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 Magear 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.
Loved the article…keep em coming!
I was interested to read that the first Catholic mayor of NYC was Hugh Grant and also the youngest. What a shame that the castle was not preserved in the midst of Fr. Tryon Park. Today it would have been. I live at 93 Park Terrace West (cor. W. 218th St.), formerly Good Shepherd Annex and house of the Christian Brothers who taught at GS. Our house is now the Blessed James Haddad Friary (of the Capuchin Order that now conducts Good Shephere Parish). Bl. James, the Apostle of Lebanon, was beatified on 22 June 20007 in Beirut, and our friary is the first in the world with his name. Thanks for the information on Libby Castle and the wonderful pictures.
Thanks for the interest. I am curious about your Friary. I live around the corner from you and know next to nothing about it. We should chat sometime. -Cole
I enjoyed your article. I’ve long been fascinated by the history of Woodcliff / Libbey Castle and the Billings estate especially. So finding your site while doing my own research I was pleased to see that someone had posted a site with all this wonderful information for others to also enjoy.
I believe that the location you describe for the site may be in error. The maps I’ve seen and aerial photos of the Billings estate show the Libbey Castle located just about the northern portion of the circle at the park’s entrance. Just north and east of the Billings gate house, which still stands.
The castle also had one other owner immediately after Boss Tweed, his son Richard M. Tweed.
I think a site near the present Margaret Corbin Circle is more accurate tho I’ve never been able to match an actual plot with the early prints, photos & [often hugely innacurse] newspaper descriptions.
I’m fairly sure, however, that the more northerly location would have been, ’til the Rockefeller 1917 purchase, a part of the William Henry Hayes estate, the main building of which had, for some years, been leased out and run as The Abbey Inn but my guess of the current Cloisters as the original location for this building is also uncertain
[…] Myinwood.net has a terrific article and fab photos. […]
I want to follow up on my previous post (January 30, 2011 at 9:41 pm).
I see that you have updated this page with the undated photo that is at the top. This photo is proof of what I was stating previously that the location of Libbey Castle is as I said “located just about the northern portion of the circle at the park’s entrance. Just north and east of the Billings gate house, which still stands.”
This new photo shows the Billings gate house cottage on the left. This clearly shows where Libbey Castle was in relation to the cottage. I also have an original Bromley map that shows where Libbey Castle was in relationship with the structure that houses the 190th St subway station elevators.
I believe the confusion arises from a misinterpretation of an article I read somewhere which states that the castle was “located north of the cloisters.” What this article was referencing was “The Abbaye” or cloisters owned by George Grey Barnard who lived at 700 Fort Washington Avenue and had his collection of medieval artifacts on display just south of his home. He had his own private museum known as the cloisters which pre-dated the current Cloisters museum in the park. John D. Rockefeller purchased a part of Barnard’s collection which then was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Inaccuracies have a tendency of being perpetuated and never going away. There is one that made its way into a prominent book about NYC which states that the Billings stable was located near the Speedway by the Harlem River. His stable was located at what is now the New Leaf’s parking lot. There is a local fellow who continues to state, in his posted articles, the incorrect location. I hope this helps once and for all in clearing this up.
I am trying to get some information on a grand aunt who was probably employed as a domestic oe a cook at libby house in 1903 her name was Delia Hogan. The address she used on her letters was either Fourth Washington Ave. or Fourteenth Washington Ave. Any type of information would be of interest.
My stepfather, John Bailey Cooke, has an old picture of Libbey Castle with inscription stating he was born in Libbey Castle, which he said was owned by his grandmother, Mrs. Stanfield Tooker-Cooke around 1913. I did not see any mention of that name in any of the previous owners. Any way we can check on authenticity would be of great help and interest.
Thank You for your time,
You’ve Done It!
Your picture “Libbey Castle, undated photo” showing also a corner of the Billings Estate’s still existant Caretakers Cottage at the north end of Cabrini where it curves into Ft. Wash. Ave. definately locates the Castle as in the middle of what is now Margaret Corbin Circle.
If we could only determine when the fire hydrant was installed, we’d have a better idea of the photo’s date.
I thought that was the caretaker’s cottage!!
[…] and pergola set Paterno’s castle apart from his neighbors, with the exception of nearby Libby Castle, in terms of […]
[…] from the Billings estate once stood Libby Castle, designed in 1855 by Alexander Jackson Davis, an architect also responsible for Federal Hall and […]
Have an original printed invitation announcing Dora Cooke, daughter of George J. and Winifred Tooker Cooke, inviting friends to a Halloween Party on November 2, 1918 at her residence:
Libby Castle (she didn’t spell it “Libbey”)
196th and Ft. Washington Avenue is the address. Might help the location debate.
She is also the sister of John Bailey Cooke, who was mentioned in one of the posts.
I am the granddaughter of John Bailey Cooke Sr. and the daughter of John Bailey Cooke Jr. who we believe was born in Libby Castle on June 7th, 1920.
John B. Cooke Sr. was the brother of Dora Cooke & John B. Cooke Jr. was the nephew of Dora Cooke. I also have a picture of the castle with a caption that reads birthplace of John Bailey Cooke.
Any information, which would substantiate the dates of ownership, and information on other living relatives on the Cooke side would be greatly appreciated.
Thank you in advance,