It takes only a brief stroll east from Lexington Avenue to step back into 18th century New York. Tucked between the low-rises of E. 61st and the brooding skyscrapers lining the FDR drive, the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden is a picturesque reminder of when uptown was a lovely country getaway.
The Mount Vernon Hotel is a beautiful stone house on the east end of 61st Street, with white shutters and a colonial bearing you almost never see in New York. The building was once a carriage house (yes, the horse-drawn ones). But in its heyday in the mid-1820s, the museum was a day hotel, a stately resort made for a rising middle class eager to escape the city.
When New York was unfinished
It is hard to imagine, but the surrounding neighborhood was all country, with the tip of the city only jutting past 14th Street. The Mount Vernon Hotel was four miles north of New York City, dense and congested even then, except with actual livestock sauntering the avenues. There was still no grid for the streets and avenues, and much of Manhattan was an unrecognizable frontier. But for its patrons, the Mount Vernon Hotel offered a taste of cultural capital. New York was not yet a concrete, global city, but it was just beginning to be. “Just like how New Yorkers today may want to spend time at the Ritz-Carlton, people came here to live a step above,” said the museum’s director, Terri Daley.
When you come in here, it’s like stepping back in time”
Guests dined on anchovies and other imported novelties, before stepping outside to watch horse shows or fish in the East River. This was a time before restaurants, if you can fathom that, so New Yorkers also came to day hotels like the Mount Vernon to learn proper dining etiquette.
The museum transforms the spare, inviting quarters within using period furniture and meticulous restorations of what the day hotel would have looked like. In the tavern, gentlemen would loosen up over cards before heading upstairs with the ladies, who maybe spent the afternoon enjoying music and letter-writing in the second-floor parlor. Needless to say, the Mount Vernon Hotel became the place to be for New York’s singles. And unlike other historic houses, the Mount Vernon and the stories you will hear there are never about just one family. The hotel tells a history of New Yorkers coming and going, like commuters passing through the subway.
One of a kind
“When you come in here, it’s like stepping back in time,” said Daley. But you don’t even need to go inside to see that. Across the way from the antebellum house is a dark skyscraper. Look a little further and you’ll see the spans of the Queensboro Bridge.
The Mount Vernon Hotel changed hands several times in its history before the Colonial Dames of America purchased the property and opened it to the public in 1939. But even before then once the area industrialized, Standard Gas, today’s Con-Edison, acquired the building. By some miracle, they kept the structure as is. “It is still a mystery why they didn’t tear it down,” said Daley. “We are grateful for that.” The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum is the last day hotel standing, proud and unpaved against the towering backdrop of New York. We hope it stays that way.
Tired of another jaunt through the Met?
If you are up for it this weekend, the museum is throwing its annual Holiday Candlelight Tours, where patrons can tour the beautiful space and enjoy traditional yuletide confections from the time (courtesy of East Side stalwarts Two Little Red Hens and Glaser’s). On Friday, you’ll even be serenaded by harp. Or maybe you have a better idea about how to kick off your weekend?
The Mount Vernon Hotel & Garden is at 421 East 61st Street, between 1st Avenue and York Avenue. The museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults.
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