In George Washington’s footsteps: visiting the oldest house in Manhattan

George WashingtonTo travel to a house in Manhattan that was built when New York was still a colony of Great Britain, you don’t need a DeLorean. You only need to head a few miles north of the city’s usual tourist sites.

250 years ago, a British military officer named Colonel Roger Morris constructed a summer villa for him and his wife, in what’s now the Washington Heights neighbourhood of New York City. (In those colonial times, only the southern tip of Manhattan contained residential settlements. The area that Morris chose for the location of his second home was relatively secluded.) That home, an exemplar of the Palladian style of architecture, still stands today; it’s now known as the Morris-Jumel Mansion, and it’s the oldest house in Manhattan. (A handful of even older homes survive in New York City’s boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island.) And it’s open to the public as a museum.

What began life as Colonel Morris’s summer dwelling is renowned less for its original owners than for some of the illustrious personages who later stood within its walls. Perhaps most notably, this residence can legitimately claim that “George Washington slept here” — and on multiple occasions, no less. First, during the Revolutionary War in 1776, then-General Washington appropriated the house as his headquarters for about five weeks. (The Morrises, who were Loyalists, had fled the house at the start of the war.)

The façade of the Morris-Jumel Mansion, built in 1765.

The façade of the Morris-Jumel Mansion, built in 1765.

This room served as Washington's bedchamber and study when he temporarily occupied the house in 1776.

This room served as Washington’s bedchamber and study when he temporarily occupied the house in 1776.

In July 1790, during his first term as President of the fledgling United States, Washington returned to the house, as part of an area sightseeing expedition that he led for family members and his Cabinet. That 1790 visit to what’s now known as the Morris-Jumel Mansion featured a memorable dinner. Seated around the same table for that meal were Washington; Thomas Jefferson (Washington’s first Secretary of State, as well as the future third President of the U.S.); Alexander Hamilton (Washington’s first Secretary of the Treasury); John Adams (Washington’s Vice-President, who would be elected President himself upon Washington’s retirement); Abigail Adams (Adams’s wife, and a future First Lady of the U.S.); Charles Adams (the Adamses’ younger son, and the brother of yet another future President, John Quincy Adams); and Henry Knox (Washington’s initial Secretary of War).

Knox, by the way, while lesser-known in our time than his table-mates on that auspicious evening, was sufficiently accomplished and respected that numerous towns, such as Knoxville, Tennessee, were later named in his honour. Fort Knox (the place where all the gold bullions are stored) was also named after him.

An all-star dinner took place in this dining room on a summer's evening in 1790.

An all-star dinner took place in this dining room on a summer’s evening in 1790.

In 1962, at a White House dinner honouring Nobel laureates, President John F. Kennedy famously remarked, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” I daresay that the dinner that took place in the room pictured above may have surpassed even Jefferson’s solo dinners for the aggregate level of talent and knowledge that were present at a single meal. Of course, Jefferson was merely one of the distinguished individuals assembled for the 1790 dinner in the Morris-Jumel Mansion.

One of those diners, Hamilton, was fated to be killed by Aaron Burr (John Adams’s Vice-President) in a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey in 1804. Years later, in 1833, an elderly Burr married a wealthy widow, Eliza Bowen Jumel, in the front parlour of the same home where Hamilton had once sat down to dinner with George Washington and other Founding Fathers. At the time of the nuptials, Burr was 77 years old and his bride was 58. The following year, the new Mrs. Burr filed for divorce. That divorce was granted in 1836, and Burr died shortly thereafter.

In this parlor, in 1833, a 77-year-old Aaron Burr married a wealthy 19-year-old widow.

In this parlour, in 1833, a 77-year-old Aaron Burr married a wealthy widow and socialite.

Another view of the parlour in which Burr was married in 1833.  At the upper right you can see a portrait of Burr, which was installed in this room in 2015.

Another view of the parlour in which Burr was married in 1833. At the upper right you can see a portrait of Burr, which was installed in this room in 2015.

While many of the furnishings on display in the mansion are reconstructions, the hardwood floors and the stairs are original; so you can tread over the same floorboards that luminaries like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson once walked over.

The staircase and hardwood floors that you see here are original. The piano was added much later, and is sometimes used for performances.

The staircase and hardwood floors that you see here are original. The piano was added much later, and is sometimes used for performances.

Speaking of Washington, in the kitchen you can see some cute messages that schoolchildren addressed to him during visits to the mansion around the time of President’s Day in February 2015:

Messages from schoolchildren to the Father of their Country, on display in the kitchen.

Messages from schoolchildren to the Father of their Country, on display in the kitchen.

For more information on the Morris-Jumel Mansion, you can check out the house’s official website. The house is easy to get to from more southerly parts of Manhattan via subway, but it has a very different vibe from the parts of the city that have grown up around it during its 250 years.

The rear of the house, featuring the octagonal drawing room that was used for entertaining.

The rear of the house, featuring the octagonal drawing room that was used for entertaining.

Did you know that you can visit a 250-year-old house in Manhattan?

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Categories: North America, travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

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12 thoughts on “In George Washington’s footsteps: visiting the oldest house in Manhattan

  1. Sarah

    Lovely post – and a great place to visit. We love history, so if we are ever here (which I hope we will be in the next year or so!) we will definitely drop by!

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    • @Sarah: It’s definitely worth a visit and it doesn’t take too much time to go through. It would also be interesting for the house to be seen from an Englishwoman’s perspective.

      And I’m glad you liked the post!

      Like

  2. woow 250 years! it’s great that it is renovated and open for visits. In places like this I can’t help but think about the people who lived there even the servants and how they felt, what their lives were…

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    • @eostories: It’s nice to have places like this where history is preserved. It’s hard for me to imagine what it would have even been like to live there, in an era long before electric power, automobiles, etc.

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  3. I had no idea this place existed. Thank you for introducing it to me.

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  4. I have never been, nor did I know about this. Thank you for sharing. I will have to go check this out. I love history too!

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    • @Holly Dayz: It’s not well known, because it’s several miles from the tourist traps in midtown and downtown. But anyone into history, especially colonial and early American history, would enjoy visiting this house.

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  5. that’s a beautiful house thanks for sharing the history of it

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  6. Revati Victor (Different Doors)

    Never been that side of the world, but wouldn’t peg Manhattan with such beautiful heritage sites! Thanks for the lovely tour!

    Like

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