I was watching an old PBS documentary on NYC when the movie showed a photo of “The Abigail Adams Smith House Museum”. The makers of the movie went on to specify that the Abigail in question was the daughter of President John Adams. Intrigued, I decided to investigate this further: I pride myself on knowing a lot about history, especially NYC history and architecture. Since I could not find a listing for it, I researched it on the Web and found that it is now called “Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and Garden”. This interested me even further: I live only about a dozen blocks from this place, which was located on 61st between York and First Ave.
On I went without delay and soon was knocking on a white Federalist front door. It turned out that the Colonial Dames of America owned and operated this property, together with Van Cortland’s manor in the Bronx. To my delight, I discovered several docents waiting to give a tour and we proceeded promptly. The house has eight furnished rooms and very interesting history: built as a Carriage House in 1799, it was constructed on a track of land belonging to a certain Colonel William Stephens Smith who was married to Abigail Adams. That’s all the relation to the President. It was not even built by the Colonel, just on his land. And as for Mrs. Adams Smith, she never visited this place. That’s probably the reason it was renamed. Anyway, the Carriage House changed hands in 1926, one year after the opening of the Erie Canal and was converted into a Day Hotel. Being so far North in the country (the City only extended to 14th street at the time), it was used as a place for Day trips and relaxation. It could be reached by the Steamboat or the Stagecoach and people came to relax in the country, sip lemonade (ladies) and whiskey (gentlemen) and swim in the clean waters of the East River! It was just one of several Day hotels located in the country north of the City. It lasted as such for seven years, then changed hands several time, stayed in the same family for three generations and eventually fell in disrepair until the Colonial Dames of America acquired it.
The house is full with interesting objects, like a miniature French pipe organ, jewelry made of hair, some exposed wooden beams dating from the original construction, just think: that’s 214 years ago! The interpretive tour takes you through all the rooms complete with Fainting Beds (!) and Turtle Soup on the table in the Dining Room. Squeezed between giant neighbors today, the house once had nice view on the river and plenty of grass and flowers surrounding it. Nowadays the charming little garden is a strange anachronism in the hustle and bustle of York. An interesting painting shows the Hotel at the time it was functioning as such.
Our guide told us the painting was found in a neighborhood house and the owners gave it to the museum! The guide was eager to please and had certain knowledge of the house, but not much of history, regrettably. The admission is modest and worth it, tours are available at any time they are open (check their website for open days, I believe it’s 6 days a week). Unfortunately, photography is not allowed and this is strictly enforced. I later found out this was one of the eight oldest buildings in Manhattan.
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