The 200-Year-Old Hotel On East 61st Street

I was walking around East 60th Street and 1st Avenue when I suddenly realized I’ve rarely explored this area of the city. The reason is a practical one: the traffic nightmare created by the nearby 59th Street Bridge makes filming in the neighborhood very difficult, and the few places I’ve scouted here have always been passed over.

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I happened to turn onto East 61st off of York, and at first, there didn’t seem like much: an unremarkable high-rise or two, some bland medical buildings, a bit of foliage.

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But as I was going up the street, something immediately stuck out as unusual: what the hell was that stone building perched up behind all those trees??

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I have to admit, a 19th century hotel was the last thing I expected to find in the shadow of a Manhattan Mini-Storage:

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As it turns out, this is – or was – the Mount Vernon Hotel, and it has been here for quite a long time.

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The building dates back to 1799, when it was built as a barn for the estate of one William T. Robinson, who purchased the land from the daughter and son-in-law of John Adams. Back then, Manhattan basically ended at about 14th Street, and the property at East 61st Street was considered to be “in the country,” visited leisurely by those with the means to do so. Robinson built an estate house on the property, then located just a block away from the East River where visitors would go swimming. Below, a photograph from the early 1900’s…

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…and today:

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The Mount Vernon Hotel opened in Robinson’s estate house in 1808. That property burned down 1826, and the barn was renovated into the structure still that stands today. The hotel resumed operation there until 1833, when it became a country house. Eventually, Manhattan moved north and the grid overtook the property, but it remains to this day as one of those wonderful New York buildings positioned out of alignment with the rest of the city:

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The building has been restored as a historical site, with tours showing what country hotel life was like back in the early 1800s. But what really amazed me is how just walking the grounds still feels like an escape from the city.

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Though you’re in the shadow of the 59th Street Bridge and a pair of towering apartment buildings, it doesn’t take much to imagine a time when, sitting on the front porch…

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…your view would have been of apple trees and the river just down the way:

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The property continues around the corner…

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…and as you swing around to the eastern side, you really start to feel like you’re in your own garden oasis.

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I love the haphazard nature of the stonework (ha, I’m sure Robinson designed that little round window for an AC):

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As you come to the backyard, be sure to look at the eastern side of the building…

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…where Robinson marked the building’s creation with bricks set into the stonework:

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But my favorite feature of the hotel is the small bridge leading to the second story:

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To get to it, you have to go up this staircase into a raised garden…

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…and it’s then that you realize you’ve been brought atop a very large chunk of bedrock:

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Hi Lulu!

In fact, this whole upper level garden is planted around a huge hunk of Manhattan schist protruding about ten feet out of the ground:

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As you follow the path across the rockface through the garden…

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…the bedrock leads to the small bridge to the second floor door. What a fantastic use of the natural elements to provide an unexpected entrance-way:

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And why not throw in a secret garden while you’re at it? Follow this easily missed path…

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…and you’ll find a bench where you can sit, relax, and perhaps contemplate this fun fact: in the early 1900s, a complete skeleton was discovered under the second story floorboards.

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According to this detailed NY Times article on the property, a newspaper reporter in 1909 noted that, “‘the beautiful garden . . . has gone forever and the house itself will probably soon meet the same fate.” That the Mount Vernon Hotel managed to beat the odds is nothing short of a miracle, and is definitely worth a trip to East 61st Street – even if the traffic happens to be bad.

-SCOUT

PS – The museum is open to all sorts of rentals, from movie shoots to events (there’s a murder mystery event happening around Halloween weekend this year) to just about anything you can think of. Also, I get asked all the time about wedding venues, and for my money, you really can’t beat the combo of the hotel with the adjacent Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium, which has a formal event space inside:

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Do the dinner stuff inside, then transform the garden with the right lighting and a bit of creative decoration for a one-of-a-kind Manhattan party venue. Just a thought…

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20 comments

  1. Those are some wonderful gardens in the city! Thanks for taking pictures of them!

  2. WOW. I have never come across this one; thanks, Scout!

  3. From reading your site daily, you have showed me parts of the city I thought would have never had existed or wouldve have been torn down decades ago.

  4. I forgot about that place. I worked in the area in the early 70’s. The Hotel was then known as the Abigail Adams House and instead of those buildings in the background there were some large gas tanks. Nice to see that it’s being taken care of.

  5. I too remember it in the early 1980s as the Abigail Adams Smith House. I went to a reception the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce held there — very nice inside.

  6. Wonderful discovery! Lived here my whole life, never knew this.

  7. Had no idea this existed. Beautiful!

  8. I also went here for a tour in the 80s when it was the Abagail Adams Smith house and wrote about it for a very early issue of PAPER magazine (along with the Merchant House on East 4th and the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace on 26th–that house is a reconstruction, btw.) It surely is a surprise to come upon it if you don’t know it is there!

  9. WOW…I will have to check this out next time I’m in the city. It’s beautiful.

  10. Thank you for showing me this building. I live fairly close and I too have never done more than pass by this area on the bus. Now I’m going to go have a look. Gorgeous!

  11. I live on the ‘other’ coast and have always wanted to visit NY. I’m going to start filling my piggy bank a little faster! I’m missing quite a bit, it seems.

  12. I’ve been intending to visit this place for a long time. I appreciate the reminder!

  13. Greetings from France! Love that place but never had a chance to actually see the grounds. Thanks for the visit!

  14. Who knows the nooks and crannies of our city? The scouting nose knows. All this and a romantic to boot. Charming post my friend.

  15. Wonderful photos. As always, you make the day a brighter one for this
    New Yorker, born and bred!!

  16. This is shown as one of Sam Waterston’s (and I suspect Woody Allen’s) favorite pieces of New York architecture in Hannah and Her Sisters.

  17. haha! I was wondering about this building and thought you had already posted about it and was going to search the archives…

  18. I need to take a peek inside this 200-year-old treasure!

  19. What a find, amazing Nick. Never seen anyone else showcase this wee gem. Well done!!

  20. I have lived just a couple blocks away for 30 yrs & have an older dog who loves to roll on the grass here – so I’m delighted to see that someone like yourself has taken the pics & informed people about this tucked away little find. I never knew that the house sits angled like it is. It always feels dead on straight when you see if from the street, go up the entrance steps, or even seeing it from the bridge. The inside is nicely presented, as well. Next time anyone is over at Bed Bath & Beyond on First Ave – know that it’s just right down the street.

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