Beyond George Washington

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts

Fig. 1. The Morris-Jumel Mansion, originally called Mount Morris, was commissioned by Roger Morris (1717–1794) in 1765 on 130 acres spanning the width of Manhattan between what is today 161st and 183rd Streets. Except as noted, the images courtesy of the Morris-Jumel Mansion.

The Morris-Jumel Mansion holds the distinction of being Manhattan’s oldest extant house and one of New York City’s oldest museums. Witness to 251 years of history and perched on Manhattan’s second- highest natural landform, the house stands as a testament to eighteenth-century design, nineteenth-century high-style interior decoration, and twenty-first-century preservation. Operating as a private nonprofit museum, the house is owned by New York City, under the auspices of the Historic House Trust and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Over the last two years, the museum has made a concerted effort to examine and assess the permanent collection, its interpretation, and the place the museum holds in the community—all with the goal of transforming it into one of New York’s leading American art institutions. This new vision is guided by an ambitious five-year reinterpretation plan, begun in January 2016, with the first phase completed in December 2016.

Fig. 2. This portrait miniature of Roger Morris is a copy painted by his great-great-granddaughter Marjorie Beverly Sanders (1940–) after an original that
descended in the family to Joanna (Morris) White.

A year after retiring from the British Army in 1764, Colonel Roger Morris (Fig. 2), the son of a London-based architect, purchased 130 acres—bounded by what is today approximately 161st and 183rd Streets and spanning the width of Manhattan—that had once been owned by the Dyckmans, a wealthy and influential Dutch family. He immediately began to develop a design for and commissioned the building of a summer house, Mount Morris, which rose atop an immense hill of Manhattan schist (see Fig. 3). Up until this point Morris and his wife, Mary Philipse Morris, had been living in their Manhattan town house and summering at her family’s estate in Yonkers.

Mount Morris was constructed with oak framing and outer walls of wooden planking on the southern and eastern facades—the sides arriving guests would see—and less costly shingles on the others, and quoining on all the corners. The design inspiration lies in the Georgian-Palladian style, and current scholarship suggests that Morris based it on his father’s designs, including that for Marble Hill House in London. The most unusual architectural feature is the octagonal drawing room (see Figs. 1c, 7), thought to be the first of its kind in America. The house was considered grand and lavish for its day, with unusually large and spacious hallways, ample rooms, and a plethora of windows to take advantage of the breezes. It was surrounded by gardens, orchards, and farmland, and even had a dock that provided for ease of travel from Manhattan to the Philipse family estate upriver.

Fig. 3. Bird’s-eye view of the Morris-Jumel Mansion in a 1936 photograph by Arnold Moses for the Historic American Buildings Survey, from its site overlooking Manhattan. Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.

The idyllic life at Mount Morris was cut short by the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Owing to its strategic military location, providing an unparalleled vantage point of Manhattan topography, the house saw all sides of the conflict, and is remembered today as the only surviving headquarters of George Washington on the island of Manhattan. Following the American victory in the Battle of Harlem Heights, the British seized New York, compelling Washington to escape across the Harlem River, never to return to New York until after the war. British General Sir Henry Clinton then occupied the house, followed by his Hessian allies under Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen. At the close of the war, in 1783, the house and surrounding land were sold as confiscated property of the Loyalist Morrises.

Fig. 4. Entrance hall. Mayo photograph.

From then until 1810 the house served as a tavern and farm building. During this lengthy period, the sole event of note occurred in July 1790, when Washington, then the president, gave a well-documented dinner party for members of his first cabinet and their families—including Abigail and John Adams, Eliza and Alexander Hamilton, Henry Knox, and Thomas Jefferson. Recent scholarship suggests that the approximately thirty guests were served in the gardens surrounding the house and that the interior was used for food preparation and the various needs of the guests after a long journey to the country.1

The next major, and perhaps most influential, owners were Eliza and Stephen Jumel, who purchased the house and land in 1810. Ostracized socially, in all likelihood due to his standing as a newly arrived merchant and her poor beginnings, the Jumels’ purchase was possibly an attempt to propel them into the social spotlight. Much of the museum’s collection dates to their years in residence. A French native, Stephen Jumel became one of the wealthiest men in New York City. He and, particularly, his wife took great pains to restore the house—derelict for almost twenty years—to its former glory, and to embellish it in the height of early nineteenth-century fashion. It appears that they expanded the porch and balcony under the portico to their current size, altered the entrance portal, added the stained-glass rondelles on all the sidelights, fanlights, and the Palladian window on the second floor, and painted the exterior white—with the exception of the portico ceiling and floor, which were painted lavender, with the signs of the zodiac emblazoned across the front porch floor.

Fig. 5. Madame Jumel and Her Grandchildren by Alcide de Ercole, 1854. Oil on canvas, 10 by 6 feet.

Shortly after purchasing the house, the Jumels adopted Madame Jumel’s niece Mary Bowen, who married Nelson Chase in 1825. Stephen Jumel died in 1832, leaving Eliza one of the richest widows in New York, compounding her own wealth as one of the first female landowners and real-estate speculators in the United States. In 1833 she married former vice president Aaron Burr, nearly twenty years her senior, who could bring her entrée into a level of society formerly closed to her. But the union seemed ill-fated from the beginning and ended in divorce less than three years later—ironically, on the same day Burr died. In the meantime, Mary Bowen Chase had had two children, Eliza and William Chase, who, upon their mother’s death went to live with their grandmother. By 1862 young Eliza was married and Madame Jumel had broken with William after an argument. From then until her death in 1865, she lived alone in the house, having mostly withdrawn from the social sphere she once craved.

Fig. 6. Entrance hall in a photograph of 1887 by the Pach Brothers Studio, with Madame Jumel’s portrait with her grandchildren.

Eliza Jumel Chase Perry Caryl became mistress of the mansion in 1879 and initiated an extensive redecorating campaign.2 She slowly sold off many of her grandmother’s paintings and possessions, as well as the surrounding land, and eventually sold the house to Louis Le Prince, a photographer and early filmmaker. Le Prince disappeared mysteriously in 1890, shortly before he was to screen one of the first moving pictures ever filmed. After he was declared dead in 1897, the family sold the house to its last private owners, Mary and Ferdinand Earle, who sold it to the City of New York in 1903. This purchase was encouraged by the Daughters of the American Revolution, who three years later were given control of the house by the New York City Parks Department to open and operate as a museum focusing on George Washington and New York’s role in the Revolutionary War.

Fig. 7. The Octagon Room is believed to be the earliest room of its kind in the United States. Mayo photograph.

While this interpretation made historical sense, a collection to support it was sorely lacking. Thus, in assessing the current architectural configuration of the house and the strengths of the collection, the museum’s board of trustees, led by the Collections Committee, decided to reexamine the interpretation, resulting in a five-year plan that will translate into a more complete narrative and reinstallation. An important aspect in considering both exterior and interior changes made over the years was photographic documentation, including images dating from as early as 1864. These, together with written material and physical evidence, helped direct the interpretation, and led to discoveries about specific pieces of furniture in the collection and the creation of a list of desired acquisitions to enhance the installation. In developing the five-year plan and executing it, the staff has worked closely with several consultants, led by James W. Tottis, who joined the project after working for the Museum of the City of New York and the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Fig. 8. Chair attributed to Duncan Phyfe (1770 –1854), c. 1825.
Ebonized and gilt wood; height 32, width 18 ¼, depth 16 3/4 inches. Bequest of John Juhring; Mayo photograph.

Numerous decisions were made regarding the interior and the exterior in order to have them best reflect the architecture of the house and the two families most identified with it. For example, the eventual repainting of the exterior will reflect the Morris era: the main body of the building will be a period-appropriate buff tone; the quoining, window surrounds, columns, and trim will be a Spanish brown; and the shutters will be dark green. The expanded porch and balcony beneath the portico will be retained, with various elementsaccented (see Figs 1a, 1b) as they would have been during the Jumel period. Exterior restoration work has already begun with the removal of several late twentieth-century interpretations of nineteenth-century widow’s walks and decorative railings that were not representative of the original architecture—and were also responsible for several leaks in the roof.

On entering the house visitors are greeted by the portrait of Eliza Jumel with her grandchildren William and Eliza Chase, commissioned by Madame Jumel from Alcide de Ercole, and now returned to its original location in the entrance hall (Figs. 5, 6). Recent conservation of the painting has revealed such details as Eliza Chase’s black headband, the textures and sheen of fabrics, a small burst of light behind each of the figures, and decorative elements in the Persian rug. Across from the painting hangs a portrait of Wilhelm von Hesse, who was stationed with his troops nearby when Lieutenant General von Knyphausen was garrisoned in the house in the 1780s (Fig. 13). Beneath it is a New York sofa of about 1820 with re-created original gilding and verd antique finishes, and the original profile for the upholstery with period-appropriate silk fabric. The wallpaper in the hallway was selected specifically from an 1825 letter from Eliza Jumel to her husband detailing the pattern and color she desired. With stonework, columns, and trompe-l’oeil putti on the frieze, it was intended to make guests feel as if they had stepped into an ancient Greek or Roman temple, as was the fashion of the period.

The entrance hall leads into the octagonal drawing room (Fig. 7), the reinterpretation of which also draws from Madame Jumel’s 1825 letter and decorating campaign. The impression of walking through a gray temple into a room covered with clouds on a blue field brings a suggestion of the outdoors into the room.4 Both papers were printed by Zuber & Cie in France for the museum; the original 1820s wood blocks for the gray stone pattern still existed, but those for the cloud pattern were custom cut for this project. The fireplace has been outfitted with a pair of French candelabra of about 1820 (see Fig. 9), along with andirons and other period metalwork. Taking pride of place is a suite of furniture attributed to Duncan Phyfe that research revealed was designed specially for the room about 1825. The museum retains all twelve chairs (see Fig. 8), one of two sofas and one of two pier tables originally in the suite, which also included a center table. Close examination of a portrait of Eliza Jumel believed to have been painted on her marriage to Aaron Burr revealed that she was seated on one of the sofas, then upholstered with a deep red fabric (Fig. 10).5 Draperies reflective of the period were created with similar fabric and will be paired with a custom-woven carpet based on an 1827 painting of a New York interior.

Fig. 9. Candelabra, French, c. 1820. Brass and gilt bronze, height 20 inches. Gift of Christian Jussel; Mayo photograph.

With the adoption of the five-year plan, the board of trustees committed to the development of exhibitions that draw on the holdings within the museum’s collection. The gallery on the second floor has been transformed into a special exhibition space, adjacent to which is a new archival gallery. The two galleries will be used to showcase six temporary exhibitions each year, a plan intended to challenge the idea that a historic house is static by bringing visitors back frequently for new and exciting encounters. We will also continue to show contemporary art that works in concert with the historic collections and architecture, such as Colonial Arrangements, a recent exhibition of the acclaimed textile artist Yinka Shonibare.

Fig. 10. Eliza Jumel, artist unknown, 1833. Oil on canvas, 36 by 24 inches. Gift of Mrs. Nancy Iredale; Mayo photograph.

The last room included in the first phase of the reinstallation is George Washington’s War Room. Formerly thought to be Washington’s bedroom, according to new research, this space began life as an eighteenth-century informal parlor or sitting room and was never used as a bedroom. It is believed that Washington used it as his office, capitalizing on the 270-degree view from the many windows. The museum took the opportunity to reinterpret the parlor to the eighteenth century—selecting a wallpaper pattern called Dashwood that dates to about 1770 and painting the trim a the historically appropriate persimmon (see Fig. 11).6 These bold color choices were made to create awareness of the vivid palette of mid-eighteenth-century America. Among the objects in the room is a chest of drawers acquired by Madame Jumel that new scholarship indicates was originally part of an eighteenth-century high chest of drawers. With the help of conservators, the chest of drawers is now housed in the “ghost” of a top and bottom of a Philadelphia high chest of drawers, giving visitors a sense of the original piece of furniture.

Restoration is under way in the dining room, which contains another innovative architectural feature: a serving alcove thought to be unique to New York architecture of this period (see Fig. 12). The dining room was recently wallpapered with another documented pattern from Zuber called Draped Cone.7 Surprisingly modern in appearance, the pattern dates to 1825 and would have been the height of fashion when Madame Jumel selected papers for the 1825 to 1827 redecoration of the house. Period appropriate draperies will be fabricated in the yellow-on-yellow stripe used on the New York sofa in the entrance hall. The furniture will reflect Madame Jumel’s grand taste, the centerpiece being a rare tilt-top saber-leg table she is known to have owned (Fig. 12).

Fig. 11. The restoration of the George Washington War Room included the bold mid-eighteenth-century persimmon paint color on the trim. The Dashwood wallpaper from Zuber & Cie was designed c. 1770. Mayo photograph.

Looking forward, 2017 will comprise the third phase of the restoration, which will include Madame Jumel’s bedroom, where the museum has found fragments of the wallpaper of circa 1825, a bright yellow floral that again seems more at home in the modern era. It will harmonize with the classical furniture she acquired, including her mahogany bed with swan tester and appropriate bed hangings. The other room slated for reinterpretation this year is the French Parlor, where Madame Jumel and Burr were married. This room will include furniture upholstered in a reproduction of the original silk case fabrics discovered on one of the chairs (see Fig. 14) that the Jumels purchased in France about 1820, along with new wallpaper with a pattern documented to about the same time, and selected to accompany draperies recently created for the museum.

The final two phases—to be completed by 2019–2020—will include Burr’s bedroom, the kitchen (located in the basement of the house), and William Chase’s bedroom on the second floor. The main reinterpretation of those three spaces will be Chase’s bedroom—a choice made to depict the life of a young boy in 1845. It also allows the museum to showcase a recent gift of two Meeks Gothic revival chairs.

Fig. 12. The dining room features a rare early serving alcove on one side. The tilt-top New York mahogany table, c. 1810 –1830, was owned by Madame Jumel. The New York chairs, c. 1825 –1835, are on loan from the King Manor Museum, in Queens, New York. Mayo photograph.

The museum plan addresses both appropriate reinterpretation of the rooms and the holistic visitor experience. Toward the latter end, we have unobtrusively brought in information technology that includes interactive touch-screen tablet stations in each room and at three kiosks around the house, providing details about individual objects as well as about the history and architecture of the mansion. The museum is also adding theme-based tours. Lastly, we are placing great emphasis on creating programming that honors the history and mission of the museum while also bringing offerings more in line with contemporary society. In any given month, there might be a lecture about historic wallpaper, an interactive theatrical production, a jazz or baroque music concert, a paranormal investigation, or family arts workshops.

At the Morris-Jumel Mansion we strive to remind the visitor that the lives of both a house and a museum are dynamic. Time, research, and collaboration result in new discoveries that are being made every day. It is the job of the museum to create an interpretation that is the most accurate based on the information at hand and to embrace those discoveries readily as they are made. Recently the museum has adopted the motto “There’s always something new at Manhattan’s oldest house,” and that has never been more true or exciting than it is now.

Fig. 13. Wilhelm von Hesse, artist unknown, 1778. Oil on canvas, 60 by 36 inches. Gift of the Romanoff Caviar Company.

The Morris-Jumel Mansion is indebted to all the conservators and consultants who have assisted with the various aspects of the first two phases of the five-year reinterpretation plan. Conservators include: Carolyn Tomkiewicz for her work on Eliza Jumel and Her Grandchildren and Wilhelm Von Hesse; Olaf Unsoeld of Fine Wood Conservation for all furniture conservation; Eric Michael Tollefson for frame creation; Giovanni Bucchi of Ennio Restoration for his gilding work; Christina Krumrine for the work on all metal objects; and Bruno Paulin-Lopez for the creation of period appropriate draperies and upholstery. All period appropriate wallpaper patterns and fabrics were acquired through Catherine Buscemi of Belfry Historic Consultants. The installation of the wallpapers, along with painting and faux finishes creation were completed by Mike McMath of FauxPlay Decorative Painting. All exhibition furniture, barriers, and visitor interpretation mounts throughout the museum were designed by Dardenne Design and created by Museum Services and Products. The lighting for the exhibition galleries was designed by Maxwell Deutsch. The board of trustees of the museum led the decisionmaking processes concerning the reinterpretation plan and execution.

1 Archival evidence recently found in the Morris-Jumel Mansion’s collection describes the large scale of the party, which combined with other new scholarship and the time of year, leads the staff to believe the dinner was held outside. New discoveries are being made on a regular basis, and all new findings are entered into the museum’s archives to provide the most accurate information possible for future reference. 2 This is documented in a series of photographs Caryl commissioned from the Pach Brothers, photographers working in New York in 1887. 3 “For the vestibule I would like 24 or 30 rolls of gray, and 14 rolls of clear blue with clouds for the far end.” Madame Jumel to Stephen Jumel, December 1, 1826, Archives of the Morris-Jumel Mansion. 4 Wallpaper pattern based on a sample found in the collection of the Musée du Papier Peint in Rixheim, France. 5 For more information see the curatorial files discussing the conservation and reconfiguration of under-upholstery. During the conservation all under-upholstery of the chairs and sofa was discovered intact. Bruno Paulin-Lopez went to great lengths to restore the original materials to their intended profile. 6 The wallpaper pattern was selected based on recent discoveries in a private English country house of the same date as Mount Morris. The trim color is based on evidence found at Whitby Hall, c. 1754, in Philadelphia (architectural elements of Whitby Hall with original paint fragments are in the Detroit Institute of Arts).7 Wallpaper pattern based on sample found at the Hotel Dewez, Brussels, c. 1825.

CAROL WARD is the director of the Morris-Jumel Mansion.