Midway through October, entry to many of the city’s most important historic buildings was free to the general public as part of Open House New York.
I took the opportunity to visit the Morris-Jumel Mansion – Manhattan’s only remaining Colonial residence, situated off 160th Street. The mansion’s museum is open throughout the year, Tuesday-Sunday, with admission at $10 for adults, but, in honour of Open House weekend, fees were waived and there were additional tours.
Built in 1765, the villa served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776 and was also the location for a dinner party attended by Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, John Quincy Adams and Henry Knox in 1790.
It was this link to the Revolutionary period that guaranteed the building’s survival, with the Daughters of the American Revolution playing a vital role in the mansion’s conservation in the early twentieth century - including some questionable choices in restoration.
In the museum’s current iteration, however, its custodians are looking to move away from the house’s political significance and deck it out as it would have looked in the nineteenth century, when it served as a family home to French wine merchant Stephen Jumel and his formidable American wife, Eliza.
Learning about Eliza Jumel is one of the biggest draws for going to the mansion and taking a tour. Born Eliza Bowen into a working class Irish Catholic family in 1775, she worked as a domestic servant and an actress before going on to become one of the richest American socialites of the nineteenth century.
She married Jumel in 1804 and the pair bought the Morris Mansion in 1810. They were Bonapartists who claimed (probably falsely) that several of the trappings still visible in the house were gifts from Napoleon acquired during their trip to France in 1815.
After the death of her first husband in 1832, Eliza quickly married former Vice President (and killer of Alexander Hamilton) Aaron Burr. The pair soon separated, but, in a plot straight from a Victorian novel, their divorce came through on the date of Burr’s death in 1836 leading to legal wrangling over whether Eliza should be treated as his ex-wife or widow.
Eliza’s own death – at age 90 in 1865 – was also followed by litigation, as there was a 17-year battle over her sizeable estate. A portrait of Eliza along with the two claimants hangs on the upper landing of the house, although one half of the painting was covered by a curtain to hide the disowned party, during the later years of Eliza’s life.
It’s a little strange to visit a historical house where the interest is more often in possibilities than certainties. The Morris-Jumel Mansion – fittingly given its great age for New York - has become the centre point for a range of apocryphal stories, many focused on Eliza.
The rooms are beautiful and will look even better when they are further rearranged to reflect the Jumel era and the anachronistic wallpaper in the mansion’s famous octagonal drawing room is stripped away. If you find yourself that far uptown and looking for a slice of truly old New York then take a tour of the Georgian country house – you won’t be disappointed.