Image via New York Public Library from Washington Irving’s Life of Washington
Stripped to the waist in the hot sun of an August afternoon in 1846 the young journalist and poet Edgar Allan Poe pushed his borrowed rowboat out from the sandy beach at the foot of 47th Street, headed for a swim in the sparkling waters of the East River off the southern end of Blackwell’s Island. As he pulled on the oars he would have looked back at a charming rural scene arranged along the shore of Turtle Bay- on his left, at the foot of 46th Street, an ancient stone wharf and warehouse once used by the British army to store powder and shot and raided by the Liberty Boys on a moon-lit night in 1775. In the distance was the roof of the summer cottage of his friend and benefactor Horace Greeley. Up on the bluff to his right he would have seen Mount Pleasant, the elegant pale yellow Beekman Mansion, nestled in its lush gardens and orchards. In his commentary for the Columbia Spy magazine Poe wrote, “I procured a light skiff and made my way around Blackwell’s Island on a voyage of discovery and exploration. The chief interest lay in the scenery of the Manhattan shore, which is here particularly picturesque. The houses are frame and antique”¦I could not look on the magnificent cliffs and stately trees, which at every moment met my view, without a sigh for the inevitable doom — inevitable and swift.” Poe was prescient… it’s all gone now, even most of the magnificent cliffs.
That grand house, country seat of the eminent Beekman family since 1763, once echoed with the footsteps of George Washington, General Sir William Howe, Baroness Fredericka von Riedesel, Dr Morey, the “Painless Dentist”, Captain Nathan Hale on the night before his hanging and Major John Andre on the night before his fateful meeting with Benedict Arnold. In the wake of the Manhattan real estate boom that followed the Civil War, few lamented the destruction of the house in 1874. It had been carefully moved by the Beekman family when 50th and 51st Streets were cut to grade and it was perched on a rock twenty feet above the sidewalk on 50th Street. A rickety wooden staircase climbed from First Avenue to the front door when Dr Morey and his wife lived there in 1872 and she invited the NYTimes in to see the interior that they had painstakingly restored. Mrs Morey told the Beekman family story of the carved swans on the drawing room’s wooden mantelpiece: in 1778 a drunken British officer had broken off the head of one of the swans and a private in General Howe’s personal guard carved another to replace it. The mantlepieces and paneling of the reception rooms are now somewhere in the New York Historical Society, along with James Beekman’s impressive coach and the wonderful family portraits.
In James Beekman’s time the house was approached from a long drive that led from the Boston Post Road (present-day Third Avenue), through an orchard of peach and apricot trees, up to an elegant greenhouse, filled with lemon and orange trees. It was here, in the afternoon of September 21, 1776 that General Sir William Howe condemned Nathan Hale to be hanged the next morning. Howe suspected that Captain Hale was one of the supposed rebel incendiaries responsible for setting the catastrophic fires that destroyed a quarter of the city the night before. The next morning young Nathan Hale met his untimely end in a British artillery park next to the old Dove Tavern at present-day 66th Street and Third Ave, just a few drinks down from Elaine’s.
Just beyond the greenhouse stood the large main residence, embowered in stately trees and flower gardens. Its porches looked out on a panoramic view of the East River and the farms of Long Island.
Baroness von Riedesel is my favorite resident of Mount Pleasant because she truly appreciated the estate and, in her journal, left us a vivid account of the year she spent there in 1780. She and her husband, commander of the German troops at the Battle of Saratoga, were captives of the Continental Army after General Burgoyne’s disastrous defeat and surrender. The Baroness was allowed to travel to British headquarters in New York and the British commander, General Henry Clinton graciously invited her to occupy Mount Pleasant. She arrived in the midst of a blizzard during the worst New York winter in living memory. The snowdrifts were eight feet high.
In her journal of that year at Mount Pleasant she observed, “Our excellent friend, General Clinton, who was general-in-chief of the English army in the southern provinces of America, offered us his country residence. It was magnificent, in a most beautiful situation of orchard and meadow and the river running directly in front of the house. Everything was placed at our disposal, including fruits of the most delicious flavor; indeed of this latter article we had more than we could eat. Our servants feasted on peaches, even to satiety, and our horses, which roamed through the orchards, eagerly ate from the trees, distaining that upon the ground, which every evening we had gathered up and given to the pigs to fatten them. It seems almost incredible, but nevertheless it is true, that with nothing but this fruit we fattened six pigs, the flesh of which was capital, only the fat was somewhat soft.”
When peace was declared in 1783 the von Riedesels returned to Germany and the Beekmans returned to Mount Pleasant. Before their hurried departure in the fall of 1776 they had hidden the family silver and paintings behind a secret panel in an upstairs closet. On their return they found their treasures untouched.
Today elegant Beekman Place is the only faint reminder of a lost era. Except for the rise of ground at the river’s edge, no trace remains of the picturesque scenery Edgar Allen Poe so admired on that hot August afternoon in 1846.