The Oldest House in Manhattan

On Saturday I visited the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights with my friend Monica and my mentee. Built in 1765 by British Colonel Roger Morris as a summer residence for him and his American wife, Mary Philipse, the landmarked Palladian-style building is Manhattan’s oldest house. 

Notably, George Washington used the mansion as his temporary headquarters for 34 days during the Revolutionary War. Fourteen years later, Washington held his first cabinet dinner there attended by Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Below is Washington's War Room from which he monitored the movements of the British forces.

In the Morris' time, slaves and servants worked at the mansion and adjacent farm. The mannequins below are part of a temporary exhibit called "The Fabric of Emancipation" which includes fiber works by local artists inspired by the history of the mansion and the impact of colonialism on the experience of the African Diaspora today.

We were fortunate to be lead on a tour by docent Margaret A. Oppenheimer who is an art historian and author of the critically acclaimed book “The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel: A Story of Marriage and Money in the Early Republic”. Eliza Jumel was the home’s longest and most notorious resident. Born the illegitimate daughter of a prostitute, she married the wealthy French wine merchant Stephen Jumel and died one of the richest women in America. After Stephen's death, Eliza's wed former Vice President and infamous dueler Aaron Burr at the mansion. Less than a year later, Eliza filed for divorce and was represented by Alexander Hamilton's son in the proceedings.

The Jumels were Napoleon sympathizers and traveled back and forth between France and America. Accordingly, the house is furnished in the French Empire style and contains a bed that Eliza claimed was owned by Napoleon.

There is a lovely community garden behind the mansion which grows flowers, vegetables and herbs on the location of the original eighteenth century vegetable gardens.

Funny poster at the gift store:

Sylvan Terrace, a cobblestone street with 20 wooden row houses, is directly across from the mansion and part of the Morris-Jumel Historic District. The row houses were built in 1882 and originally occupied by middle-income tenants. Restored in the late 1970s by the Landmark Preservation Commission, there is currently one on the market for $1,700,000.

I highly recommend visiting the Morris-Jumel mansion and Sylvan Terrace. It was so fascinating to see where Colonial history unfolded and learn about Eliza Jumel's colorful life (I look forward to reading Oppeheimer's book). The mansion's hilltop location in Roger Morris Park feels distinctly unlike Manhattan while being just a train ride uptown.