So, again with my procrastinatory Googling of dead relatives… but this time I think I may have decided where I want to live next, weather and finances and fate permitting.
This pretty much all started when I heard from the lovely and inimitable Lee Child that he would be going to Saratoga, New York, for a library gig–at which I hope he was madly feted since he’s really cool and stuff. For some reason, I remembered from earlier dead-relative Googling that my great-great Uncle, Dr. Valentine Seaman, had done the first chemical analysis of the waters of Saratoga and Ballston Spa in the late 1700s.
He looks quite a bit like my dad, actually–including the sideburns.
Totally the same forehead and cheekbones, even though you probably can’t tell since this is of course not a profile shot of Dad (my scrapbooks are all in storage in California.) Dad had a better nose, though. Not to mention way longer legs.
Here’s Valentine’s great-niece, Caroline Seaman Read, with her daughter Carol. She was Dad’s grandmother:
Great-Great-Uncle Valentine was also the guy who introduced Jenner’s cowpox vaccine for smallpox to America, after his eldest daughter died of a live-smallpox inoculation. Valentine traveled to England to ask Jenner about his work, became lifelong friends with the guy, and returned home to New York City with some cowpox in his luggage. There were apparently riots in NYC because people were terrified that he’d start an epidemic, plus his colleagues at The New York Hospital were pretty freaked out by it, so he volunteered to treat his own remaining children with the stuff first.
He also did the first training classes for nurses in the United States–a twenty-two-lecture series on midwifery.
Oddly enough, my daughters were born at what is now New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. I remember the morning the cab let my husband and me out at the entrance to the maternity ward. There was a small bronze plaque near the front doors which, if memory serves, read “New York Lying-In Hospital, 1793.”
I thought to myself at the time that I was totally fucking glad not to be standing in that spot in 1793, since they probably had dirt floors and stone knives and bearskins, and I badly wanted an epidural, but I had no idea that had I been suddenly whisked back 199 years that I might well have met up with my great-great uncle. Weird, huh?
Anyway, interesting guy and he died of consumption at age 47 (my age this year), in the front room of the family house on Beeckman Street. His son Valentine, also a doctor, lived to the age of 96 and was written up in the New York Times the year before his death because he was thought to be at that time the oldest native inhabitant of the city.
Here’s Valentine the Younger’s obituary from The New York Times, which is pretty interesting reading about the old days further downtown:
THAT Valentine and his brother John bought 25 acres at the northern tip of Manhattan and John built a country place on the site. Henry and his wife referred to it as “Mount Olympus,” but the locals called it “Seaman’s Folly.”
Here’s what it looked like later, after it became the home of a riding club:
Though from a different angle, this would have been what the house had a view of:
Actually, maybe that building at the top left WAS the house? Not sure…
Here’s a fuller description from myinwood.net (quoted from an article in The New York Herald, August 29th, 1869):
The mansion is built entirely of white marble, quarried by Mr. Seaman on the spot. It is seventy-eight feet deep and in plan is nearly square. It has a main dome reaching a height of ninety feet from the ground, with its top painted a dark maroon color. There are also two smaller domes, whose arches are surmounted by the statues of Love and Music respectively. It is hardly possible to give a correct view of this house—a house that has few equals in the world, and one that is a combination of capacious wings, towering chimneys, vaulted domes, Roman windows and sharply defined, yet not ungraceful lines. If defies classification according to the schools of art, yet it is inferior to none of them, while a combination of all. The plan of breaking away from what is pure Grecian or Roman is a praiseworthy innovation, and one, which has been followed with triumphant success along the river. From the northern porch the ground assumes a gently declining surface till it touches the drive in continuous groves of beautiful evergreens; from the eastward it descends on eight terraces, along which are constructed the extensive hothouses; from the southward the garden spots and statuary dot the green, and to the southward are the stables and the valley.
Let us enter the house. The door is flanked with fine pieces of statuary, and once within a wide and lofty hall, with the usual furniture, is seen. To the extreme south end of the house is the octagonal library, fitted up at great expense. Closets whose doors support long and beautifully gilded mirrors, statues of Scott, Shakespeare, Byron, Milton, Homer, Esculapius, Socrates and Pluto fill niches in the wall, and also the mind from the measures of heroic verse to the eternity of dreary philosophy. Some fine paintings hang on the walls, and the western windows look out into a small conservatory, in which statues of the four Seasons are placed in appropriate positions. These figures are about two feet high….
Looking north can be seen Spuyten Duyvil creek and the rich and fertile acres which it washes; the Harlem river with its torturous course winding like a snake through the tall grass and thick shrubs; a section of the Hudson shining like a lake of molten silver, and tinged with crimson by the setting sun; the misty hills rising from the valley and just perceptible through the haze, the weird glens, the weather beaten crags and torpid mountains. A scene like this is but a portion of what strikes the eye at every point; and this sublime panoramic view has been gazed upon by many eminent Europeans, who declare that nothing equals it in the Old World.
At the entrance to the porch two figures in the dress of the time of Louis XIV stand out in conspicuous prominence, and a statue of America caps the main dome: the interior is frescoed with Cupids. The house is connected from room to room with an alarm telegraph, so, that should burglars aspire to transfer some of Mr. Seaman’s valuables the dial would at once indicate their location and anxieties, when doubtless he would treat them with becoming civility….
The hothouses are very extensive. They consist of graperies, a pinery and greenhouses. The pinery is fifty feet deep, and is very fruitful. The graperies now groan under heavy loads of their delicious fruit. They are two in number, separated by a plant house, and have a through depth of 212 feet, with a width of 22 ½ feet, with a lean-to quadrant shaped roofs. A steam engine is used to throw the water on the grape vines, which have hothouse peaces just in their rear; and against the wall some rare figs. The whole arrangement of these graperies is a model of neatness. No finer fruit of this kind is grown in America. Every species abounds. There are the black Hamburgs, the Victoria Hamburgs, some bunches of which weigh six pounds; the white Nice, the Muscat Alexandrias and the royal muscadines; the Timothy de Burgh, the earliest golden Chasselas [below],
grizzly Frottingaus and white Prottingans. The plant house in winter contains 2,500 pots. The western slope is now broken up for improvements. A small lake is to be constructed; and adjoining, an ice house, so that he can make his own ice.
This being my family, of course, what with their absolute genetic genius for losing fortunes and squandering swaths of gorgeous bountiful real estate, all that’s left of the place today is what’s known as the Seaman-Drake Arch, touted as a perfect scale model of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris:
The above is from sometime in the Twenties, I suppose. Below is how it was situated when the house was still a going concern, at the center of the photograph (looking towards the Hudson, with the Johnson Iron Works in the foreground–manufacturer of cannons during the Civil War):
Check out the billboards along the Harlem River…
These days, it looks like this:
It’s now at 216th Street and Broadway. They think maybe there was once a gatekeeper’s residence on the interior, but it burned out decades ago.
Henry Seaman had a made a fortune in “drugs” (no shit), but lost it all. Luckily, his wife Ann was rich, so she kept the place up during her lifetime. When she died, 140 relatives contested the estate. She left it all to her nephew Lawrence Drake, whom her late husband had forbade from ever visiting the property when he was still alive. Which just goes to show you that George Burns was right about the secret to a happy life, to wit, “having a large loving family in a distant city.”
Here’s a little description of local street names from the deeply fabulous Inwood historical website myinwood.net, the following a description of the road that runs in front of the arch:
Broadway Generally acknowledged to have followed the old Weckquaesgeek Indian trail that ran the thirteen mile length of Manhattan. Early settlers called it the Bloomindale Road. Going north the original trail crossed the then shallow Spuyten Duyvil Creek into what today is Marble Hill. At low tide a traveler could cross the Spuyten Duyvil Creek on foot. Records show that Indians referred to the crossing as “The Wading Place.” Future generations would see a ferry crossing and eventually the King’s Bridge.
There’s also Indian Road, just a block and a half long off 218th Street, near the northern end of Seaman Ave.
It’s the last street on Manhattan that’s still officially named a “road.” I’ve read that it was named that because this is approximately the spot at which Peter Minuit bought Manhattan from the Lenape tribe for sixty guilders. Aunt Jean says we all have some Lenape blood, which is way cool, not least because Mom’s side of the family killed of the Pequot in Connecticut.
Click on “view larger map” and then zoom in twice to see the street names. Where the Seaman house once stood is now Park Terrace East and Park Terrace West
There’s a 400-unit apartment complex there now, designed by Albert Goldhammer. It was built in 1940 and is still wonderfully deco, with lots of actual garden lacing between the buildings.
But to back up again a little, here’s what the old neighborhood looked like:
Those were apparently the last cows kept in Manhattan. We’re looking towards the Hudson again, over Spuyten Duyvil Creek (pronounced SPYden DYEvull.) This is possibly now the site of Baker Field, where Columbia plays football (there’s a sixty-foot tall “C” painted on a palisade across the river.)
It’s funny, I remember trying to go find an apartment in this neck of the woods the last time I lived in the city… the rental prices were just so amazing, I asked my husband if we could drive up there and check it out. We got lost in Washington Heights, then at the peak of a Dominican crack fest, and all the cars were on fire. Never made it all the way up to Inwood, and it’s all of course since gotten really gentrified. At the time, I had no idea I had roots up there.
Quite a bit of the Inwood neighborhood is still parkland, though, which is very cool. Here’s a contemporary view from further south and east… the humpy bit with all the trees behind the cows is still a humpy bit with trees, only now it’s got the Henry Hudson Parkway nestled behind it, leading to the Henry Hudson Bridge there, kind of in the middle. This part of town has the only untouched Manhattan forest land left, with a salt marsh.
Here’s what walking along Spuyten Duyvil Creek looked like, back in the day. The lady with the basket and child was basically abroad on a dirt road in the South Bronx. I’m thinking picnic:
Today she might be walking in front of the yellow brick building, I guess:
The other remnant of my dead relatives having frolicked in this vicinity is a street name… Seaman Avenue.
Here’s another snippet from myinwood.net:
Seaman Avenue First opened in 1908 and extended in 1912, Seaman Avenue is named for the family of Henry B. Seaman. The Seaman estate once covered some 25 acres from Park Terrace Hill to Spuyten Duyvil Creek. Henry was a descendent of Captain John Seaman who settled in Long Island in the 1650′s.
Here’s what the corner of Seaman and Payson used to look like:
Another wonderful quote on myinwood.net is from a 1921 article by Eleanor Booth Simmons. She wandered around Inwood talking with elderly residents, describing many of the old family houses then falling into ruin. Here’s my favorite bit:
Do you like to dream about old houses? Do you like to investigate neglected mansions of a past age, picturing the life that flowed through the high-ceilinged rooms now so musty and decayed?
If you are a New Yorker it isn’t necessary to travel to New England to indulge in this pastime. Forty minutes by subway from the shopping district, a brief walk, and you are in a region of old houses. Some crown the green hills of Inwood, which downtown excursionists are beginning to discover, and some, stranded on the streets, are rudely shouldered by modern apartment houses of glaring brick. But there they are, and in some of them you will find white-haired men and women whose talk takes you back to a day earlier than that in which the characters of Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” lived.
Fancy going into a house a few steps from the Dyckman ferry and finding two brothers and a sister who have dwelt there sixty years! These are the Flitners, children of the Maine sea captain, who, landing at the Hudson River dock with barges of lumber from the North, was so charmed with these shores that he brought his family here to live. Get them talking and they tell you of a time when there were but seven buildings above 187th Street east of Kingsbridge Road. In their childhood the winter skating was the social event of the locality. The lads damned up a brook that ran just north of Inwood Street, now Dyckman Street, and made a wide pond between two small hills. At night they lighted fires of Tar barrels and waste wood on the banks, and the community gathered and sang and shouted and did marvelous things on the ice. Perhaps the winters were colder then, for, as Charles Flitner remembers it, there was always ice from fall to spring.
But you can still go for a walk in the park along Spuyten Duyvil Creek:
Okay, dear ‘Ratis, where would you live if you could live ANYWHERE?
I am extremely grateful to Cole Thompson, a real-estate agent with New Heights Realty in Inwood. Much of the information about the Inwood neighborhood and the majority of the images in this post are from his fascinating blog, myinwood.net. If I ever have any money, I hope to buy an apartment from him. Or at least rent one…