Why has this 258-year-old mansion been left to fall apart?

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Why has this 258-year-old mansion been left to fall apart?
The historic Morris-Jumel Mansion, the “crown jewel of Sugar Hill” in Manhattan and a victim of bureaucratic and financial neglect, on Oct. 24, 2023. Built in 1765 as a summer place for a British loyalist, the mansion serves as a monument to the highest ideals of the colonial era — and to some of its most exquisite gossip. (Sara Hylton/The New York Times)

by Ginia Bellafante

NEW YORK, NY.- The Morris-Jumel Mansion, designed in the neo-Palladian style, is the oldest surviving house in Manhattan, an irreplaceable artifact described by Duke Ellington as “the crown jewel of Sugar Hill,” one of the places where Lin-Manuel Miranda composed songs for “Hamilton.” In its current life, it supplies a strange and unwelcome souvenir — pieces of itself. The building has been so badly maintained that it is possible to touch it and walk away with a moist, splintered clump of wood siding in the palm of your hand.

The mansion was built in 1765 as a summer place for a British loyalist, and its age alone might have indemnified it against all too obvious neglect. But the house also serves as a monument to the highest ideals of the American Enlightenment era and some of its most exquisite gossip.

Once a base of operations for George Washington during the Revolutionary War, it eventually became the home of Eliza Jumel, who was born in a Rhode Island bordello run by a Black madam and rose to become one of the richest and most liberated women in the country, tripling a fortune based largely on her own shrewd real estate investments. Her cook was Anne Northup, the wife of abolitionist Solomon Northup, who wrote “Twelve Years a Slave.”

For a while, Aaron Burr lived in the mansion as well. Jumel married him 14 months after her first husband, a rich wine merchant, died after landing on a pitchfork during a mysterious fall from a hay wagon. When she divorced Burr, who was tearing through her money as if he were trying out for the Real Husbands of the Continental Army, she hired Alexander Hamilton Jr. to represent her and presumably enjoy some karmic retribution.

Despite the singular pedigree of the house and its standing in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, it has been left to deteriorate. On a hill above Coogan’s Bluff, it looks ghostly from whatever direction you approach. The paint on the exterior is peeling on all sides. Over last winter, one of the four columns on the front porch collapsed, leaving that portion of the building to be propped up by scaffolding and necessitating a study about what caused the fall.

For years now, Kurt Thometz, a dealer of rare books, and his wife, Camilla Huey, a celebrated dressmaker and costume designer, have watched the decay with increasing frustration from their brownstone across the street. They moved to the neighborhood 19 years ago via Brooklyn Heights and the West Village, two of the wealthiest and most historic quarters of the city, where a house like the Morris-Jumel Mansion would ignite robust philanthropic interest as soon as a shingle was askew. Washington Heights is a predominantly Hispanic area with a poverty rate above the city average.

Huey believed that broken-windows theory applied here as well, she told me as we circled the former estate one afternoon — that it was hard to see how civic pride might be fostered in a neighborhood that has watched its most precious material asset fall into such disrepair.

Money was the problem because it is always the problem, but in this instance, it isn’t the only or even the most meaningful one. In 2014, Carol Ward, then the mansion’s executive director, secured $1.2 million in grant money for the rehabilitation of the building, with financing coming from local elected officials including Gale Brewer, who was the Manhattan Borough president at the time.

But the money languished with the city’s Parks Department, which is responsible for maintaining the building’s facade and grounds, not the very well preserved interiors. However self-sabotaging in an instance like this, it has long been the practice of the department to hold off on beginning capital projects until they are fully funded, which risks that structural problems might only worsen as time passes.

The initial money raised was insufficient, but by the time an additional $1.5 million was found — seven years later in 2021 — the scope of the project only got bigger and inflation had driven up the costs. Since then, millions more have been needed from elected officials to complete the work.

Even with more than $5 million in government money currently earmarked, the first phase of the restoration will not begin until next summer, according to the Parks Department, largely because of all the stages of review required for a landmarked building, which inevitably involve several different slow-moving city agencies.

Those who live in the historic district surrounding the house blame not only an inert bureaucracy for what has happened but also the mansion’s board of trustees, which includes no prominent constituent of the city’s giving circles and which has failed to cultivate wealthy donors.

The notion that “the board has been lax in passion is the farthest thing from the truth,” said Lisa Koenigsberg, an architectural historian and the board’s chair. “We agonize just as much as the neighbors do. I understand the frustration and the sadness over the building,” she said. “There are these processes and procedures and needs and then these inevitable delays.” When I asked her about the lack of private funding, she said: “It wouldn’t make sense to look for nonpublic money. The building is the city’s responsibility.” This is a curious response in a place where public-private partnerships make most of our cultural life possible.

When the preservation movement took hold in New York in the early 1960s, the goal was to prevent beautiful buildings from being destroyed. In more recent years, the work has tilted from defense to offense, the effort to strike down plans for aesthetically dubious projects to come to life in the first place. On any given day, a neighborhood group is fighting a proposal for a building that is too tall, too ugly, too alienating, too out of character for a place with an intimate, cobblestone sense of itself. Often, that war is at odds with the city’s affordable housing ambitions; sometimes it further obscures the history that is suppressed for political inconvenience or simply allowed to fade from view.

Ten years ago, Camilla Huey mounted an exhibit at the mansion of elaborate corsets she made as a testament to the women close to Aaron Burr, who brought up his daughter Theodosia to “convince” the world that “women have souls.” As she put it, the house is the living embodiment of the complex equation of this country. “The rot and decay is evidence of profound contempt.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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