The Manhattan country estate houses of old New York’s forgotten families

The significance of their names has been (mostly) forgotten, their spacious wood frame houses in the sparsely populated countryside of Gotham long dismantled, carted away, and paved over.

The Riker estate, in 1866

But the wealthy New Yorkers who purchased vast parcels of land and built these lovely country homes (surrounded by charming picket fences, according to the illustrations left behind) in the late 18th or early 19th centuries deserve some recognition.

These “show places,” as one source called them, dotted much of Manhattan in the era when the city barely extended past 14th Street. The families who owned them likely lived much of the year downtown. But when summer brought stifling heat and filthy streets (and disease outbreaks), they escaped to their estates by boat or via one of the few roads in the upper reaches of the island.

Arch Brook on the Riker estate grounds, 1869

The estate house in the top image belongs to a familiar name: It’s the country home of one member of the Riker family, circa 1866. Before their name became synonymous with a jail and an island in the East River, the Rikers were a well-known old money clan. Abraham Ryeken, who sailed to New Amsterdam from the Netherlands and owned a home on Broad Street, was the patriarch.

The descendent who lived in this house on today’s 75th Street and the East River was Richard Riker, born in 1773. He held a number of positions in New York including district attorney. Known for his “polished manner and social prominence,” he counted Alexander Hamilton as a friend. Riker died in 1842, and his funeral commenced in the estate house, according to the New-York Tribune. Could that be his widow in the illustration?

Cargle house, 1868

On the other side of Manhattan stood this pretty yellow house (above) with the gable roof, long side porch, and four chimneys. It was the estate home on the Cargle family at 60th Street and Tenth Avenue. It’s modest by 19th century standards, but far larger than any town house or early brownstone. The land might have even extended all the way to the Hudson River.

Who were the Cargles? This name is a mystery. Newspaper archives mention a Dr. Cargle, but so far the trail is cold. The image dates to 1868, and the paved road has a sidewalk and gas lamp. Imagine the cool river breezes on a warm summer night!

Provoost house, 1858

The Cargles lived across Manhattan from David Provoost and his family. The Provoost country residence (above) was on 57th Street and the East River, just blocks north of another fabled estate house of a notable family—that of the Beekmans.

David Provoost, or Provost, was the son of a New Amsterdam burgher who became a merchant and then mayor of New York from 1699 to 1700. Provost Street in Brooklyn and Provost Avenue in the Bronx are named for him or perhaps a family descendent. Who built the house, so grand that it qualifies as a true mansion?

Henry Delafield mansion, built in the 1830s and pictured in 1862

The Delafield house (above) is another mansion that must have been lovely and cool thanks to the East River nearby. Located on today’s East 77th Street and York Avenue, it was the home of Henry Delafield, son of John Delafield, who arrived in New York from England in 1783. John Delafield became one of the “merchant princes” of New York, according to 1912 New York Times article.

Henry Delafield also became a merchant and founded a shipping firm with his brother. His house was described by the Times as “one of the show palaces among the splendid country residences on the East Side north of 59th Street.” He died in 1875. “The latter years of his life were spent pleasantly on his fine country estate overlooking the East River,” the Times wrote. Fine, indeed!

[Images: NYPL Digital Collection]

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12 Responses to “The Manhattan country estate houses of old New York’s forgotten families”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    There is a Delafield Avenue in The Bronx; now I have an idea why. Fascinating look at a long lost NYC; it must have been a beautiful island.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I think one of the Delafields had their country estate in the Riverdale area, so a Bronx street name Delafield Avenue makes sense!

    • Edward Says:

      There’s also a Delafield Ave on Staten Island, but not sure if it’s the same clan.

  2. Penelope Bianchi Says:

    Absolutely divine!! Hard to imagine!!


  3. john Says:

    great post!

  4. Jennifer Says:

    This is now my favorite post! It’s fascinating to see these images of the same neighborhood I’m sitting in right now, and to imagine that such a different, and gracious world once existed right in this very spot. Oh to travel back and sit in a rocker on one of those commodious porches to catch the cool breezes off the river on a summer’s evening!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Looking at the images, you can really transport yourself to a more bucolic Manhattan, right? It must have been quite something to have an estate beside the East River and enjoy the breezes and view.

  5. Relentless History Says:

    This is amazing and so thought-provoking! I’m amazed at the amount of money these families had in the 1700s. And what a beautiful image of rural Manhattan. GREAT JOB

  6. Carol Ann Siciliano Says:

    Fascinating insight into a long gone era. I’m particularly enchanted by the image of Arch Creek. Thank you for taking us to an improbable version of NYC.

  7. AEB Says:

    I am sitting now on the 17th floor of a building located approximately where one of those estates was located. It is hard to imagine the estate here, but of course it is another example of how much things change over time. It sounds bucolic, but of course there was no air conditioning, the streets were full of horse droppings, etc. So, each era has its advantages and disadvantages….

  8. A vision of a colonial-era country mansion inside an East Side apartment lobby | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] of booming population and rapid development, this stretch of Gotham remained sparsely populated, dotted with grand old estate houses surrounded by woods, streams, and mostly unspoiled […]

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