Monday, November 12, 2012

Jumel Mansion: Roger and Mary Philipse Morris House Washington Heights

By Katherine Hoffman

Jumel Mansion, the oldest house in New York
New York City contemplates making this famous old dwelling on Washington Heights a public museum. Its history gives a particular fitness to this scheme, for there are few houses in this country about which cluster so many stirring associations. Washington planned a battle there in the library where one of his early loves had moved as a stately matron for many years. From it Nathan Hale went out to die. There one of the first of New York's merchant princes, Stephen Jumel, dwelt and held magnificent entertainments. Near the old house still grow the cypress trees which he brought from the Tuileries—trees the shoots of which were given Napoleon in Egypt. Here after Stephen Jumel's death his wife dwelt in great dignity and luxury. In full maturity she fell a victim to the still attractive personality of the aged Aaron Burr and gave the house its final romance.

It is not often that the associations connected fleeted with a public museum are those of youthful sentiment and mature romance. Usually all that even the least practical minded can hope- of such a building is that it may be connected in some large and general way with the history of the country or of the city; that early conventions may have assembled in it and early laws may have been there enacted. To expect a flavor of bygone love affairs; a hint of gallantry, a suggestion of heart­ache, in a mere museum, is to be very hopeful indeed.

Dining room of the Jumel Mansion
Nevertheless, if the agitation which many of the patriotic and antiquarian societies of New York are making for the city's purchase of the old Jumel Mansion is successful, there will be such a museum upon Manhattan Island. And there is every likelihood that the city will buy the famous house and will, as is urged, make of it a museum for the storing of histori­cal relics and the meeting place of his­torical societies.

There is probably no house in America, except perhaps Mount Vernon, about which clings such a host of recollections. Here dwelt one of Washington's early loves—and though he had a number before he settled down with the serene and stately Widow Custis, it is doubtful if any of them made him more unhappy by her re­jection than did Mary Phillipse, first chatelaine of the great house on Washing­ton Heights.

Here, too, Aaron Burr, that brilliant chevalier d'industrie, paid courtly compli­ments to Mme. Jumel until he tempted her, though neither of them was young, into a match amazing in its indiscretion.

Here cypress trees from the Tuileries were set by Stephen Jumel, admirer and lover of the great Napoleon. From this place the boy Nathan Hale went forth on the mission that brought him death, Here, in the earliest, days of the republic; Washington wrestled with the difficulties of being a commander in chief with an ap­parently very inadequate force.

Every bicyclist knows the historic house by sight at least. Every picnicker whirled up in the electric cars towards the summer gardens above the Harlem knows it. It is one of the most conspicuous places in the northern part of the city. It lies be­tween One Hundred and Sixtieth and One Hundred and Sixty Second Streets, Jumel Terrace and Edgecombe Avenue. Built on the old colonial lines of breadth and dignity, standing upon the highest ridge of land in all Manhattan Island, it is perhaps even more inspiring and beautiful in these days of crowded sky scrapers than when it was new and Mary Phillipse first came to be its mistress.
Bedroom occupied by Washington
when using mansion as his headquarters

Mary Phillipse was at least the fourth young woman who had the distinction of rejecting George Washington's addresses. In spite of the deep solemnity with which, according to his portraits, he regarded life in his maturity, he seems to have been somewhat of a sighing swain in his salad days. His unsuccess in love may have given him his first ground for hoping for success in war. At a painfully early age he was mourning in his letters to a friend, over a "Lowland Beauty" for whom he had what he called "a chast and trouble­some passion" that he longed to bury "in oblivion or etarnall forgetfulness."

He did. His lowland beauty, Miss Grimes, who had said him nay, was forgotten for Miss Mary Cary, who also declined his suit. Then Miss Betsy Fauntleroy took a turn in the work of rejection, and at the age of twenty four, in 1756, he gave Mary Phillipse a chance to win undying renown as one of the women who had refused him.

In 1756 he was on his way to Boston, by horseback, and stayed for a while in New York at the home of Colonel Beverly Robinson, Ms. Phillipse's brother-in-law. Miss Phillipse captured what her three predecessors had left of his heart, but she was already engaged, so it is said, to Colonel Roger Morris, whom she married soon afterwards. The house now known as the Jumel Mansion was built for the home of her married life. It was for a long time known as the Morris House.

Library where Washington planned Battle of Washington Heights
Colonel Morris remained true to the British cause at the beginning of the Revolution, and his property was confiscated, he and his family going to England. It was thus in his home that Washington, nearly twenty years after he had fallen in love with Mary Phillipse, made his headquarters. In her library he planned the Battle of Harlem Heights. His officers occupied the rooms where she had been used to spend her peaceful, dignified days. They dined in the beautiful old dining room where she, as brilliant a woman as she was lovely, had entertained all the gentry of Manhat­tan for nearly a quarter of a century. It was from her doors that the twenty one year old lad, Nathan Hale, went out to be captured by Sir William Howe and to be put to death as a spy.

After the Revolution the estate was bought by John Jacob Astor. In 1815 he sold it to Stephen Jumel. He was one of the earliest of the line that has since be­come known as "New York's merchant princes." He had emigrated from France to Santo Domingo at an early age and had successfully worked his way up to the ownership of a coffee plantation. He was warned of an uprising of the slaves in time to escape the destruction that was visited on all his possessions. He eventu­ally reached New York in safety, and find­ing the proceeds from some of the coffee he had sent from St. Domingo awaiting him, he embarked in trade, prospered, be­came the owner of a dozen ships, and in 1812 he retired with what was considered a great fortune in those days. He had married a New England woman of un­usual force and charm.

Thirteen ears of corn representing
 the thirteen original states
Stephen Jumel had an intense admira­tion for Napoleon, and it is to this that the historic mansion on the heights owes one of its most interesting features. This is the almost circular walk of cypresses on the grounds. These cypresses had been given to Napoleon by the Khedive of Egypt, and they were still in the Tuileries Gardens awaiting planting when Stephen Jumel acquired them. Some accounts say that they were given to the New Yorker—as M. Jumel now regarded himself—by the emperor, and others that they were bought. However they were obtained, the twenty four of them form one of the most pleasing links with the past that are to be found in New York.

The Jumels came back to New York after shining for a while in Paris, in 1822. They adorned their home with all sorts of rare and splendid furniture and bric-a-brac. They were not as rich as they had been, and Mme. Jumel, energetic and thrifty as became a New England woman, took charge of affairs, econ­omized, superintended the farm, and forced the old splendid prosperity to re­turn. When her husband died, in 1832, she was a wealthy woman. And she was still a very attractive one, but little past the prime of life.

Then it was that the old house became the scene of one of the strangest romances in history. Aaron Burr, a man more than seventy five years of age, a man who had been all things that a daring and brilliant adventurer may be, and who was now living the un-honored end of an adventurer's life, persuaded her to marry him.

Burr was practicing law somewhat pre­cariously, and Mme. Jumel consulted him concerning her property. In the course of time a young kinsman of hers entered Mr. Burr's law office, and gradually an intimacy arose. Colonel Burr, fas­cinating and courtly at seventy eight, won a decided influence over the capable, clever, middle aged woman. And this was in spite of the fact that he had been low in the estimation of his countrymen for years—a man once accused of treason, barely acquitted from the charge, forced into exile by the detestation of his countrymen, and now living rather in America by their contemptuous sufferance. He was besieged by creditors; he had had attributed to him affairs of gallantry as little to his credit as his public acts. He was very old. And yet by the force of his daring this extraordinary adventurer made the wealthy and sought for Widow Jumel marry him.

Mantelpiece in drawing room
 of Jumel Mansion
It is said that she had often refused him, but that her refusals grew more wavering, until finally the bold lover an­nounced that on his next visit he should bring a clergyman to help solicit her hand and to seal immediately the promise for which he hoped.

Truly it was no idle threat. He drove out to the Jumel Mansion accompanied by Dr. Bogart, who had actually married him more than fifty years before to his first wife. He proposed. The lady re­fused, half-heartedly. He pressed the point; she hesitated—and they were mar­ried in the great drawing-room with the wonderful mantel which to this day is one of the features of the house. Only Mme. Jumel's family and servants witnessed the ceremony.

They did not live long together. Mme. Jumel had a distinct objection to losing control of her money, and Colonel Burr had an equally pronounced predilec­tion in favor of rendering no accounts. The jars were frequent and the reconciliations grew less frequent than the quar­rels. Finally Mme. Jumel, as she continued to be called, procured a divorce from her trying septuagenarian, and so ended the last historical romance of the famous house.

From Munsey’s Magazine, 1900

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