For nearly a century, the huge Seaman-Drake estate, constructed in 1855 by John T. Seaman, stood on the grounds now occupied by Park Terrace Gardens. Famous for its fanciful gate at the bottom of the hill, actually a scale model of the Arc de Triomphe, the home quickly earned the nickname “Seaman’s Folly.”
The Seamans were early American settlers who followed their patriarch, British Captain John Seaman, to a new home in Hempstead, Long Island as early as 1647.
While a wealthy family, one Seaman in particular, Dr. Valentine Seaman, was elevated to near sainthood after introducing the small pox vaccine to this fledgling nation in the early 1800’s. He is also credited with founding the first nursing schools in America.
In 1851, Dr. Valentine’s son, John, set his eyes on northern Manhattan and purchased 25 acres near the Isham and Dyckman properties. He soon set to work on an estate that would have made Walt Disney proud.
The massive white marble house, made of locally quarried marble, was capped with ornate cupolas clearly visible from passenger trains entering Manhattan along the Spuyten Duyvil.
But the good life couldn’t last forever.
In 1878, widow Ann Drake Seaman left the home and the rest of her two million dollar estate to her nephew Lawrence Drake. (As an interesting side note, 145 relatives contested her will)
This turn of the century description, written by James Reuel Smith in 1898, describes the home at a time when the mansion still retained the ornate cupolas, survives:
“West of the Kingsbridge Road (Broadway) and northeast of the Isham estate, is the magnificent Seaman-Drake estate. The property contains twenty-six acres, and was formerly owned by Valentine Seaman. Its large white marble entrance arch is said to have cost $30,000.
The grounds are a specimen of old-time gardening, laid out in the Italian style with statues, walks and driveways. Scattered about are small pieces of marble statuary on pedestals, representing Europa, Euterpe, and other classical characters. Where the walks lead down a slope there are marble steps, with figures of lions at the sides. The dwelling itself is of marble and has ampelopsis vines trailed over its south side. By those who live within sight of it, it is familiarly called ‘the marble house.’ This mansion is said to have cost $150,000.”
Puttering around the carefully sculpted gardens, Smith noted, among other things, a spring fed fish pond once containing gold and silver fish ten inches in length, an 85 foot deep well surrounded by an delicate wooden lattice, giant urns containing Century Plants, a mushroom house built into a hill, a stone gardener’s house, and a path lined with daisies leading to a stable.
Smith, who was in the neighborhood documenting Inwood’s quickly disappearing wells and springs was lucky to catch this fleeting glimpse of the mansion’s splendor before it soon faded into neglect and decay. In his description Smith noted that many of the outbuildings were falling into disrepair and that the main house itself had been rented out to an automobile club.
And while the Seaman Mansion was certainly a neighborhood marvel, not much was again written about the home until the early 1930’s when Readers Digest writer Helen Worden passed through Inwood while researching a book titled “Round Manhattan’s Rim.” The book follows two “ladies who lunch” around the entire Manhattan waterfront; sipping beers, jotting down old tales and making inquiries along the way.
“The approach to Marble House was through a mass of tangled weeds. A distant view of stately white pillars and a quaint wooden well lured us on. Thistles and burrs clung to our skirts as we made our way up the hill.
Doors were locked, windows closed tight. There was not a sign of life about the place. We walked through the grounds, enjoyed the magnificent view both of the Hudson and the Harlem Rivers, studied ancient bits of statuary that dotted the once ornately landscaped terrace and then with fear and trembling rang a bell at the side entrance beneath a huge, crumbling porte-cochere.
Not a sound came from the house. We waited. Finally the forbidding old black-walnut carved door opened a tiny crack and the face of a little Irish woman appeared.
“What is it ye be wanting?” she asked.
“Could you tell us something of the history of the house?” we ventured.
“I couldn’t do that.” She shook her head. “Ye’ll have to ask Mr. Dwyer. He’s down in the marble arch.”
Undaunted, the ladies descended the hill to try their luck with Thomas Dwyer, a prominent local builder had purchased the mansion decades earlier and had set up his contracting business, called the Marble Arch Company, in an office in the top of the arch.
A colorful man with a black derby and Blackthorn cane, Mr. Dwyer bought the property from Lawrence Drake in 1906 and used the still surviving Seaman-Drake arch as his office and workshop.
As a contractor Dywer had an impressive career designing the Soldiers and Sailors Monument and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but never succeeded in making over the Seaman Mansion. In fact he admitted with some embarrassment that he once chopped off the main cupola to install a swimming pool on the third floor. The pool, he said, was never used and the home was permanently disfigured.
After some discussion, Dywer invited the ladies to have a quick look inside the home.
Worden writes,” Our inspection was brief. The great halls, huge drawing-room, the library, the ancient attic and immense kitchen suggested some southern plantation. They were filled with heavy walnut and mahogany furniture. The grounds of the estate were once laid out with charming walks and shrubberyand adorned with arches and statuary brought from France. The imposing marble archway where Mr. Dwyer has his office was the entrance that led to it. Famous balls, elaborate parties and great people held forth in this now gloomy and silent house.
Over the elaborately carved mantelpiece in the dining-room of the Marble House hangs a large photograph of the estate taken thirty years ago. Mr. Dwyer is standing in the doorway. With silk hat, top coat and Van Dyke beard he presents an important figure. Then the grounds were carefully landscaped, the blue limestone walk nicely smoothed and the shrubbery neatly trimmed.
I’m afraid the clock stopped for Marble Mansion then. Today it is a ghostly figure beckoning out of the past.
The tapestried curtains veil broken drawing-room windows, wide cracks in the huge front doors, let in cold river winds, and dust covers the balustrades of the grand stairway.
Even Dywer knew the days of the old estate were numbered. Bidding the ladies goodbye he added that “he had a plan afoot to turn all of the mansion property into a new housing scheme.”
In 1938 the old Seaman Mansion was razed to make room for the new, four hundred unit housing complex, Park Terrace Gardens.
According to descendent Pierre Dywer, Thomas Dwyer moved into a rented apartment in 10 Park Terrace East to “see how the neighborhood developed.”
Thomas Dwyer died in 1943 at the age of 81. His timeworn arch remarkably still stands today.