Saturday, May 12, 2012

Through a Glass, Darkly

"The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there." The first line of L.P. Hartley's haunting novel, "The Go-Between," captures the paradox of different worlds occupying the same place. For centuries, the luscious shorelines of Manhattan and the Bronx were ornamented with the country mansions of an established local gentry. Entire worlds, albeit small ones, were eradicated by the cancerous growth of the city - eradicated not just from the map, but from human memory. In all of the five boroughs there is only one house that truly preserves an otherwise vanished reality. It is a Greek Revival manse buried in the middle of Pelham Bay Park and called the Bartow-Pell Mansion. Not so easy to get to, as it happens, which may have something to do with its survival. However, here I am at the gates on Shore Road, about to have a look.

The house was built between 1836 and 1842 by a man named Robert Bartow (1792-1868). I'd guess the view below was taken some time around the Civil War. Bartow was like many long forgotten New Yorkers with centuries-old roots in once rural areas. His great-great-great-and I might be forgetting a 'great' here somewhere-grandfather, Thomas Pell (1608-1669), bought the land on which this house was built from the Siwanoy Indians in 1654. It is a moot point whether the Indians, whose culture did not include the concept of land ownership, saw the transaction in the same light Pell did. Interesting to note, one of the parties to the transfer was a warrior known alternately as Wampage and Anhooke. The latter name is a corruption of Anne Hutchinson, the famous religious dissident who fled intolerant Puritans in New England only to be slaughtered by warlike Indians in Westchester. According to historian Lockwood Barr, "it was customary among the Indians when they murdered some important personage, to add the name of their victim to their own name - and so Wampage took the name of Anne Hutchinson, which became Anhooke." The name is now affixed to a well known parkway.

Robert Bartow's ancestors had styled themselves Lords of the Manor of Pelham since 1687, when Thomas Pell received the first royal patent. Pelham, incidentally, was New York's second English patent, the first being the Manor of Fordham. The land on which this house stands was actually sold out of the family for a brief period. Robert Bartow bought it back in 1836 and built the house that he and his descendants lived in for over forty years, before the city bought it in 1888 for the new Pelham Bay Park. The park was a remarkable bit of foresight on the part of city fathers. In 1888 the rural look of the past was largely intact hereabouts, and the coming urbanization of the modern Bronx unimaginable. Indeed, for ten years between 1894 and 1904, the city rented the house to people named Turnbull who used it as a country place.

Single family occupancy came to an end in 1904, when the city found a new tenant, the Day Home and School for Crippled Children, which shared it with the International Sunshine Society for the Blind.

Then came bad days of abandonment and dereliction. Like a broken hip on an elderly person, the end seemed in sight.

However, this was not to be. In 1914, the house, now a wreck, was rented to the rather grandly named International Garden Club. This never very large group of deep pocket society ladies promptly hired the fashionable architectural firm of Delano and Aldrich to renovate the house and lay out new formal gardens.

The founder and first president of the club was Mrs. C.F. (Zelia) Hoffman, whose father-in-lalw was a society clergyman named Rev. Charles Frederick Hoffman (1830-1897). Rev. Hoffman was one of the heirs of a Manhattan-based real estate fortune. In 1890 he paid for the construction of his own church, All Angels Episcopal on West End Avenue and 81st St., now demolished. In 1904, his other son William M.V. Hoffman hired the firm of Barney and Chapman to build a stone castle in Tuxedo Park where, as it happens, yours truly used to live. But, I digress. Mrs. Hoffman's plans for the new clubhouse paled in comparison to her plans for future formal gardens. The image below shows Delano and Aldrich's proposal for a mammoth walled rose garden adjacent to the gate on Shore Road. It was never built.

What did get built, and survives today, is a sunken terraced garden bounded by the house on the north, picturesque stone walls on the east and west flanks, and an ornate wrought iron fence with formal gate to lawns on the south. Although the clubhouse was private, the gardens were open to the public. After the First World War, Mrs. Hoffman's enthusiasm seems to have waned. She moved to England in 1921 and died there in 1929. The Club carried on, although it's not clear to me exactly how or to what extent. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia occupied the clubhouse during the summer of 1936, referring to it as his "summer city hall." In 1946 it was opened to the public as a "house museum."

This is the house I saw last Wednesday, seemingly intact and evocatively - indeed uniquely - still situated in the middle of literally thousands of forested acres in Pelham Bay Park. There is a golf course in this park, and Orchard Beach on the waterfront, but the majority of the place is simply untouched woods and lonely wetlands. The house is kind of solemn looking. The shutters that once softened its elevations would be a welcome addition today.

The interiors are chock-a-block with the elegant details that make the American Greek Revival simultaneously formal and endearing. This pedimented Greek surround encloses a solid mahogany front door.

Edith Wharton's famous book, "The Decoration of Houses," argues that staircases are inherently private since they led to private family quarters on another floor. Even the term "staircase" suggests a compartment away from public view. The visual pleasure derived from this one, however, makes it hard to agree with her.

I considered using this for internet dating, but decided it was better here.

The doors flanking this niche on the south wall of the entrance hall access the rural version of those double parlors we see in Greek Revival houses in town. French doors from each let onto a stone terrace overlooking the sunken garden.

Equally elegant as its architecture is Bartow-Pell's extraordinary collection of period furniture. Some is from the site's own collection, the rest is on permanent loan from the Metropolitan and Brooklyn Museums, and the Museum of the City of New York.

In Victorian days this door led to a dirt floored conservatory packed no doubt with palms, orchids and lush succulents. Delano and Aldrich converted it to a stone floored orangerie.

Parallel to the orangerie is this elongated room, identified in period furniture inventories as a library. Today it contains museum exhibits. It is in turn connected to a small reception room, beyond which we'll be back in the main hall

The dining room is a textbook essay on the Greek Revival, straight out of a Minard Lafever pattern book. Beyond it, a service hall passes the back stairs en route to the kitchen.

I probably would have loved Delano and Aldrich's 1914 kitchen, but I don't love this one. Whoever inflicted it on the house (probably some time in the 1960s) at least left the serving pantry and its very 1914 looking cabinets alone.

I love old doors in old houses. The patined silver knob on this one speaks eloquently of almost two centuries of human use. What's that behind it? Why, it's just the sort of thing you won't find in a new house, specifically, a family tombstone from 1760, waiting to go back to the family plot behind the house.

It's time to explore the second floor.

Four family bedrooms, one currently interpreted as a sitting room, radiate off the second floor hall. The upstairs furniture is every bit as superb as the things downstairs. Bartow-Pell educational director Margaret Highland was particularly proud of the first canopied bed below, which was made by emigre Frenchman Charles-Honore Lannuier (1779-1819).

The fourth bedroom is simpler than the others, both in architecture and furnishings.

There was no indoor plumbing in 1836, and the two bathrooms on the second floor look to me like late nineteenth century installations. The first is off the hall; the second wedged between the water-facing bedrooms. Of the two, the second looks more modern at first glance. I'd date them both to the same period, however, largely because the tubs are identical.

This short hall leads down a few steps (the ceilings in the wing ahead are lower) to the back stairs and second floor of the kitchen wing. Robert Bartow had seven children and I'm told they inhabited a warren of four additional bedrooms ranged around a small central lobby located above the kitchen. These rooms are now a caretaker's apartment, and not a part of my tour. Honestly, I would have expected servants to live in this part of the house, but I guess seven children had to be stashed somewhere.

The beautiful main stair continues to the third floor, where there's not much to see, except mighty roof rafters notched and pegged with wood, from an era when nails were a luxury.

I went to the basement too, but found it depressingly like my basement in Millbrook - which is to say, a place one wants to get out of as rapidly as possible.

The last thing I did was make a circuit of the exterior. I hardly believed I was in the Bronx, as every sensory cue suggested I was far away in the country.

In the eighteenth century the Manor of Pelham, like many places in New England, had been essentially clear cut. When Bartow came along and built his house, there would have been vast water views from almost every window. By the early twentieth century, the mansion still had a view - albeit diminished - of the Sound, but that view is obscured today by trees.

Beyond this gate, one leaves the formality of the garden, crosses a lawn, and enters what seems for all the world to be a primeval woodland. I glanced back at the house then set off on a dark path through the forest.

Suddenly before me was the ancient burial plot of the Pells. Remember that tombstone behind the kitchen door? This is where it belongs. Well into the nineteenth century, private family grave yards were a frequently found feature in the city. Even in Manhattan today, there remains a scattering of little graveyards, paradoxically silent amidst the surrounding urban cacaphony. There is no cacaphony here. Utter tranquility surrounds the sleeping Pells.

Time to head back, this time along the sunken garden's western wall.

The Bartow-Pell Mansion is owned by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, operated by the Bartow-Pell Conservancy, and a member of the Historic House Trust of New York City. It is presently enrolled in a competition for grant money from an outfit called Partners in Preservation, a joint venture of American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The public will determine who the winners are by means of online voting, and you can cast your vote repeatedly, as long as it's not more than once a day. If Bartow-Pell wins, they'll get $155,000 to restore the sunken garden and the grave yard. You can read more about this at or

The outside world has not been banished completely, alas, as Pelham Bay Park is on the approach route to LaGuardia.

Here's what those airplane passengers are seeing out the windows.


  1. Marvelous post, and excellent reportage. I recently learned of the B-P house for the first time, and was planning a trip there, only to learn that it was closed on the day that I had planned to visit it. Instead I went to see the Grange, Alexander Hamilton's recently restored house in Harlem, and the nearby Morris-Jumel, sadly looking rather the worse for wear. I shall nw be sure to plan a visit to th B-P house. I wasn't aware of the Delano and Aldrich angle, which makes it even more appealling, in my view. RD

  2. My favorite of all your posts so far. I will have to favorite this and return.

  3. Wonderful publish, as well as superb reportage. Recently i discovered from the B-P home with regard to the very first time, as well as had been planning for a journey presently there, and then discover it had been shut about the day time which i decided to go to this.

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