The lordly Morris-Jumel Mansion, high on a bluff in northern Manhattan, enjoys a checkered history. Coveted during the American Revolution as a key command post, it later felt the breath of social scandal.
The house was built as a Palladian villa in 1765 by a British colonel, Roger Morris, who may have been its designer (his father was a well-known English architect) and who strove for elegance. A felicitous two-story portico ennobles the front, an octagonal extension (the first in America) projects from the back, and the wood siding is scored to resemble masonry; within, the rooms are grandly proportioned.
From the house Morris could view not only his whole 130-acre estate but the entire New York Harbor miles away and parts of New Jersey and Connecticut. Loyal to his monarch, however, the colonel fled the colonies as war approached, and in 1776 George Washington took over the house as his headquarters as he struggled unsuccessfully to defend New York. The octagonal drawing room was the scene of courts-martial, and on the night of September 28, 1776, with lower Manhattan lost to the enemy, the general stood on the porch and watched a calamitous fire wipe out much of the city. After he too had departed, the house was occupied by Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in New York, and later by the Hessian leader Baron Wilhelm von Knyphausen.
At the war’s end the American government took over the house, and for a while it served as a tavern, called Calumet Hall, that was frequented by travelers on the Albany Post Road. One evening in 1790 Washington, now President, returned for a sentimental dinner accompanied by Vice President John Adams, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and their wives.
A new chapter began in 1810, when the mansion was purchased by Stephen Jumel, a wealthy French merchant and shipowner, whose wife, Eliza, was unusual, to say the least. Beautiful, brilliant, the daughter of an impoverished family from Providence, Rhode Island, she had been Jumel’s mistress and was said to have worked as a prostitute. New York society rejected her. Unfazed, the Jumels lavishly redecorated and refurbished the house in high French Empire style, importing many objects from Paris, including a bed reputed to have belonged to Napoleon. Stephen Jumel died in 1832 after a carriage accident, and the following year Eliza, now fifty-nine, and the “richest widow in America,” further thumbed her nose at society by marrying, in the front parlor, the disgraced former U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr, age seventy-seven. The liaison failed after six months, and they were divorced; Eliza lived on in the mansion while becoming steadily more eccentric. She sometimes traveled in Europe calling herself “Madame Burr, ex vice-Queen of America.”
After her death in 1865 the estate was long tied up in litigation, but in 1904 a subsequent owner, Mrs. Ferdinand P. Earle, persuaded the City of New York to buy the property (whose acreage had by then been greatly reduced) and operate the house as a museum. The city agreed, entrusting maintenance and operation to a newly formed local organization called the Washington Headquarters Association. Fine pieces of furniture and other objects had been auctioned off during the lengthy estate dispute, but in recent years many of these have been located and reacquired, most notably three large gilded wooden wings that Eliza Jumel seems to have believed were Napoleon’s and that in the interim had been in the possession of none other than Adm. Richard E. Byrd, the polar explorer. Such bizarre items abound in the mansion, which is currently undergoing an extensive renovation. Today, despite the advent of some tall buildings nearby, the view from the porch where George Washington stood is still impressive. Under any circumstances the house is one of New York’s most striking monuments.