Welcome back to Curbed Classics, a column in which writer Lisa Santoro traces the history of a classic New York City building. Have a building to nominate for a future installment? Please suggest it to the tipline.
Given Manhattan’s history of constant development and redevelopment, it is not surprising that many of its earliest buildings cease to exist. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, when historic architecture was perceived as antiquated and ill-adapted to the changing world, many buildings were lost forever. Fortunately, that fate did not befall the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum, a charming homestead overlooking the East River that's a remnant of Manhattan's colonial past.
Hidden among expansive residential buildings and parking garages, within the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge, the building sits above street level, enclosed by a stone fence. Constructed in the Federal style, the building was designed as a carriage house for the 23-acre estate belonging to Abigail Adams Smith, daughter of John Adams, and her husband Colonel William Stephens Smith, an aide to President George Washington. They named their estate in honor of George Washington’s home, but before the buildings were completed, the Smiths ran into financial trouble and were forced to sell the entire estate in 1798 to William T. Robinson, a well-to-do merchant. He completed the carriage house in 1799. Despite her never having lived there, the house still bears the name "Abigail Adams House." (It's also been called "Smith’s Folly" and "Mount Vernon on the East River.")
After the original manor house of the estate was destroyed by a fire in 1826, the carriage house and adjacent land were purchased by Joseph Coleman Hart, who renovated the building and transformed it into The Mount Vernon Hotel. Distinguished as a "country hotel," the Mount Vernon offered city dwellers a respite from the ruckus and congestion of downtown life. According to The New York Times, the American hotel was a fairly new business model, which coincided with the rise of the middle class. As a result, New Yorkers, with such professions as doctors, lawyers and accountants, had enough disposable income to frequent such day hotels as the Mount Vernon.
The Hotel was advertised as "free from the noise and dust of the public roads, and fitted up and intended for only the most genteel and respectable clientele." Such amenities offered to prospective guests were fishing in the East River and a horse-trotting course. Its dining room was renowned for "every day in season soup made from the fine green turtles fattening in a crawl made for that purpose in the East River." In the evening, a majority of guests returned home by stagecoach.
Yet despite its popularity, this hotel would only last for seven years, when the property was sold in 1833 to Jeremiah Towle. Towle and his family would reside in this home for the next 70 years, until his daughters would sell the property to the Standard Gas and Light Company in 1905. In 1919, Jane Teller, President of the Society of American Antiquarians (still active today), leased the house and opened a shop featuring antiques and colonial crafts. In 1924, the building was purchased by the Colonial Dames of New York, a sale picked up by The New York Times: "Manhattan’s oldest stone house, built in 1799 by Colonel William Stephens Smith, spared by the British Navy in the East River in the War of 1812, used intermittently as a roadhouse, residence, tenement and soup kitchen, but restored five years ago to provide a background for the sale of early American antiquities, has been sold to the Colonial Dames of America."
Under the Dames’ guidance, the building and its grounds underwent a much needed restoration, including the installation of an 18th century-inspired garden. The Dames renamed the house for Abigail Adams Smith, decorating it with furnishings from the Federal era. It operated as a museum and gathering space catering to the wealthy women of Manhattan. However, when the museum was granted accreditation in 1983, the Board of Directors chose to emphasize the history of the property when it operated as the Mount Vernon Hotel. Renamed the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden, it fittingly reflected the house’s role as a waterfront escape from 1826 through 1933.
Although the Mount Vernon Hotel failed as a business venture, its short-lived tenure has been preserved, providing visitors with a rare glimpse into 19th century life for a distinguished group of New Yorkers. Visitors can see rooms that replicate the home's ground-floor tavern and upstairs parlor; it also features American furniture of the period, decorative arts, textiles and New York-centric items of historical significance. Today, the museum offers tours for visitors and students and the house and gardens are available for private events and film production. This historical treasure is part of New York’s collection of worthy buildings as well as a vital link to New York’s colonial past—a link worthy of celebration, given its rarity.
- Mount Vernon Hotel Museum [Official]