If some imaginative Gotham scribe were to write a tale about the colorful and often bizarre history of New York in the 1800’s he or she couldn’t find a better backdrop than Libbey Castle.
While northern Manhattan would eventually see other monumental estates including the Seaman Mansion, the Billings estate and even another castle owned by the Paterno family, Libbey Castle was the granddaddy of them all.
Our story begins in 1855 when importer August C. Richards purchased land from the estate of Lucius Chittenden, a wealthy merchant who originally hailed from New Orleans. On this property, just north of the Cloisters in today’s Fort Tryon Park, Richards built a magnificent castle he christened “Woodcliff.” The castle, like so many other Gothic revivals that came to line the Hudson, was designed by renowned architect Alexander Jackson Davis. With its turrets and massive stone walls, Richards’ castle would be the most prominent structure on the northern Manhattan skyline for decades to come.
While one might think a modern castle would have limited appeal to even absurdly wealthy buyers, the property did change hands quite a few times. Used primarily as a summer getaway, Woodcliff Castle, or Libbey Castle as it would later come to be known, was first sold to Union Army General Daniel Butterfield in 1869.
Butterfield is credited with composing the bugle call “Taps”. His wartime glory behind him, Butterfield barely had time to make himself comfortable in his castle on the hill when disaster struck. As the ink dried on his deed to the castle, Butterfield found himself the villian at the center of the September 24, 1869 Black Friday gold scandal after being double crossed by the Grant administration. His finances and reputation in tatters, Butterfield owned the castle for less than a month before selling the estate to William Marcy Tweed– known better to history as “Boss” Tweed.
Tweed, the notorious leader of Tammany Hall, was himself descending into a corruption scandal that would eventually change the face of New York politics. Arrested in October of 1871 and held on eight million dollars bail, Tweed relinquished control of the castle he too had inhabited so very briefly. (After escaping to Spain, Tweed was returned to the New York where, in the Ludlow Street Jail, the former Tammany Boss died of pneumonia on April 12, 1878.)
In 1872 the castle changed hands once again–this time to department store titan Alexander Stewart. When Stewart died in 1876 the castle went to his business partner, William Libbey, for whom the castle came to be known.
Under Libbey’s ownership, architect Alexander Davis was summoned once again; this time to expand and renovate the estate he had designed decades earlier. Davis must have been thrilled to have the work. Years earlier he watched helplessly as his customer base dried up at the outset of the Civil War. Those clients never returned. Gothic Revival was no longer in vogue. Renovating the estate of his youth, he must have realized his career had come full circle. He would close his office and retire less than two years later.
Proud of their newly renovated Manhattan home, the Libbeys would keep the castle in the family until around 1905. William Libbey himself was felled by a heart attack after walking home from the polling station on election day in 1895. A servant found his body on the floor of the bathroom.
In 1905, perhaps lured by the castle’s fabled Tammany Hall connection, the estate was bought by another New York politician, former Mayor Hugh J. Grant. The first Catholic mayor of New York City, Grant also still holds the record for the City’s youngest mayor.
While the Libbeys, who invested so much in restoring the castle, may have moved onto greener pastures, their former home did not not fall into disrepair. Quite the contrary…
In 1919, several years after acquiring the estate, John D. Rockefeller made the castle available to a Paulist choir to practice the music with which he was so enamoured. In the medieval-like fortress some fifty boys ranging in age from ten to seventeen took full advantage of the acoustics in the old stone structure. These lucky boys had been chosen and recruited from every state and social class to take part in Rockefeller’s revolutionary program. By 1922 Father Finn and his Paulist Boys Choir would mesmerize a packed house inside Carnegie Hall with a play list which included the Latin hymns of Palestrina, Lotti, Vittoria and Pergolesi and an encore that included the English carol Good King Wenceslas.
Sadly, in 1939, “Taps”, the mournful military tribute marking the end of the day played one final time for the old soldier on the Hudson as the castle, along with many other fantastic estates, was demolished during the creation of Fort Tryon Park.
Click here for more northern Manhattan history.