NEW YORK—Walking along an otherwise unremarkable street in the upper regions of Manhattan, in a neighborhood known as Washington Heights, something strange happens.
The endless concrete street suddenly turns into cobblestone and amidst the small Manhattan apartments stacked on top of each other, a white, columned mansion with a large grassy yard sticks out—and it sticks out quite literally since the property is located on the second highest elevation in Manhattan.
This curious urban discovery is officially known as Morris-Jumel Mansion. "It's such a hidden gem because it is the oldest house in Manhattan. Most people don't even realize it's still here—it's still here and it's available to the public," said Sarah Mellace, educational director for the mansion.
The mansion's history dates back to colonial times when the surrounding neighborhood was nothing but wilderness. Today, looking out from the mansion's large front yard patio gives sweeping views of upper Manhattan, the Bronx, and the Harlem River.
"It's spectacular!" said Jay Dias, a local Manhattan resident of 25 years who stumbled upon the Morris-Jumel Mansion for the first time last Saturday while cycling with his friend. "We saw it rising on the hill... I'd love to live here."
The mansion's biggest claim to fame came one evening in 1790, when President George Washington held a dinner party attended by Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and John Quincy Adams—of which, the latter three would go on to become U.S. presidents.
"It gives a glimpse into the colonial era ... the way New York was when it first started out, which a lot of New Yorkers don't know," said Mellace.
The area had held special meaning for Washington because it was the site of his first victory in the Revolutionary War, the battle of Harlem Heights. Specifically, Morris-Jumel Mansion is where Washington actually stayed for two months during the period leading up to the battle in 1776.
"It was the first American victory," said Mellace. "Before that, they had lost all of their previous battles. The troops were really down trodden and it was kind of a sign that 'Hey, we can do this.'"
Now, the mansion is a colonial era museum available to the public, for a $4 fee. The house's large hilly front and back yards are also available as a public park Wednesday through Sunday 11a.m. to 4 p.m. The house has become a standard stop on upper Manhattan sightseeing tours and for school children in Bronx and Manhattan.
The house also hosts Baroque period music concerts, jazz concerts, and free family activities, at least once a month.
"We had George Washington's Birthday in February where we had George Washington come and give tours himself, and a singer came and sang songs to the kids," said Mellace.
The Mansion can also be rented out for weddings.
Upcoming Morris-Jumel Mansion Event:
Renowned fortepianist Steven Lubin will perform piano sonatas by Mozart in the mansion's 1765 octagonal music room on April 26, 3–5 p.m. Tickets are $15 per person. Advanced registration is required. Call 212-923-8008.