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Beyond the Village and Back: The Morris-Jumel Mansion

In our blog series Beyond the Village and Back, we take a look at some great landmarks throughout New York City outside of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, celebrate their special histories, and reveal their (sometimes hidden) connections to our neighborhoods. Explore our Beyond the Village and Back maps too.

Standing on one of the highest points in Manhattan, the Morris-Jumel Mansion has been part of the northern Manhattan landscape for more than 250 years. Surrounded by Roger Morris Park on Edgecombe Avenue, the structure is the oldest surviving home in Manhattan and a beloved museum in Washington Heights. But it also holds interesting connections with a long-gone estate in the West Village, one of the nation’s founding fathers, and one of the young nation’s most infamous figures.

The Georgian-style Morris-Jumel Mansion was built in 1765 as a summer retreat for Roger Morris, a British colonel, and his family. The entire estate, dubbed Mount Morris, was also a working farm and covered some 135 acres between the Harlem and Hudson Rivers and today’s 155th and 165th Streets. A loyalist to the British government, Morris along with his wife Mary Phillpse and family abandoned the house at the start of the Revolutionary War.

Map showing key points in the Battle of Harlem Heights, with the Morris House near the Harlem River at right. Courtesy The Morris-Jumel Mansion

Soon enough, the home became a key part of that war. Starting on September 14, 1776, General George Washington made it his army’s temporary headquarters. The commanding views of the surrounding territory and of his troops helped give Washington an advantage in the Battle of Harlem Heights on September 16, a much-needed victory following his loss at the Battle of Brooklyn the month prior. The site served as headquarters until October 21, when Washington retreated to White Plains. 

After the war, Mount Morris was confiscated by the state, sold, and briefly became a popular tavern. In 1810, a rich French merchant named Stephen Jumel purchased the property; he and wife Eliza Bowen Jumel turned the site back into a home, adding Federal-style details like a pedimented portico with slender Doric columns. Eliza, who grew up poor, began to buy and sell land in Manhattan, eventually becoming one of the wealthiest women in the city. Stephen died following a carriage accident in 1832; Eliza then went on to marry former vice president Aaron Burr the following year, only to file for divorce in 1834. Eliza continued to live in the mansion until she died in 1865. The mansion opened as a museum in 1904.

Richmond Hill

When the Morris-Jumel Mansion was built, it was a world away from Greenwich Village, literally and figuratively, as travel by foot or on horse took quite a bit of time, and Greenwich Village was a developing suburb of New York while the hilltop mansion was in relatively isolated splendor. By 1904 when the mansion became a museum, the first subway lines were starting to connect Upper Manhattan with Lower Manhattan, and urban development had begun to transform the area around the mansion much as it had the area to the south. But the connection between this landmark mansion and Greenwich Village run much deeper than that. It starts with Richmond Hill, the former mansion that stood near what is today the intersection of Charlton and Varick Streets. It was built in 1767 by Major Abraham Mortier, paymaster for the British army in New York. That grand home was located on a 400-ft-high hill surrounded by gardens, meadows and woods, all with an impressive view of the Hudson River.

Like the Morris-Jumel Mansion, Richmond Hill served as headquarters for General Washington, but for a longer period of time — on and off from April to August 1776, just prior to the Battle of Brooklyn.

After the war, New York City was the nation’s capital, and Richmond Hill became the vice-presidential mansion and home of John Adams. In 1794, Aaron Burr bought the mansion — four decades before marrying Eliza Jumel — and made it his private home, using it for lavish parties and social gatherings. It was from here on July 11, 1804, that Burr set out for his infamous duel where he fatally wounded Alexander Hamilton. Richmond Hill was eventually bought by John Jacob Astor, placed on logs and rolled down the hill to the present-day corner of Charlton and Varick Streets, and finally razed in 1849. The mansion’s original site and property had by that time been developed into what is today the Charlton-King-VanDam Historic District.

Fortunately for us, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, where Burr lived briefly, still stands as one of “the most beautiful of our nation’s historic shrines,” the Landmarks Preservation Commission wrote in its designation report from July 12, 1967. 

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