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Old Mansions Of The West Bronx 

  by Randall Comfort
 
 

The Briggs Mansion

The startling plan to fill up the Harlem River in order to make more space for the city's expansion, was never fulfilled. It still ebbs and flows. Close to its shores, at 146th Street, rises the white and stately Briggs Mansion, so styled after Captain Briggs, whose family for thirty-five years made it their home.

Previous to this it was the residence of Captain Francis, inventor of the metallic life-boat. A son of the Captain, visiting the old structure a quarter of a century ago, told the interesting tale how Queen Victoria offered his father knighthood in recognition of his services to the world. As a true American, the Captain refused. Later, he received a medal expressing the thanks of the American Congress.

The fine old mansion stands forth a striking landmark to all, far and near. Its roof is of similar material and made in the same manner as the life-saving boats. The old nails used in its construction are all hand-wrought. Down in the basement, the ancient Dutch oven is still very much in existence.

Last but not least, the old fence still remains on the south side which was designed and studied out with mathematical exactness by Captain Francis himself. The William H. Morris Mansion

Nothing but a foundation remains to mark the site of the solid William H. Morris Mansion, whose stone walls stood ever since 1816 on the high ground at 167th street and Teller Avenue, overlooking the peaceful valley where once flowed the tortuous Mill Brook. To the east was the old Morrisania Station of the Harlem Railroad, while toward the south lay the broad acres of that well-known rendezvous of all lovers of the turf, Fleetwood Park.

A remarkable phenomenon presented itself in the hall of this great abode, there were no stairs! Broad and commodious as the hallway was, and extending from side to side, it was not until a small door was opened, apparently leading into a small side room, that the main stairway was disclosed, wending its winding way above. The owner evidently took no chances with possible nocturnal visitors of the early days.

Where Mill Brook wound through Tremont's vales, a pile of stones lay nearby its course, marking the site of the home in former days of the celebrated Charlotte Temple. "Ah, Charlotte, Charlotte, the tears that have been shed over thy fate would easily form another such rivulet."

The Zborowski Mansion

One of the best preserved as well as finest located old houses in the entire borough is the grand Zborowski Mansion, in the high ground of glorious Claremont Park, overlooking the thickly settled region below. This vast estate was secured by the early owner, Martin Zborowski, from the Morris family through his marriage with Miss Ann Morris.

The charming Zborowski Mansion, now the busy headquarters of the Bronx Borough Department of Parks, was erected in 1859, the date being clearly emblazoned on the walls in figures of purest white. The second date, 1676, marks the year in which Lewis Morris received the patent of this land from that early official, Governor Andros. The velvety lawns, the giant trees, the magnificent view, all unite in praising the marvelous judgment used in Mr. Zborowski's selection of a home.

A short distance to the west, and formerly in the densest woods, is the location of a veritable freak of nature, the mysterious Black Swamp, in whose dreaded and notorious waters, feared since the days of the Indians, so many blooded cattle have met their death. For the longest time this marsh defied all efforts to fill it up. Thousands of tons of earth and rock would be dumped into its deep maw. Success was apparently in sight, but when next day dawned all would have disappeared as if by magic, leaving only the dark waters in sight, smiling in the morning sun. Human persistence, backed by more thousands of tons of material, at last proved triumphant, and now Morris Avenue reigns supreme.

The Old Bathgate Homestead

From Claremont Park, the broad Claremont Parkway leads directly into the leafy wilderness of Crotona Park, whose one hundred and fifty acres were once the extensive Bathgate farm. A long time ago, a Scotchman named Alexander Bathgate came to America and became overseer for Gouverneur Morris. Not many years passed before his Scotch thrift enabled him to become the owner of a considerable portion of his late employer's estate, which he developed as a prosperous farm. While the surrounding section was cut up into city lots with city taxes and assessments, the Bathgate tract still existed as a regular farm in every sense of the word.

On the west side of Third Avenue, just below Claremont Parkway, stood the old Bathgate residence, the latter highway directly piercing the Bathgate barnyard. Third Avenue, then known as Fordham Avenue, was but a narrow farm lane.

As a final scene in the play, in stepped the City of New York and purchased the major portion of the Bathgate farm, and today Crotona Park, with its sloping fields, dense woods and popular Indian Pond, owes its existence to the Bathgate's' desire for farming.

We learn that it was the original intention of the Commission of the new Bronx parks to name this one "Bathgate Park," but owing to an exciting dispute with the Commission's chief engineer, the name Crotona was chosen, manufactured from the word Croton.

James Bathgate, brother of Alexander, purchased his farm near Kingsbridge Road just east of Fordham Heights. In 1866 this became the much patronized Jerome Park, so much sought by every lover of good horse-racing. Today the vast Jerome Park Reservoir covers Mr. Bathgate's pastures with its rippling waters of perfect blue, while seagulls fly in swarms over the site of the Bathgate Mansion of other days.
The De Voe Residence

Old Highbridgeville may well boast of a splendid relic of the early days, the old De Voe Residence on Jessup Avenue, erected in 1804. The section in which the old house stands, with its quaint low-ceiled dining-room and still lower ceiled kitchen, has been in the possession of the family ever since 1694. The family is of old Huguenot origin, the name being originally spelled De Veaux.

Just above the De Voe residence, Featherbed Lane still winds as crooked as ever. Whether it owes its name to the story that the farmers' wives enabled the Americans to escape by spreading all their feather beds down on its stony surface, or whether it was once so rough that feather beds were needed at all times to enable travelers to proceed, will probably forever be an unsolved riddle.

The Rose Hill Manor Houses

On the side, the De Voe family traces its descent back to the celebrated Andrew Corswa, the last of the noted Westchester Guides of Revolutionary days. Corswa was born in 1762 at Rose Hill, now embraced in the beautiful grounds of Saint John's College, Fordham.

The youngest of all the Westchester Guides, he was the last to die. Intimately acquainted with every inch of the section around Morrisania, Fordham and Kingsbridge, his services were extensively sought by the generals of the Revolution. While guiding Washington and Rochambeau through the lower portion of this borough, the British artillery suddenly opened fire from Randall's Island, from their batteries at Harlem and from their men-of-war in the river, all at the same moment. Galloping his horse at full speed, he sought shelter behind the old Morrisania mill. Glancing back, he spied the allied generals entirely undisturbed by the terrific cannononade, and he at once dashed back to their side, to be received with peals of laughter, and by a very cordial welcome.

The old Rose Hill Manor House was erected about 1692 and was used as the college infirmary until its demolition, a few years ago. The new Rose Hill Manor House still stands in full view of the elevated trains, an ancient stone structure, with tall, tower-like cupola, sandwiched in between two large college buildings. It was constructed in 1838, and today is used as administration building for the college which is now styled Fordham University.

The Poe Cottage

Fordham's famous Poe Cottage has been the Mecca for many thousands of tourists. Its new location at the northern end of attractive Poe Park assures its existence for ages to come.

The year 1846 saw Poe and his wife and mother-in-law move to this "Dutch Cottage," and in its tiny rooms he composed many of his celebrated poems, including "Ulalume," "Eureka," "For Annie," and "Annabel Lee." For years the old cherry tree, into whose branches he so often climbed to throw down the juicy fruit to his wife below, was a landmark of the region.

We read that: "The tiny cottage had an air of taste and gentility that must have been lent to it by the very presence of its inmates. So neat, so poor, so unfurnished, and yet so charming a dwelling I never saw."

"His wife had come out into the fresh air to dig in the ground and to get well. But she was too thin and weak to dig." In spite of Fordham's salubrious air, poor Virginia Poe died and was for a time interred in one of the vaults of the Fordham Manor Reformed Church, a short distance to the west.

Poe's favorite pastime was to stroll through the byways of this charming neighborhood, the then new Croton Aqueduct being his favorite walk. Oftentimes he would visit Saint John's College, and join in animated conversations with the Catholic priests.'

1849 saw his departure from the small house, and yet seventy years later we find his memory as green as the blades of grass in the lovely Poe Park.

A childhood friend of mine distinctly remembered being invited with her mother to luncheon at Poe's new Fordham home. Bare and unfurnished were the rooms, and at the meal she sat on a rough box in lieu of a chair. Poe patted her on the head, called her a "nice little girl," and presented her with a carved ivory Chinese puzzle of great age, which she presented for exhibition at one of the well-known Bronx museums.

The Jacob Lorillard Mansion

At Third Avenue and 182nd Street the quaint Jacob Lorillard home is all but overshadowed by the massive buildings of Fordham's Home for Incurables, and forms the exceedingly attractive residence of the medical superintendent.

Full many years ago, on a lovely moonlight night, the old ladies then living there were surprised by the sudden appearance of a tall young man, who stopped before their astonished gazed and, taking off his hat, dramatically recited the entire poem of "The Raven" with the air of a master.

The mysterious visitor proved to be the author of the masterpiece himself, who had strolled down, enjoying the balmy beams of the full and lovely moon.

Just south of the Jacob Lorillard Mansion is the site of the Oak Tree Stump, believed to be the corner boundary for the three patents of Morrisania, Fordham and West Farms. Oak Tree Place still perpetuates the ancient name.

The Isaac Varian Homestead

When auto enthusiasts read in their Blue Books directions to proceed down Bainbridge Avenue and turn to their right at an old "stone house," in order to reach the Concourse, do they realize that the solid old structure referred to is one of the borough's best preserved historical relics?

Known as the Isaac Varian Homestead, and also as the Valentine House, it stands in the shadow of the Williamsbridge Reservoir, and dates from 1776, while an old wing, recently destroyed, was built as early as 1770. Van Cortlandt Avenue, on which it faces, is a portion of the ancient Boston Post Road, laid out in 1672.Along this Colonial highway it is said that Paul Revere dashed on horseback in 1775, bearing his momentous news to the then distant New York City.

In 1777 an encounter between the Continentals and the British took place here, the former driving their foe as far as old Fort Independence. In January, 1777, General Heath ordered a cannonade of the Isaac Varian House, if the guard should resist. Its solid stone walls look fortress-like in the extreme, as if capable of withstanding any attack save that of a 75 meter long-distance French gun!

Lying in the fields and woods near this old house in 1776 were four hundred cannons of all sizes and shapes. When the order came to get them ready for service, the fact that they had all been spiked caused the greatest dismay. Some rascals had been secretly plugging their muzzles with stones and driving files into their torch holes. Twenty shillings was the cost of having each gun made ready for service, and only eighty-two were available after two months. Two men were detected through having purchased a number of rat-tail files, and were severely punished for the offense.

Just below the old homestead, and built into the walls of the parish-house of the Church of the Nativity, are three historic old tombstones, two of the old Bussings, dated 1757, and one of the Valentine family, once owners of the old residence.

The Macomb Mansion

Up to the time of its recent destruction, the venerable Macomb Mansion was one of the most noted landmarks of the Kingsbridge section. Standing at Broadway and 230th Street, a mere shell of its once glorious self, its white walls almost brushed by the ever-passing trains of the overhead subway, it successfully defied for centuries both Time and Tide.

Incorporated into this once commodious residence was that old building erected in 1693, and once known as the "public house at the north end of the bridge," the "bridge" being the old King's Bridge built in that same year.

The stirring times of the Revolution saw the ancient abode known as Cox's Tavern, "where dainty dames in lofty headgear" danced in the quaint, old-fashioned rooms. Its walls saw Cowboy and Skinner dash across King's Bridge, bent on many a lawless foray into Westchester's dreaded Neutral Ground, and witnessed the victorious Americans marching south in triumph when the long seven years of strife were finally at an end.

Not far from the great mansion, General Washington uttered those memorable words: "The time has come for Americans to decide whether they shall be free or slaves."

General Alexander Macomb purchased the place in 1800, as a part of the vast forfeited Philipse estate, and lived in the house for many years. For a long time the Adirondacks were known as Macomb's Mountains.

In 1813 his son Robert secured a grant to erect a dam across the Harlem River on the site of the present Macomb's Dam Bridge. In later years repeated efforts were made to call this structure and its successors by the name of Central Bridge, but the old title has clung to it most tenaciously.

Edgar Allan Poe was a most frequent visitor at this great white house, as his Fordham home lay not more than a mile to the east. The famous poet was but one of the many illustrious guests so hospitably entertained in the great drawing-rooms of the immense Macomb Mansion.

The Lewis G. Morris Mansion

Standing high on the lofty ridge of Morris Heights, "Mount Fordham," the stately stone Lewis G. Morris Mansion, with its graceful arched piazza, formed one of the region's most conspicuous landmarks. Just south of the great Messiah Home for Children, this solid structure and its lofty windmill so conspicuously figured in countless lantern slides as well as on thousands of photographic plates.

Always prominent in affairs of his day, Lewis G. Morris occupied the extreme centre of the stage in his vigorous attack, in 1838, on that exasperating obstacle existing in the Harlem River, the dam erected by Mr. Macomb directly across that stream.

Morris erected a pier styled Morris Dock, some distance north of High Bridge, and chartered a vessel carrying a cargo of coal from New Jersey for delivery at his wharf. Macomb's Dam being reached at full tide, Morris demanded it to be opened for his ship to pass. Refusal being met, a hundred men suddenly appeared, who proceeded with much vehemence to tear down the obstruction until the vessel could easily pass.

A suit was at once started for damages to the ruined dam, but the decision was in Morris's favor. Later on, a higher court upheld the same view, the judge maintaining that the "Harlem River is an arm of the sea, and a public navigable river. It is therefore a public nuisance to obstruct the navigation thereof without authority of law."

The Old Hadley House

Just west of Van Cortlandt Park, a wonderfully refreshing surprise greets the eyes of the observing world. The Old Hadley House has suddenly sprung into a new lease of life by blossoming out as young and bright as it was centuries ago.

Cross the vast Parade Ground, if you can dodge between soldiers as thick as the blades of grass at your feet. Step across Broadway and the old Albany Post Road, and you will behold, highly modern in trim, this striking landmark of the past, fresh from its Ponce de Leon bath.

Half stone and half wood, this charming elderly structure can well boast of something new, because it is really old, its striking "Old Stone Room." When the house was young, its owner possessed many slaves, and slaves must sleep somewhere. Why not give them a tiny room upstairs, no matter if the rough stones of the inside walls do project far enough for them to hang their hats and coats on? It will be a slaves' wardrobe as well as a bed chamber!

"Isn't the owner proud of having such a curious old house on his land?" we asked. "No, indeed," was the reply. "He has often said he wished it was burnt down and out of his way."

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Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Old Mansions of the West Bronx  by Randall Comfort
Researcher/Transcriber: Miriam Medina

Source:

 From my collection of Books:  Valentine's Manual of Old New York No.7 New Series 1923, Edited by Henry Collins Brown Copyright: 1922 Henry Collins Brown
Time & Date Stamp:  

 

   
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