Inwood’s Mount Olympus: The Seaman Mansion in 1869

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A while back I wrote a history of the old Seaman mansion that once stood on the grounds currently occupied by Park Terrace Gardens. Today the only trace of the Seaman estate is the crumbling marble arch located down the hill on Broadway.

Seaman mansion and arch from a distance in 1903.
Seaman mansion and arch from a distance in 1903.

The following description from 1869 finds the home occupied by its original inhabitants, Mr. John Seaman and his wife Ann. This slice of life shows a happy couple surrounded by fine art and sculpted gardens entertaining admiring friends in the mansion they proudly called “Mount Olympus.”  Seaman Estate dubbed "Seaman's Folly" by Inwood neighbors(Bewildered neighbors had a different name for the shining white fortress on the hill: “Seaman’s Folly.”)

While Mr. Seaman made considerable money as a drug merchant, he lost his fortune through a series of bad investments. As luck would have it, Ann (below sketch) was a very wealthy, if not eccentric, woman. Her mother was Susan Morgan, whose family launched a financial and banking dynasty. Her father’s side of the family included Sir Francis Drake.

Ann Drake SeamanJohn Seaman lived out his golden years puttering about his gilded palace as his wife collected an ever-increasing army of poodles.

The Seamans would die childless. When Ann, who outlived her husband, died in 1878 more than 140 distant relatives contested her will. Many relatives believed nephew Lawrence Drake had conned the poor, rich old widow out of their rightful inheritance. But that is a story for another time…

Seaman Mansion
New York Herald
August 29, 1869

Seaman Estate photographed in 1906“Incomparably the finest mansion on the Hudson, and undoubtedly the spot where fortunes have been spent, and well spent is the place of Mr. John T. Seaman, retired drug merchant, who has been the last fifteen years lavishing his extensive fortune upon the grounds that are now universally admired by all that visit them. Not alone Americans, but Europeans and landed gentry seek this spot, and are courteously treated by the venerable possessor, who now nears the sere and yellow leaf. Mr. Seaman is still a fine and healthy appearing man, with well-cut features and a fine stature. His efforts have been tireless to improve his place, and he now has the satisfaction of knowing that he has few rivals along the Hudson. Entering the grand gateway at the northern entrance the slate graveled drive is pursued over an undulating, though ascending, road till a footpath is met coming down at right angles from the northern portico. The steps to this pathway are white marble, and are flanked by two elaborately cut lions, in marble, showing much artistic taste in the sculptor. The way then lies straight ahead, when the drive turns toward the mansion in a southerly direction.  Seaman Mansion Statue At the turn stands a good figure of “Europe” in marble, resting upon a marble pedestal; and further on, as the drive continues, is a beautifully gilded figure of “Diana,” with her bugle in hand. The white marble statues just on the crest of a hill, sloping off toward Spuyten Duyvil creek, are specimens of substantial architecture, corresponding with the style of the house. To southward of the mansion the drive continues, and a statue of Music is displayed, its spotless white contrasting well with the level lawn.

A small cemetery is observable hidden in a clump of bushed at this point, and the gravestones, white and gilded, shine with a peculiar beauty through the foliage. Following the direction to the westward of the house, under a huge marble porch, the drive brings up before a massive door, shaded by a great arch forming another porch. 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 pained 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.

Seaman Mansion main entrance
Seaman Mansion main entrance (later home to a local driving club).

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.

 Suburban Riding and Driving Club  Ladies reception room
Seaman Mansion interior near the turn of the century.

The parlors are capacious, with ceilings sixteen feet high, and would do for the throne rooms of a small empire or the east room of a presidential mansion. Venetian mirrors reflect distances and apparently double the size. In these rooms, standing up on a pedestal at the western end, is that well-known statuary, “John the Baptist in the Wilderness,” made to order for Mr. Seaman in Europe. In the reception room he had two busts, of himself and his wife, cut by Mansini; also a statue of the “Flower Girl.”

Ascending the broad oak staircases bronzed figures of the four quarters of the globe stand in alcoves under the main dome in this order—Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. The picture gallery is situated in the western wing in the second story, and there can be seen some very valuable works of art. The original picture of the “Marriage of the Virgin,” by Ludovico Carracci, eight feet square, and worth $20,000, hangs against the southern wall. This picture portrays its subject with a true inspiration, and the touch of genius can be traced in the colors, the lights and shades. The original of “The Shepherds’ Visit to the Virgin Mary,” by Reubens; the original of “St. Martin Dividing His Garment Among the Poor”—a finely colored painting; the “Betrothal of the Virgin,” the “Holy Family,” copy from Raphael, together with his “Madonna” and the “Polish Orphans,” comprise a very rare and valuable collection, in which, it will be observed, no popular daubs have a place.

Seaman Mansion near turn of the century.
Seaman Mansion near turn of the century.

The whole house is supplied with water from a large tank on the main tower, which holds 60,000 gallons, and which is lined with lead. The entire upper story and domes are lighted with plate glass let into the roof, and it is also by this means alone that the picture gallery is lighted. From the top of Mr. Seaman’s tower one of the finest, most extensive and varying prospects in this country can be obtained. It should be remembered that his house is located on one of the highest points of the island, and probably as lofty a private dwelling as there is on it.

Spuyten Duyvil from 1960's print

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.

Gardener's House on the Seaman Estate, Inwood, New York City
Gardener’s House on the Seaman Estate, Inwood, New York City

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 Habburgs, 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, 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.

Entrance to the Seaman Estate, later the Suburban Club.  The marble arch still stands on 216th and Broadway.
Entrance to the Seaman Estate, later the Suburban Club. The marble arch still stands on 216th and Broadway.

A new entrance is being built in exact imitation of the Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile standing at the head of the Champs Elysees on a line with the entrance to the Tuileries in Paris. This massive structure will cost $30,000 and is nearly completed. It is composed entirely of white marble and forms a fitting entrance to this empire, which Mr. Seaman has named Mount Olympus. Besides the statuary named, he has Bacchus, Cupid, Psyche and other pieces famed for their beauty and fidelity of design.

Thus has Mr. Seaman succeeded in surrounding himself with the elegances of art, the luxuries of fine flowers and delicious fruits and the comforts of a sumptuous and capacious mansion.”

Seaman mansion sketch from 1895 issue of the New York Tribune.
Seaman mansion sketch from 1895 issue of the New York Tribune.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I enjoyed this information on the Seaman Mansion. I grew up in Inwood and am very interested in learning more and going on a walking tour if there are any.

  2. I lived at 55 Park Terrace East, I have to assume the same spot at the mansion. There is a fine brick building that was originally (for me) the nun’s residence when Sacred Heart of Mary School for girls was at that location. Thank you for your fascinating information.

  3. My family first moved to 222 Seaman Avenue in 1951 and then moved to 91 payson avenue in the 60’s. Inwood park, especially the Indian caves was my playground. PS 98 and JHS 52. Sleigh riding down to Payson ave was phenomenal – I think of it often THANK YOU THANK YOU for the history and pics

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