If This Mahogany Desk Could Talk: A Colorful Tale of Aaron Burr and His Wives

Burr desk

Secretary desk, ca. 1833. New York. Mahogany, mahogany veneer, tulip poplar, and white pine. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Lent by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. This desk belonged to Aaron Burr toward the end of his life.

An unpretentious mahogany desk from the 1830s might easily go unnoticed in Bartow-Pell’s upstairs parlor. Although this ordinary piece is of little interest to connoisseurs of fine furniture, the fact that it belonged to the tempestuous patriot Aaron Burr definitely deserves our attention. But why is Burr’s desk at BPMM? And how does that relate to his two wives?

8817, 1968.50.1

John Vanderlyn (1775–1852). Aaron Burr, ca. 1802–3. Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery, Bequest of Oliver Burr Jennings, B.A. 1917, in memory of Miss Annie Burr Jennings. Aaron Burr commissioned portraits of himself and his daughter from Vanderlyn, and the artist even stayed with the family at Richmond Hill, the Burr estate in lower Manhattan near today’s Varick Street.

Our story starts during the Revolutionary War, when Aaron Burr (1756–1836) was a young officer in the Continental army. It was during this time that he was introduced to Theodosia Bartow Prevost (1746–1794), the brainy and sophisticated wife of a British officer, Lieutenant Colonel James Marcus Prevost (1736–1781). Despite her intelligence, wit, and charm, Theodosia was no beauty, and she was about ten years older than Burr, who was in his early twenties when they met. She was also the mother of five children. Burr had a reputation as a womanizer, but he was also a protofeminist, and the pair secretly formed a romantic attachment even though Theodosia was still married to her Loyalist husband. In 1782, not long after Lieutenant Colonel Prevost died of yellow fever in Jamaica, the newly widowed Theodosia wed Aaron Burr. The couple’s affectionate union was one of intellectual equality, candid friendship, and physical passion. Sadly, only one their two children—named Theodosia after her mother—survived to adulthood.

Theodosia Prevost Burr née Bartow was born in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, and was the only child and namesake of Theodosius Bartow (1712–1746)—who died shortly before she was born—and Ann Stillwell (who had several more children with her second husband, Philip de Visme). John Bartow (1740–1816) was Theodosia’s first cousin. (His grandson Robert built the stone dwelling that we now know as the Bartow-Pell mansion.) According to family genealogist Evelyn Bartow, John “lived at Pelham, in the old Manor House of his grandfather, Lord Pell.”

At the old manorial residence of his ancestors, Mr. Bartow kept open house to all his relatives and friends; and his home was the centre of attraction in the society of the county from the hearty welcome they always received. Col. Burr, who had married his first cousin, was an intimate friend and frequent visitor at the house. It was at Mr. Bartow’s house, after his removal to New York City, that Burr was kindly received after his return from exile.”

Theodosia received a far more rigorous education than most girls of her time. Since her father died before she was born, it is likely that the girl’s mother played a key role in nurturing the natural intellectual abilities of her clever daughter. Aaron Burr’s biographer Nancy Isenberg describes the future Mrs. Burr’s education: “Tutored at home, she had been exposed to a cosmopolitan education that was unusual among colonial Americans.” Theodosia read Plutarch and other classical writers and spoke fluent French.

Theodosia Bartow married James Marcus Prevost on July 28, 1763, at Trinity Church in Manhattan. The Prevosts lived at the Hermitage, their home in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, which was remodeled in the Gothic-Revival style by subsequent owners and is now a museum. While her husband was away at war, the household consisted of Theodosia, “her sister Miss de Vismes, and their mother Mrs. de Vismes, and the two little sons of Mrs. Prevost,” recounted Evelyn Bartow. “The ladies were accomplished and intelligent; for a long time their house had been the centre of the most elegant society of the vicinity . . . The Hermitage, where Mrs. Prevost now resided, had a considerable library of French books. The lady was not beautiful. Besides being past her prime, she was slightly disfigured by a scar on her forehead.”

During the American Revolution, despite her marriage to a Loyalist, Theodosia adroitly presided over a social circle that included high-ranking patriots such as George Washington, who even used the Hermitage as his headquarters in 1778. Meanwhile, she was able to maintain a friendly relationship with the British. According to Nancy Isenberg, “Her home was a kind of war-free zone and sanctuary.” It was during this period that Theodosia met Aaron Burr.

Mary Wollstonecraft

John Opie (1761–1807). Mary Wollstonecraft, ca. 1797. Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, Bequeathed by Jane, Lady Shelley, 1899 © National Portrait Gallery, London. In February 1793, Burr wrote a letter to Theodosia in which he praised A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) by the English writer and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797). “It is, in my opinion, a work of genius. She has successfully adopted the style of Rousseau’s Emilius [sic]; and her comment on that work, especially what relates to female education, contains more good sense than all the other criticisms upon him which I have seen. . . . I promise myself much pleasure in reading it to you.”

Theodosia and Aaron Burr had a deep intellectual and emotional connection. It was the period of the Enlightenment, and husband and wife enjoyed reading and discussing works by modern thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft. Burr was also a mentor to Theodosia’s two sons, Augustine James Frederick Prevost (1765­–1842) and John Bartow Prevost (1766–1825), who were teenagers when Burr married their mother. Frederick Prevost later lived in Pelham at the Shrubbery, an estate near that of his mother’s cousin John Bartow. (For more on the Shrubbery, see Pelham Town Historian Blake Bell’s blog.) On July 23, 1791, Theodosia wrote to Burr: “Do return home as soon as possible; or, rather, come to Pelham; try quiet, and the good air, and the attention and friendship of those who love you. You may command Bartow’s attendance here whenever it suits you, and you have a faithful envoy in Frederick.”

Theodosia Bartow Burr Alston

Unidentified artist. Theodosia Bartow Burr Alston, copy after John Vanderlyn, ca. 1850–1900. Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. The daughter of Aaron Burr and Theodosia Bartow Prevost Burr married Joseph Alston, who was governor of South Carolina at the time of his wife’s death at sea in 1813. Theodosia’s likeness was also drawn by profile portraitist Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin.

Theodosia Bartow Prevost Burr died of what was probably cancer in 1794 at the age of 48, only twelve years after she married Aaron Burr. After her death, he ardently devoted himself to the education and well-being of his cherished and highly intelligent daughter, and the two were extremely close. In 1801, Theodosia Burr (1783–1813) married a wealthy Southern planter and politician, Joseph Alston, who later became the governor of South Carolina. Tragically, the couple’s only child, Aaron Burr Alston, died in 1812 when he was only eleven years old. Meanwhile, Aaron Burr’s stormy life resembled a giant roller coaster, with numerous twists and turns that careened from his role as Vice President of the United States to the duel in which he killed Alexander Hamilton to charges of treason that linked him to a separatist conspiracy and plans for an empire in the western United States. Although cleared of treason, Burr subsequently spent several years in self-imposed exile. Not long after his return to America, his daughter set sail in 1813 from South Carolina on the schooner Patriot for a reunion with her adoring father. The ship was lost at sea off the coast of the Carolinas en route to New York, and Theodosia was presumed dead at the age of 29.

Eliza Jumel

Alcide Carlo Ercole (dates unknown). Eliza Jumel and Her Grandchildren, 1854. Oil on canvas. Morris-Jumel Mansion, Jumel Collection, 1980.429.1.91

This brings us to the second Mrs. Burr. Eliza (“Madame”) Jumel (1775–1865) was a wealthy widow when she met the former vice president in 1832, and the pair married on July 1, 1833. The bride was 58; the groom was 77. Like Burr, Eliza had a colorful history. Nancy Isenberg writes: “One archivist summed up her life this way: ‘. . . in youth a prostitute, in middle age a social climber, died an eccentric.’” The marriage lasted a mere six months before the couple separated. Eliza claimed that Burr was squandering her fortune. He accused her of being abusive and controlling. In order to get a divorce, she bribed a servant to fabricate fanciful stories of adulterous behavior by Burr. Meanwhile, Burr’s health was declining, and a stroke paralyzed his legs. He began living in boarding houses and died on September 14, 1836, the day his divorce became final.

Morris-Jumel Mansion

George Hayward (b. ca. 1800), lithographer. Col. Roger Morris’ House, Washington’s Head Quarters Sept. 1776, Now Known as Madame Jumel’s Res., for D. T. Valentine’s Manual, 1854. The New York Public Library. Madame Jumel and her first husband purchased the former Morris estate in 1810, which George Washington had used as his headquarters in the fall of 1776. (Washington also stayed at the home of Aaron Burr’s first wife, Theodosia Prevost.) Eliza Jumel still owned the home at the time of her marriage to Aaron Burr in 1833, and she continued to live in it until her death in 1865.

Burr DeskNow, let’s circle back to Aaron Burr’s desk, which is on long-term loan to Bartow-Pell from the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. This two-part secretary desk has numerous cabinets and drawers, which provide ample space for organizing papers, books, and documents. Burr was an attorney, and this desk would have been useful for legal work as well as for managing his day-to-day affairs. The desk is dated about 1833, so Burr would have owned it for only a few years before his death in 1836, including the period of his short-lived marriage to Eliza Jumel. The desk is made of mahogany and mahogany veneer with secondary woods of tulip poplar and white pine. According to decorative arts expert and BPMM Curatorial Committee Co-Chair Carswell Rush Berlin, the door and cabinet pulls have been replaced, and it seems likely that there was a wood or marble cornice that is now missing. The drawer locks bear the impression “Cowis McKee & Co., Terryville, Ct.,” a lock-making company that was established in Watertown, Connecticut, in 1832 and sold after Eli Terry II, the firm’s president, died in 1841.

Our records say that a private collector acquired the desk from a “sale of Burr’s furniture after his death.” It was given to the City of New York in 1924 and was on view at the Morris-Jumel Mansion until 2001; then it was moved to the Hermitage, the former Prevost estate in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey. The Burr desk has been on loan to Bartow-Pell since 2007.

Although Theodosia Bartow Prevost Burr never saw this desk, and Madame Jumel probably paid it scant attention, it tells a riveting tale filled with scandal, tragedy, romance, and drama. And wasn’t that the story of Aaron Burr’s life?

Margaret Highland, Historian

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George Inness’s The Woodchoppers (1858) on Display at Bartow-Pell

Inness, The Woodchoppers

George Inness (1825–1894). The Woodchoppers, 1858. Oil on canvas. On loan to Bartow-Pell from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation

I wrote recently about Jasper Francis Cropsey’s Summer Landscape (1853). Today I would like to consider The Woodchoppers (1858), a landscape painting by Cropsey’s contemporary George Inness (1825–1894), another artist who came of age during the heyday of the Hudson River School.

George Inness in His Studio

E. S. Bennett. George Inness Seated in His Studio, ca. 1890. Photograph. Macbeth Gallery records, 1838–1968, bulk 1892–1953, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

A year younger than Cropsey, George Inness was the most progressive of the second-generation Hudson River School painters. Indeed, he played a pivotal role in the conversion of taste away from the descriptive naturalism of the Hudson River School toward the subjective, poetic, French-inspired style that dominated American landscapes by the 1890s.

Born in 1824 at Newburg, New York, Inness, like Cropsey, had little formal training. He began his instruction with the itinerant figure painter John Jesse Barker (active 1815–56), worked as an engraving assistant, and then studied with French émigré painter Régis Gignoux (1816–1882). Inness gained most of his knowledge by studying the engravings of Claude Lorrain and the 17th–century Dutch landscapists, as well as the paintings of Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand. In 1844 Inness made his debut at the National Academy of Design in Manhattan and began his career as a Hudson River School artist. From the late 1840s through the early 1860s, he painted woodlands, meadows, river valleys, and twilight scenes in a predominantly descriptive, naturalistic style. Regular travel to Europe to view Old Master landscapes and to absorb the work of living artists who were investigating new ideas in painting introduced Inness to other stylistic modes. Trips to Italy in 1851–52, where he met American painter William Page (1811–1885), and to France in 1853–54, where he saw the landscapes of Théodore Rousseau (1812–1867) and other members of the French Barbizon School, moved his art in a more painterly and subjective direction.

Théodore Rousseau, The Edge of the Woods at Monts-Girard, Fontainebleau Forest

Théodore Rousseau (French, 1812–1867). The Edge of the Woods at Monts-Girard, Fontainebleau Forest, 1852–54. Oil on wood. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1896. A critical influence on Inness’s subject matter and aesthetic were landscapes by the Barbizon School (artists who worked in and around village of Barbizon in Fontainbleau Forest). Their example led Inness to paint more freely, with more subtle color, and to feature intimate, unspectacular views.

George Inness, The Lackawanna Valley

George Inness. The Lackawanna Valley, ca. 1856. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Gift of Mrs. Huttleston Rogers. This is one of Inness’s most famous early works. Commissioned by the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad to commemorate the founding of the rail line, it is an example of Inness’s modern “civilized” landscape—a landscape that he wrote was “more worthy of reproduction than that which is savage and untamed.” Painted after Inness’s 1853–54 trip to France, it reveals his application of the broad, generalized forms, looser brushwork, and more informal composition of Barbizon landscapes to the panoramic vision of the Hudson River School.

Equally important for Inness’s development were his philosophical and spiritual concerns. In the early 1860s, William Page introduced him to the pantheistic philosophy of the Swedish scientist-turned-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1771). Inspired by Swedenborg’s doctrine that correspondences exist between the natural and spiritual worlds, Inness began to paint with increasing expressiveness. In such pictures as Peace and Plenty, 1865, he sought to convey the spiritual meaning he felt in the landscape and to evoke an emotional response in his viewers by using rich pigment, softened brushwork, and evocative light rather than detailed descriptions.

George Inness, Peace and Plenty

George Inness. Peace and Plenty, 1865. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of George A. Hearn, 1894

During the next two decades, Inness’s desire to do more than simply record nature fueled his experimentation with color, composition, and painterly technique. A five-year sojourn in Italy and France (1870–75) helped him redefine his art.

Inness The Monk

George Inness. The Monk, 1873. Oil on canvas. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, gift of Stephen C. Clark in recognition of the 25th Anniversary of the Addison Gallery, 1956.6. Painted in Italy in the early 1870s, this picture anticipates the formal inventiveness and visionary nature of Inness’s late style. Inness used a daring composition, evocative twilight, and a solitary monk to transform the natural environs of the Capuchin monastery at Albano into a mystical realm.

The Coming Storm Inness Albright-Knox

George Inness. The Coming Storm, 1878. Oil on canvas. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Albert H. Tracy Fund, 1900. https://www.albrightknox.org/. While in Paris and Normandy in 1875, Inness adopted a more expressive brushstroke and a more vibrant palette. He continued to develop this new stylistic freedom after he returned to the United States. Painted on the cusp of his late period, this picture reveals Inness’s dynamic brushwork and rich color, what he called “the soul of painting,” and captures the energy of the storm as it approaches and transforms the land.

In 1885 Inness settled in Montclair, New Jersey, and during the next decade arrived at his signature style—what Inness scholar Nicolai Cikovsky Jr. has referred to as “spiritualized landscapes.” By the time Inness produced The Home of the Heron, 1893, his landscapes had become almost otherworldly, characterized by simplified compositions in which blurred figures and forms of the natural world are seen through an atmospheric haze or colored veil, fusing the scene in a pantheistic whole. Inness died in Scotland in 1894, appropriately while watching a sunset. He remained a major influence on younger painters well into the 20th century.

George Inness, Home of the Heron

George Inness. The Home of the Heron, 1893. Oil on canvas. The Art Institute of Chicago, Edward B. Butler Collection, 1911.31

Inness, The Woodchoppers

George Inness (1825–1894). The Woodchoppers, 1858. On loan to Bartow-Pell from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation

The Woodchoppers (ca. 1858–59), which is on view at Bartow-Pell, was painted four years after Inness returned to New York from his second European trip and exemplifies his Hudson River School naturalism, when his work was closest to that of his colleagues. But the painting also embraces a range of influences from the American Pre-Raphaelite painters and the French Barbizon landscapists, reflecting his movement away from Hudson River School literalism to a more poetic and subjective art.

Here Inness captures the solitude and majesty of a forest interior in late-day sunlight, at the moment before its transformation, both literally and figuratively. Posed in the right foreground at the forest’s edge, two woodsmen, perhaps weary from their labors, rest on logs at the side of a road. At the left, a stone wall follows the course of a river lined and overhung with trees. Sheep graze nearby and in the sunlit roadway. Waning sunlight filters through the dense foliage, highlighting leaves, tree trunks, and grasses and casting long shadows on the forest floor; in the distance some twilight color is evident. At a time when American forests were succumbing to husbandry and industrialization, the evocative light and quietude add an elegiac note. The Woodchoppers is one of the many domesticated landscapes, or what Inness termed “civilized” landscapes, that he insisted upon as a subject for art. He viewed such landscapes marked by the acts of man as modern.

Inness-The Woodchoppers detail

George Inness. The Woodchoppers (detail). This shows treatment of the foliage.

Inness in the late 1850s was experimenting with various influences. His naturalistic manner with strong effects of light and passages of meticulous detail is very much in keeping with the Hudson River School style, one that was soon to disappear from his painting. The lighting and textures are worked out with great care, and there is almost a hyperrealism in the treatment of the lighted and shadowed foliage.

This suggests that Inness was familiar with Ruskin’s “truth to nature” aesthetic associated with the American Pre-Raphaelite painters, whose works were enjoying a certain vogue in American art circles. A critic for the New York press took note of Inness’s naturalism when the painting was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1859, praising “the effect of sunlight streaming through a wood felicitously rendered. Quiet and unobtrusive, there is much careful study and close observation here.” At the same time, Inness’s overall bold, painterly brushwork, with thick dabs of paint applied in some areas, and the intimate, quiet view of the forest and elegiac mood reveal his first-hand acquaintance with contemporary French Barbizon paintings, particularly the landscapes of Théodore Rousseau. What Inness found attractive in French Barbizon painting was a pictorial poetry that allowed for individual expressive freedom and the artist’s imagination. The goal of art, Inness believed, was not to copy reality but to suggest it, not to edify but to “awaken an emotion.” The Woodchoppers demonstrates his movement toward that vision.

Gina D’Angelo, Art Historian

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Hats, Gloves, and Pearls: Fashion Promenade in the Garden, 1960

Twirling

Runway twirls and a peek of frilly petticoats. Pearls. Women in hats and gloves. And a radiant bride in a tulle veil, of course.

On a gloriously sunny Wednesday in May 1960, smiling models—most of them wearing gloves, the era’s ubiquitous accessory—floated graciously across the terrace at Bartow-Pell. Their conservatively chic ensembles ranged from sundresses to evening gowns.

Striking a pose

“Necklines on everything are plain and collarless, a frame for the throat and face,” wrote Carrie Donovan in “Fashion Trends Abroad, Paris: Review of Spring Collections” (New York Times, February 5, 1960). Many of the dresses worn at Bartow-Pell followed this Parisian trend.

The May Garden Party and Fashion Promenade was a fundraiser hosted by the International Garden Club (IGC) to “augment the maintenance funds of the estate, now the Bartow Mansion Museum,” the New York Times reported on May 15, 1960. The charity event commemorated the 45th anniversary of an “administrative effort in behalf of the Bartow Mansion and its formal gardens in Pelham Bay Park, the Bronx.” (The IGC had officially leased the mansion and grounds from the New York City Parks Department in May 1915.) For the sake of accuracy, it is worth mentioning that just the year before, in 1959, the IGC had changed the site’s name to Bartow-Pell Mansion and Gardens in order to acknowledge the Pell family’s strong historical connections to the property.

Luckily, the day was recorded with more than just a dry newspaper article. A series of contact sheets in the BPMM archives gives us a vivid view of the fashion parade and its well-dressed onlookers, providing a fun snapshot of styles and manners at the beginning of the “Mad Men” era.

Fashion show evening gown

An elegant evening gown

During the show, a musical trio played now-forgotten tunes on saxophone, bass, and accordion. A stylish woman—probably a club member—was the announcer. The models (including little girls) were most likely IGC members and their children. A bevy of svelte society ladies in sunglasses, some older grandes dames, and a few bemused men looked on. And there were lots of hats. De rigueur, naturally.

Yes, I would wear that

Charity fashion shows had been popular for decades. For example, on October 22, 1915, the New-York Tribune announced a “Bazar de Charité et Revue des Modes” at the Ritz Carlton Hotel for the “benefit of the French Wounded Emergency Fund” during World War I. And in February 1960, the March of Dimes staged its “sixteenth annual parade of styles” when “more than 1,200 persons crowded the ballroom of the Hotel Astor,” according to the Times. “A well-turned out group of women eschewed the floral spring hats usually worn at the luncheon in view of yesterday’s icy blasts. They appeared well bundled up in furs.” Anita Loos, the author of Gentleman Prefer Blondes, was one of the event’s script writers, and Salvador Dali designed some of the sets. “Fashions ran the gamut from lighthearted play clothes to elaborately designed evening clothes.”

Remember the crinolines

Runway styles at Bartow-Pell’s fashion show mostly echoed 1950s looks. Full skirts were worn over crinolines, and pencil skirts abounded. Girdles and other structured undergarments cinched waists, flattened stomachs, and created hourglass figures.

A la mode

“Like many of his Seventh Avenue colleagues, he [designer John Moore] uses gloomy prints. This range of mulberry, gray, taupe and brownish patterns are harbingers of an overcast spring.” “American Collections: Audience Cheers Spring Showing,” New York Times, November 11, 1959

Dress and coat

A colorful floral pattern brightens a spring dress and coat ensemble.

The legendary (and, at that time, young) fashion editor Carrie Donovan reported on the use of color in “Fashion Trends Abroad, Paris: Review of Spring Collections” (New York Times, February 5, 1960): “The brighter, more vivid, more beautiful the color, the better it is for spring. Plain old navy blue with a touch of white has no place in Paris where clothes are tinted Ming blue, turquoise, lacquer red, lavender, orange, apricot, coral, grass green or shocking pink.” Another Times reporter—whose story appeared on the very same day as Bartow-Pell’s event—described sales of summer styles: “Chiffon and organza dresses, particularly in more brilliant shades, were requested.” With just a little imagination, we can conjure up the multi-hued fabrics in Bartow-Pell’s Technicolor fashion promenade. Although perhaps not quite as colorful as cutting-edge Parisian fashions,  this was most certainly not a black-and-white affair, unlike our photographs.

Bride

Here comes the bride

In 1960, the year of Bartow-Pell’s fashion show in the garden, Percy Faith and his orchestra topped the pop charts with “Theme from ‘A Summer Place,’” and “everybody” was doing the twist (or soon would be). Alfred Hitchcock’s controversial horror film Psycho terrified moviegoers, while Doris Day’s sunny personality lit up the screen in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. Families sat in front of their black-and-white television sets watching the Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver, and the Ed Sullivan Show. Dwight D. Eisenhower was in his final year as president, and the Camelot era dawned when John F. Kennedy beat Richard M. Nixon in an exciting race for the White House that November.

Sunday best mom and girls

At one time, plants grew in the garden pavement and included sea thrift (armeria maritima), a small flowering plant.

Hats and honeysuckleIt was the start of a decade that would bring enormous social transformation, but the feminism of the “Swinging Sixties” was yet to come. Yes, some women earned a paycheck, but many were housewives who needed a wardrobe suitable for household duties and childrearing as well as for cocktail parties, entertaining, church services, and other dressy occasions. The times were about to change, however, so these ladies needed to hold onto their hats!

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Hudson River School Landscapes on Display at Bartow-Pell

The Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum collection was recently enriched by the addition of two Hudson River landscape paintings on loan from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation, namely Summer Landscape (1853) by Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823–1900) and The Woodchoppers (1858) by George Inness (1825–1894). We are very grateful to the Newington-Cropsey Foundation for this generous loan and delighted to exhibit the paintings alongside our own collection. Please stop to look at them in the South Parlor the next time you are at Bartow-Pell.

Cropsey Summer Landscape

Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823–1900). Summer Landscape, 1853

Inness, The Woodchoppers

George Inness (1825–1894). The Woodchoppers, 1858

Cropsey and Inness were prominent members of the second generation of painters who were inspired by the work of Thomas Cole (1801–1848) and Asher B. Durand (1796–1886) and later became known as the Hudson River School. Although not a formal school or group, the artists inspired by Cole and Durand included such prominent painters as Frederic Church and Alfred Bierstadt, who with their contemporaries helped to create America’s first native school of landscape painting based on depictions of American scenery as both an expression of national identity and a source for spiritual renewal. Although the second generation inherited Cole’s interest in American landscape as a subject for art, their preference for domesticated landscapes, like that of other landscapists of the time, set them apart from Cole’s celebrations of untamed wilderness and from his moral allegories. The term “Hudson River School” was initially one of disdain, coined by critics in the 1870s who increasingly viewed the landscape subjects and detailed naturalistic style as old-fashioned. The term was also a bit of a misnomer, as most of the artists painted not only in the Hudson River Valley, but also throughout the Northeast, as well as in the American West, Europe, and tropical regions of the New World. Their paintings enjoyed enormous popularity from the 1830s to the 1870s and established American landscape as an important and quintessentially American art form.

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Napoleon Sarony, (1821–1896). Jasper Francis Cropsey, ca. 1870. Albumen silver print. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Jasper Francis Cropsey was one of the most popular and accomplished artists of the Hudson River School. Born in 1823 on his family’s farm on Staten Island, Cropsey was professionally trained as an architect. Except for some watercolor lessons from the English artist Edward Maury (active 1835–40), Cropsey was self-taught as a painter. A visual arts prodigy, he learned by studying painting treatises, visiting exhibitions at the National Academy of Design, and copying engravings of the 17th-century French landscapist Claude Lorrain (ca. 1600–1682) and the Dutch masters. Cropsey made his debut at the National Academy of Design in 1843 and in 1851 was elected an academician. Like many American artists of the mid-19th century, he chose to broaden his artistic education by traveling to Europe. A European grand tour (1847–49) and a seven-year sojourn in England (1856–63) gave him a firsthand acquaintance with European art and culture, with the contemporary art scene in England, and with the English critic and author John Ruskin (1819–1900). The exhibition of Cropsey’s painting Autumn—on the Hudson River (1860) at the London International Exposition of 1862 brought him international success and an audience with Queen Victoria.

SC-001149.jpg

Jasper Francis Cropsey. Autumn—On the Hudson River, 1860. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Gift of the Avalon Foundation. Cropsey’s ode to American autumn celebrates the totality of American scenery. Wilderness, town, and mountains are suffused with divine light, almost godly rays, and man is dwarfed by nature’s majesty. This enormous painting (5′ x 9′) was one of several major Hudson River School landscape paintings on exhibition in England, along with Church’s Niagara. Its panoramic sweep of land and topographical accuracy awed English audiences. When the English critics were incredulous at the brilliant red and orange hues of Cropsey’s scene, he had leaves sent from American trees and displayed them alongside the painting.

From the mid-1840s through the 1870s, Cropsey was renowned in both the United States and England for his finely detailed, panoramic views of American scenery, particularly his richly colored canvases of American autumn and his luministic, ethereal skies. He exhibited regularly at the National Academy of Design and at the American Watercolor Society, the latter, an organization he helped found in 1867. Cropsey’s ensuing success allowed him to design and build a grand summer home, Aladdin (1866–69), at Warwick, New York. About the same time, Cropsey revived his architectural practice. Among his best-known designs were the passenger stations for the Sixth Avenue elevated railway in New York. In 1884, in the wake of declining prices for his paintings and those of other Hudson River School artists, Cropsey and his family moved to Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, to a house they called Ever-Rest. The home now houses the Newington-Cropsey Foundation, a center for the study of Cropsey’s art. During the last fifteen years of his life, Cropsey increasingly turned to watercolors, most of them either depictions of Hastings and its environs, or based on his sketches from years past, all affirming his realist aesthetic and his enduring enthusiasm for American scenery long after the market for such paintings had disappeared. Cropsey died in 1900 at Ever-Rest.

Cropsey Summer Landscape

Jasper Francis Cropsey. Summer Landscape, 1853. Oil on canvas. On loan to Bartow-Pell from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation

Painted early in his career, Cropsey’s Summer Landscape (1853) is one of many seasonal landscapes that the artist produced throughout his long career. Although celebrated in his day as “America’s Painter of Autumn,” Cropsey painted all the seasons. Summer Landscape captures the serenity of a glorious summer day resplendent with lush foliage, flowers, and a bright sky. A gentle breeze seems to blow from the left, rustling the leaves. A pond occupies most of the foreground, its waters reflecting the foliage and sky. On the high embankment, a young man fishes in the pond, as his female companion sits beside him. The young couple is clearly enjoying a moment of rural leisure amidst the bounty of nature, the kind of activity that would have appealed to an increasingly urban American public by the mid-19th century. Such depictions of domesticated landscape, where man lives in harmony with nature, are typical of Cropsey’s work.

Although the exact location is unknown, the scene was likely painted after one of Cropsey’s summer sketching trips in the Northeast. In 1849 after Cropsey and his wife, Maria, returned from their two-year honeymoon and European Grand Tour, he set to work in a studio in New York City. During the next several years he spent his summers traveling through New York State, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts, reacquainting himself with the American landscape. A consummate draftsman, Cropsey filled his sketchbooks with detailed nature studies of flora, the surrounding terrain, and climatic conditions, later working these sketches into paintings in his studio. His rich, painterly technique is consistent with Cropsey’s paintings of the 1840s and early 1850s, when his works have a stylistic affinity with the work of Thomas Cole, an artist he much admired and whose studio he had visited in Catskill, New York, on the Hudson River.

Ferns, left foreground

Jasper Francis Cropsey. Summer Landscape (detail). This shows ferns in left foreground.

Summer Landscape also features passages of articulated naturalism—the ferns in the left foreground, the wildflowers along the tree path in the middle ground, and the play of light on individual leaves and tree branches—which are delineated with a clarity and realism that anticipates the mature style for which Cropsey is best known. Such close observation of the natural world was fundamental to Cropsey’s artistic philosophy and a major theme of a lecture on “Natural Art” that he delivered to the American Art Union in 1845. Cropsey noted that the greatest landscape painters are those who “have been the most attentive to nature,” and he urged his colleagues to “go to [America’s] wild forests . . . or to her cultivated valleys,” and to “view them with an unprejudiced eye,” for therein one could see nature’s majesty and appreciate the works of the Creator. “A man of faith,” according to his biographer Anthony Speiser, Cropsey believed that all God’s creations were significant, and this led him to paint his subjects with minute detail. Cropsey championed both wilderness and cultivated landscapes, but he is best known for the latter—domesticated American landscapes where man lives in harmony with nature, both the agrarian and the increasingly industrialized landscape—all a manifestation of God’s handiwork.

Cropsey, Starrucca Viaduct

Jasper Francis Cropsey. Starrucca Viaduct, Pennsylvania, 1865. Oil on canvas. Toledo Museum of Art, Purchased with funds from the Florence Scott Libbey Bequest in Memory of her Father, Maurice A. Scott. The Starrucca viaduct, a multi-arched stone bridge, which carried the New York and Erie Railroad tracks over Starrucca Creek near Lanesboro, Pennsylvania, was a popular scenic spot and a feat of civil engineering. Unlike Cole, who was wary of industry, Cropsey nestles the train and engineering marvel into an idealized, panoramic landscape bathed in sunlight and rich autumnal color—an optimistic vision where man, nature, and new technology live in harmony.

Gina D’Angelo, Art Historian and BPMM Curatorial Committee Member

Please read about The Woodchoppers by George Inness—also on loan to Bartow-Pell from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation—in an upcoming post.

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Classical Reflections: Recent Gifts from Richard T. Button

A monumental giltwood mirror from about 1840, which has now been installed in Bartow-Pell’s entrance hall, may be the largest known documented New York mirror of the first half of the 19th century. This splendid piece was recently given to the museum by Richard T. (Dick) Button from his fine collection of American Classical furniture and decorative arts. (And yes, Mr. Button is also the legendary Olympic figure skater.)

Hudson & Smith monumental mirror

Horace R. Hudson and John C. Smith. Monumental giltwood mirror, New York, ca. 1840. Labeled Hudson & Smith (active 1838–1852). Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Richard T. Button, 2018

The giltwood frame is an extraordinary 97 inches high (about 8 feet) and holds a single piece of mirrored glass. Its seven-board wooden back bears three large oval stencil marks in ink: From/Hudson & Smith/Looking Glass/Manufacturers/119/Fulton & 2 S Ann St./N-Y.

Hudson & Smith Stencil

One of Hudson & Smith’s ink stencil marks on the back of Bartow-Pell’s mirror

The firm of Hudson & Smith was active in New York City from 1838 to 1852. Horace R. Hudson’s partner was John C. Smith, who is listed as a gilder in New York City directories. The pair’s 1845 advertisement in Sheldon & Co.’s Business or Advertising Directory offers “looking glasses, looking glass plates, picture frames and curtain ornaments, wholesale and retail.” According to BPMM board member, Curatorial Committee co-chair, and classical decorative arts expert Carswell Berlin:

The firm of Hudson & Smith formed as early as 1838 and appears for the first time in Longworth’s City Directory in 1839 as “looking glass” makers at 119 Fulton Street, where they would remain as a looking-glass maker, at least until 1852. By 1857, Trow’s City Directory lists Horace R. Hudson as an “Agent” at the same address.  By 1862, Hudson is no longer listed. 

This is one of the largest—if not the largest—known documented New York mirrors of the first half of the 19th century. Hudson & Smith does not appear in Betty Ring’s “Check List of Looking-glass and Frame Makers and Merchants Known by Their Labels” (Magazine Antiques, May 1981), 1178–1195, so it can be inferred that mirrors marked by this firm are extremely rare and unknown as recently as 1981. 

Hudson & Smith Advertisement, 1845

Advertisement for Hudson & Smith. Sheldon & Co.’s Business or Advertising Directory, New York, 1845

Hudson & Smith, like some of their American competitors, may have used imported looking-glass plates from factories such as the Royal Mirror Glass Manufactory of St. Gobain in France, whose agents had operations in New York City starting in 1830.

Plate-Glass Importers Advertisement

Advertisement for Gay Lussac & Noël, importers of French plate glass. Sheldon & Co.’s Business or Advertising Directory, New York, 1845

This magnificent piece could have been used over a mantelpiece or as a pier mirror. A fashionable young couple in New York debated this very topic in an 1845 novel, Evelyn: A Tale of Domestic Life by Anna Cora Mowatt, when they “had an animated conversation . . . concerning the arrangement of a large mirror which they had just purchased” for their handsome house. “‘We must have it placed over the mantel-piece,’ said Mr. Merritt. ‘I bought it exactly to fit there.’ ‘No, no,’ returned Evelyn. ‘I do not like glasses over mantel-pieces; it must be placed between the windows.’” After much discussion, the besotted husband “acknowledged himself conquered,” and his wife put the mirror where she wanted it. And in 1839, the influential Scottish designer and writer J. C. Loudon (1783–1843) expressed his views on pier mirrors. He wrote, “In the pier between the windows should be a large looking-glass filling up the whole,” placed over a “marble slab . . . [with a] gilt stand supporting it. . . . On the slab might be china vases filled with flowers.”

Cleaning Looking-Glasses

Eliza Leslie. “Cleaning Looking-Glasses,” The House Book, or, A Manual of Domestic Economy, Philadelphia, 1844. A servant would have used methods like these and a tall ladder to clean Bartow-Pell’s monumental mirror.

Bartow-Pell is also the delighted recipient of a brass solar lamp from the Button collection. The lamp was made in England about 1830 and comprises a base with patinated and bright finishes and a frosted glass shade. Solar lamps—so named because their light shone brilliantly like the sun—used a tubular wick and central shaft to increase air flow, resulting in a brighter flame. As such, they resembled Argand lamps, but advances in the design of the font and burner allowed solar lamps to burn less expensive fuel.

Solar Lamp

Solar lamp. English, ca. 1830. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Richard T. Button, 2018

Lamps such as these were often used on center tables or on pier tables. Americans frequently imported lamps and other household objects from Britain, where there was a thriving metal industry, especially in Birmingham. For more information on 19th-century brass lamps, click here.

Henry Sargent, The Dinner Party, ca. 1821

Henry Sargent (American, 1770–1845). The Dinner Party, ca. 1821. Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Mrs. Horatio Appleton Lamb in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Winthrop Sargent. A large pier mirror hangs between the windows and a lamp sits atop the sideboard in this well-appointed dining room.

These superb new acquisitions from the Button collection help us to refine our period rooms so that we can better tell the story of the Bartow family and interpret their stately former home, which was built between 1836 and 1842. And isn’t it wonderful that our dramatic new mirror reflects the elegant beauty of the mansion’s classical entrance hall?

Margaret Highland, Historian

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More than Summer Style: An 1840s Straw Bonnet

 

Godey's April 1844

Fashion plate from Godey’s Lady’s Book, Philadelphia, April 1844. The middle figure wears a “straw bonnet trimmed with plain ribbon.” The woman at the left wears a fabric bonnet covered in white lace, and the lady of the house (seated) wears a day cap to receive her callers.

Nineteenth-century fashion editors in Paris, London, Philadelphia, and New York loved to write about straw bonnets. Why all the chatter?

This charming headgear was a spring and summer favorite for decades. The female population relished the thrill of buying or making a new bonnet, which was about as exhilarating as choosing a new dress. But the manufacture of straw bonnets was also an important milestone for women in the labor force, both as a cottage industry and in factories. And bonnets of all kinds were part of a social and even moral code that no longer exists today (except in certain cultures).

TC2012.31

Poke bonnet, 1840s. Probably New England. Straw and lace. This bonnet likely had decorative trimmings at one time. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mary Means Huber, TC2012.31

Let’s begin our discussion with an 1840s straw bonnet in Bartow-Pell’s collection. For most of that decade, bonnets had a small crown that merged with the brim in a straight line extending over the forehead. (Styles with projecting brims that partially obscure and shade the face are often called “poke bonnets.”) In the 1840s, many brims had very low sides that dipped below the chin line, and bonnet strings had to be attached and tied on the inside, forming an oval around the face. Bonnets were made of fabric (such as silk, satin, or crepe) or straw of various kinds. “Italian and rice straw, though so long in vogue for summer bonnets, promise still to retain their supremacy, though not certainly to the exclusion of other materials, particularly of fancy ones,” The Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, Music & Romance announced in 1841. Bonnets in the 1840s were worn with a bavolet—a ruffle or curtain at the back—which was not only decorative but also provided protection from the sun. A wide assortment of trimmings—artificial flowers, feathers, ribbons, lace, and more—allowed women to personalize and update their bonnets, and ladies enjoyed buying trimmings from bonnet shops and milliners. Bartow-Pell’s straw bonnet retains its shallow lace bavolet and was likely adorned with additional trimmings at one time.

Straw Bonnet, 1841

Italian straw bonnet and carriage dress from The Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, Music & Romance, London, July 1841. The bonnet is “trimmed with sprigs of scarlet geranium. Green ribbon, figured with white and scarlet at the borders, and a bouquet of geraniums adorn the crown.”

La Mode 5.22.1841

Chapeaux de paille d’Italie (Italian Straw Bonnets). Detail from a fashion plate published in La Mode, Paris and Brussels, May 22, 1841

American and British women looked to Paris for the latest fashions. In May 1841, an animated French editor wrote in La Mode that “à present!,” straw bonnets were the thing, along with airy scarves and lightweight and “vaporeuses” white fabrics. In their fashion choices, “jeunes femmes” must banish reminders of cold and fog, commanded the author. “Regardez le bleu du ciel, voyez la splendeur du soleil!” (Look at the blue of the sky, see the splendor of the sun!) In July 1844, the Ladies’ National Magazine of Philadelphia kept its American readers up to date on cutting-edge Paris bonnet styles: “Straws were never more in vogue in Paris, and they are almost universally adopted here, though drawn capotes [a bonnet made of shirred fabric] are very fashionable.”

Bonnets required special care. In The Young Lady’s Friend (1845 edition), Mrs. John Farrar cautioned against careless habits.

The practice of coming into the parlour with your walking-dress on . . . [and] throwing your bonnet down on one chair and your cloak on another, . . . gathering them up any how, and holding your bonnet by one string, or with a gripe [grasp] of the front that bends it; all these little things will in three months greatly deface your clothes . . . Bonnets are very much injured by lying about; they should be put into their proper box the very moment they are taken off the head, unless they are dusty or damp. In the former case, blow or wipe off the dust; in the latter, adjust the bows whilst you dry them; for a bonnet should always be put away in proper order to be worn again at a minute’s notice.

In A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1843 edition), Catharine Beecher counseled: “Bonnet-boxes, made of light wood, with a lock and key, are better than the paper bandboxes so annoying to travelers.” Others agreed. Beecher also advised that a “bonnet-cover, made of some thin material, like a large hood with a cape, is useful to draw over the bonnet and neck, to keep off dust, sun, and sparks from a steam engine. Green veils are very apt to stain bonnets, when damp.” Beecher and other authors also provided instructions on how to clean, whiten, and stiffen straw bonnets.

DT2051

George P. A. Healy (American, 1813–1894). Euphemia White Van Rensselaer, 1842. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Cornelia Cruger, 1923. This portrait of the daughter of a prominent New York family was painted in Paris in 1842. The sitter wears a bonnet with elegant and expensive trimmings in the latest fashion.

Bonnets were essential apparel for ladies appearing in public. Society and propriety demanded it. In 1843, Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal did not mince words: “It would appear that the wearing of a bonnet of silk, straw, or any other material, distinctly marks a woman as belonging to the lady class. If she has no bonnet, she is nobody; if she wear one, she is at once a person of consideration, at least of pretension.”

SC107275

Straw bonnet. Braided straw, paper lining, and wire wrapped in silk. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Miss Ellen A. Stone. This straw bonnet follows 1840s styles and was worn in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Straw hats were popularized in the late 18th century by fashion trailblazer Marie Antoinette, who wore them with simple white cotton dresses. This pastoral look—which was inspired by the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and its emphasis on the natural state—quickly became a trend that spread to Britain and America. Fine Leghorn straw hats from Italy were especially desirable, as were those made in Dunstable, England. In the late 1790s, Americans began to produce their own straw headgear instead of relying entirely on imports. The industry blossomed in Massachusetts, where women and girls not only prepared straw made from local rye and wove it into plaits at home but also worked in bonnet factories, a number of which sprang up in “straw towns.” According to census statistics in Manufactures of the United States (1865), “In 1845 Massachusetts turned out 1,046,954 straw bonnets and hats, valued at about as many dollars, and of straw braid to the value of $102,237.” These figures continued to climb, and by 1860 Massachusetts was producing straw goods valued at $3,398,466. Some production also occurred in a few other states in the Northeast. “The business in 1860 employed 40 establishments in the United States. . . . It gave employment to 826 male and 6863 female hands.”

New England Bonnet Makers

New England Bonnet Makers. Illustration from “Straw Bonnets,” 1864. Women and girls working at home were part of the production process.

Straw Bonnets,” an article published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in September 1864, describes the production process in homes and bonnet factories, from harvesting the rye to packing bonnets for shipment and sale. Although many workers learned their skills at home or on the job, charity schools in Philadelphia provided “for the instruction of girls in the plaiting of straw and the manufacture of straw bonnets and trimmings,” according to the book Philadelphia in 1824.

Wiring Hall

Portion of a Wiring Hall. “This is the pleasantest room we have yet visited, not only from its situation, but also on account of its occupants . . . for through the halls leading to it we hear the music of female voices, and as we draw nearer recognize the patriotic strains of ‘Hail Columbia.’ Yes, the ‘girls’ (as the female operatives are always called) are really singing!”

Nineteenth-century moralists targeted a number of alleged vices, and even the innocent straw bonnet did not escape censure. In 1825, An Essay on the Manufacture of Straw Bonnets, attributed to Samuel Standley, was published in Providence, Rhode Island. The author rebuked the industry and “its effects upon the employments, dress, food, health, morals, social intercourse, etc. of the inhabitants of the several towns in which it has been carried on.” This anti-feminist manifesto readily blames what the writer saw as the ills of American society and its moral decline on women earning a living making straw bonnets. These views must have provoked at least a few raised eyebrows and perhaps some scornful shrieks of laughter from factory girls.

Bonnet shop June 1845 Beau Monde

Fashions for June 1845. This illustration from the Nouveau Beau Monde depicts the bonnet department of W. C. Jay & Co. on Regent Street in London.

Moralizing novelists also jumped on board. In Temper, a work first published by Mrs. Opie in 1812 and reprinted in Philadelphia in 1843, a pretty straw bonnet with pale blue ribbons lay on a shop counter. What young lady wouldn’t be tempted by this “amazingly becoming” and fashionable item? “To resist . . . was impossible.” In this scene, the straw bonnet is used to convey a moral lesson in which the character succumbs to flattery, pride, and a lack of self-control by buying a bonnet she does not need and can barely afford while her disapproving grandmother looks on.

Bonnets appear in a variety of other writings from the period. They can represent respectability, such as when Fanny McDermot donned a “neat straw bonnet” to maintain her self-respect, in a work by Catharine Maria Sedgwick published by Godey’s in 1845. A Sunday bonnet is “a pretty straw bonnet trimmed with gay ribbons and flowers” in A Summer Journey in the West (1841). But young ladies in church could be distracted by “arranging your dress, or watching for the entrance of your friends, or spying out new bonnets,” admonished Mrs. John Farrar in The Young Lady’s Friend (1845). “My bonnet is perfect,” rhapsodized a flibbertigibbet named Isabella in The Young Lady’s Home (1839). Her father complimented her “uncommon taste in the choice of my bonnet” as they returned from church, and “W. bowed to me as I passed him, with such empressement.” Unsurprisingly, her pretty head was filled with thoughts of “delightful balls and parties” in the midst of her Sunday musings. Charles Dickens turned the straw bonnet into a comic prop in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844). Mrs. Hominy “was very straight, very tall, and not all flexible in face or figure. On her head she wore a great straw bonnet, with trimmings of the same, in which she looked as if she had been thatched by an unskillful labourer.”

Bartow-Pell’s straw bonnet may remind us of carefree summer days in the past, but it has a more complex story hidden under its brim.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Sea Breezes and Business as Usual: Mayor La Guardia’s Summer City Hall, 1936

New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia smiled broadly at photographers as his motorcade reached the historic Bartow mansion at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 2, 1936. The diminutive dynamo arrived for his official duties at the new summer city hall in Pelham Bay Park accompanied by his sometime nemesis Bronx Borough President James Lyons, who had joined the mayor and his entourage at the Bronx line as they traveled from Manhattan.

Mayor Arrives at Bartow, July 1936

Mayor Fiorello La Guardia arrives at the Bartow mansion with Bronx Borough President James J. Lyons on July 2, 1936. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum archives

The mayor’s move to the northern reaches of the city allowed him to spend some nights in Westport, Connecticut, where his wife and two children were summering. “He plans to take no regular vacation this summer and his visits to Westport will provide all the recreation he expects to get,” the New York Times reported on June 26, 1936. By relocating to the Bronx, La Guardia was also reminding constituents that there was more to New York City than Manhattan. And in the years before air conditioning, the city sweltered in July and August. Cooler sea air and the park’s acres of grass, shade trees, and marshland helped make the heat somewhat bearable. “From July 2 until Labor Day Mayor La Guardia forsook the City Hall, traditionally a summer hot box, and worked in the Bartow Mansion in Pelham Bay Park, facing breezy Long Island Sound. His office was cool and spacious, with twenty [sic]-foot ceilings, old paintings on the walls, and a view of a terraced garden with fragrant phlox, petunias, water lilies, roses,” the Times gushed at the season’s end. A reporter wrote that temperatures were about 15 degrees cooler inside the mansion, with its two-foot-thick stone walls.

James Lyons Presents Key to Bronx to La Guardia

Bronx Borough President James J. Lyons presents a symbolic key to the borough to Mayor La Guardia upon arrival at the summer city hall. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum archives

La Guardia’s obituary noted in 1947 that he “established a series of Summer City Halls, at the Bartow Mansion in the Bronx, in the old Chisholm mansion in College Point Park [Queens], and at the former Arrow Brook Golf and Country Club in Queens. When the city purchased the Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, it became the Mayor’s residence.” Today, both Bartow-Pell and Gracie Mansion are affiliated with the Historic House Trust of New York City.

Rear Elevation and Garden

Arnold Moses, photographer. East Elevation and Garden, Bartow mansion, October 12, 1936. Historic American Buildings Survey. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The International Garden Club had leased the old Bartow mansion from the city in 1914 and hired the architectural firm of Delano & Aldrich to restore the house and create a formal walled garden. Because many IGC members decamped to their country homes during the summer, the clubhouse was largely unused in July and August. After the mayor made plans for his summer city hall in 1936, a flurry of activity began at the mansion.

Preparations went on for the Mayor’s arrival at his summer headquarters tomorrow or Thursday. Three policemen were assigned to the mansion, two mounted and one on foot. Visitors were politely asked whether they had official business at the mansion before they were permitted to proceed [past the sentry booth]. Telephone lines were going in for the Mayor and newspapermen with him, and two Park Department employes [sic] were added to care for the grounds surrounding the mansion. Drink stands at the near-by Pelham Split Rock golf course got ready for a rush of business. New York Times, June 30, 1936

A teletype machine was installed at Bartow to transmit lengthy official documents to City Hall downtown. Journalists on the beat got creative. “One newspaper plans to use carrier pigeons to carry stories and pictures from the Summer City Hall to its offices in downtown Manhattan,” the Times divulged on June 27.

Teletype Machine

Teletype machines, which were telephonic devices similar to typewriters, were used to transmit documents. Private James C. Lee was photographed using one in 1948 at Camp Edwards, Kentucky. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library

The mansion’s small parking lot was a jumble of cars, including an eight-year-old converted police department patrol wagon that carried visitors from the Pelham Bay Park subway station to the summer city hall. Herman Spumberg drove the shuttle, which was labeled “City Hall Bus—Official Business.” The mayor’s Depression-era frugality was well intentioned, but the makeshift van broke down after about a month when Mr. Spumberg was turning into the Bartow driveway and its steering mechanism failed. The vehicle was towed to a police garage for repair.

The summer city hall was not popular with everyone. A few days before the move, the Times reported that 200 unemployed workers demonstrated at City Hall Park to ask for an increase in their public assistance payments and demand that the mayor “remain near the people.” The picketers’ spokesman complained, “He’s not the Mayor of Pelham Bay. He’s the chief executive of New York City.” The article also discusses the challenges faced by the mayor’s staff—“mosquitos, high fares, lack of restaurants, and inaccessibility.” The trip on public transportation from Times Square, for example, took about an hour and a quarter each way and involved subways, buses, and walking. Lunch options near the summer city hall were slim. “Mr. and Mrs. John Robertson, caretakers of the mansion, will look after the Mayor, but others must make the best shift they can.” Inaccessibility was an annoyance for some but beneficial for Mayor La Guardia, who “expects to get more work done in a shorter time because of the fewer number of interruptions.”

South Parlor--Mayor's Office

Arnold Moses, photographer. View from South to North Drawing Room, Bartow mansion, November 17, 1936. Historic American Buildings Survey. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Mayor La Guardia used the south parlor as his office. Carved eagles in the door pediments add a patriotic touch.

The mayor was the hero of a real-life fairytale on July 13, a few days after New Yorkers reeled in record heat. (The story evokes 1930s motion picture shorts starring Alfalfa and the other kids from Our Gang.) A group of boys, whose neighborhood playground was controlled by aggressive teens, decided to do something about the situation and went straight to the top brass for help.

Seven tired and begrimed youngsters trudged four miles from their homes to the Summer City Hall yesterday to ask Mayor La Guardia for a playground in their section of the Bronx and found their wish gratified as if Aladdin had rubbed his legendary lamp. The youngsters, ranging in age from 9 to 12 years, were on the grounds of the Bartow Mansion before the Mayor arrived. . . . When the Mayor came they told him what they wanted. . . . “Wait a few minutes,” he said, “and I’ll see what I can do for you.” While seven pairs of dusty shoes swung hopefully beneath as many chairs in the Mayor’s reception room, the Mayor got the Police Department on the telephone. At his request the police made a play area of Buck Street between Seddon Street and Zerega Avenue. . . . When the Mayor told them the location of their new play street, they were highly elated. Their delight reached a higher point when . . . the Mayor’s assistant secretary gave them each a nickel to save them the long walk home. They rode down to the Pelham Bay Park subway station free in the City Hall bus and took the subway home from there. New York Times, July 14, 1936

Pelham Bay Orchard Beach 1903

Wooden bath houses, Pelham Bay, Orchard Beach, 1903. Postcard. Collection of Thomas X. Casey. These old structures were demolished in the 1930s.

There were other big happenings in Pelham Bay Park during the summer of 1936. Orchard Beach, an ambitious construction project under Parks Commissioner Robert Moses that was chiefly funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), was one of a number of new aquatic centers in the city. The site, which was partially visible across the water from the old Bartow property, comprised a mile-long seawall, a crescent-shaped manmade beach, a Moderne-style bathhouse, a promenade, concession buildings, and parking for thousands of cars. In July 1936, about a year before the recreation facility was completed, the beach partially opened to the public amidst a great deal of fanfare. Mayor La Guardia addressed 10,000 people at the dedication ceremony, in which he and Commissioner Moses exchanged “thrusts,” according to the Times. In the evening, the fireworks continued. But this time, instead of from the podium, the pyrotechnic display—which was viewed by 15,000 people—was spectacularly launched from a barge 1,500 feet offshore.

Orchard Beach

Main Pavilion and Dining Terrace, Orchard Beach. Postcard. Collection of Thomas X. Casey. The prominent architect Aymar Embury II and well-known landscape architects Gilmore D. Clarke and Michael Rapuano designed the new complex.

The mayor’s press corps worked from an office specially made for them in the basement of the mansion. The wooden cubicles (replete with whimsical doodles on the adjoining plaster wall) and toilet stall remain today. This subterranean work space was often the coolest part of the building in summer. Russell Owen, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1930 for his news reports on Byrd’s Antarctic expedition, visited the summer city hall in August to interview the mayor. “Certainly the atmosphere is very business-like,” he wrote, “even if two reporters come in laughing and carrying large wooden balls with which they have apparently been bowling on the green.”

1936 Bartow-Pell Formal Garden

Aerial view of the Bartow mansion and gardens, 1936. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum archives

The sizzling summer of 1936 was a time when New Yorkers favored white shoes, bare heads, and Panama hats. Billie Holiday recorded “Summertime,” and Jesse Owens made history at the Berlin Olympics. The ill-fated Hindenburg broke records. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal lent a hand to Depression-weary Americans while fascism brewed in Europe. For Mayor La Guardia, this was a time of “marked change in him, with nervous pressure relieved, since callers are relatively few, and his prevailing mood in the informal atmosphere in which his work is carried on is gay and bantering,” the Times enthused in August. The mayor had the chance to occasionally grab a rare moment to “sit alone and invite his soul,” wrote journalist Russell Owen, who chatted with La Guardia as the mayor sat at his desk and mused, looking through open French doors at the pretty garden and drinking coffee from a blue china pot. “The air’s better,” he said, “but the atmosphere is the same.”

Margaret Highland, Historian

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