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Astor Mansion, Hellgate

Manhattan, New York

Built 1803, for John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) and his wife Sarah Cox Todd (1762–1834). This was the summer home of America's first multi-millionaire, but rather than being a flamboyant showpiece symbolic of others later put up by the Astor family, this one was perhaps better known for it's literary and musical associations. Demolished in 1869 as New York City began to outgrow Manhattan, Henderson Place at 86th/87th & East End Avenue has since taken its place.
In 1667, Resolved Waldron (1610-1690) was one of five men granted the patent of New Harlem on the upper east side of Manhattan. The part known as Hellgate (also spelt Hell Gate) or Horne's Hook remained in the Waldron family for over a hundred years. In 1797, Joseph Young purchased 13 acres of that tract of land from the estate of the late Abraham Duryée (1738-1797). In 1802, Duryée's widow, Elizabeth Low (b.1742), gave Young permission to sell the same parcel of land to Astor for $9,000.

Hellgate is often incorrectly assumed to have derived it's name from the turbulent confluence of waters found at that part of the East River, but in fact it stems from the Dutch word Hellegat - "bright strait" or "clear opening" - which over time was corrupted by the English to Hell Gate.

From Astor's point of view, a comfortable but comparatively modest country seat provided his family with an escape from the city during the summer months. But, his wife also saw the social benefits that came from neighbouring several of New York's most socially prominent families: Archibald Gracie (1755-1829), Nathaniel Prime (1768–1840), Commodore Isaac Chauncey (1779-1840), and surnames such as Livingston, Roosevelt, Schermerhorn, Riker, Jones, Rhinelander and Winthrop.

Astor hired Pierre L'Enfant (1754–1825) to design and build his country seat. L'Enfant is among those considered to have designed Gracie Mansion next door to Hellgate - as well as Morris's Folly in Philadelphia - but he was best known as the architect and civil engineer who laid out the street plans for Washington, D.C. Astor was careful not to rub his vast wealth in the face of others (his fortune derived from New York real estate was estimated to be between $20-$30 million), and so the house that L'Enfant built for him was luxurious, but neither pretentious nor extravagant.

Astor's new home fitted seamlessly alongside the existing riverside mansions belonging to Manhattan's finest. It was fronted by four two-story corinthian columns with a gable in the front roof and steps leading to a broad veranda from which to take in the view over the East River, past Roosevelt Island and beyond to the village of Astoria, Queens - named by it's citizens for Astor in the futile hope that he'd donate a public building!

Inside, it housed a collection of fine art, furniture and delicately crafted musical instruments. In an article for Literary New York, the Astor house was described as,
A square two-story frame dwelling of colonial type, painted white, with deep veranda, wide halls, and spacious rooms; set high upon a hill, backed by a forest of towering trees, and fronted by a vast lawn stretching by gentle slope to the cliff at the riverside.
Chiefly at Sarah's behest, Astor entertained several of Manhattan's leading society figures, but he preferred his weekly card games with two old friends from the fur-trading days, Ramsay Crooks (1787-1859) and Jean-Pierre Chouteau (1758-1849). His other passion was music and musical instruments, and he frequently invited close friends and family to Hellgate for private performances by professional pianists or string quartets. A particular joy to him at such evenings was to listen to his eldest grand-daughter, Emily Astor (1819-1841), and her celebrated sister-in-law, Julia Ward (1819-1910), either singing solos or performing duets.

The Astor's eldest daughter, Magdalena Astor (1788-1832), died in 1832 and they took in her only son by her second marriage, Charles Astor Bristed (1820-1874). In the same year, Astor employed the poet and satirist Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867) to live with them at Hellgate as a 'cultural tutor', advising him on paintings and furniture for his collection. After the death of his beloved wife in 1834 and having for the most part handed over the reins of his business empire to his son, William Backhouse Astor (1792-1875), the elderly Mr Astor spent the greater part of his remaining twelve years at Hellgate, in the company of his grandson and tutor.

In 1835, Halleck's old friend from the Knickerbocker Group, Washington Irving (1783-1859), was invited to stay as Astor's guest at Hellgate while he wrote Astoria (1836) - a patriotic account of Astor's failed fur-trading colony at Oregon. It was at Hellgate that Irving had the opportunity to meet the adventurer Captain Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville (1796-1878), whose stories so enthralled him that they became the subject of his next book. Irving became quite fond of Astor and all in all the arrangement at Hellgate suited him very well, particularly as it coincided with the building of Sunnyside, his own country home at Tarrytown:
For upwards of a month I have been quartered at Hell Gate, with Mr Astor, and I have not had so quiet and delightful a nest since I have been in America. He has a spacious and well-built house, with a lawn in front of it, and a garden in rear. The lawn sweeps down to the water edge, and full in front of the house is the little strait of Hell Gate, which forms a constantly moving picture… I cannot tell you how sweet and delightful I have found this retreat; pure air, agreeable scenery, a spacious house, profound quiet, and perfect command of my time and space.
A glimpse into Astor's daily routine at Hellgate is afforded through an article written for the New York Tatler in 1842. It's purpose was to allow "the reader to learn something of the habits, manners etc., of an old gentleman whose daily income is four thousand and odd dollars":
He rises early, dresses without a valet, and smokes half a pipe of tobacco. He then breakfasts sometimes on milk, but mostly on the most fragrant description of Mocha coffee. Another attack on the pipe follows. The papers then are called for, when his still keen eye falls foul of the money article - but afterwards he goes through the editorials and chit chat of the day, and is mightily tickled when he finds anything better than usual. Pipe again. Then, when he's able, a saunter about and a crack with the neighbours concerning stock or the weather. Next, a two hour's siesta, and then to dinner, whereat John does great execution, for he is a wonderful hand at the trenchery for an old man. The pipe, chit chat, and a mild glass follow, and then the time is spent until 9 o'clock, when he calls for his chamber lamp, and takes up line of march for Blanket Alley.
In November, 1847, Astor left for his townhouse at 585 Broadway but never recovered enough strength to return to Hellgate, dying in New York the following March. In his will, he left Hellgate, it's 13 acres of land and $115,000 (among other considerable legacies) to his grandson, the scholar and author Charles Astor Bristed (1820-1874), who had spent most of his youth there.

Bristed continued to use the house as a summer home, joined by his first wife, Laura Whetten Brevoort (1823-1860). But, in the year of 1850/51, they leased the house to the English novelist and historian, George Payne Rainsford James (1799-1860). To his friend, Maunsell Bradhurst Field (1822-1875), James wrote a 'capital squib' by way of a limerick making light of his hardships on arriving at Hellgate, which by then was only barely furnished and not equipped for winter living.

By the end of the Civil War, the expansion of New York City began to reach the upper east side of Manhattan and what had once been a rural hideaway for the wealthy was fast becoming an industrial sea of factories and tenement blocks - of all those grand country estates, only the Gracie Mansion survives there today. Bristed, now married to his second wife, Grace Ashburner Sedgwick (1833-1897), started to sell off parcels of the Hellgate estate.

Finally, in 1869, Bristed sold the plot on which his country home was built to John Cleves Henderson (1809-1884). Henderson pulled it down the same year and in 1871 replaced it with the red-bricked terraced row of houses that bears his name today. So it was that the land on which was built the summer sojourn of America's first multi-millionaire became tenements that Henderson intended "for persons of moderate means" and from 1891 the gardens in which his offspring played had become part of the public Carl Schurz Park.




Main Image (Astor Mansion, 1864), Courtesy of the New York Public Library; Abstracts of Farm Titles in the City of New York, East Side, Between 75th and 120th Streets (1881), by Henry Crosswell Tuttle; John Jacob Astor and the First Great American Fortune (2013), by Alexander Emmerich; When the Astors owned New York (2007), by Justin Kaplan; The Lost Astor Estate "Hellgate" 87th and East End (2015), from; Gay and Lesbian Washington (2005), by Frank Muzzy; Museum of the City of New York; New York Public Library; Memories of Many Men and of Some Women: Being Personal Recollections of Emperors, Kings, Queens, Princes, Presidents, Statesmen, Authors, and Artists, at Home and Abroad, During the Last Thirty Years (1874), by Maunsell Bradhurst Field.