|Should you go?|
|Time spent||94 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||One of the owners of the Mount Vernon was a guy named Joseph C. Hart, who was, in the words of my guide, a Renaissance man. In addition to running the hotel, his career spanned roles including teaching school, writing geography textbooks, serving as a Colonel in the national guard, writing a novel about whaling that influenced Moby-Dick, writing a memoir called “The Romance of Yachting,” in which he became one of the first people ever to assert that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, and dying while serving as U.S. Consul in Tenerife, the Canary Islands. Clearly a Joe after my own heart.|
Imagine yourself an up-and-coming middle class antebellum New Yorker. You live in the grime and congestion and excitement of the city, and spend a great deal of time working. What do you do for respectable fun on Sundays, or whenever you’re able to snatch a bit of leisure time?
The answer is probably the same as it is for respectable middle class New Yorkers today. You get the heck out of the city. Today, New Yorkers decamp to the Hamptons, the Jersey Shore, or the Rockaways. In the era before the Civil War, they didn’t have to go quite as far. Indeed, one popular day-trip destination from that era survives today, tucked near the midtown East River shore of East 61st Street.
History of the Mount Vernon Hotel
The Mount Vernon Hotel was built in 1799 as a carriage house for a great estate. However, the building was quickly converted into a residence. The associated mansion burned down in 1826, and coincidentally that same year the carriage house opened as the Mount Vernon Hotel.
The public parts of the building today are decorated as a hotel of that era would look. You can visit the ladies’ parlors, the downstairs tavern area, a sample of a room for an overnight guest, see what supper would have looked like (turtle soup!), and view a well stocked, “modern” kitchen.
Most visitors to the hotel would have just gone for the day, to socialize and relax in the country, returning to the city in the evening the same way they came — typically by stagecoach or ferry. So the place emphasized public spaces over private rooms.
Hart and the other owners furnished the hotel with things that would’ve spoken the aspirations of New Yorkers of the era: an upright piano, birds, transferware china, lacquerware and other import goods from the Far East. And it would have featured equipment for suitably respectable pastimes: needlework, music, parlor games, keeping up with the news. Drinking, naturally. The hotel also featured riding trails on the grounds, and commanding views of the East River and a rather impressive prison that once stood across the way on today’s Roosevelt Island.
The house only served as a hotel for about 7 years— it changed back into a private residence in 1833. The Treadwells of the Merchant’s House Museum just barely missed the chance to visit.
What You’ll See
I had a great guided tour of the Hotel. I think that’s the only way to see it; there’s little in the way of written explanations or descriptions of the furnishings of the rooms.
A visit begins with a rather lengthy “setting the stage” video. The introduction room also holds a model of the carriage house when it was actually used for horses and carriages, a great timeline, and a model of the hotel’s neighborhood back when it was the countryside.
The tour wraps in a peaceful little back garden, though it’s not representative of the hotel’s actual garden, which would have stretched a lot farther. And it’s not nearly as nice as the grounds of the Morris-Jumel or the Barstow-Pell mansions.
The Hotel deploys specific people well in its story — for example, the aforementioned story of Joe Hart. And the tour highlights one of the Hotel’s more famous guests, James Stuart, a Scottish “duelist and pamphleteer,” who wrote about visiting America, including his stay at the Mount Vernon. They help bring the place to life.
Currently, the Hotel also has a small exhibit on the rise of newspapers in 19th century New York. It feels a little beside the point. That said, catching up on and discussing the news of the day was an important activity for guests. It’s always good to check what ships are departing and arriving.
An Historic Building With Differentiation
The hotel survived because the Colonial Dames of America decided to make it their headquarters in the early 1900s. Originally they called the place the Abigail Adams Smith Museum, and focused on the original builders of the carriage house. Makes sense: daughters of founding fathers tightly align with the Colonial Dames’ interests. But in the 1980s the Dames decided to re-focus on the hotel story instead.
I’m really glad they did. Historic houses are somewhat common in New York, but aside from this place and Fraunces Tavern, places where people went to socialize or enjoy a spiked lemonade are rare. It’s a distinctive story and perspective. Even though Hamilton never visited and no one you ever heard of stayed at the Mount Vernon Hotel, the sheer unlikelihood that Turtle Bay served briefly as sort of the Hamptons of its day justifies a visit to this even more unlikely survivor of that era.
|Address||421 East 61st Street, Manhattan (between|
|Cost||General Admission: $8|