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.
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.
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??
I have to admit, a 19th century hotel was the last thing I expected to find in the shadow of a Manhattan Mini-Storage:
As it turns out, this is – or was – the Mount Vernon Hotel, and it has been here for quite a long time.
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…
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:
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.
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…
…your view would have been of apple trees and the river just down the way:
The property continues around the corner…
…and as you swing around to the eastern side, you really start to feel like you’re in your own garden oasis.
I love the haphazard nature of the stonework (ha, I’m sure Robinson designed that little round window for an AC):
As you come to the backyard, be sure to look at the eastern side of the building…
…where Robinson marked the building’s creation with bricks set into the stonework:
But my favorite feature of the hotel is the small bridge leading to the second story:
To get to it, you have to go up this staircase into a raised garden…
…and it’s then that you realize you’ve been brought atop a very large chunk of bedrock:
In fact, this whole upper level garden is planted around a huge hunk of Manhattan schist protruding about ten feet out of the ground:
As you follow the path across the rockface through the garden…
…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:
And why not throw in a secret garden while you’re at it? Follow this easily missed path…
…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.
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.
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:
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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