from the Bronx to Brooklyn and, before early 20th century apartment construction on Edgecombe Avenue, all the way to the Battery and Staten Island. Even today, from the cupola you can see 7 counties in 3 states.
The last private occupants of this house were General and Mrs. Ferdinand Earle, who bought it in 1894 from the Jumel estate subdivision. The Earles, ardent historicists, determined to preserve Earlecliff, as they called it, and in 1901 persuaded the City of New York to buy it for $235,000. The property opened as a city park in 1903. The house opened as a museum called “Washington’s Headquarters” on May 28, 1907, run initially by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Alas, the charming old gate in the image below is no longer extant.
On the second floor of what is today called the Morris-Jumel Mansion is an overscaled painting, seen below, of Mme. Jumel and the children of her adopted daughter — supposedly her niece — Mary Bowen Chase. Officially, Eliza Jumel had no children of her own, although gossips of day had no doubt the so-called niece was actually her own illegitimate child. In all the images of Eliza Jumel that I have found, she wears the same expression of beneficent probity that segues well with her sanitized CV. Her French born husband, Stephen Jumel, bought the house for her in 1810, and she died here 55 years later.
In the words of a National Park Service bio, the “colorful” Eliza Jumel, born in 1775, came from a “controversial” background. Her social circumstances “declined following the death of her father and remarriage of her mother,” but rebounded upon her marriage to Jumel. Still “not entirely accepted by society” in New York, she and her husband made repeated visits to France, “mingling with aristocrats,” and befriending Napoleon himself. She returned alone to the U.S. in 1816 to “protect (her husband’s) assets.” Tragically, he died in 1832 “from falling off a wagon.”
We’d have to call that a whitewash job. The details of Eliza Jumel’s life are subject to various accounts, but they all agree on one thing: she was a hooker, at least in early life. The grand Mme Jumel of Washington Heights was born as Betsey Bowen in 1769 (not 1775) to a prostitute working on shipboard alongside the crew of a sailing ship — not an unusual situation back then.
Her mother died in childbirth and her sailor father, named John Bowen, ended up face down in Providence Harbor. In 1790, aged 21 not 15, Betsey gave birth to George Washington Bowen, whom she promptly abandoned and moved to New York with a sailor named Jacques de la Croix.
Soon, however, she advanced out that humble sailor’s league, and became one of postwar New York’s most glittering courtesans. In 1795, a refugee named Stephen Jumel arrived in town, on the lam from Haiti in the wake of a slave insurrection. Jumel soon substituted a thriving New York wine business for his lost Haitian coffee plantations, set himself up in a fancy house at Whitehall and Pearl Streets, and moved Betsey in as his mistress. In 1804, he made her an honest woman and 6 years later bought her the famous Morris mansion on the Harlem — by then renamed the Washington — Heights.
Here’s disgraced former United States Vice President Aaron Burr, seen as a young man. In 1804, the same year Betsey Bowen reinvented herself as Mme. Eliza Jumel, Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in the notorious duel that ended both their careers. While the Jumels shuttled back and forth from France, filled their new mansion with expensive Empire furniture and entertained the likes of Dewitt Clinton, Joseph Bonaparte and even Thomas Jefferson, Burr embarked on a wild career that flirted with treason, empire and personal financial disaster. Meanwhile, in 1816, after a year of high living and vocal Bonapartism, Mme. Jumel was, of all things, asked by King Louis XVIII himself to leave France.
Although her return to the U.S. was not really prompted by a desire to protect her husband’s assets, it did become an opportunity to sell those assets for her own purposes. According to rumors prevalent at the time, Stephen Jumel’s “tragic death” involved an accidental fall onto a pitchfork, after which his wife ripped the bandages off and watched him bleed to death. In the absence of a C.S.I. team, we can only speculate on the truth of that.
During the recent elections I watched a flaming liberal commentator on MSNBC pillory a Tea Party reactionary on Fox News for posting an altered photo of an unloved New York Times reporter. The hairline of the gentleman in question had been pushed back, his eyes moved together, and his chin weakened. Compared to the unaltered photo, which MSNBC just happened to have, this reporter certainly did look unreliable.
One suspects the image of Aaron Burr in later life, was editorially influenced in much the same way. In 1833, the year after Stephen Jumel’s death, the 77-year-old Burr married the 58-year-old widow Jumel (who was actually 64) in the parlor of her Washington Heights mansion. She presumably hoped for improvement in her social standing; he was broke and needed money; alas, neither was successful. The marriage went quickly downhill amidst reports of Burr squandering his new wife’s assets. They divorced in 1836, the decree arriving on the very day that Burr died.
The image below is of the world I visit in my dreams. It is the 20th century, but just barely. The old uptown estates have been broken up, but not completely built up. New streets have sliced through the countryside, but not quite everywhere. Wild spots survive, but fewer every year. I’d guess General and Mrs. Earle are still in residence and Earlecliff remains much as it was when Colonel Roger Morris (1717-1794) built it in 1765.
The Morrises were A-list colonial socialites, he a decorated French and Indian War veteran (and along with George Washington, a former aide-de-camp to General Braddock), his wife Mary (1729-1825) a member of the great Hudson Valley landowning Philipse clan. These elegant, educated, slave owning New York aristocrats were staunch Tories — at least, she was — who fled the country in 1776. Their Manhattan country estate — plus all of Mrs. Morris’s family’s vast holdings in the Hudson Valley — were subsequently confiscated by the new American government.
Washington, who bivouacked in the Morris during the Battle of Harlem Heights, returned to his old friend’s mansion for a famous cabinet dinner in 1790. The house was operating at the time as a tavern. Perhaps old John Jacob Astor was already its landlord. In any case, it was Astor who sold the house to Jumel in 1810. The postcard image below was probably taken in the early- to mid-20th century, a time when ivy was beloved instead of despised. Personally, I find its air of slight (well, maybe not so slight) dilapidation altogether appealing.
It’s in very good condition today, although not very atmospheric.
The small estate on which the house originally stood was bounded by the Kingsbridge Road (now St. Nicholas Ave) on the west, 163rd St on the north, the cliff above Edgecombe Ave on the east and 159th St on the south. Almost 20 years would pass after Mme Jumel’s death — she was, incidentally, the richest woman in New York — until her heirs finally chopped the place into building lots. The delay, of course, was due to litigation, about which more later.
Let’s take a look inside.
Colonel Roger Morris, the builder of this house, was the nephew of a prominent English architect, a man also named Roger Morris. The family connection is thought by some to explain the high Georgian elegance of this rural summer villa. The center hall floor plan is predictable and (I’m sorry) kind of dull. The interior woodwork is no great shakes either. The furniture, however, much of which is original to the Jumel period, is sublime. The gilded wings above the arch in the image below are said to have adorned Napoleon’s coach.
The front parlor, located west of the center hall, is filled with treasure. I have a sofa much like this one, not quite as elegant perhaps, but equally uncomfortable. Mme Jumel became Mrs. Burr in front of that fireplace.
East of the hall, through the door on the right, is the dining room. The portraits are of Colonel John Chester and his wife Elizabeth, a couple whose connection to the house is tenuous at best. They may or may not have been at Washington’s famous 1790 party, but they look appropriate on the dining room walls.
The main stair has an almost Quaker simplicity. Beneath it are steps descending to the basement kitchen. We’ll return there in a moment.
A small serving pantry tucked behind the basement stair has become the ladies’ room. Facing the main stair on the other side of the hall is another room, purpose unknown, used today as an office.
Colonial architecture might not have been grand, but it was often quite elegant, as is the case with this octagonal parlor. The gilded wings above the archways are more Napoleonic booty.
Upstairs are 6 bedrooms; did someone say “indoor plumbing?” Fuhgeddaboudit.
Blue was Mme. Jumel’s favorite color and much of her fine French bedroom furniture is once again in her blue bedroom.
On the other side of the hall, notable for early stained glass inserts flanking the gallery door, is what one assumes was her husbands’ bedroom, also filled with beautiful things.
This room belonged to Mary Bowen, Eliza’s adopted daughter — who was actually her niece, even though she was probably her daughter. Little William and Eliza Chase, gathered at the feet of their beatific adopted grandmother in the hall painting, belonged to Mary and her husband William Chase. The boy crossed his grandmother at some point along the line, and was disinherited for his trouble. His sister Eliza, who grew up to be Mrs. Nelson Mumford, expected to be Eliza’s heir. She was horrified to discover upon the old lady’s death that Grandmother Eliza had changed her will in secret and left everything to charity. A 13-year lawsuit ensued, won by another relative, upon which Nelson Mumford committed suicide.
Above the octagonal parlor are three more bedrooms, two quite tiny, all accessed via a narrow corridor. The larger of the three has an unusual fireplace whose stone facing is full of polished fossils.
Slaves first and servants later slept in primitive conditions under the eaves on the third floor, baking in the summer, freezing in the winter. The area is mostly unfinished and filled with storage. Time to head to the basement for look at the kitchen.
The Morris Jumel Mansion is today operated by the Historic House Trust, a not-for-profit organization that works in tandem with the New York City Parks Department. Its mission is to sensitively interpret old houses in the five boroughs. Besides house tours, the Morris Jumel site offers an extensive calendar of events and an active membership program. The link is www.morrisjumel.org.
Uptown Manhattan has figured so consistently in my life — well, in my dreams anyway — that I couldn’t resist including the view below. The camera looks north on Boulevard Lafayette, a swank northern Manhattan thoroughfare that had a very short half life. The northbound lanes of the Henry Hudson Parkway (above the George Washington Bridge) run along this roadbed today. The big house on the horizon looks at first blush like the old Paterno Castle, demolished in 1938 for the Castle Village cooperative. It’s not, however, and I don’t know what it is. Maybe one of these nights I’ll find it in my dreams.