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Design Rediscovered: Morris-Jumel Mansion - Ladue News: Design

Design Rediscovered: Morris-Jumel Mansion

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Posted: Thursday, October 31, 2013 12:00 pm | Updated: 12:35 pm, Thu Oct 31, 2013.

How many times have you heard the claim, Washington slept here? Well, this time, it rings as true as the Liberty Bell! New York City’s Morris-Jumel Mansion has a storied past—one that includes war, courtesans, untimely death and high-profile divorce. 

In 1765, British colonel Roger Morris (1717-1994) and his American wife, Mary Philipse (1729-1825), built the 8,500-square-foot manse—now considered the oldest home in America—atop a hill with panoramic views. Morris, a nephew of an English architect and aficionado of the Palladian style, incorporated many of his elements into the home: An impressive portico topped with a pediment—all supported by Tuscan columns on the front of the home—clearly demonstrates the Palladian influence. At the rear of the home is an octagon-shaped morning room. The Morris family lived in the mansion only 10 years until the end of the American Revolution. Their loyalty to the crown took them back to England, which, in turn, left all of their assets in the States to be confiscated.

In 1776, Gen. George Washington used the home as his base after he and his troops lost to General William Howe in the Battle of Long Island. The home then became headquarters for the Hessian commander. It was during this period that future founding fathers and statesmen such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and John Quincy Adams dined or visited this now-historic home.

Fast-forward to 1810: John Jacob Astor, the home’s owner at the time, sold it to Stephen Jumel, a Haitian businessman who was forced to flee his homeland. Jumel purchased the home for his then-mistress and future wife, Eliza.

Eliza was born Betsey Bowen in 1769—now, there’s a story! She was born to a prostitute on a ship who died in childbirth. Her father, a sailor, then met his demise in the Providence harbor. At age 21, Betsey gave birth out of wedlock to a son, George Washington Bowen, whom she later abandoned.

Betsey moved to the big city with sailor Jacques de la Croix. Having a useful talent, she became one of the most celebrated courtesans of New York. She hit the jackpot when she met Stephen Jumel, which prompted her to reinvented herself as Madame Eliza Jumel. (How she selected the name Eliza, no one knows.)

With funds flowing in from her new husband’s coffee interests, the couple made frequent trips to France and hobnobbed with the social elite. With Napoleon as one of their ‘friends,’ the emperor’s sense of style greatly influenced Eliza as she filled her New York home with furniture, fabrics and accessories in the French-Empire style.

Alas, all good things come to an end. Poor Stephen ‘accidentally’ fell on a pitchfork and died. Some report that Eliza removed the bandages and watched him bleed to death. Who knows?

A wealthy widow always recovers quicker than a poor one. Eliza set her sights on—of all people—former vice president and one-time dueler Aaron Burr (1756-1836). In 1833, she married him in the parlor of the home she shared with Stephen Jumel, just one year his death.

Eliza wanted social standing, Burr needed money, so the union was doomed from the start. Two years later, the marriage ended in divorce—sort of. On the day of Burr’s death, the divorce papers were delivered to Eliza. She remained in the house until her death in 1865.

The last private owners of the home, Gen. and Mrs. Ferdinand Earle, persuaded the City of New York to purchase the home in 1901 for $235,000 for use as a city park. In 1907, under the direction of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the house opened as a not-for-profit museum.

For more information, visit morrisjumel.org.

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