The present proprietor has lately erected a fine stone house, in the Grecian style, which presents a neat front with projecting wings. Robert Bolton Jr., A Guide to New Rochelle and Its Vicinity, 1842
Robert and Maria Bartow wanted to live in high style. And they had the perfect opportunity to do just that in the 1830s when Mrs. Bartow inherited from her uncle George Lorillard a handsome sum, which enabled the couple to build an elegant stone mansion “in the Grecian style.” Surrounded by expansive lawns and sweeping views of Long Island Sound, their new house—in what later became known as the Greek Revival style—was a status symbol that proclaimed the family’s good taste and social position to admiring visitors and passersby and created a grand impression befitting the descendants of the Lords of the Manor of Pelham.
Why did Robert and Maria Bartow decide to leave New York City? Tragedy struck in December 1835, just before Christmas, when two of their four young children died at the family’s home in today’s lower Manhattan, probably from a contagious disease. Dramatically, this was the same week as New York’s Great Fire of 1835, when high winds and frigid temperatures made it difficult to control rapidly spreading flames that destroyed hundreds of buildings. Although there was little loss of life, the conflagration was witnessed by a terrified New York City populace. The traumatized Bartows were probably anxious to leave urban perils behind, and, four months later, they purchased their country property, which had belonged to Robert Bartow’s Pell ancestors and to his grandfather John Bartow (1740–1816). Robert must have had fond boyhood memories of the estate, when his grandfather “kept open house to all his relatives and friends, and his home was the center of attraction in the society of the county from the hearty welcome they always received.” (Evelyn Bartow, Bartow Genealogy, 1878). Now, retired from business, Robert Bartow could live the life of a modern “Lord of the Manor,” following in the footsteps of his venerated Pell ancestors.
On April 25, 1836, the couple bought 233 acres from Herman LeRoy for $40,000. Tradition says that the seventeenth-century Pell manor house was destroyed during the American Revolution and replaced with another dwelling around 1790. This second house no longer exists, but it is believed that Robert and Maria lived there during the six years it took to build their new home. Construction was likely under way by 1838, when the Bartow tutor Augustus Moore wrote: “Mr. Bartow and I have many pleasant walks about the place examining the improvements, etc.” The family moved into the mansion in 1842.
Greek Revival architecture was in full swing when the Bartows built their new house. This was a common style for domestic structures in the United States from the 1820s to the 1850s and first became popularized by public buildings such as William Strickland’s Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia (1819–24). The revival of Grecian style in the Western world resulted from a widespread interest in classical archaeology, antiquity, and the architecture of ancient Greece. The United States—with its roots in Thomas Jefferson’s embrace of classical architecture as an appropriate style for the new American republic—was particularly receptive to Greek Revival designs. Prosperous times and new-found wealth, especially after construction of the Erie Canal in New York State, led to a proliferation of this new “National Style.” Pattern books by Asher Benjamin (1773–1845) and Minard Lafever (1798–1854) were important disseminators of architectural elements, serving as guides for builders, carpenters, and craftsmen. Greek Revival had become de rigueur in America.
Greek Revival buildings often mimic ancient Greek temples, with porticoes, colonnades, and columns, but the presence of these elements was not required, and they are non-existent at the Bartow mansion. Nevertheless, many standard Greek Revival features are found at Bartow-Pell, including a symmetrical main façade, a heavy cornice above a wide band of trim, and a low-pitched hipped roof. A pseudo-pediment above the front door adds a classical component that echoes the interior pediment profile. Some other classical design details—such as niches—create cohesion and balance between the front and back façades and the interior. The mansion’s two projecting wings owe a debt to the architectural legacy of Palladio.
Bartow-Pell’s subtle exterior contrasts with its robust high-style Greek Revival interiors. In the double parlors, dynamic carved wooden winged cherub’s heads and eagles in high relief fill the pediments; double anthemia (honeysuckle petals) adorn the pilasters; and acanthus and papyrus leaves embellish Corinthian capitals.
Plaster ornamentation includes dentil molding and elaborate ceiling medallions. The somewhat unusual combination of eagles and cherubs—both winged creatures—provides decorative continuity between the two rooms, and the wing form adapts easily to fill the sloping sides of the pediments. The eagle, a popular patriotic motif in the nineteenth century, has sometimes been identified as a more masculine element, perhaps chosen by Mr. Bartow. The cherub’s more feminine overtones suggest an affinity with Mrs. Bartow.
Now for the big question: Who designed the Bartow mansion?
So far, the architect’s identity is lost in history. No drawings, plans, or documents related to the mansion’s design and construction have ever come to light. Architectural scholars have often noted that some of the mansion’s Greek Revival details appear to derive from Minard Lafever’s guides and pattern books, such as the 1833 edition of The Modern Builder’s Guide, and sometimes the mansion is even attributed to him, but there is no evidence that Lafever designed Robert Bartow’s residence.
Perhaps coincidentally, Robert Bartow’s brother Edgar John Bartow hired Lafever in the mid-1840s to design the Gothic Revival-style Church of the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn and commissioned stained-glass artisans and brothers William Jay Bolton and John Bolton—whom Edgar John likely met because the Boltons were Robert Bartow’s neighbors—to design and execute the church windows. According to the 1850 census, John Bolton (1818–1898) was employed as a “glass stainer,” but he was working as an architect by 1855 in New York City at 348 Broadway and was in practice with his brother-in-law John Schuyler, a civil engineer. John Bolton has sometimes been identified as possibly designing the Bartow mansion, but this is doubtful because he was only eighteen years old when Robert and Maria bought the property and there is no evidence that Bolton was employed as a professional architect before 1855. Furthermore, he is not mentioned in his brother Robert’s published description of the house. However, the Bolton brothers were also woodworkers, and perhaps John helped with some of the wood carving or carpentry at the mansion. (He later became an Episcopal priest.)
Other attributions for the Bartow mansion have been suggested, including Thomas Cole (1801–1848), the Hudson River School painter and sometime architect who married Robert Bartow’s first cousin Maria Bartow, and Martin Euclid Thompson (1787–1877), who has been named as the architect of Hawkswood, a nearby Greek Revival house known as the Marshall mansion (and later the Colonial Inn) that was among the historic Pelham Bay dwellings demolished by Robert Moses during the 1930s. Finally, as clients, how involved were the Bartows in the building’s design, and how much influence did they exert over the unknown architect?
At present, we can only speculate on who designed the Bartow mansion, but we hope that one day this Greek Revival mystery will be solved.
Margaret Highland, Historian