Overlooking the Harlem River on 160th Street and Edgecombe Avenue is the remnant of a 160-acre estate that spanned the width of Manhattan from 155th to 168th Streets. The Morris-Jumel Mansion is the only surviving pre-Revolutionary War, free-standing mansion in Manhattan.
In 1756 Captain Roger Morris arrived in the colonies to fight the French and Indian Wars. He served with George Washington, who had become his friend, under the command of General Braddock in Virginia. During the course of the French and Indian War, Morris was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel.
Mary Philipse had come from an extremely wealthy and powerful Tory family that owned vast estates along the Hudson River in what is now Westchester County. Mary had been courted by many young men including Washington and Morris. Mary’s choice for a husband was Roger Morris.
In 1763 Colonel Morris retired from military life and bought a house in lower Manhattan on the corner of Whitehall and Stone Streets. He had become a member of the Executive Council of the Province of New York.
Morris engaged a contractor, John Edward Pryor, to build a summer house in northern Manhattan. The estate was originally 130 acres and was purchased from the Dyckman family. His wife’s dowry contributed to the cost of the estate. The mansion was completed in 1765 and was called Mount Morris.
It was constructed in the classical Georgian style with a wide board façade, wooden corner quoins and a hipped roof. The mansion featured an octagonal wing which was the first to be built in America. The front portico with its balcony was later added in 1810 by a future owner, and is supported by columns, adding majesty to the house.
The mansion faced south with a spectacular view of both the Harlem and Hudson Rivers. New York and the harbor could be seen as well from the vantage point of the colonial suburbs. Now apartment buildings block the view.
When the hostilities of the American Revolution commenced, Colonel Morris, who was a Tory and a Royalist sympathizer, left for England, leaving his wife and their four children to move in with relatives in Yonkers. The Philipses were also Tories and left for England.
The vacant house was used by General Washington and his senior officers to make plans for the Battle of Harlem Heights, which became a significant victory for the American cause. The house was occupied between September 14 and October 18, 1776. Lower Manhattan was put to the flame, and smoke could be seen from the front of the mansion.
On November 16, 1776, Fort Washington was defeated by an overpowering force of British and Hessian troops. The mansion had been used as the eastern bastion for the third line of defense for Fort Washington, manned by the Americans. The mansion was captured by an advance column of the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment (known as the Black Watch) that was ferried across the Harlem River by the British advance from the south under the command of Earl Percy.
After the loss of Fort Washington, the British had firm control of New York and the Hudson Valley. The Mansion was used as a command center by British General Sir Henry Clinton and then by Hessian commander Baron von Knyphausen. The mansion was used for Court Martials, which took place in the Octagonal Room. A barn on the grounds was used as a jail for prisoners of those trials. One of the American prisoners was Captain Alexander Graydon, who was captured by the Highlanders a few blocks north of the mansion on what is now Saint Nicholas Avenue.
In 1783 the war ended and New York City was free of British rule. The mansion was confiscated by the Commission of Forfeiture and was put up for sale. The money from the sale was assigned to John Jacob Astor in account for Mrs. Morris by the government of the United States.
Following the Revolution the mansion and the lands surrounding it exchanged hands several times. The land was used for farming while the mansion became a tavern called Calumet Hall. It became the first stop for the coaches on the Albany Post Road. One of the specialties served there was turtle soup. On July 10, 1790, President Washington returned to the mansion with members of his cabinet for dinner and a visit to the one-time headquarters he used during the war.
In 1799 William Kenyon, a New York merchant, sold the house and property to an Anglo-West Indian investor by the name of Leonard Parkinson. Parkinson resurveyed and divided the property into smaller lots.
Stephen Jumel, a French wine merchant from San Domingo, bought lot number 8, which was the mansion and the immediate area surrounding it, in April 1810. Jumel arrived in New York with his vast fortune and redecorated the house to the Federal style. Four years later, Jumel purchased more property to include the area from what is now 160th Street to 174th Street east of Saint Nicholas Avenue.
Eliza Bowen was to become best remembered for being Jumel’s wife and living in the mansion. She met Jumel, who was 20 years her senior, and became his mistress. Eliza managed to force Jumel into marrying by feigning deathbed illness.
Eliza was born into poverty in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1775. She had become an avid story teller to convince people that she wanted to become a social climber and may have encouraged the propagation of these stories. She claimed she was born at sea of mysterious and unknown parentage. She also claimed to be the daughter of either Napoleon or George Washington. Unfortunately, her manipulating and scheming created an unsavory past which was to be checked by New York’s High Society.
The Jumels left for Paris in 1815. Eliza had become a Bonapartist even though Napoleon was in exile. The following year, Eliza returned to New York without her husband. She brought with her some new furniture for the mansion. One piece was Napoleon’s bed, which is now exhibited in the master bedroom on the second floor. Eliza was given power of attorney by her husband, whom she managed to leave a marginal pauper. Being a shrewd business woman, Eliza increased the value of the property from $1 million to $3 million in a matter of three years.
In May 1832, while supervising work on the estate, Stephen Jumel was injured in an accident when he fell from the top of a hay load and onto a pitchfork. Jumel was immediately brought to a second floor bedroom, where bandages were tightly bound on the wounds. His body was eventually found on the third floor with the bandages loosened. Rumors and stories abounded implicating Madame Jumel’s involvement in the hastening of her husband’s death, but there has been no proof to the accusations.
Jumel was buried at Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, located on what is now Mott Street between Prince and Houston Streets, in the area now know as Nolita (North of Little Italy). Being he was French and Roman Catholic, Eliza may have been ostracized given the anti-Catholic sentiment of the era.
A year after Jumel’s death, Madame Jumel married Aaron Burr, a lawyer and third Vice President of the United States. At 78 years of age, Burr used the marriage for financial gain, whereas for Madam Jumel it was purely for status.
The marriage went sour due to the tempestuous relationship between Burr and Madame Jumel. She wanted to divorce Burr because of his financial carelessness and the fact that she accused him of adultery (which was considered an acceptable reason for divorce). Burr passed away in 1836, finally relenting to Madame Jumel’s wishes by granting her the divorce on his deathbed. In his book “Burr,” Gore Vidal gives an excellent description of the interior of the mansion and the room where Madame Jumel and Aaron Burr were married.
In 1854 Madame Jumel went to Europe with her two grandchildren, Eliza Jumel Chase and William Inglis Chase. Madame Jumel was nearly 80 years old at the time. The three toured England, France and Italy. While in France, Madame Jumel presented her 17-year-old granddaughter to the court of Louis Philippe. A painting was made of the three of them by Alcide Ercole and was a gift to the mansion by Louis V. Bell. According to pictures from the 19th century, the painting was originally hung in the front hall. The painting was moved from the first floor to its present location on the second floor in the 1940s.
After Burr’s death, Madame Jumel became reclusive and demented. She was known for doing strange things such as maintaining an armed garrison in the house and riding about the grounds daily at the head of 15 or 20 men. The only people to see her were the immediate family. In 1865 Madame Jumel died at the age of 91 and was buried in the western division of Trinity Cemetery at 155th and Broadway. Her heirs inherited the house and property and fell into litigation. Portions of the property were sold off during this period.
In the early 1880s, the portion of the land that was the driveway for the mansion was sold, and two-story frame row houses were built in 1882 by developer James E. Ray. This became known as Sylvan Terrace, which is now part of the Jumel Terrace Historic District that now surrounds it. The area was designated a historic district in 1970.
The buildings of Sylvan Terrace were renovated between 1979 and 1981. With the exception of Number 16, all of the buildings were restored to their original appearance. As a result of inadequate renovations, most of the buildings were suffering from poor drainage and rotting wood. The stoops were not properly weatherproofed as were the original supports for the stairways during the renovation. In time the renovations were corrected, and Number 16 was placed for sale and renovated to fit in with the rest of the buildings.
Other houses in the district, totaling about 50 row houses, were erected between 1890 and 1902 and were designed in the Queen Anne, Romanesque Revival, and Classical Revival styles of architecture. The only apartment building in the district, constructed in 1909, is a brick and limestone Federalist Revival design. The district is unique in the respect that it owes its existence to its brief period of construction and use of contemporary materials in many of the structures. One of the houses on Jumel Terrace was once owned by entertainer and actor Paul Robeson.
In 1882 William Inglis Chase, grandson and one of the heirs to Madam Jumel, purchased the mansion and lived in it until its sale on May 17, 1894, to General Ferdinand Pinney Earle and his wife Lillie. The mansion was renamed Earle Cliff and was taken care of during the period of street openings and apartment house developments, which proved disastrous to the historic district.
In 1903 General Earle passed away, and the following year the city took title of the mansion at a cost of $235,000. Four chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution took over the mansion to be used as a Revolutionary War museum, and at least $12,000 was raised for renovation and restoration.
The mansion has been reported to be haunted by various ghosts, of whom Madam Jumel’s ghost is the most prevalent and feisty of all. It has been said that Madam Jumel wanders through the house in a purple dress rapping on walls and windows. Other hauntings include the ghosts of Stephen Jumel, one of the housemaids who committed suicide as a result of a jilted lover, a Hessian soldier who, while going downstairs, tripped and fell on his bayonet. Because of the numerous ghost sightings, the mansion has been listed on the National Register of Historic Haunted Places.
One of the most interesting and widely publicized cases of Madame Jumel’s hauntings took place on January 4, 1964, when students from Public School (now Intermediate School) 164, located at Edgecombe Avenue and 164th Street, were playing in front of the mansion. These students were accompanied by their teacher, Mrs. Betty Fitzgerald. The story that was given to Mrs. Emma Bingay Campbell, the curator of the mansion, by the students was that they were told by a woman on the balcony to “Shut up.” The problem was that the building was locked and empty at the time of the incident. Both Mrs. Fitzgerald and Mrs. Campbell questioned the students, and every story coincided. The Students recognized Madam Jumel as the woman they had seen from a painting of her on the second floor of the mansion.
The museum staff has not encountered any ghosts and dismisses all of the stories on the hauntings. The official point of view of the management is that the mansion is considered a museum and educational institution and is to be treated as such.
The grounds of the mansion has a colonial-style rose and herb garden with a working sundial. There is also a well-worn milestone with a bronze plaque bearing the inscription “11 miles from New York on the Kingsbridge Road, the City History Club, 1912.”
The mansion was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1935 and was also designated a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission on June 12, 1967. The interior of the mansion was given landmark status on May 27, 1975. During the Bicentennial Celebrations in July 1976, Queen Elizabeth II of England visited the mansion. The mansion celebrated its centennial as a museum in 2004.
The Morris-Jumel Mansion is managed by the Washington Headquarters Association, and the Roger Morris Park is managed by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. The Mansion is also member of the Historic House Trust managed by the Parks Department. In 1990 the mansion began extensive renovations to the exterior of the building and to the grounds of the park. The interior of the house was restored in 2004.
The Morris-Jumel Mansion is located in Roger Morris Park at 65 Jumel Terrace, which is one block east of Saint Nicholas Avenue. Roger Morris Park is bounded by 160th and 162nd Streets, Edgecombe Avenue to Jumel Terrace, which is all that remains of the former estate. The mansion is open from Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For general information, tours and events of the mansion, please call 212-923-8008.
There are various websites relating to the Morris-Jumel Mansion. The website for the mansion is www.morrisjumel.org. Other information pertaining to the mansion can be accessed at the Parks Department website at www.nyc.gov/parks. Online photographs of the gravesites of George Washington, Aaron Burr and Madame Jumel can be found at www.findagrave.com.