To get to the Mount Vernon Museum & Garden you must first head east, along 61st Street, past 3rd, 2nd and 1st Avenue. When you see the giant Bed, Bath & Beyond you’re close. Almost under the heavy metal cantilever of the Queensboro bridge, just a stone’s throw before the East River, and you’ll know you’ve arrived. Now walk up the brick stairs, shrug off the 21st century and go back in time. All the way to the late 1700s.
The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden, built in 1799, began its career as a carriage house and, if you poke around the gardens at the end of the tour, you’ll see the second floor driveway used for just that purpose. It didn’t last long as a carriage house; we won’t talk about the dreadful fire that did away with the Manor House across the way. Its new owner, Joseph Coleman Hart, benefitting from said unsaid fire—perhaps an overturned candle—turned it into a full-fledged hotel in 1826. It was mainly a day hotel, used by the upper middle class neighbors (who lived below 14th Street) for a day in the “country”. It was occasionally used as a hotel by foreigners travelling by on boat, but its main use was a weekend getaway for locals.
First stop on my tour was a short video about New York in the early 1800s, which, thankfully, won’t bore you to tears. It includes historical facts that set you up nicely for wandering the house afterwards. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say it was worth watching, just to see the young actress wearing a tightly cinched period dress and bonnet with a straight face.
After the video, Gloria, my adorable, gray-haired tour guide, walked me through the ladies area on the second floor. This was where the women would relax, chat, gossip, play the piano and lay down, to rest their corseted ribs of course. There was a parlor on the second floor, for when the men and women would gather, as well as one or two rooms for actual overnight guests. These bedrooms were plain and simple: no carpet, paper shades, and simple dÃ©cor. Bedrooms that said, stay one night, but no longer.
It’s fairly jaw dropping to see a brick house from the late 1700’s still sitting on prime Manhattan real estate. The house had a short career as an official hotel, once the cholera epidemic hit in 1833 there were no longer people to come visit or even to do the work. The house passed hands, luckily, through just two more owners before finding its final caretaker, in 1924, with the Colonial Dames of America. The dames fixed up the house in time for the 1939 World Fair, which was held in Flushing. But it wasn’t until 2000 that the house was put back into historically accurate condition. This was in no small part due to a book that was written by James Stuart, a long-time guest of the hotel, who wrote a book called Three Years in North America. It’s lucky for us that Stuart went into great detail about the Mount Vernon Hotel. The book is available for sale in the nook-sized gift store.
After toodling around upstairs, Gloria took me downstairs to see where the men would hang out. I’m sure you can imagine what they did for fun: they played cards, drank liquor, read the paper and used spittoons. It all sounded good to me, except for that last one. The men also had a desk, for jotting off a letter. Did you know that back then postage was due by the receiver, not the sender?
Next to the men’s area was the dining room, where both the men and women would dine, perhaps on turtle soup, which was served in the actual shell of the turtle. Just off the dining room was the kitchen, where you’ll find a nice laminated version of the turtle recipe soup, should you be game for the task. The hard-working staff in the kitchen had to keep their skirts wet from the knee down so they didn’t ignite.
Out back is a small but quaint garden, large enough to stroll for a few minutes. In the summer the museum hosts concerts, which could be pretty fun. While you’re out in the garden, be sure to look up at the back of the brick building, laid into the wall is the year it was built and, jutting out its roof, there’s a high-rise that reminds you that yes, it is actually 2012.
The museum was a quiet, offbeat way to spend my afternoon. A reminder of the way things once were, no internet, no iPhones, a time when I could have been hanging out on the second floor, doing needlepoint.
The Mount Vernon Hotel
412 E 61st Street
New York, NY 10065