Thursday, March 14, 2013

An Afternoon at the Bartow-Pell Mansion

As should come as no surprise to his readers, Reggie rather enjoys visiting historic house museums.  He has happily done so his entire life, starting from when he was a boy growing up in Washington, D.C., a metropolis rich in historic house museums both within its boundaries and in the surrounding counties of Virginia and Maryland.

The front of the Bartow-Pell Mansion in Pelham Bay Park

Reggie visits historic houses because he appreciates the beauty of their architecture and contents, their historical significance, and the window they provide on how this country's elite lived in earlier times.  The decoration of such houses has, in some cases, informed Reggie's choices in furnishing his own residences.

The house has a large entrance hall with a
dramatic, sweeping staircase

This past weekend we found ourselves in Manhattan, again, instead of at our beloved Darlington House in the Hudson River Valley.  With a lazy two days ahead of us with no appointments or obligations we decided to visit a number of the city's historic house museums.

The hall was once heated by this
early nineteenth century iron stove

New York is blessed with (or burdened by, depending on who you are speaking with) a large collection of historic houses open to the public, many of which are located in its public parks.  Most are operated in tandem by the Historic House Trust of New York City and the City of New York Department of Parks & Recreation.

The north parlor of the house's grand double parlor

The Historic House Trust of New York City is a worthy, not-for-profit organization that provides essential support for houses of architectural and cultural significance that reside within the city's parks and that are open to the public.

The south parlor of the house's double parlor

The Trust has rescued many of the city's house museums from dereliction in recent years, a period in which the City's resources available for supporting such institutions has dwindled.  Reggie is most grateful that the Trust has stepped up to the plate to ensure the survival of these house museums.

Looking north through a doorway leading into
the south parlor and the north parlor beyond

Reggie encourages his readers to consider making a donation to the Historic House Trust of New York City (see link above), as it relies on support from the likes of Reggie and his fellow travelers.

An orangery designed by Delano & Aldrich and
added to the house by the International Garden Club
in the early twentieth century

Now, getting down to the inspiration for this posting.  The first house we visited during our city weekend was the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum in Pelham Bay Park, in the Bronx.  It was an easy half hour's drive from the UES of Manhattan.

Mrs. Charles Frederick Hoffman, painted ca. 1930
(née Zelia Kumbhaar Preston)
Mrs. Hoffman was the founder and President of
the International Garden Club and
the Newport Garden Club, and
the rescuer of the Bartow-Pell Mansion

The Bartow-Pell Mansion sits on a handsome parcel of land facing east across Pelham Bay toward Long Island Sound.

A sitting room on the ground floor, opening off the main hall

The land on which the house stands was purchased by Thomas Pell in 1654 from the local Siwanoy Indians, and is at the core of what had once been the 10,000 acre Manor of Pelham.  

The house's dining room, with its table laid for dinner

Thomas Pell's nephew John Pell built a house near the site of the present mansion in 1671, in which four generations of Pells lived until the manor was divided shortly after the Revolutionary War.

Another view of the dining room.
What's for dinner?

In 1836, Pell family descendant Robert Bartow, a well-connected, wealthy publisher and printer from New York City, purchased part of the original manor and built a grand house in the then fashionable Greek Revival style.  The imposing gray stone house is composed of a three-storey main block flanked by two wings, and is what is today known as the Bartow-Pell Mansion.

Let's go upstairs and see what's up there!

When the house was built the surrounding area was bucolic and undeveloped save for a number of other large country estates belonging to the city's elite.  The house stood among pastureland, orchards, and lawns sloping down to Pelham Bay.

Contrary to what many people think, such
niches were not meant to allow for carrying coffins
downstairs, but rather to hold statues as shown here

The Bartows divided their time between their country house and a townhouse in Manhatttan, where they spent the cooler months of the year.  Mr Bartow and his wife, the former Maria Lorillard, had seven children.

An early nineteenth century Bartow family
needlework mourning picture

The house remained in the Bartow family for fifty years, by which time the area was no longer as desirable as it once had been for those seeking the serenity and quietude of country estate living.
A view into the upstairs family sitting room

In 1888 the Bartow's children sold the estate to the City of New York as part of the new Pelham Bay Park.  The house and its grounds entered into a period of neglect and decay.

The quality of the textiles, upholstery,
and carpets used throughout the house
is impressive

In 1914, the good ladies of the International Garden Club* adopted the mansion as their clubhouse, ensuring its survival at a time when neighboring estates were being demolished.
Another view of the upstairs sitting room
(Reggie admits he snuck across the barrier to take this photograph)

The Garden Club commissioned the architectural firm of Delano & Aldrich to modernize sections of the house and to restore its Greek Revival details.  

The supremely elegant master bedroom, with bedstead attributed
to Charles-Honoré Lannuier

In 1916 the Garden Club installed an elegant walled and terraced garden behind the house, leading out to lawns and fields sloping down to Pelham Bay.  

One of the house's secondary bedrooms

Further plans to establish an array of formal gardens were interrupted by the onset of World War I, and were never completed.  The Club hired landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman to redesign the gardens in 1927.

Another secondary bedroom, with freshly laid sea grass matting on the floor

In 1936, during one of the hottest summers on record, Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia moved his staff north of the city to the house, and directed his affairs of the City from a telephone bank installed in the basement.

The rear facade of the house showing the handsome ironwork balcony
original to the house

Ten years later, in 1946, the International Garden Club opened the Bartow-Pell Mansion to the public as a house museum.

A late winter's view out over the terraced gardens in the rear of the house.
Pelham Bay (and the Pelham Bay Parkway) can be glimpsed in the distance

Today, the interiors have been thoughtfully and carefully restored to an approximation of their 19th century appearance.

Looking back towards the house from the terraced garden

A dramatic, free-standing spiral staircase rises from the house's entrance hall, connecting parlors and the dining room on the ground floor with the family and staff bedrooms above.  Mahogany doors open onto spacious double parlors on the ground floor with handsome carved marble fireplaces and tall windows that look out onto the elegant, terraced garden.  The house includes a large, Colonial Revival style orangery that was added by the Garden Club during the Delano & Aldrich renovation.

The front facade of the house showing its original
second storey iron balconies.  It is missing the shutters
that once hung on its windows.
(Reggie would prefer it if there wasn't so much asphalt
covering the ground in front of the house...)

The Bartow-Pell Mansion's interiors are beautifully furnished with period antique furniture made by New York City's most noteworthy cabinetmakers of the early nineteenth century, including examples from the workshops of Duncan Phyfe, Charles-Honoré Lannuier, and Michael Allison, among others.

A view of the front of the Bartow-Pell Mansion, ca. 1870
Image courtesy of the City of N.Y. Department of Parks & Recreation

Furniture, decorations, and art have been donated to the house museum and also loaned to it by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of the City of New York.

The empty decorative niche in the facade
of the front of the house

The Bartow-Pell Mansion is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is both a National Landmark and a New York City Landmark.

The estate's coach house, built in 1842, was not open
the day Reggie visited the Bartow-Pell Mansion

The house and gardens are still operated by the International Garden Club.

The sign at the entrance gates to the
Bartow-Pell estate

Reggie enjoyed visiting the Bartow-Pell Mansion and its gardens, and he encourages his readers to visit the estate as well.  Doing so provides a unique opportunity to take in a rare survivor of refined and elegant country house living by members of the city's highest elite during the middle decades of the nineteenth century.

* Reggie has not been able to find any information about the International Garden Club, beyond what is contained on the Bartow-Pell Mansion's website.  He would be most grateful to any of his readers who know more about the Club if they would share it with him and his readers.

A special thanks to the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum & Gardens and the Historic House Trust of New York City.  Reggie has consulted and relied on resources published by both entities in this posting.

Except where noted, all photographs by Reggie Darling and Boy Fenwick.


  1. Hello Reggie, A very handsome house, and it wouldn't take much to get the facade looking like that 1870 photograph. In addition to house museums, there are a number of old houses owned publicly (or corporately), and while not set up with period decoration, it probably would not be all that difficult to get a peek inside.

  2. A note about Maria Lorillard. The Lorillard Family was the owner of most of the property that is now The New York Botanical Garden (also a Bronx treasure!).

  3. Beautiful! You always share such interesting things and wonderful experiences. Y'all should visit Swan House at The Atlanta History Center and Pebble Hill Plantation in Thomasville, GA. Swan House was decorated in the late 1920s by Ruby Ross Wood and remains a substantially intact example of her talents.

  4. Hello Reggie,

    What a wonderful way to spend a leisurely afternoon. I too am a big fan of house museums (such as the Valentine in Richmond that you so very kindly recommended to us last year - oh, what a breathtakingly beautiful house that was!).

    I did not know of this particular house, and would dearly love to visit when I eventually make it out to Gotham.

    I think the master bedroom must be my favorite room in a house full of beautiful rooms. The cheery orange color really elevates the room to something otherworldly (oh, that bed!). The stone carriage house looks to be a little gem.

    Obviously, The Historic House Trust has gone to great lengths to furnish and decorate this house, and it shows. However, I wish they'd acquire some older pieces of porcelain and glassware for their dining table, so it too can look age appropriate to the rest of the decoration. Oh, and that asphalt has to go!

  5. Must say I agree with Reggie ,no asphalt! A circular stone driveway would look much better! Along with replacing the missing shutters. What a beautiful house! Thankyou for the post and little tour, a must see next time I'm in NewYork.

  6. R.D. was there a schooled docent to give a tour? Tours these days can be engaging if the spiel is not a rote talk but an engaging explanation of life and furnishings. I was a docent at a historical site/house museum and I hope those that joined me in the tour were educated and gained a perspective of life during this time pre Civil War in Florida! I will always remember Mt. vernon and the Houses I visited Charleston.

  7. I too enjoyed my visit to the Bartow-Pell mansion, Isnt that Lannuier bedstead something? I wonder if the orange material is original, finally why anyone would consider these houses a burden is beyond me

    In return I send you a photo of the hall in Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney's Greek Revival House built by the then Colonial Secretary Alexander McLeay between 1835 and 1839. It had 54 acres of gardens and was described as the finest house in the colony

  8. I wouldn't change a thing. How did I not know about this house?? I must run up there one of these days. I can't tell you how much I appreciate your find, you captured it beautifully.

  9. I worked for the Historic House Trust and nearly was the caretaker of the Bartow-Pell mansion. I can tell you that the hangings, bedspread and window treatments for the Lannuier bedroom are recent (within the last 20 years) replacements by Scalamandre. I recall the first time I visited the house. As I pulled up in front of the house on the yes, overpaved driveway, there were two deer on the lawn. I remember thinking, "Wow, who would believe seeing deer on the lawn in New York City?"

  10. Great tour dahhling, enjoyed immensely!

  11. Hoorah for the Garden Club for saving this residence! They have done a lovely job with the furnishings and adapting it to the period.

    Thank you for taking us along, Reggie. I always enjoy touring with you.



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