Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum

Edification value  2/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 48 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Bartow-Pell Mansion, Sitting Room

The broad array of games:  deck of cards, dice, checkers, arrayed around the upstairs sitting room. Makes me appreciate our sophisticated modern timekillers like Settlers of Catan and  Pandemic.

Bartow-Pell Mansion, The Bronx, New YorkLong ago (1654) and far away (under an oak tree on what is now the frontier of the Bronx), a, Englishman named Thomas Pell signed a treaty with the local Siwanoy/ Lenape Indian tribe.  He gained ownership of either 9,166 acres (City of New York, Friends of Pelham Bay Park, other reputable sources) or 50,000 acres (Bartow-Pell Mansion printout, Wikipedia) of land. While his descendants sold off the massive holding over time, in 1836 Robert Bartow, scion of the Bartow-Pell family, bought back part of the original estate and started building a fine country house and working farm on it.  In 1842, he and his wife Maria Lorillard Bartow, their seven kids, and assorted Irish servants moved out from the filth and hubbub of New York City.  The family resided there for over 40 years.

Like all of the country retreats I’ve visited, the family’s fortunes ebbed, and the expanding City eventually caught up with the Bartow-Pell Mansion. Mostly. Today the house stands in the heart of Pelham Bay Park (in fact, the City bought the house and land as it was creating the park), the only survivor of what used to be a string of mansions in the area.

Staircase at Bartow-Pell Mansion, The Bronx

The State of the House

The large, stone, Greek Revival house has three stories, and a greenhouse or orangerie attached. The interiors look terrific, featuring historically informed paint colors and much of that neoclassical symmetry I’ve come to look for. The staircase makes a lovely curve. The rooms have super high ceilings, fireplaces for heat, and beautiful moldings (most memorably of eagles over the doors in the men’s half of the ground floor double parlor, complemented by cherubs in the women’s half).  As mansions go, it’s anything but “Mc.”

Dining Room, Bartow-Pell Mansion, The Bronx
The Dining Room

Each room has a binder that details dates, makers, provenances and any historical trivia about the art and furnishings. Sort of a low-tech version of what Morris-Jumel Mansion will be using tablets for, but it gets the job done.

Speaking of Morris-Jumel, Aaron Burr’s first wife, Theodosia (mother to the Theodosia Burr sings about in a certain musical), was Theodosia Bartow, a cousin to the Bartows  of this house.  For that reason, the mansion has Aaron Burr’s desk, borrowed from M-J to help furnish the games room. Tenuous Hamilton tie, check.

Aaron Burr's Desk Bartow-Pell Mansion, Bronx
Burr’s Desk

Tour and Grounds

I took the guided tour, and felt slightly let down by it. Partly that’s because very little remains in the house that belonged to the Bartows. I suppose we can’t fault them for having no idea that their family home would be a house museum someday. And partly the guide focused more on issues of light and hygiene (or lack thereof) — the chamberpots, the lack of regular bathing — than on stories about the family. At least for me, much of the enjoyment of visiting places like this is to learn something of who these people were and what made them unique. I missed that here, although I did learn Robert had gout.

1816 mourning needlework by Susan Bartow, cousin to Robert — a rare Bartow artifact in the Bartow House

Its location in the heart of a 2,772-acre park means the mansion still retains some of its grounds, a luxury that most other historic houses have lost to encroaching urbanization. It has a carriage house, which displays historic tools, an old carriage, a sleigh, a re-creation of the stableboy’s quarters, and some artificial horses.

It also has a fine little formal garden. That’s not from the Bartows–the house survived because in 1914 Zelia Hoffman leased it as headquarters of her International Garden Club.

Bartow-Pell Garden, Pelham Bay Park, the BronxAnd, uniquely among the historic houses I’ve visited, at least some of the Bartows and Pells still reside there. Behind the garden lies a tiny family plot, gravestones quietly eroding toward illegibility.

Bartow-Pell Gravesite

Concluding Thoughts

While it resides within the borders of New York City, the Bartow-Pell Mansion is not easy to reach. Getting there requires going all the way to the end of the 6 train then hiring a car. Or you can transfer to a bus into the park and walk 20 minutes from the closest bus stop. While indisputably quicker and easier than in Robert Bartow’s day (he took a boat down the East River), it’s not something to do on a whim.

Should you visit the Bartow-Pell Mansion? There are many more atmospheric, older, and more meaningful historic houses in the City. And more historic ones as well. And very definitely more convenient ones. [Museum Project reviews tagged “house.”] I don’t mean to suggest you should only the grandest, oldest, biggest, spookiest, historic-est, etc., places. It does not require a superlative for a place to merit a visit. But in this case, although the Bartow-Pell Mansion is a fine old house, it doesn’t quite justify a journey to far end of the Bronx.

Bartow-Pell Mansion, Bronx, New York

For Reference:

Address 895 Shore Road, Pelham Bay Park, Bronx
Cost  General Admission:  $8
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