A grimy subway sign points the way to an uptown Presidential mansion

You’re forgiven if you fail to see it as you rush to make your train: a neglected off-white plaque surrounded by filthy subway tiles at the 157th Street subway station.

But it’s a shame if this curious old sign doesn’t catch your eye, because it clues you in to Presidential history and New York City’s crucial role in the Revolutionary War.

In August 1776, George Washington, the commander of the fledging Continental Army, suffered a bruising defeat in the Battle of Brooklyn. In September, he made his way to the Roger Morris mansion—a circa-1765 hilltop country house high above Harlem.

Roger Morris was a British army colonel who had left the city, so Washington made the Federal-style mansion his temporary headquarters before the battle of Harlem Heights. Washington then moved on to White Plains, and the now-vacant country estate became the headquarters of both British and Hessian commanders as the war progressed.

In 1810, two decades after Washington became the first U.S. President, a wealthy couple named Eliza and Stephen Jumel took up residence—hence the mansion’s current name, the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Today, this oldest house in Manhattan is a museum on lovely Jumel Terrace in appropriately named Washington Heights.

I don’t think any museum visitors claim to have seen Washington’s ghost. But Eliza Jumel, an infamous social climber who later married Aaron Burr, supposedly haunts the mansion.

[Second image: Wikipedia]

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16 Responses to “A grimy subway sign points the way to an uptown Presidential mansion”

  1. andrewalpern Says:

    Madame Jumel (née Betsy Bowen from the wrong side of the tracks) was one of the wonderful collection of clear-headed feminists-before-their-time that New York City has enjoyed. Compare Hetty Green and Madam Restell.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Madame Jumel made quite the impression on New York society, and though I’d never want that life for myself, I admire her tenacity.

      • andrewalpern Says:

        Another such striver was Ida Wood, whose story was told in The Recluse of Herald Square. She too came from the wrong side of the tracks and ended up married to a very wealthy man who was the brother of the Mayor of New York. She claimed to have been born Ida Mayfield from a wealthy family down south, but in reality she was Ellen Walsh, born in England of a poor Irishman who fled the potato famine in Ireland, went to England but did no better there so went to Massachusetts and did no better there so (after Ellen had left for New York to seek her fortune) went to California and died there. After Ellen/Ida died, there was a monster court fight over her fortune (stashed away in a cluttered pair of rooms in the old Herald Square Hotel) but it turned out that her legal heirs were distant Irish relatives, most of whom had never heard of her, and a few who thought she had died decades earlier. Then there was the eccentric mega-rich recluse Ella Wendel, who lived in the house her grandfather had erected on Fifth Avenue at 39th Street. The Wendels were up there with Hetty Green and John D. Rockefeller Sr. as the richest New Yorkers, but the most reclusive. The story of the estate and its 2,303 claimants is told in Forgery, Perjury, and an Enormous Fortune by Mervin Rosenman.

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        Ida Wood, thanks for reminding me! I wrote about her in 2013, but perhaps a more exhaustive post with some of the details you provided would be fun:


      • andrewalpern Says:

        Hello Esther . . .

        I am delighted that you already know about Ida Wood, who is one of my favorite recluses. Your mention in your earlier post of Cuban cigars sent me to the New Yorker article, but the site wouldn’t allow me to go beyond the enticing first page of the article (which I would love to read; can you send me a copy?). Another reclusive family (the Romeros, a mother and daughter) who lived in a hotel on West 47th Street would regularly order (via a hotel employee) three dinners, including a cigar, even though the husband/father was dead. Helen Worden Erskine told the story in her book about hermits and recluses called Out Of This World.

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        Sending you the New Yorker article via email—and you’re sending me down the rabbit hole to look into the Romeros!

  2. Jeffrey Greenberg Says:

    Years ago on a visit there the docent told of being locked in the mansion overnight. Apparently Burr makes an appearance there as well.

  3. d206s50 Says:

    I can’t thank you enough for your fascinating posts. I look forward to each post and find it among the most interesting on the net.
    Thanks again and warm regards.

  4. VirginiaB Says:

    So nice to see a post about part of George Washington’s life in New York. Washington’s Birthday was once so widely observed, and not so long ago. Cherry pies sold everywhere to honor the day, school activities and so on. Your post is a treat.

  5. velovixen Says:

    The Jumel mansion must be one of the least-known historical sites in New York. I stumbled across it years ago, just after I moved to Washington Heights. It’s one of those places–like the Little Red Lighthouse and the Audubon Ballroom–you probably never saw unless you were in the neighborhood.

    (The Museum of the American Indian was located just a few blocks from the Jumel Mansion–and the 157th Street station on the 1 train–before it moved, ironically, to the old Customs House by the Battery.)

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I never made it to the Museum of the American Indian when it was on Audubon Terrace—but I’ve visited the wonderful Hispanic Society museum there many times, and it’s a treasure, like the Jumel mansion. So much uptown beauty most New Yorkers never bother to see!

      • velovixen Says:

        The Hispanic Society’s museum is a treasure, just like the building that houses it.

        I remember that Boricua College was also located there.

    • Nicole Says:

      Did you also go to Strivers Row? I’ve known about both places for years and didn’t see them in person. Therefore failed to realize how the two are connected. I’ve put it on my list of places to visit in good weather.
      As far as the Audubon, I worked near 168th street and would roam around on my breaks for years. It wasn’t until about 2020-21 that someone pointed out what the building was. I’d always thought it was further uptown.
      Happy stumbling!

      • velovixen Says:

        I did indeed. It’s one of those treasures everyone has heard about but few have actually visited.

        I saw the Audubon when the original ballroom (where Malcolm X was shot) was still there. If I’m not mistaken, there’s now a Columbia-Presbyterian lab on the site.

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