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Point Breeze

Bordentown, Burlington, New Jersey

Built in 1820, for Joseph-Napoléon Bonaparte (1768-1844), the former King of Spain etc., and brother of Emperor Napoleon I. This French-built chateau was a true representation of so many of those replicated during the Gilded Age. It was modelled after the Château de Prangins where Joseph had hoped to retire. On completion, it was - perhaps diplomatically - regarded as the “second-finest house in America,” after the White House. Its library contained the largest collection of books in the country and its art collection was almost certainly the most valuable. Its beautifully landscaped gardens featured a purpose-built lake, bridge and belvedere, while also concealing a warren of underground tunnels. This chateau - literally fit for a king - was unceremoniously demolished by a "fervant francophobe" and replaced by a distinctly inferior villa. In 1902, Bonaparte's grand-niece recalled, "I have seen many beautiful estates in Europe, I have seen nothing on this side of the Atlantic that compares to Point Breeze"....
Joseph Bonaparte was the favorite brother of France's famed Emperor Napoleon I (1769-1821) who gave him the thrones of Naples and Sicily (1806-1808); and, afterwards Spain (1808-1813). Napoleon's empire collapsed after he was decisively defeated by the British at the Battle of Waterloo (1815). At that point, Joseph, under the name of "the Comte de Survilliers" successfully made his escape from Europe to America. Somewhat reluctantly, James Madison (1751-1836), 4th President of the United States, granted him asylum. 

Napoleon advised his brother to find a home between Philadelphia and New York, secluded enough to avoid unwarranted attention, but within easy reach of news. In 1816, three months after leasing Lansdowne House, the Comte de Survilliers paid Stephen Sayre (1736-1818) $17,500 for his "handsome house" on 211-acres outside Bordentown. Sayre is remembered as the bold and brazen New Yorker who moved to England, became Sheriff of London, and then planned to kidnap King George III during the Revolution!

Palatial Parkland

Sayre's house was dramatically positioned on a high bluff that extended into the Delaware River - aptly named by him, "Point Breeze". But, it was neither large nor grand enough for the exiled king. Joseph demolished the house and built a new one (the first of two) which bore a resemblance to the Château de Mortefontaine - his home from 1798 to 1814, near Ermenonville, north of Paris. 

The approach to the chateau took the visitor over a lake by way of an arched stone bridge. By damming Crosswicks Creek, Bonaparte flooded the land beneath the chateau and created the lake, roughly 500-yards long by 200 wide, at a Vanderbilt-worthy cost of $300,000! The water was studded with small islands planted (often by Bonaparte himself) with rare and exotic shrubs and trees. European swans added to the scene, and in the summer a scattering of swan-shaped pleasure boats floated idly among them.

Bonaparte increased the estate to 1,800-acres. Inspired by the Spanish royal palace in Madrid - El Escorial - he landscaped the 240-acres surrounding the chateau, creating a wild, magical parkland (reminiscent of the grounds at Mortefontaine) which he threw open to the public every Sunday - to their joy! It was explored by 12-miles of winding drives and bridleways that passed numerous Greek and Roman statues, all the way interspersed with "rustic cots or rain shelters, bowers and seats, sheltered springs and solitary retreats".

Bonaparte shared a passion for gardening with Stephen Girard (1750-1831) with whom he became great friends; and, the exotic specimens then found at Point Breeze were said to be as equally diverse as those at Monticello. The woods were predominantly made up of oak, chestnut and pine, through which were found tame deer, English pheasants and woodcock.

The Popular Potentate

In January, 1820, a fire left burning in a guest bedroom caught light and burned the chateau down. Bonaparte returned just in time to see the roof cave in. A rumor existed that the fire was caused by an aggrieved Russian lady, but even if true, his popularity among the locals was evident when they rushed to the aid of their benefactor and rescued almost the entirety of his invaluable art collection, books, tapestries, statues, furniture, linen, silver, gold etc. Bonaparte publicly thanked them and never forgot the generosity they showed him that day. His popularity was recalled in The American Farmer (1829):
Many respectable Americans, formerly, could not think of a Frenchman without aversion, or, of Bonaparte, without horror. All such as have become acquainted with the instance of both, who so quietly and respectably dwells in New Jersey have surrendered their prejudices, without other effort or influence on his part than the constitutional amenity of his conduct, candour, and constancy of his principles… Abounding in the most interesting recollections of the great events, and men of modern Europe, and speaking freely on all subjects, hatred, anger, revenge, and detraction, appear to be foreign to his nature. Among other proofs of a sincere and kind disposition, it is delightful to hear him declare, as he does, with uniform earnestness, that the much abused Napoleon was as amiable and well disposed as is the grateful brother who bears this testimony to his character. 
Bonaparte chose to build his second house on the estate - a much grander one - a little further back on what had been the stables. This position offered some respite from the winds even if it lost out slightly to the view. Out of the ruins, he created the Belvedere on which he had inscribed over the entrance, Non Ignara Mali, Miseris Succurrere ("not unaware of misfortune, I know to help the unfortunate"), a reminder while watching the magnificent sunsets that his lifestyle and position must never be taken for granted.

French Living in the USA

He modelled his next home at Point Breeze on the Château de Prangins that overlooks Lake Geneva in Switzerland - the home he had purchased in 1814 and where he had hoped to retire. For the task, he shipped over his master mason from Mortefontaine to oversee a workforce of some forty tradesmen, including some of France's finest artisans. At an estimated cost of $60,000, the result was a three-story central block flanked by two perpendicular wings of the same height. On completion, it was generally viewed - perhaps diplomatically - as the “second-finest house in America” after the White House

Entered via a pair of giant, carved, mahogany doors, one visitor noted that, "when all the doors were opened, the seven rooms (on the ground floor), giving on to each other in a double line, produced a suite of great effect, above all in the evening when the apartments were brilliantly illuminated". The billiard room to the left of the hall was where Jacque-Louis David's famous 8.5-by-7-foot painting of "Napoleon Crossing the Alps" hung, now on display at the Château de Malmaison. The library contained 8,000 volumes at a time when the Library of Congress only held a mere 6,500; the gallery was devoted entirely to marble busts of the Bonaparte family; and, the dining room sat 24 guests. If the weather got too hot, Bonaparte's habit was to move to a room on the cooler side of the house:
It consisted of a chamber, dressing and bathing-room, with a small studio, or rather boudoir.  The curtains, canopy and furniture were of light blue satin, trimmed with silver... The walls were covered with oil paintings, particularly of young females, with less clothing about them than they or you would have found comfortable in our cold climate, and much less than we found agreeable when the Count, without ceremony, led us before them, and enumerated the beauties of paintings with the air of an accomplished amateur.
His art collection included works by da Vinci, Rubens, Rembrandt, Vernet, Titian, Canaletto and Velasquez; there were tapestries by Gobelin; Etruscan vases; and, ancient marbles and bronzes from Pompeii. Evident in every room were the many gifts that had been showered upon him by wary European monarchs. In an upstairs cabinet, he kept the most precious of the Spanish Royal jewels which he had been careful not to leave behind! 

All the principals figures of America's Revolutionary Court were entertained here. His closest friends (and therefore most frequent guests) were Stephen Girard (1750-1831), Joseph Hopkinson (1770-1842) and Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844). Several French Generals visited, notably (twice) the Marquis de Lafayette who like many important guests was collected from Philadelphia and brought to the chateau by river on a magnificent 16-oar barge - a gift from Girard. In Spain, Bonaparte was well-known for his love of wine and dinner parties and duly nicknamed “Joey Bottles”! It seems apt as students at nearby Monmouth University have since unearthed 100s of broken wine bottles here too! 

The Royal Entourage

Bonaparte's wife had a fear of sea voyages so that when he fled France in 1816, she remained in Europe - they did not see one another for the next twenty five years! During this time, Bonaparte took a mistress, Annette Savage. Aside from his daughter by Annette (who married Colonel Zebulon Howell Benton), he was also joined at Point Breeze by his two legitimate daughters, building houses for both of them on the estate.

Whether arriving by river or road, the first house encountered on the estate before reaching the chateau was the Lake Villa - a white house with green shutters - where Bonaparte's daughter, Zénaïde Laetitia Julie Bonaparte (1801-1854) lived with her husband (who was also her first cousin) Prince Charles Lucien Bonaparte (1803-1857). Joseph built an underground brick carriageway - one of many tunnels under the property - linking their house to his house, supposedly to make their journeys more manageable during the cold winters.  

Between 1832 and 1837, Bonaparte removed to England to be closer to France since he had become the heir apparent/pretender to the Bonaparte dynasty. But, he returned to Point Breeze between 1837 and 1839 before finally leaving America to rejoin his wife in Europe. His wife, Julie, forgave him his indiscretions while his mistress, Annette, was paid handsomely to not publish her memoirs!

Return to Europe

Bonaparte died in Italy in 1844 when he bequeathed the Point Breeze estate to his American-born grandson Joseph-Lucien Bonaparte (1824-1865), 3rd Prince of Canino & Musignano. But, after three years, he put it up for auction. In 1847, it was purchased by Thomas Richards (1780-1860), founder of Jackson Glass Works at Batsto, New Jersey. He paid a mere $30,500 for the mansion that had cost $60,000 to build, and the price also included the contents that Bonaparte had not taken back with him to Europe.

Richards took up residence at Point Breeze with his wife, Anna Bartram (1787-1865), granddaughter of celebrated John Bartram (1699-1777) of Bartram's Gardens, Philadelphia. But, within a very short space of time, the Richards' ran into financial difficulties and Point Breeze found itself very quickly placed back on the market.

"Beckett the Destroyer"

In 1850, the estate was purchased by Henry Beckett (1791-1871) and his wife Mary Lyle (1796-1829), who for a time had lived at her mother's family home, The Woodlands. Beckett was a wealthy merchant and British Consul at Philadelphia; and, he was also a "fervant Francophobe," who intentionally tore down Bonaparte's chateau to replace it with the vastly inferior Hammond House. Locals dubbed him “Beckett the Destroyer”.

Princess Caroline Murat (1832-1902), daughter of Joseph's nephew, Lucien Murat (1803-1878), was born at Bordentown in 1832. In her final year, she recalled: "As an old woman, I look back through the long vista of years, and although I have seen many beautiful estates in Europe, I have seen nothing on this side of the Atlantic that compares to Point Breeze". 

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References

The London Journal, and Weekly Record of Literature, Science, and Art, Volumes 5-6 (1847), by G. Vickers; Bordentown (2014), by Arlene S. Bice & Patricia DeSantis; Digging Up the Home of That Other Bonaparte, in New Jersey (The New York Times, October 24, 2008), by Coleen Dee Berry; Point Breeze: Joseph Bonaparte's Home in America, by Tom Holmberg, from napoleon-series.org; An Archeological Examination of Joseph Bonaparte's Point Breeze Estate (2009), by Richard Veit and Michael J. Gall; The Man who had been King (2005), Patricia Tyson Stroud; Grand Estate of Bonaparte in Ruins Now (December 13, 1937), from The Pittsburgh Press; Point Breeze: Joseph Bonaparte's Estate in New Jersey (2012), by John J. Tackett, from the tdclassicist.blogspot.co.uk; Napoleon in America (2014), by Shannon Selin; The Bonapartes in America (1939), by Clarence Edward Macartney & Gordon Dorrance; Historic Houses of New Jersey (1902) by W. Jay Mills; Point Breeze: Joseph Bonaparte's American (Magazine Antiques, October 2002), by Patricia Tyson Stroud; Bonaparte's Park, and the Murats (1879), by Woodward.