Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Images of, and Information About, Pelham Bay Park Mansions in 1896

As New York City began to assemble land northeast of the city to create new parks during the 1880s, little thought was given to the maintenance, use, and preservation of the many structures including grand, historic mansions, located within the new park lands.  Instead, once the parklands were assembled, the corrupt Tammany Machine of the city worked with local bureacrats and park officials to allow favored cronies to live in many of the properties either rent free or for nominal payments, many of which were never made.  Repeatedly there were waves of progressive angst and media investigations that led to repeated promises that the city would do a better job of maintaining the properties and renting them for fair market value to support necessary repairs to the properties.  Repeatedly the city failed at keeping those promises.

In 1896, the city made yet another effort to "reform as a landlord."  An article published in the New York Herald on April 26, 1896 noted that the "fine old mansions in suburban parks are going to decay for lack of attention," but the city had promised that it would manage the seventy park residences it owned to produce "greater revenue."  

The article is significant because, among other reasons, it included sketches of a number of the structures located in Pelham Bay Park.  Among those sketches was one that depicted the Gouverneur Morris, Jr., residence at Bartow.  That sketch is the only image of the Gouverneur Morris Jr. residence I have ever been able to locate.  I have written before about Gourverneur Morris Jr. and his residence in Bartow-on-the-Sound.  See Thu., Aug. 28, 2014:  Gouverneur Morris Jr. Lived His Later Years, and Died, in Bartow-on-the-Sound in the Town of Pelham.

The text of the New York Herald article and several of the sketches included with it appear below and provide yet another window into the repeated failures of New York City to protect the grand historic assets it inherited when it assembled the lands that became city parks including today's Pelham Bay Park.

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Apr. 26, 1896, Sixth Section, p. 13, cols. 2-5.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

[Today's Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum on Shore Road]
Apr. 26, 1896, Sixth Section, p. 13, cols. 2-5.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

Apr. 26, 1896, Sixth Section, p. 13, cols. 2-5.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

[The Marshall Mansion that Later Became the Colonial Inn]
Apr. 26, 1896, Sixth Section, p. 13, cols. 2-5.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

The Seventy Residences It Owns Are, After May 1, to Produce Greater Revenue.
Fine Old Mansions in Suburban Parks Going to Decay for Lack of Attention.

Reform has taken hold of the administration of the Park Department's business as a landlord, and after May 1 a new system will be enforced.  The department has had for more than a dozen years the renting of between sixty and seventy houses, some of them laborers' cottages, others stately mansions, once the property of rich New Yorkers or of old Westchester county families.  There are nearly fifty houses in Pelham Bay Park, eight in Bronx Park, four in St. Mary's, four in Van Cortlandt, two in Claremont, one in Cedar and one in Crotona.  There are, besides, two in Central Park, one a lovely gray gabled structure of granite, opening on the transverse road that runs between the upper and lower reservoir; the other a neglected wooden cottage set high on a picturesque mound, near the upper end of the Park.  The first of these is occupied by the superintendent of the reservoir, while the second is not to be rented, though the superintendent of gardeners, for whom it was intended, has not used it in many years.

When the city became owner of the great suburban parks and of the several smaller parks in the annexed district, it found them dotted with houses, some of them long cherished homesteads, some the summer homes of New York business memn.  Many of the owners pocketed the award for their homes, taken to make a pleasure place for New York's mmillions, and sought shelter elsewhere, but others remained as tenants of the city and have lived on undisturbed by the change of ownership, and secure amid beautiful surroundings.


The Park Department has always been, in one sense, a bad landlord.  It makes no repairs.  This has been because the business of being a landlord was unwillingly accepted, and rentals were hardly enough to pay for repairs.  Renters are merely tenants at will, occupying their houses and grounds subject to the rights of the great public.  No gate may be shut against any person, and not even the vegetable gardens are fenced.  The rentals of park houses last year were only $10,500 although there are half a dozen places in Pelham Bay Park which, under ordinary conditions, would rent for $2,500 to $3,500 each.  Favoritism crept in.  Houses were given rent free to park employees, and some tenants were permitted to fall in arrears.  This is to be changed.  Every house that can be rented will be rented on the best terms the department can make.  Employees will pay rent.  Tenants will pay up or vacate.  There are a few persons occupying little houses in Bronx Park to whom leniency will be shown, because they are laboring people whose homes were condemned, and who could not go elsewhere without hardship.  Many, however, will go out, never to return.


The department will be no better landlord than before, but an effort will be made to rent houses to persons who will keep them in condition.  Some of the finest old houses in Pelham Bay Park are going to ruin for lack of repairs.  Trustworthy persons who will take these houses and risk repairing them are likely to have a long and undisturbed occupancy, for the chances are that it will be many years before the houses will be needed for park purposes.  

The Tremper house, in Van Cortlandt Park, at the corner of the Grand and Mosholu avenues, whence it overlooks Van Cortlandt Lake, is occupied by  police sergeant and is likely to be for rent.  It is a great wooden structure, not beautiful, but comfortable, and surrounded by ample grounds, with orchard and garden.  The department would like to get $1,200 a year for it.  The great granite Zabriskie house, near the northern entrance to Claremont Park, is occupied by a park employee, and the department has not been sanguine of renting it, though it is one of the largest and best built houses in the parks.  It was built in 1859, though a stone in one end bears the date 1676, as a memorial of the earliest American Zabriskie.  The public tennis courts are close beside the house and the park at that point is a good deal used, reasons why it is difficult to rent the great house.


Tenants of the best houses in Pelham Bay Park have long enjoyed low rents and essential privacy.  One of the noblest old mansions is just off the City Island road, and looks to the Sound across a great rolling lawn.  The former owner has remained as a tenant.  Not far away is the charming old Gouverneur MMorris house, high roofed and shingled, with dormer windows, charming verandas and great low studded rooms.  It has long been occupied by the same tenants.

The Hunter house, on Hunter's Island never lacks a tenant.  It was a famous mansion seventy years ago, when James Stuart, who had shot the son of Boswell, Dr. Johnson's biographer, in a duel, was travelling in this country.  Stuart, in his book on the United States, says Joseph Bonaparte was anxious to buy Hunter's Island and its mansion.  Connected with Hunter's Island by a causeway is Twin Island, with the great stone house that old James D. Fish built shortly before his fall and imprisonment.  It is now tenantless, though one of the most delightful of the park houses.  A tenant of the Fish house a few years since endeavored to exclude the public from the lawns and water front on the ground that a decision had been rendered guaranteeing him this privilege, but the Park Department disclaimed such arrangement, and tenants must take the place subject to the rights of the public.


Some of the finest places in Pelham Bay Park lie between the Pelham Bridge road and the Sound, toward the Westchester Country Club.  Here Pierre Lorillard built a rather gaunt, high pillared house and flanked it with four or five cottages for his children.  The house is now occupied by a member of the New York Stock Exchange and the cottages are all tenanted and in good repair.  Next below this former nest of Lorillards is a charming stone cottage fast going to decay, set amid wood enclosed lawns, as lovely a spot as one can imagine.

The Lorillard house above the gorge, in Bronx Park, will probably not be rented.  The region has an ill name for malaria.  The other houses in Bronx Park are a few little cottages, renting at from $5 to $8 per month.  The houses in St. Mary's Park are not in first rate repair, though one of them, a low cottage, set amid vines, and long occupied by old Captain Samuels, is charmingly situated.  Immediately opposite are the ruins of a fantastic pleasure house, in what was once the garden of a large dwelling hard by.  Both the ruin and the dwelling are now within the park.

A careful and thorough administration of the Park Department's business as a landlord ought, it is thought, to double at least the revenue from rentals.  Means of communication with New York have vastly improved since the city became owner of the great suburban parks, and there is hardly a house in any part of the park area that is now more than an hour and a half from the City Hall."

Source:  CITY TO REFORM AS A LANDLORD, N.Y. Herald, Apr. 26, 1896, Sixth Section, p. 13, cols. 2-5.  

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