About three blocks north of today’s Manhattan entrance to the Holland Tunnel is the former site of Richmond Hill. This was Aaron Burr’s stately residence from 1791 until shortly after the duel with Alexander Hamilton. At that time, the property was on the Hudson River shore. But due to subsequent landfill, the site is now about 500 yards inland, roughly bound by today’s Varick, Charlton, MacDougal, and King streets.
Burr acquired Richmond Hill from the Trinity Church parish after John and Abigail Adams occupied it. The Adamses lived there from June 1789 until August 1790, while Adams was vice-president, before the capital moved from New York to Philadelphia. At that time Richmond Hill was a mile north of the city proper. “Never did I live in so delightful a spot,” Adams said. Abigail wrote to a friend that:
On one side we see a view of the city and of Long Island. The river [is] in front, [New] Jersey and the adjacent country on the other side. You turn a little from the road and enter a gate. A winding road with trees in clumps leads to the house, and all around the house it looks wild and rural as uncultivated nature. . . . You enter under a piazza into a hall and turning to the right hand ascend a staircase which lands you in another [hall] of equal dimensions of which I make a drawing room. It has a glass door which opens into a gallery the whole front of the house which is exceedingly pleasant. . . .There is upon the back of the house a garden of much greater extent than our [Massachusetts] garden, but it is wholly for a walk and flowers. It has a hawthorne hedge and rows of trees with a broad gravel walk.
Built in 1760 by Sir Abraham Mortier, Commissary to the British army, Richmond Hill also served very briefly as George Washington’s headquarters during the battle for New York in 1776.
During Burr’s tenure, visitors were frequent and entertainment was lavish. Mrs. Burr was ill and could not participate in these events, so their precocious teenage daughter, Theodosia, presided as hostess. Hamilton on visits was sometimes accompanied by his daughter, Angelica, who went horseback riding with Theodosia. Other guests included such French visitors to the United States as the statesman Maurice de Talleyrand; historian and philosopher Constantin-Francois de Volney; Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome Bonaparte; and aristocrat Louis-Phillipe, who later became king of the French. Other guests included Dr. David Hosack, who later attended the dying Alexander Hamilton, and Colonel Brant, the celebrated Indian chief. Andrew Jackson claimed that at Burr’s table he drank the finest wine he ever tasted.
Burr had difficulty supporting his lifestyle on the meager salaries he received as United States senator, New York State attorney-general, and vice-president. He supplemented the income from public office with legal work and land investments, but he obviously did not have enough time to expend on these activities to augment his income sufficiently. He was nonetheless able to improve the mansion and grounds of Richmond Hill. Among other things, Burr widened his part of a brook into a body of water known as Burr’s pond. His expensive entertaining undoubtedly contributed to Burr’s being forced, first, to sell off some of the surrounding lands; and second, many of the prized furnishings of the mansion. Burr then mortgaged the property itself.
After Burr’s trial for treason in 1807, (where he was found not guilty), what remained of Richmond Hill was bought for a pittance by John Jacob Astor, and resold by him as separate lots at an enormous profit.
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