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Politics

The Glory That Was Once Richmond Hill’s Is Long Since Faded And Forgotten
Part 1

By J. Owen Grundy

Originally appeared in The Villager on September 13, 1945

Near what is now the intersection of Varick and Charlton Streets, until 1849 stood a palatial mansion surrounded by lovely gardens. The big house, a massive wooden structure of colonial design, had a lofty portico supported by Ionic columns. A long curving driveway led up to the house which was built on a wooden mound. Fretted iron gates guarded the entrance.

This was Richmond Hill, once the headquarters of General Washington, later the official residence of Vice-President John Adams and his lady during the short period of the first administration, when the national capital was New York, and later the country home of Col. Aaron Burr.

Its entrance was broad and imposing, with balconies fronting the rooms on the second floor. Inside were spacious, high rooms, with a broad staircase distinguished by fine mahogany woodwork. The whole place reflecting an atmosphere of richness, restfulness, and refinement. It was truly a colonial mansion built in the grand manner, with nothing spared for the comfort of its tenants.

Richmond Hill was built in 1760 by Major Abraham Mortimer, who acquired the land upon a long term lease from the Episcopal Church, which had received a grant of many acres of Manhattan land years before from the colonial government.

The Hill received its initial claim to lasting fame when on April 13th, 1776, it became the headquarters of General George Washington. Soon the big house became the scene of many conferences that determined the early strategy of the American Revolution. Among the brilliant company of young officers who frequently advised with General Washington on the prosecution of the war was Aaron Burr, then aide-de-camp to General Putnam. It is believed that it was during this period of his association with it that Burr became attached to the place, deciding perhaps then and there, that some day he would make it his home.

John Adams Moves In

When Washington left Richmond Hill to occupy the Roger Morris mansion uptown. British officers took it over and carried on its reputation for hospitality. But, they finally abandoned it in 1783. For the next five years it was more or less deserted.

But in 1789, it again came into its own. In that year, its former occupant, General Washington, had been sworn in down at Broad and Wall Streets, as the first president of the new republic. He was occupying the old Franklin mansion in Cherry Street (the first White House). The first vice-president, who was destined to succeed Washington upon the conclusion of his second term, John Adams, sought a place farther removed from the seat of government then located in the present financial district in lower Manhattan. What more natural thing, then, for him to do than to seek out the unoccupied mansion of Richmond Hill in Greenwich Village? In those days the vicinity of Varick and Charlton Streets was considered a drive of a mile out of town. The houses' new mistress, Abigail Adams, immediately fell in love with its natural beauty. She never ceased to sing its praises, even after she had long since returned to her native Massachusetts. In one outburst of enthusiasm for the old place, she wrote:

“In natural beauty it might vie with the most delicious spot I ever saw. It is a mile and a half from the city of New York. The house stands upon an eminence: at an agreeable distance flows the noble Hudson, bearing upon its bosom innumerable small vessels laden with the fruitful productions of the adjacent country. Upon my right hand are fields beautifully variegated with grass and grain, to a great extent like the valley of the Honiton in Devonshire.

“Upon my left the city opens to view, intercepted here and there by a rising mound and an ancient oak. In front beyond the Hudson, the Jersey shores present the exuberance of a rich, well cultivated soil. In the background is a large flower garden, enclosed with a hedge and some very handsome ??? Venerable ??? and broken ground covered with wild shrubs surround me, giving a natural beauty to the spot which is truly enchanting. A ??? ???? of birds serenade me morning and evening, rejoicing in their liberty and security.”

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