Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Morris-Jumel Mansion

On Friday evening last week, Roger and I headed uptown to the Morris-Jumel Mansion for the opening of Colonial Arrangements, an exhibit of work by Yinka Shonibare MBE that celebrates the 250th anniversary of the house. For a better summary of the exhibit than I could ever write, check out this Wall Street Journal article.

To get to the mansion, you take what seems like a little hidden passageway from the 163rd St subway stop. There's a stone wall with a staircase next to a grocery store, marked Sylvan Terrace, and once you make your way up the stairs, you're transported to another world, with a cobblestone street and matching townhouses all leading up to the mansion.

The trees are just starting to bloom in New York, and it was a mild evening, so it was perfect for the opening party, which was held in a tent outside the front entrance. (Unfortunately, the tent blocked the view of the front of the house, so I didn't get to take any shots of that. This one is particularly lovely, though, if you want to know what the exterior of the house looks like.)

The house is the oldest home in Manhattan, and was built in 1765 by Roger Morris for his wife, Mary Philipse. It's built on one of the high points of Manhattan, so at one time it had gorgeous views of New Jersey, Connecticut, and the harbor. Today, it still offers beautiful views of the city lights, and reminded me a little of walking around Columbia and looking over the city.

The views also made it the perfect spot for George Washington to occupy for about a month during the Revolution, when he was planning the Battle of Harlem Heights. In 1810, the house was purchased by Stephen Jumel and his wife, Eliza Bowen. Eliza was an actress, real estate mogul, and all around self-made lady. After Stephen's death, she married and divorced Aaron Burr (yes, that Aaron Burr) at a time when divorce was almost unheard of, though because he died shortly after the divorce was finalized, she often referred to herself as his widow when it suited her. She lived in the house until its centenary anniversary and her death in 1865, and some people have reported that her ghost still haunts the place.

It's a really spectacular house, in an area where you wouldn't expect to find it. The grounds and gardens are lovely and peaceful, and the house itself is well-maintained and furnished. I was especially enamored with the wallpapers, which were all recreated by Gracie Studio, and were absolutely stunning.

And, Yinka Shonibare's work was wonderful as always. They featured a few pieces from older exhibitions, mainly from "Mother and Father Worked Hard So I Can Play," which was the show that introduced me to both Yinka's work and the Brooklyn Museum's period rooms back in 2009. It was very cool to see some of the pieces reworked and in a new context. I really love art installations in period rooms and historic houses, since I think it feeds both and allows us to see each in a new light.

And, a new, two-part piece was commissioned for the show. Upstairs in her bedchamber, you'll find the ghost of Eliza Jumel, and downstairs in the front parlor, she reached out to you from an antique mirror. It's a lovely, haunting installation from one of my favorite artists.

And, the museum knows how to throw a party! We were lucky enough to meet the artist while he was viewing the projection downstairs, which was very cool, and the food and wine for the opening was all delicious and served in very generous portions right up until the end. We ended up speaking with several people who were also attending (one of them gave me the tip on the Gracie Studios wallpaper), and overall the atmosphere was fun and welcoming.

I hope you'll take the quick trip up to 163rd Street and visit the Ghost of Eliza Jumel soon because the Morris-Jumel Mansion is a magical and transformative place. The exhibit is open until August 31st and would be the perfect way to spend a Summer Friday afternoon or a weekend. I'm not sure if picnicking is allowed on the grounds, so call ahead and ask, but if it is, you'll definitely want to bring along a basket and enjoy the views!

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