McGowan’s Pass, Reimagined in 1858

Yet another fantasia on McGowan’s Pass, as conjured up at the time of Central Park’s opening. As usual, we are supposed to be looking at a pastoral scene of about 1814-1816.

By 1858 Fort Fish (top of the photo) was overgrown with foliage and the old McGowan house had mostly disappeared into the Mount St. Vincent’s complex. As the Park’s northern boundary was 106th Street, these landmarks were the Ultima Thule of Central Park-land.

Fort Clinton, left center, looks like a large anthill.

The NYPL picture collection unhelpfully dates this according to the date of printing, 1858, rather than the era being shown.

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View from Fort Clinton, 1814

View at Fort Clinton, McGowan's Pass. Looking east.

Another fine John Joseph Holland watercolor from the latter half of 1814, retrieved from the “emuseum” link at the New-York Historical Society.

What is unusual about this image is that it looks east over the Harlem Creek leading to the East River. Although we can’t see them here, there are earth/wood/stone fortifications leading down from Fort Clinton to the edge of the water (not so much a real creek as a shallow, swampy inlet from the East River).

The causeway running through the Creek in the distance is the Harlem Bridge Road. This is a new (1800) road, roughly between where Madison and Fourth Avenues will be.

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The Shape-Shifting McGown House, 1814

McGown house and Fort Fish, detail, by John Joseph Holland, 1814

We noted earlier how the McGowan’s Pass gatehouse radically changes shape as we go from one illustration to another. Stranger still is how the McGown house up on the hill seems to be re-imagined in each depiction.

This lovely view on the left, by John Joseph Holland, circa September 1814, is probably the most authoritative version. The house was still fairly new, having been rebuilt from the ground up in 1790. It doesn’t look anything like the tumbledown four-room abandoned farmhouse described in 1846. In fact, it looks like a grand mansion that got enfolded into Hampstead Heath. Holland may be idealizing the house and foliage—perhaps to brighten and balance this green-and-brown study of earthworks fortifications?

A couple of months before Holland’s watercolor, we have this preliminary drawing of the region, showing the proposed fortifications along the Pass. The rendering, probably by James Renwick, Sr., is amateurish, with bad sense of perspective and proportion. The McGown house is much humbler here, a generic skull of a farmhouse, not worth spending any detail on. Does the illustrator scant it because it’s non-essential, or is this just a bad drawing?

Hayward lithograph, from Valentine's Manual 1856. Gatehouse and McGown farmhouse from the northwest.

Moving along here, we have a mid-1850s Hayward lithograph. This was printed in Valentine’s Manual for 1856, when the plans for Central Park had aroused public interest in McGowan’s Pass and the old forts. While this must be a copy of some earlier illustration(s), it may also be a compromise between the two views above. The house is again a modest two-story farmhouse, minimally rendered; except we have this odd cornice-thingummy in the middle of the roof. It seems to be an attempt to draw the front gable that we see in Holland’s detailed rendering.

Fanciful 1893 depiction of the Pass, from 1893 "Felix Oldboy" book of reminiscences.

Now we get to 1893, and this imaginative reverie of McGowan’s Pass as it might have looked in 1814 (if it were in a travel guide, perhaps, describing the South Tyrol). Here the McGown house is minimal indeed. No gable or cornice or even shrubbery. It is however a very large house, larger than the Holland version, if we take the perspective literally. The illustrator apparently drew the farmhouse out of his head, using basic geometric shapes and not worrying about accuracy. He placed it accurately across the road from Fort Fish (which is well done), but the house seems to be perched on the very edge of the Post Road (East Drive).  It looks like the shopper’s model for a 1960 split-level tract house.

Some interesting touches you don’t see in the earlier illustrations: 1) the railings along the Post Road at left, as it descends toward Harlem Creek. The dangerousness of this road was indeed an issue in the early 1800s; in the City Council Proceedings, we find the aldermen voting to provide money for building railings along here. 2) The illustrator shows the Post Road forking off to the left, and the post-1860 East Drive switchback going through the gatehouse on the extreme right*. This anachronism must have confused hordes of amateur historians in the 1890s.

*The full image, with further snarky commentary, is in an earlier post!

 

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Koch’s New Mount St. Vincent’s Hotel, 1880s

Occasionally one comes across mention of “Koch’s New Mount St. Vincent’s Hotel,” a quasi-rural roadhouse that opened in the vicinity of Hamilton Heights around 1883 or 1884, after the old Mount St. Vincent’s Hotel in Central Park burned down (in 1881) and before the new one opened (in 1884). This operated at least until the 1890s.

Pinehurst, aka Koch's New Mount St. Vincent's Hotel


This had no connection whatsoever to the refreshment house in Central Park. The title was one of convenience. It’s as though “Mount St. Vincent’s Hotel” had become a kind of generic term for grand saloon in upper Manhattan (the same way “Vauxhall” became the generic name for railway station in 19th century Moscow).

The site has its own fascinating history. There is a 2001 New York City report on a proposed Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill Historic District (link here) that gives some background on this establishment. Apparently this was formerly the estate of Dr. Samuel and Mary Bradhurst, who in 1799 sold part of their estate to Alexander Hamilton, whose house stood nearby. Many years later the Bradhurst descendants moved to England and sold off the family mansion, “Pinehurst.” As explained in a footnote in the 2001 NYC report:

After 1875 “Pinehurst” became the Mt. St. Vincent Hotel. A photograph in the collection of The New-York Historical Society dating from the late 1880s shows a sign for “Koch’s New Mount St. Vincent Hotel” as well as the building and the approach from St. Nicholas Avenue. At the time the property was surrounded by a low picket fence, much of which was covered with advertisements. The house stood in the “middle of the juncture of Convent Avenue and 148th Street” and was demolished as part of the extension of Convent Avenue north to 152nd Street and St. Nicholas Avenue.

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McGowans Pass, Central Park—the Riverside County, California Version

Off in the desert developments of Murrieta, in California’s Riverside County, there is a posh McMansion enclave called Central Park. And at the northernmost reaches of this development, beyond such roads as Turtle Pond Lane and Boat House Drive, and at the very edge of desert canyons, we find a road called McGowans Pass.

This seems to have been built 8 or 10 years ago, possibly by Barratt American, the local offshoot of a British house-building firm that went belly-up a couple of years ago. Regardless of who built the tract, it is marvelous that anyone involved in the enterprise would be so steeped in Central Park lore to name the ultimate road in Central Park (Murietta version) “McGowans Pass.”

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McGowan’s Hill, circa 1849

We just came across this remarkable etching of Mount St. Vincent’s Academy in an 1880s book on the school’s history (A Descriptive and Historical Sketch of the Academy of Mount St. Vincent… New York, Appleton & Co. 1884) . We are looking approximately due-east, from the current perspective of East Drive of Central Park near 105th Street.

It appears to show the Mount sometime between 1848, when the north and south wings had already been added to the original building (the 1790 version of the McGown house); and the early 1850s, when the grounds were expanded with a large frame structure on the right, and a large chapel in the back.

Some observations:

Mount St. Vincent's, late 1850s or early 1860s

1) The McGown house, in the center, is completely hidden behind the porches and walkways connecting the two wings. This is hard to reconcile with the picture from the stereoscope slide of Mount St. Vincent around 1860.

[Postscript, July 17, 2011: Unless of course we are supposed to be looking from the back side, the Fifth Avenue side, of the old McGown property, which does indeed look like this in 1860s photos. The caption certainly suggests we are looking from Fifth Avenue. But if this vantage really is from the Fifth Avenue side, shouldn’t the buildings much higher up? Here they are practically level with the viewer.]

2) The steeple in the back is not from the chapel that was dedicated in 1855. Therefore there was some sort of provisional chapel built c. 1847, directly behind the old McGown house. This provisional chapel seems to be lost to history. We know that Archbishop John Hughes gave a dedication in 1847 in a makeshift chapel in the southwest room of the old McGown house; and we know that there was a grand chapel completed in 1855 (later used as a sculpture museum, until it was razed after the January 1881 fire at Mount St. Vincent’s Hotel). But we haven’t read anything about this in-between house of worship.

3) The location is said to be at 109th Street and Fifth Avenue. That address actually describes an entrance drive to the Mount, not the actual location of the convent school (around 104th Street, east of Fifth Avenue). But this geographical sloppiness points to what little regard people had for recent history in the late 19th century. This made it easy for fanciful myths to sprout about the former use of  the McGown house and Mount St. Vincent’s. Even in the early 21st century you will read that the current Composting Site of the Central Park Conservancy is the site of the old McGowan’s Black Horse Tavern.

 

 

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The Sledge Is Back

Here again is that McGowan sledge we saw earlier, in a Valentine’s Manual etching:

Full description reads: Andrew McGowan, of Harlem, New York, has an old sledge, dating as far back as 1783. On the back panel are the letters “S.B.” in monogram. This is probably the oldest thing of the kind in America. It is so contrived that by simply removing the box, it can be used either for business or pleasure. When the sides are unshipped from the runners it is fitted for a sledge, and when not needed may be put away compactly for the summer season.
Ezra M. Stratton, The World on Wheels 1878

The disassembly instructions are baffling. “By simply removing the box, it can be used either for business or pleasure.” (What manner of pleasure?) “When the sides are unshipped from the runners it is fitted for a sledge…” What? Perhaps Mr. Stratton is trying to tell us that you can take the sides off and haul logs and freight atop the runners. Good to know.

The “SB” seems to be the monogram of Samson Benson 2nd (1736-1821), grandfather of the Andrew McGowan (1785-1870) referred to here. Like the year “1783,” was probably carved into the sledge well after Benson’s death—maybe during the 1850s when the story of McGowan’s Pass became a topic of popular interest and old Andrew showed the sledge around on Independence Day festivities and suchlike.

And what became of the old sleigh? Is it in an old storage warehouse of the New-York Historical Society, or did it get consigned to the flames like “Rosebud”?

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Tavern Was Not McGown House, Says Family Member (1881)

Through the magic of Googlebooks and archive.org, it is possible to find bits and pieces about McGowan’s Pass and the Black Horse Tavern, though these often contradict each other.

Detail of 1789 Colles Map

Part of the 1789 Christopher Colles map, showing the "McGowen" house on the right and Legget's Tavern on the left.

In the excerpt below, the elderly Mr. S. Benson McGown (1797-1882?) tells us that the Legget’s tavern shown on Christopher Colles’s 1789 map (at right) is indeed the same house known as the Black Horse during the Revolution, and that it was somewhat south of his family’s house on the Kingsbridge Road.

Alas, McGown is fuzzy on the location: he seems to agree with the querent that the tavern was located near the line of 97th Street.  Colles’s map clearly puts it on the line of 101st or 102nd–just across the road from the McGown house, or almost. Of course McGown was a very small boy when he last saw the tavern, and the Manhattan street-grid was well in the future. Likewise, his testimony about Legget’s circa 1805 doesn’t prove anything about the Black Horse Tavern in 1776.

But on this crucial point he is nevertheless very clear: the Black Horse Tavern was not in the McGown House, it was a little distance down the road.

From The Magazine of American history with notes and queries, Volume 8 (1882)
Letter from Mr. McGown, dated Feb 7, 1881, in reply to the query: “If the tavern eight blocks south of McGown’s house on the Kingsbridge road, north side of the present 97th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues and marked on the road map of Colles in 1789 as Legget’s Tavern, was the Black Horse of the Revolution.”

Dear Sir
The Tavern referred to in the road map of 1789 is the Black Horse Tavern of Revolutionary fame. I have been in the house in my boyhood, and if you desire I can at any time give you a full description of the house and surroundings. The house was set on fire and burned down about the year 1809, perhaps 1808. You may accept the latter date, 1808. Will be happy to give you any information that I can in reference to the old Black Horse if you have no idea of it.
Yours,
S. Benson McGown.

 

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The Mystery of the Old Gate-House

The 1814 fortifications and gatehouse were thrown together in a few weeks, and this led to some higgledy-piggledy construction (as can still be seen in the last-surviving structure, Blockhouse No. 1 in the North Woods). It also led to a lot of rethinking and rebuilding, if illustrations are anything to go by.

This view below purports to show us the gatehouse, with Forts Clinton and Fish at left and center, and the McGowan house at left-rear, not far from Fort Fish.

But the gatehouse is a weirdly anthropomorphized thing, with two big eyes, a gaping mouth, and a kind of tam o’shanter hat up top.

It is an 1814 watercolor sketch by one of John Joseph Holland’s associates (possibly James Renwick, Sr., father of the famous architect). But see how different it is from Holland’s own rendering of the gatehouse:

Why the difference? The first painting is rougher and sketchier than the second, so we can suppose that the first one was an “artist’s conception” drawn up beforehand. Holland’s version, then, shows the finished product.

But there are even stranger pictures of the gatehouse. Below are views redrawn and published in the 1850s and 1890s:

The “Nutting Battery” [sic] lithograph from the 1856 Valentine’s Manual is like a compromise between the watercolors up above: the gatehouse is not as squat as the one Holland painted, but not wearing a tam o’shanter either.

Then we have the etching from Felix Oldboy’s (J. F. Mines’s) A Tour Around New York, 1893. Here the gatehouse has shed all its roughhewn Natty Bumppo-ness and become an elegant little guardhouse, with front door and railing. We can only see the top level; the tunnel-like passageway through the gate is hidden from our view.  Even more remarkably, the gatehouse is not on the Post Road (to the left), but on some side route branching off in a westerly direction, on our side of Fort Fish. It’s right where the switchback is today. The Post Road in the etching has high rails and a guardhouse, but no gatehouse.

Could this be a correct depiction? Hard to say. It might be based on an original drawing from 1814, but we haven’t seen any such drawing. Or it might be an imaginative reconstruction by an 1890s illustrator who knew East Drive’s switchback and figured it must have been around in 1814. The fact that the etching is titled, “Fort Clinton, at M’Gowan’s Pass,” and shows Fort Fish instead, is not a point in its favor.

 

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The Mystery of McGowan’s Pass; or, Where the Switchback Came From

In the early 1860s the New York City Park Commission extended the northern boundary of Central Park from the line of 106th Street to 110th Street. It was a region of steep hills, cliffs, ravines, a marshy creekbed, and the remains of old forts from the Revolution and War of 1812. Little landscaping could be attempted on this wild place, with the happy result that it remains today almost as it was in 1850.

This is when the famous hairpin turns of East Drive were built.  The published histories of Central Park give no information how they came about. However, these 1850s maps by the Park’s original planner, Andrew Jackson Downing, give some pretty good clues.

Above is the Park region as it looked in its raw state, circa 1851. The switchback road is already there, sort of: a west-southwest road meeting the old Post Road near the lines of 107th Street and 6th Avenue. This is precisely at the point of the 1814 gatehouse seen in so many illustrations. The current route of East Drive became much smoother and more graceful than this makeshift hairpin-turn. But the basic route remained basically the same: a north-northeast road that turns suddenly to the south-southwest.

However, this hairpin was not part of Downing and Vaux’s plan in the 1850s. They wanted to build a simpler northern loop, something akin to the loop at the southern end of the Park.  If you look at their original plan, below, you will see that their northern extension of East Drive (lower right of map) has no hairpin turns at all. It curves neatly within the northeast corner, then travels parallel to 110th Street before hitting its current route in the northwest Harlem Hills (top right of map).

A very smooth and sensible route; however it means there is no Harlem Meer! Instead of the Harlem Meer, the Downing/Vaux plan proposed making a broad lake out of the ravine in the North Woods. Like the other man-made lakes in the Park, this one seems to have been inspired by the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park.

But the North Woods Lake was not to be. Instead we got the Harlem Meer. And the East Drive got laid out along the switchback route we now know and love. Below, the “final” product, from an 1875 map.

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