I decided that last Thursday would be a good day to see Shakespeare in the Park. But you have to get the ticket at noon and the show isn’t until 8pm so I had time to kill. So I thought it would also be a good day to visit some of the Alexander Hamilton sites that I didn’t have time for last month. It turned out to be more of an Aaron Burr tour.
I took the bus from Central Park, which took me past a beautiful mansion on the corner of St. Nicholas Place and 150th Street (Sugar Hill section of Harlem). Research indicated that that is the James Bailey House (the Bailey of Barnum & Bailey) built in 1886-1888. One thing it is known for is the stained glass windows designed by a cousin of Louis Comfort Tiffany. When first built you could see the Long Island Sound from the mansion. In 1951 it became a funeral home and was put up for sale in 2008 for $10 million, then in May 2009 the price had gone down to $6.5 million, and it finally sold in August 2009 for $1.4 million. By then the house was in severe disrepair and was called the Grey Gardens of Harlem. In 1974 it was designated a NYC Landmark so the restoration must have been difficult and expensive. For more history and some great photos of both the outside and inside of the mansion – go here.
First stop was the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights and the oldest house in Manhattan. This house is about 20 blocks north of Hamilton Grange. The bus or subway leaves you off on Amsterdam Avenue. Right next to the C-Town grocery store is a stone wall and then steps going up to Sylvan Terrace. Sylvan Terrace is bordered on each side by 19th century wooden row houses. The street used to be the carriage path leading up to the Morris-Jumel Mansion. The homes were built in the early 1880s and had fallen into disrepair by the 1960s. They had been painted different colors and covered with aluminum siding. And the cobblestone street had been paved over. In 1970 an historic district was created and money allocated to repair the homes (with no contribution from the home owners necessary). By 1981 the homes were all restored to their original appearance.
The entire area around the mansion is the Jumel Terrace Historic District.
The entrance to the Morris-Jumel Mansion is surrounded by gardens, which are free. There was artwork right outside the mansion.
It does cost $10 to go inside the mansion. You have to ring the bell because the greeter is also the only person in the store. The tour is self-guided.
You enter a large room and there’s parlor to the left of you and dining room to the right. A smaller room serves as the museum store. The back wing is an octagon, which were the first octagon rooms built in the colonies. There was no furniture in the back rooms on either the first or second floors. The second floor room served as General George Washington’s headquarters during the Battle of Harlem Heights (don’t know if Hamilton was with him at that time). The mansion was originally built as a summer villa by British Colonel Roger Morris and his American wife Mary Philipse in 1765 and had views of all of Manhattan and the Harlem and Hudson Rivers. Once the war started the Morrises fled to England and lost the home after the war since they were British loyalists. The house was used by the British military after Washington’s army abandoned Manhattan. In 1790, Washington held a cabinet dinner at the mansion so Hamilton was there along with Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. Wealthy French émigré Stephen Jumel and his wife American Eliza Bowen bought the mansion in 1810. Bowen had grown up poor but became wealthy because she was a smart businesswoman. When Jumel’s business was not doing well, Bowen bought, sold, and rented land downtown, which yielded large profits. Jumel died in 1832 and Madame Jumel married Aaron Burr one year later. She filed for divorce four months after that but it was not granted until 1836 (coincidentally on the date of Burr’s death). The reason for the quick separation is because Burr was losing her money in bad land speculations. Madame Jumel died one of the wealthiest women in the US in 1865. In 1904 the mansion was purchased by the City of New York and is now part of the NYC Parks Department. Most recently, the house was sometimes used by Lin-Manuel Miranda as a place to write part of Hamilton: An American Musical.
Dining room – the Washington cabinet dinner was actually held al fresco.
Front parlor where Eliza Jumel married Aaron Burr with portraits of Bowen Jumel and Burr.
Kitchen downstairs. There were tents set up on the grounds for some affair happening that evening. In the kitchen, sodas and dry goods were stacked for the party along with a menu taped to the wall. I don’t think they were using this kitchen, though.
Oven inside the fireplace:
When I first hit the top of the stairs and I started towards Washington’s war office, I glanced behind me and almost shrieked.
I was not expecting these huge people in Madame Jumel’s bedchamber. They were part of an art installation called Contemporary Meets Colonial in which textile artists have created pieces that connect the mansion with the African-American experience. Here artist Sara Bunn has created an installation that represents people from Seneca Village including Anne Northup, who was Madame Jumel’s cook.
The octagonal back room upstairs was Washington’s war room. They’re fixing up the room – at least I hope that orange color is just some kind of base color. Because of the renovations there was no furniture in the room.
Sherlock Holmes hanging out in an upstairs office.
The Jumels adopted their niece Mary Bowen. Her bedroom was upstairs with the others.
There were displays of the history of wallpaper and how wallpaper was used throughout the house.
Aaron Burr’s bedchamber. The secrétaire à abattant was Burr’s (which I didn’t get a good photo of, of course) on loan from the Museum of the City of New York. The furniture in the house was a mixture of period furniture and originals to the home.
In Burr’s bedchamber was another art installation called Be/Coming – the woman who transforms her African identity, while at the same time rebuilding and crafting an American one. The artist is LaShawnda Crowe Storm.
Madame Jumel’s bedchamber.
Next stop was the New York Historical Society, which is across from Central Park and right near the entrance for Shakespeare in the Park. Outside the front entrance is a statue of Abraham Lincoln. Outside the side entrance is a statue of Frederick Douglass. I know Douglass has a history with NYC but I don’t think of Lincoln and NYC except for the Cooper Union Speech. Starting July 4th will be the Summer of Hamilton at the NY Historical Society when there will be exhibits, films, and other activities. I thought the $20 admission was steep but I figured there would be enough Hamilton/Burr stuff to keep me happy and there was.
Right at the entrance are the Hamilton/Burr dueling statues. Hamilton is wearing his glasses. There are labels on some pieces that it is okay to photograph. Other exhibits didn’t have notes so I wasn’t sure and didn’t take photos.
There are displays of items from NYC colonial times. A huge stone that had marked the place where A. Ham was shot in Weehawken, reproductions of the dueling pistols, portraits of A. Burr and daughter Theodosia, Burr’s death mask, an engraving of Hamilton during the war, and the Reynolds Pamphlet are among the items on display. Another interesting piece was a stone marker from the Bronx (16 miles to NYC, which meant City Hall). Small shackles called bilboes meant for a slave baby or small child were heartbreaking to look at. They were so tiny. I noticed lit circles of glass on the floor that were items recovered from excavations in downtown Manhattan. There was a rum bottle, tobacco pipes, oyster shell, military buttons, arrowheads, and shards of ceramics. I was looking at a crushed and broken desk clock that had stopped at 9:04 and I was thinking it looked very modern and when I saw the label it stopped me cold – the clock had been recovered from the WTC after 9/11.
The rest of the NYC history on the first floor dealt with slavery and civil rights, the labor movement, and the suffragettes. There was a ceiling mural of Keith Haring’s.
Upstairs was a stage curtain, which was Picasso’s first work painted for the ballet Le Tricorne. He also designed the sets and costumes. Unfortunately I couldn’t enter the room because it was set up for some event. But I could see the curtain through the glass doors and it was quite striking. I just couldn’t see the other related works in the room.
One room was devoted to the Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems, who started on Sesame Street and who bored me. The exhibit was geared to children.
There was a wall of Audubon watercolors and their corresponding pattern prints with Audubon’s corrections. Opposite that were Objects That Tell Stories. There was an old sewing machine, rotary knife cleaner, needle cleaner, millstone, drum musket, adult slave shackles, and a roundabout chair. The chair was used by the upper classes to relieve themselves. You lifted the cushion and there is a hole with a pot underneath. Servants or slaves emptied the pots and they had to relieve themselves in outhouses or fields as did the working classes.
Next to the library was a room devoted to Anti-Semitism 1919-1939. This was another difficult exhibit to look at. It started with an announcement of the Versailles Peace Treaty that had Hitler’s handwritten notes in the corner (translated) and a copy of Mein Kampf inscribed by Hitler to his ghost-writer’s mother. There were also notes from his speeches. But most of the exhibit was just everyday items – signs prohibiting Jews, ashtrays, comics, postcards and newspapers using ugly Jewish caricatures. There were also Jewish ID cards and passports.
Downstairs again and I explored the Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman. Elie was an avant-garde sculptor and he and his wife collected folk art and created a museum upstate NY, which had to close and the art is now owned by the NY Historical Society. I confess I’m not a big fan of folk art but there were some pieces that I liked. I did like Elie’s work. And the old toys made me happy – I especially loved the mechanical banks because I remember seeing them several times on a children’s TV show when I was a kid and always wanting one of those old banks. The quilts were also very pretty.
Elie Nadelman’s (1882-1946) work:
Wig box (if I remember correctly):
Boxes (1700-1800, 1800-50, and 1800-50)
Cow creamers – American (1850-60) and English (1800-20)
Needle cases (1800s)
Fire engine condenser cases (1832-42 and 1830):
Child’s walker (1900-50):
These 19th century face jugs (1860-80) made by African-American potters in South Carolina were first thought to be racist statements or whimsies but are now believed to be ritual vessels for the blacks in the Edgefield District. They’re thought to be linked to the Kongo ritual of “conjure” and are used to store magical materials for the shaman. Kaolin clay, used for the eyes and teeth, is a material traditionally considered magical in West Africa.
Sprouted pitcher by Clarkson Crolius, Sr. (1798) Crolius’ German grandfather established the city’s first stoneware pottery around 1718. There are many pieces with the Crolius stamp but this is the only surviving piece with Clarkson’s signature.
Tammany Hall mechanical bank (1873):
Butter print (1825-75):
Cake print of America’s favorite fighting Frenchman – Lafayette! (1824-25 or 1834):
Leaving out the side I caught sight of the Tiffany Gallery Preview (the new gallery of Tiffany lamps will open in 2017). There were a few lamps on display – all very pretty and intense with their imagery in the glass and in the base.
I still had time plus I needed to eat. I didn’t go to the Society’s café – it just didn’t look appealing to me. I walked over to Columbus Avenue and passed by Shake Shack, which was too crowded. Café Frida turned out to be a really good Mexican restaurant across from the American Museum of Natural History. I had two of the specials – grilled octopus with a delicious smoky mole and a shrimp tamal. For dessert I chose two savory sides that were also sweet – sweet corn soufflé, which was like cornbread with sweet corn inside and platanos maduros, which are caramelized ripe plantains.
By Carene Lydia Lopez