A Brief History of the Morris-Jumel Mansion

The Morris-Jumel Mansion was built in 1765 as a summer house by Colonel Roger Morris for his wife, Mary Philipse and their family on approximately 135 acres of land that stretched from the Harlem to Hudson rivers between what is now 140th and approximately 18oth streets. Their country estate was named Mount Morris and, being situated on one of the highest points of Manhattan, offered clear views of New Jersey, Connecticut, and all of New York harbor. In addition to serving as a summer retreat, Mount Morris was also a working farm with fruit trees, cows, and sheep in addition to a variety of crops. 

With the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, the Morris family abandoned their summer home.  Then, in the autumn of 1776, General George Washington and his Patriot officers moved in and made the house their headquarters from September 14th to October 21st. The superb views from Mount Morris made the location ideal for observing troop movements and General Washington used this advantage to plan his army’s first successful victory; the Battle of Harlem Heights. Despite this victory, on October 21st, General Washington was forced to retreat to White Plains. For the remainder of the war, the house was used as a headquarters for both British and Hessian armies.

Following the war, the estate was confiscated under the Forfeiture Laws by the State of New York and sold to cover war debts. For a time, it served as a tavern; however, after some years, the tavern became unsuccessful and the house was abandoned once again. Then on July 10th of 1790, now President George Washington held his first Cabinet dinner at the same place he scored his first victory during the Revolutionary War.

Map of the Battle of Harlem Heights showing the Mansion's location at a very narrow point in Manhattan between the two rivers.

Map of the Battle of Harlem Heights showing the Mansion's location at a very narrow point in Manhattan between the two rivers.

In 1810, Eliza and Stephen Jumel purchased Mount Morris, all farmlands, and began a series of alterations to the house.  A merchant from the south of France, who emigrated to New York some years earlier, Stephen met and married  Eliza Bowen in New York. She grew up in a poor Rhode Island family, a voracious reader and self-educated, she developed into a shrewd businesswoman long before most women worked outside the home, let alone ran businesses.  At a moment when Stephen's business was foundering, Eliza applied herself to the real estate trade, buying and selling land and renting properties downtown. Her success made large profits for her husband and herself, making her one of the wealthiest women in New York, after Stephen’s death.

By the 1880s, most of the Jumel land had been sold as the city expanded and fashionable townhouses rose immediately surrounding the Mansion. The City of New York purchased the house and the two acres it sits on creating Roger Morris Park. With the assistance of the DAR, the Mansion was turned  into a historic house and museum. The mid-20th Century saw the neighborhood develop into a vibrant home to many artists and celebrities including Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, and Duke Ellington, who once referred to the Morris-Jumel Mansion as “the jewel in the crown of Sugar Hill.” The buildings in this district are protected by the New York Landmarks Commission and must be maintained by their owners reflective of when they were built.  Because of this, the appearance of the neighborhood has changed very little since the beginning of the twentieth century.

Today, the Morris-Jumel Mansion is the oldest house in Manhattan and as a museum highlights the art, architecture and lives of the Morris and Jumel families, while celebrating the changing landscape from the now lost Polo Grounds to the contemporary artists who find inspiration from this over 250 year old structure, and culture. We hope to see you soon to experience all that is new at Manhattan’s oldest house.