Tucked away behind rows of prewar stone apartment buildings, on a tiny side street that most rush hour travelers tend to overlook, is a dramatic white house – a mansion – that, if you never knew it existed, you would never believe it resides in New York.
This is the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Feted as “Manhattan’s oldest house,” the mansion was built in 1765 by British officer Roger Morris. Besides being the oldest house on the block, the Morris-Jumel’s other claim-to-fame is its service as residence of General George Washington during the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776 and site of then-President Washington’s dinner with his Cabinet in 1790. The prestigious Jumel family then owned the house for a whopping 75 years.
The Morris-Jumel mansion is one of only seven buildings still standing in Manhattan that remains from the 18th-century. Other buildings on this list include the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum on 61st Street, Fraunces Tavern downtown, and the mayor's Gracie Mansion. Morris-Jumel has historic significance both in terms of political importance and private ownership.
The mansion has had a long history, a history visitors can see and feel as they walk through its halls. Overlooking the Harlem River on Jumel Terrace, the mansion sits on a sizeable amount of land that must have been idyllic in its early years during the 18th and 19th centuries. As it is now, there is very little noise from the surrounding city that makes its way to the cloistered grounds.
Enter through the columned main entrance at the south end of the house and you’ll walk into the grand hall, following in the footsteps of Washington and the Jumels. To the left is the parlor where in 1833, Madame Eliza Jumel married Revolutionary War hero Aaron Burr. At the end of the hall is an octagonal drawing room meant for public galas. The two-story octagonal architectural addition to the house is said to be the first of its kind in America. Each room is significant, furnished with items used by residents of the house and decorated with period wallpaper and carpeting, a testament to the grandeur of the family and the times.
Wander up the staircase and view the bedrooms of Eliza Jumel, George Washington, and Aaron Burr. Eliza’s beautifully-decorated blue bedroom boasts Empire-style upholstered armchairs, wall-to-wall gold and blue carpets, and lavish drapes. A four-poster intricately-carved wooden bed takes pride-of-place in Aaron Burr’s bedroom, as does a more simple white canopy bed in Washington’s room.
The details of the house are what make it so charming and attractive. The graffiti on the upstairs stained glass windows, the floral wallpaper in the drawing room, the original beehive oven in the basement’s kitchen, and the chandelier dangling gracefully in the dining room, all make the Morris-Jumel Mansion the beloved iconic 18th-century historic home that it is.
Stop by any Wednesday through Sunday, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. for a self-guided tour. Admission is only $5 per adult and the house also offers a number of seasonal public programs that make it well worth the trip uptown. In the spring, take some time to traverse the sunken garden that surrounds the north end of the property. The mansion also hosts modern exhibitions that tie in to the house’s history, interesting juxtapositions to the house itself and a way to promote the works of artists in the area. Morris-Jumel Mansion is a beautiful spot to relax, enjoy the grounds, and learn a little bit of history in the process.