Civil War Era Inwood: The Brooks Brothers Connection

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New York Herald 1869 Headline.jpg 2
New York Herald, August 29, 1869.

In the years following the Civil War the Bloomingdale Road, now called Broadway, was an impoverished and often treacherous stretch of dirt and mud where many inhabitants just barely scraped by.

In glaring contrast, just to the west, atop Inwood Hill, the rich and famous built magnificent country homes steps from the squalor of the common man below.

According to an 1869 description, “All along the Bloomingdale Road the country is still in the semi-settled state it that it was a quarter of a century ago. Frame houses supplemented by noxious smelling stables and filthy pig-pens; non-fragrant henneries and foul kitchens extend on each side, and at short intervals respectable looking houses rise from a thicket of tall trees. In the vicinity of Manhattan the Bloomingdale Road is in a disgraceful condition—a condition more the purlieus of the Sixth Ward, than a small suburban settlement of New York.

And, if a traveler were not overcome by the rotten smells hovering above the narrow highway, he also had to be watchful for drunken men, many of them battle scarred Civil War veterans, barreling through the night on horseback.

One can scarcely take a moonlight drive over this country without meeting hundreds of vehicles going to the thousand and one taverns on the Kingsbridge and Riverdale road, and accidents, often of a serious nature, occur in the narrow passes, when drivers have been too long pilgrims to the shrine of Bacchus.

But the rough and tumble world down on post-Civil War Broadway was easily escaped by the elite few with the good fortune and capital to make the gated community atop Inwood Hill their home.

1850 Brooks Brothers left to right Edward, Elisha, Daniel, John These lucky few included Wall Street power broker William Henry Hays, dry goods magnate James McCreery, Macy’s founder Isador Straus, “Cotton King” Frederick Talcott and for the purpose of this story, Brook’s Brothers founder Elisha Brooks.

Elisha Brooks was one of the original Brooks Brothers whose siblings included Edward, Daniel and John. The Brooks Brothers company, still a favorite of movie stars and presidents alike, was founded by the brother’s father, Henry S. Brooks, in 1818.

First Brooks Brothers store opened on Catherine and Cherry Streets in 1818
First Brooks Brothers store opened on Catherine and Cherry Streets in 1818

Inside his Inwood home Brooks found a peaceful retreat from the chaos that had become downtown. As recently as 1863 Brooks had seen his flagship store sacked in angry draft riots that threatened to consume the metropolis.

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. August 1, 1863.
Brooks Brothers sacked by an angry mob during 1863 Draft Riots.

In fact, the Brooks Brothers ties to the Civil War ran deep; they not only designed elegant uniforms for Union Generals Grant, Hooker, Sheridan and Sherman; Lincoln wearing the Brooks Brothers coat he was killed inAbraham Lincoln himself was wearing a Brooks Brothers jacket when he was assassinated in Ford’s Theater.

Like his powerful neighbors, whose homes dotted Inwood Hill, Elisha Brooks rarely saw the riff-raff on the main thoroughfare to his east. These wealthy landowners commuted downtown by the newly installed rail-line located near the present Dyckman Street on the Hudson River.

To visit these mansions so as to obtain their finest views, and be duly impressed with their majesty, one should ascend the slope from the river; for to go in the grounds from the Bloomingdale Road is like entering the back door, or seeking in the kitchen for the elegance of the parlor.

To either hand, as the road points toward the summit, are fine spruces, fir trees, arbor-vitea and masses of tastefully arranged shrubs. Upon reaching the head, coming gracefully northward, through the meager openings can be viewed in admirable perspective the rich and fertile valley pushing through the mountains like a wedge. With a clear sky and an atmosphere uninfluenced by local disturbance, the vista from such points as these as is glorious a sight as the most enthusiastic student of nature would care to behold…this is truly the poet’s spot…and no one can fail to linger in its vicinity. By a uniquely wrought rustic fence the drive is pursued, leaving the splendid valley to the rear. Evergreens and spruces now line the road…

And, while the flora and fauna of Inwood Hill have changed somewhat since the following description of Elisha Brooks estate was first published in 1869, the current view from Inwood Hill Park remains virtually the same.

The Mansion and Grounds of Mr. Elisha Brooks
Reproduced from the New York Herald
August 29, 1869

1879 railroad map detail  showing Inwood Hill estate of Elisha Brooks Mr. Elisha Brooks, clothier, of the firm of the well-known Brooks Brothers, has a place directly over the road from Mr. Hays. The house stands back from the river about 200 feet, and is a large stuccoed mansion, appearing like brown stone, in fine order, and worthy of occupancy by the first lord of the soil. Mr. Brooks’ place is one of the finest on the Hudson. The structure alone, without the elegant grounds, would be a fit abode for kings.

A road drive from the mountain road branches off at his gate-house into the asphaltum drive entering his grounds by the southern gate. Spruces, pines, hemlocks and all species of the sassafras and maple, abound though the entire area. The drive is lined by flower lots, sylvan glades and verdant lawns. The bedding out plants are especially luxuriant, having all the colors of the spectrum, and all the sweetness of tropical spring.

The Hawthorne Peach trees bore some 1,200 peaches at the earliest part of June, and the strawberry pit was very prolific. The grapery produced a fine crop, and some 500 pounds of large and beautiful clusters still hang on the vines. The flower spots have fine calladims, begonias and camellias, while a pastoral beauty is obtained by the broad lawn, and the weeping willows bowing to the kissing water.

Near the grapery, which is on the southern part of the ground is an artificial pond containing trout and goldfish. About the garden spots a good deal of taste is displayed in arranging the differently tinted flowers so as to heighten the effect, heather roses filling the centres, surrounded by geraniums, balsams, and fuschias, and enclosed by a boxwood hedge of dark green. The ground is terraced to the Hudson, and at the termination of a broad path a Gothic boathouse lies concealed in a rosy dell. A view made up of scenery as in a fairy dream bursts out at this point in wondrous wildness. Alternating elevations and depressions of mixed green stand out against the distant hills, and the Palisades once more form a rugged background for the picture. The Hudson, the small cottages at the foot of the Palisades, the ascending grassed terraces of the lawn, the trees, parterre and thick copses, breathe with animation and wealth.

1850 Elisha BrooksMr. Brooks keeps six horses, and has some good ones for the road. Upon this tract of land, lately named Inwood, more euphoniously and historically known as Tubby Hook, or many other places, that we have not the space to mention at length. Those of Mr. Marie and Mr. McCreery, as well as others lying to the northward, are fine places.”

Elisha Brooks died in 1876.  His estate was sold in 1881.

New York Herald, November 11, 1881
New York Herald, November 11, 1881

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