With the “slash and burn” construction so rampant in Manhattan, you will rarely find a structure from days gone by that the wrecking ball has somehow overlooked. The Mount Vernon Museum Hotel & Garden, a hidden gem amidst the skyscrapers, is such a place.
Designed for Horses and Hay
It wasn’t always a museum, nor was it always a hotel. Once a lowly carriage house, this treasure from 1799 originally served the 23-acre country estate of Colonel William Stephens Smith and his wife, Abigail Adams Smith. As the eldest child of second president John Adams, Abigail frequently socialized with George Washington, and in his honor, she and her husband named their Manhattan acreage “Mount Vernon.”
Abigail died in 1813, and the mansion, in which the Smiths never actually lived, burned to the ground in 1826.
New York’s Playground for the Rich and Connected
In the early 1800s, 14th Street marked New York City’s upper limits. Nothing more than hills, trees and riverfront existed four miles to the north, an oasis to which many of New York’s wealthier residents would flock to escape the summer heat. In 1826 investor Joseph Hart, seeing an opportunity, purchased the still-intact carriage house. He turned it into a day resort, named it the Mount Vernon Hotel, and opened for business.
A Day in the Country, 1830s-Style
In its carriage-house days, horses and hay had occupied the building’s first floor. In its second incarnation, this floor now contained a gentlemen’s parlor, tavern, kitchen and dining room, where hotel guests savored such popular delicacies as turtle soup.
The second story, which had originally housed the carriages, now boasted two ladies’ parlors and an upper hall. Here the visiting women socialized, practiced their embroidery, and impressed one another with their fashionable dresses and hats.
A Murderer in Their Midst?
Because Hart intended his hotel to serve only day-trippers, he built into it just one guest bedroom, right alongside the ladies’ parlors on the second floor. This lone room did not sit empty; it actually housed a full-time guest, one of whom the day-party crowd may not have been aware. The tenant, a lawyer named James Stewart, lived there year-round in fear of the law, having previously killed a man in England. He hopefully remained in his room when the ladies were present.
From Mount Vernon Hotel to Museum
The building served as the Mount Vernon Hotel between 1826 and 1833, and it is to this time period that the current owners, the Colonial Dames of America (CDA), have restored it.
After the CDA purchased the property in 1924, they put in an authentic 18th century garden, and lovingly restored the building’s insides to their former glory days. The museum, which they dubbed “The Abigail Adams Smith House,” opened to the public for the first time in 1939. It’s been open ever since, although it did not receive its current, more-appropriate name of “Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden” until the year 2000.
Period Pieces on Display
Today, the museum’s eight restored and fully-furnished rooms contain an extensive array of period pieces including American furniture, textiles, decorative arts, costumes, and quilts. The museum also houses over 1100 additional objects viewable by appointment only. These extras include such artifacts as ceramics, letters, paintings, maps, prints and other pieces illustrating the history of American hotels in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Visiting the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden
The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden, located at 421 East 61st Street between First and York Avenues, stands today as one of the seven oldest buildings remaining in Manhattan. It can be visited any time between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for students and seniors, and free for members and children under 12. For further information, please call (212) 838-6878. To arrange a private viewing of objects not on public display, please contact the Museum’s Director of Education at (212) 838-6878, extension 30.
The Colonial Dames of America: The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum
Women of the Republican Court: Abigail Adams Smith