|Should you go?|
|Time spent||77 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||
The mansion has recently undergone a major wall upgrade, installing recreations of historic wallpaper based on Mme. Jumel’s descriptions. The Octagonal Drawing Room features an amazing pattern of clouds against a blue sky. I must remember that for the next time I renovate MY octagonal drawing room.
The way to the Morris-Jumel Mansion takes you up the gentle slope of Sylvan Terrace, a single block long and one of the most unlikely streets in all of Manhattan. Paved with perfect cobblestones, both sides of the street consist of a matched set of beautiful, seemingly mint condition, wooden townhouses from the 19th century, all period charm and lovingly preserved detail. It’s a miracle that it survived, though the big white house on the hill at the end of the terrace is more miraculous still: the Morris-Jumel Mansion has lasted longer than any other home on the island, dating to 1765. That makes it about 30 years older than the Dyckman farmhouse, just a bit to the north. And instead of the Dyckman’s rustic, humble charm, Colonel Roger Morris built to his “summer villa” to impress.
Three stories (four if you include the basement), the grand house featured a columned portico and the first octagonal room in the country. Col. Morris and his wife, loyal to the British, abandoned the place during the revolution, leading to its moment in the spotlight of history. More on that later. In 1810, Stephen Jumel, an immigrant from France, bought the mansion. His wife, the smart and colorful Eliza Jumel (nee Bowen), has the strongest personality in the house today.
Eliza Bowen came from a poor family in Rhode Island. Not only did she find in M. Jumel a successful businessman to marry, but she turned out to be something of a real estate tycoon herself. The Jumels may not have been welcome in high society (being nouveau riche and from the wrong backgrounds), but they lived well. They spent time in France, and Madame Jumel (always “Madame,” it seems, never “Missus”) returned with (so she claimed) Napoleon’s bedroom set, and strong ideas about decorating her summer villa. No one’s quite sure if it really is Napoleon’s bedroom set, but just the fact that she’d tell people that brings her to life. She lived in the house until she died in 1865, apparently becoming quite eccentric over time.
Hamilton and History
As with all buildings of that vintage, my first question related to my favorite Founding Father. A.Ham indeed spent time there at least twice. Once during the period from September to October 1776 when Washington made the mansion his headquarters, before the British drove him and the Continental Army out of Manhattan. And again in 1790 when Washington held a cabinet dinner meeting there.
Also, the notorious A.Burr actually lived here–Madame Jumel married him in 1832, just a year after M. Jumel’s death. Briefly. It seems she got along with him no better than Hamilton did, though at least he didn’t shoot her. Rather, she divorced him. Practically unthinkable in that time, it confirms that he really must’ve been a colossal jerk.
ALSO also, Lin-Manuel Miranda asked if he could spend some time in the mansion while he wrote “Hamilton,” the better to immerse himself in the period vibe. So some portion of the musical came into the world in Aaron Burr’s bedroom at the Morris-Jumel Mansion.
That’s about as Hamiltonian as it gets.
The House Today
In addition to Napoleon’s alleged bedstead, the house has some original furniture, with about six rooms fully decorated, and another couple currently undergoing restoration. The kitchen space in the basement is open, but without much to see. As a fan of old kitchens, I hope they do something with it eventually. It does contain an odd display of a toaster, a chamberpot, a bedwarmer, and a teacup. Trying to figure out what those things have in common started to give me a headache.
Each room has a rather handsome piece of modern wood furniture–a stand or a railing–designed to cradle an iPad. But no tablets in sight. I asked about that–whether it was an attempt at deploying technology that had failed. Turns out it’s still a work in progress. The tablets, when installed, will provide deep dives on individual pieces of furniture, paintings, and other objects. My skepticism of technology for technology’s sake in this sort of setting remains strong, but I like the idea of using screens to tailor descriptions to the needs and interests of visitors, enabling them to engage more deeply.
Trish, who was working the admission desk/gift shop that day, kindly answered my myriad questions, about technology and about history as well. She told me that it opened to the public in 1906, like the Van Cortlandt House a project of the Colonial Dames of New York. I asked how it survived, and she said Washington gets the credit: although only for a month, the fact that the mansion served as his headquarters earned its preservation. Indeed, when it first opened, the place served as a sort of shrine to Washington and the Revolution.
Only more recently has the story pivoted to focus on Madame Jumel, who after all lived there a lot longer, and about whose occupancy there’s a lot more historical information and documentation. And Napoleon’s bedroom set.
The mansion’s vast land holdings at one point stretched the (albeit pretty narrow that far north) width of Manhattan. All that land is now Washington Heights, of course. And yet, its commanding hilltop location, surrounded by tiny, lovely Roger Morris Park, offers a taste of the country to this day. The grounds burst with rosebushes and even include a small sunken garden. I could easily see going back just to sit there and read a book.
Who should visit the Morris-Jumel Mansion? Hamiltonians, for sure. Fans of old wallpaper, and fans of rich eccentric 19th century madames. Those into colonial architecture and house museums. The three house museums of upper Manhattan (Dyckman Farmhouse, here, and the Hamilton Grange) provide a varied look at life in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Visiting all three of them would make for a highly edifying afternoon.
|Address||Roger Morris Park, 65 Jumel Terrace, Manhattan|
|Cost||General Admission: $10|
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