I was up in the country last weekend and as often happens when driving back into the city, I found myself imagining the process by which that became this. I’ll pass by a marshy field someplace with a stand of bare-limbed trees in the background and I’ll think: Manhattan had that too once. It’s a long time gone, though not that long really, in the scheme of things. I’m reading a book about Ancient Egypt right now and it will say things like, “Then for 400 years it was the Dark Ages, and shit was crazy.” That’s 400 years. That’s 400 years that passed over 4,000 years ago. People were alive back then! Probably some days they woke up and said, “Man, what a beautiful morning,” even if it was the Dark Ages.
Pretty beautiful morning around these parts too lately. It puts me in mind of a walk in the country, with not too much to do. It must have been nice when the country was a lot closer to the city, when Greenwich Village or the Lower East Side were sufficiently far enough out to build a country home. By the 1760s such estates lined both sides of Manhattan, heading north. One of the southern-most was called Richmond Hill, created in 1760 by Abraham Mortier, commissary of the British army in America. He leased the land from Trinity Church (themselves the holders of most of the West Side from Fulton Street to Christopher) and laid out a 26 acre property on a hill over-looking the Hudson, bounded by present day King, Varick, Charlton and MacDougal Street. Mortier was driven out of the estate with the coming of the Revolution, at which time it briefly served as Washington’s headquarters for the Continental Army – until they too were driven off the island. After the war it served for a year as the Vice-Presidential home of John Adams. His wife Abigail wrote, “In natural beauty it might vie with the most delicious spot I ever saw.”
In 1794 Richmond Hill was purchased by Aaron Burr, to serve as his country home. Once he acquired the lease Burr began borrowing large sums of money, from whoever he could, to refurbish the estate in the elegant fashion he preferred. That included damming Minetta Creek, which ran near the property, to create an ornamental pool by the entry gates. Maybe that helped give him the water-experience he needed to co-found the Manhattan Water Company in 1799. The ostensible purpose of the company was to provide the city with a safe and adequate public water supply, something NYC was severely lacking. In reality the project was a front – a clause included in the contract allowed the investors the right to form a bank, something Burr had been interested in for awhile but feared would be legislatively difficult to bring about. With the Manhattan Water Company he found a short-cut, and within the year the bank was up and running. The water project on the other hand quickly stagnated, with just 6 miles of pipe laid serving only about 400 houses. New York would go another 40 years without a decent water supply. The bank would go on to become the Chase Manhattan Bank, now J.P. Morgan Chase.
But even the banks profits couldn’t help Burr from falling deeper into debt. In 1803 he sold the majority of Richmond Hill’s land lots to John Jacob Astor. A year later Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, across the Hudson river in Weehawken. He quickly sold more of his land to Astor before leaving the city in disgrace, wanted for murder in both New York and New Jersey. Astor went on to develop the property into a residential district. In 1820 he moved Burr’s mansion downhill and opened it as a genteel roadhouse for travelers. He leveled the hill itself, laid out streets, and then sold individual lots to speculative builders. Many of the original row-houses that went up at the time are still standing. Burr’s mansion, which had become a saloon towards the end of its lifetime, was destroyed in 1849.
Aaron Burr was vice-president of the United States when he shot and killed Hamilton, although his political career was already in shambles by that time. He had been dropped by Jefferson for his presidential re-election bid in 1804, and he had just lost handily in his run for governor of New York state, in part because of the opposition of Hamilton. Still, killing one of the Founding Fathers didn’t help his case any. Burr fled west, hoping to find a new start, and would be tried for treason against the United States in 1807, accused of trying to carve out an independent nation on land that included the Louisiana Purchase. He was found not guilty and eventually, years later, settled back in New York to practice law and live out the rest of his life. He would remain the only Vice President to have shot a man while in office, until Dick Cheney nailed his friend in the face with a round of bird-shot.
(Originally posted Mar. 19th, 2010 on Takethehandle.com)