A British writer visits a NYC resort hotel in 1829

In 1828, James Stuart, a British lawyer and politician, took a trip to the United States. He journeyed to various East Coast cities, traveled through Georgia and Alabama, then went west to Missouri and Illinois before heading back east.

In his 1833 book documenting his travels, Three Years in North America, Stuart seemed to take a liking to the young nation. He described cities and states, the customs of people he met, as well as current events of the era, such as slavery.

But it’s his stay in Manhattan that I want to focus on here, especially his time at what was then an elite riverside retreat called the Mount Vernon Hotel, at today’s 61st Street between First and York Avenues.

In the early 1800s, Mount Vernon was located far from the city, which barely existed past 14th Street. The hotel was originally built as the carriage house for the planned country estate for Abigail Adams Smith (President Adams’ daughter, below right) and her husband. After the Smiths’ fortunes dwindled, the carriage house fell into other hands and was transformed into a hotel.

Stuart and his party visited Mount Vernon after traveling by steamboat from New Haven in May 1829.

During his stay, he took note of the habits of the New Yorkers who soon surrounded him—habits that might seem familiar to contemporary city residents.

“We immediately set about obtaining a comfortable lodging-house in the neighbourhood of the city, and at length pitched our tent at Mount Vernon, about four miles from New-York, on the East River or Long Island Sound, a good house in an airy situation, from the door of which a stage went to New-York two or three times a day.”

“The house is placed upon the top of a bank, about fifty feet above the river; and the view of the river and of the gay sailing craft constantly passing, and tossed about by the eddies in every direction, is very interesting.”

Mount Vernon had first-class amenities, including a ladies parlor and a men’s tavern. Stuart noticed the hotel’s trotting course next door. He also wrote that it was the custom for people to stop into Mount Vernon from the city for “a little spirits or water or lemonade.”

Warm weather in Manhattan meant dealing with crowds. “We bargained from the beginning to have our meals in our own parlour, and had many pleasant walks for exercise in the neighboring parts of the island of Manhattan, at times when they were free from the crowds of people who came out of the city in the evenings.”

Stuart observed that in the summer, “the great mass” of New Yorkers liked to “leave the town in carriages, gigs, or on horseback, for an hour or two before sunset, which, at the longest day, is at half past seven.”

These New Yorkers “drive and ride very fast,” he noted, “and the number of carriages of all descriptions on the various outlets of the city, especially toward the beautiful parts of the island, is such as I never saw but in London or its immediate vicinity.”

Stuart remarked about the quiet East River area where Mount Vernon was located. “The bustle, however, of this house is over before or very soon after sunset, and we are not in the slightest degree subjected to noise or intrusion,” he wrote.

He also touched on crime in the city, finding that at Mount Vernon, there was little need to be cautious about theft. “Near as we are to New York, and within 300 yards of the high road, there is neither a shutter nor a bar to a window in the house. Clothes are laid out to bleach all night without the slightest fear of their being carried off.”

Stuart eventually left for Philadelphia. Mount Vernon lasted until 1833, when it was turned into a country house. In 1905 it passed into the hands of a local gas company, which in turn sold it to the Colonial Dames of America in 1924.

In the 1980s, the Dames set about restoring Abigail Adams Smith’s one-time (and short-lived) carriage house. They renamed it the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden, recreating the feel of the hotel resort Stuart wrote about during his travels to early 19th century America.

Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden still operates as a museum. Here you can stop in and imagine what it was like for Stuart as he lounged in his room and enjoyed river breezes, or took to the men’s tavern for spirits and conversation. The sailing crafts on the river are still interesting; the neighborhood still quiet and off the beaten path.

[Second image: Mount Vernon in 1850; Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden Collection via Wikipedia; third image: Google Books; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: The Evening Post, 1827; eighth image: NYPL; ninth image: New-York Historical Society]

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7 Responses to “A British writer visits a NYC resort hotel in 1829”

  1. Lusskin, Shari Says:

    Dear Ms. Crane,
    I always read your posts with interest. Just a couple weeks ago we walked by the Mount Vernon Hotel and I walked by that hybrid building on 79th St. One of the upsides of the pandemic has been exploring the upper east side, a neighborhood I grew up in and now live in again. We have also made really good use of the East River Promenade. When I saw that you are an editor at health.com. I think I have been interviewed by some of your contributors over the years. This is all very much in the category of 6° of separation! Please keep the posts coming.
    All the best,
    Shari I. Lusskin, MD
    Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Obstetrics,
    Gynecology, and Reproductive Science
    Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
    Attending in Psychiatry
    The Mount Sinai Hospital
    Email: shari.lusskin@mssm.edu
    Web: http://www.sharilusskinmd.com
    Private office:
    161 Madison Avenue, Suite 10NW
    New York, NY 10016
    Tel: 2127793660
    Fax: 2126969411
    For all medical and administrative matters, please contact the office at 2127793660. Dr. Lusskin does not address clinical matters by email.
    The information in this email may be confidential and may be legally privileged. It is intended solely for the addresses(s). If you are not the intended recipient, any disclosure, copying, distribution, or any action taken or omitted to be taken in reliance on this email is prohibited and may be unlawful. If you have received this email in error please notify the sender by reply email and delete the message.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Hi Shari, thank you for your wonderful note. We seem to be living parallel at the moment in a sense. I’m quite sure my colleagues have reached out to you for interviews; we’re always looking for insightful experts. I don’t live on the Upper East Side, but now that I reside on that side of Manhattan after years in the West Village, I’ve had the chance to really explore the neighborhood…expect to see more posts covering the area, which is so rich in history.

  2. Bill Wolfe Says:

    I’d never heard of this place. Amazing that it’s survived and is seemingly in wonderful shape. The web site is enjoyable – I may never make milk punch, but I enjoyed seeing how it’s done.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes, when the pandemic ends (assuming it does, who knows?) I can’t wait to get back there and tour the hotel, the lovely backyard, and attend some of the events. It’s the epitome of a small gem of a museum.

  3. BklynMaven Says:

    I recall visiting what I believe was at the time called the Abigail Adams Smith House(?) sometime in the mid-1970s, probably a decade or so before the full restoration as the Mount Vernon Hotel. I don’t remember much aside from it being fitted out with early 19th Century furnishings, and associating it in my mind with other similar historic sites like Fraunces Tavern. To be honest, in all the years since, whenever I would pass by on 61st St. (the M31 bus used to go up 61st from York to Lexington, though it now goes across 57th all the way to the 11th Ave.), I continued to think of the building exclusively in connection with the Adams name — perched up on a slope, set back from the street behind a stone wall, and angled/offset slightly to the current street grid, reflecting an era before the Commissioner’s Plan affected “new” construction.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      You visited the same house! And your observation about the house sitting at an angle not aligned to the street grid is a good one; the house predates the grid by a decade or so.

  4. datura Says:

    Great article, thanks. I always like to hear about us Scots getting out and about in the world. Fantastic website overall, absolutely love it! Thanks.

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