The Washingtons in New York

Everybody thinks of George and Martha Washington living graciously at their Mount Vernon country home. But while he was President, they had to live in northern cities. Especially interesting is their time in Yankee New York.

george washington, donald trump, inauguration
Library of Congress

The first presidential mansion was the three-story home above on Cherry Street in New York City, which had a population at the time of 33,000.

University of Southern Florida

The next year, they moved to Broadway Street to a home where there were two drawing rooms for hosting weekly “levees.”

Martha Washington was ill at the time of the first inauguration in April of 1789, staying behind in Virginia. Apparently George dined alone that evening but attended the ball and enjoyed dancing the minuet. Soon his wife and grandchildren, Nellie and Washy, joined him. Congress bought new mahogany furniture for the house.

Business of state was conducted at the Fraunces Tavern, where George was assembling the first Cabinet: Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State; Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury; and Henry Knox, Secretary of War. Our first President signed the Bill of Rights here. Ironically, the Fraunces was the site where, a dozen years before during the war, an attempt was made on the general’s life. One account is that a young girl found out about some poisoned peas on his plate and threw them out the window.

But in 1789 both George and the new government were up and running. He held public receptions on Tuesday afternoons while Martha had hers at 8 p.m. on Fridays. at which they liked to serve lemonade and ice cream.

Although George enjoyed taking walks in Battery Park, he also rode in a carriage pulled by six horses. He often went to the theatre.

Many of Martha’s peers had compliments for her. She was affable, gentle and benevolent. Unlike some that followed, she didn’t act as an intermediary between factions or gather and disseminate information, said Cokie Roberts, herself a daughter of two politicians. “I could never keep quiet as she does,” Abigail Adams revealed in a letter to a friend.

George and Martha Washingtons' Relationship · George Washington's Mount  Vernon
George, Martha and their grandchildren Washy and Nellie.

In 1790 the family moved to Philadelphia, where they and their servants spent the remaining seven years of two terms in office.

“Our dwellings in New York and Philadelphia were not home, only a sojourn,” the relieved first lady said when she returned to Mount Vernon, and added that she was content to be “an old-fashioned Virginia housekeeper.”

Sadly, the retirement did not last long. George Washington passed away on December 14, 1799, just before the dawn of a new century. The previous one had been hallmarked on this side of the Atlantic by his great efforts.


I had fun researching this one! Facts come from Cokie Roberts’ book Ladies of Liberty (2008), John Kaminsky’s book Founders on the Founders (2008),,,,,,, and

How Far to Go

Last time I applauded the work of Jacob Riis, an early photojournalist who made the public aware of just how bad the slums of New York City were in the Nineteenth Century.  When a friend said her book club had discussed the orphan trains which went to western states many years ago, I shot back that yes, I knew about them.  I’d written a short Christmas story about the efforts of the Children’s Aid Society to move homeless “street Arabs” into lodging houses or to completely new locations.

I started looking at more details.

My story told about Theodore Roosevelt Sr. (anyone surprised?) taking his sons to visit the Newsboys’ Lodging House, which he and his minister friend Charles Loring Brace started.  The men went weekly, encouraging the boys to work hard so they could become good citizens.  Eventually there were several such homes in the city for boys and for girls.  But the more ambitious program of the CAS was to “put faith in the kindness of strangers,” and move the children by rail to “Christian homes in the country.”

The trains carried needy children westward for 75 years, from 1855 to 1929.  Three times a month, groups as small as six and as large as 150 boarded coaches or box cars with small suitcases and new changes of clothing.  A card with a number was pinned on each child.  Some placements had been arranged in advance, notably by the priests of the Foundlings Home.  The trains stopped in Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Texas, and eventually 40 other states.

Fortunate children had families waiting with a corresponding number.  Other boys and girls were lined up on a stage to be surveyed by “kind Christian people” who had read advance handbills or newspaper notices.  Of course I’m being sarcastic, because all the adults weren’t what Brace had hoped for.  Some of the children remembered how farmers poked their muscles or looked at their teeth and passed them by.

Reminiscences from some of them late in life are tough to read.

It is no excuse to say that of the 150,000 children placed, some were bound to be in worse situations than others.  We know that children were treated as indentured servants, doing farm work or housework.  Some were beaten, mentally abused, or both.  Agents followed up with visits, and supposedly the children had the opportunity to return to New York.  Many ran away.  Sometimes the parents of the host family died, and a new family agreed to take the child or children on.  Siblings were separated.  Sometimes children were shunned by schoolmates who knew they were illegitimate.

“They said I had bad blood.  How could anyone have blood that is bad?” one lady remembered, many years later.

Orphan train

Some stories, though, met with Brace’s vision.  How many is difficult to tell.  “I have a father and a mother and brothers and sisters and they are kinder to me than my own ever were,” a girl named Anne wrote.

Another, Alice, said, “I got a chance to do what I was capable of doing, making something of myself.”

One man reflected in Guideposts many years later, in 1991.  His first two placements were not successful, but the third was, with a devout family who treated him as their own.  “I had found not one but two new fathers, and I could talk to both of them.

Some of the children, reports the Children’s Aid Society, which is still active today, grew up to be very visible citizens.  John Brady, taken in by an Indiana judge (who called John “the most uncompromising of the lot”), became governor of Alaska; Andrew Burke became governor of North Dakota.  Others were businessmen, teachers, office workers, journalists, bankers, ministers, physicians, and members of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression.

Brace investigated disturbing reports in the 1880s, and found that some communities were not thorough in the screening process for host families.  He died in 1890, the year How the Other Half Lives came out; the Children’s Aid Society continued to send children on the trains until 1929, when the government began foster care.

In his diary, Brace noted, “The human soul is difficult to interfere with.  You hesitate how far to go.”  A century and a half later, those truths still haunt us.

Some information in this post comes from “Orphan Trains” on PBS’s “American Experience,” and

Images of “The Other Half”

Homeless boys sleeping.

There is an explosion and a flash of light.  A revolver has fired against the black midnight of New York’s lower east side.  But there is no crime: the cartridges’ destination is a frying pan, and their purpose to is ignite enough light for a clumsy camera to take a picture.  In the late 1880s, a reporter for the Tribune and the Associated Press bureau is trying to document scenes he’s frequented during the course of his job.

Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914) was a pioneer in the field of photojournalism.  An immigrant from Denmark, he published these early images in a book, How the Other Half Lives, in 1890.  Recently named by the Library of Congress to “The Books That Shaped America,” it displayed the lives of the poor living in tenement houses, and the homeless, in the nation’s largest city.  Riis at first hired a photographer, but it wasn’t long before he bought a new camera that could be portaged throughout the city, and taught himself how to use it.  He caught his clothes on fire more than once, and had to smother a blaze his equipment started in a home where several blind people were sleeping.

An Italian woman sorts rags in a cellar.
His book helped reformers get their point across.  It was so successful at making the middle and upper class aware of the situation that the government soon provided sewers, plumbing and trash collection for the area around Mulberry Street known as “The Bend.”  Better apartments at lower rents replaced the old ones.  Squalid police lodging houses were permanently shut down.

Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt called Riis “New York’s most useful citizen.”   Offered several upper level government jobs, he declined, to continue what he considered more important, sharing the plight of the poor.  “He has been my brother since I met him,” TR said.




 “Hunting River Thieves”

One hundred and twenty-five years ago, How the Other Half Lives presented the photographs in a form which was overdrawn by notable artists.  These were in stark contrast to the pictures printed today in halftones, which break them into a series of dots.

The timeless photos have beauty in spite of the despicable circumstances that prompted them.  The beauty of a child, of a soul, of a bridge over a river at night.  The beauty of hope that some American citizens would get a better chance, made possible by the dedication of Jacob Riis.

Some of the information in this post comes from the preface by Charles A Madison for How the Other Half Lives (New York: Dover, 1971)  

Photo of Jacob Riis

Richmond Hill Historical Society photo

By the by, the 2012 “Books That Shaped America” exhibit may still be browsed online at  What others do you suppose made the list?  Guess before you look.

The Fashionable Four Hundred

Emma Stone    (

     Golden gown once worn by Carrie Astor, daughter of  “the Mrs. Astor.”  (

What would Manhattan maven Caroline Schermerhorn Astor think of the dresses at the Oscars this week?  The one Emma Stone chose was reminiscent of one worn by Mrs. Astor’s daughter at the turn of the Nineteenth Century.  In her time, she set the style and tone for gatherings of the wealthy.  Her family included husband William Blackhouse Astor and children Emily, Helen, Charlotte, Carrie, and John Jacob IV.

They were Knickerbockers: descendants of the Dutch in New York City: old money.  They were long-established, and caretakers of family fortunes.

Railroad people, the Vanderbilts especially, were new money.  The Industrial Revolution made it possible for men like Vanderbilt, Harriman, Carnegie and Frick to start with nothing and amass fortunes to leave their heirs (or in the case of Carnegie, philanthropic causes).

With secretary Ward McAllister, Mrs. Astor pretty much ruled over four hundred people who could be counted as members of “fashionable society.”  One requirement of this group was that to be invited to a party, one must first have received an official calling card from her.

When daughter Carrie found out she was not invited to Mrs. Vanderbilt’s elaborate costume ball of 1883, her mother bit the bullet and left her card.

In the center of this sketch, the leader of the social register.  Note the tiaras (

Mrs. Astor’s daughter Helen married “Rosy” Roosevelt, son of James Roosevelt and his first wife.  Theodore Roosevelt’s niece Eleanor married Franklin Roosevelt, son of James and his second wife.  An even more interesting twist to the family makeup is that Anna (Bamie) Roosevelt, TR’s older sister, had the opportunity to marry either widower, Rosy or James.  Instead she chose an admiral in the United States Navy.

Once Bamie was asked how it was to be a part of history, living among the Four Hundred, and replied that that was just how life was.  They didn’t think of it as being unusual.

Novelist Edith Jones Wharton (The Age of Innocence), herself included, described these elite as the “little inner group of people, who, during the long New York season, disported themselves together daily and nightly with apparently undiminished zest.”  For dinners,  cotillions and musicales, women wore elegant floor-length gowns (ankles were only to be seen by husbands or doctors) and expensive jewelry.  Stiff-collared men in formal attire accompanied the ladies.

Mrs. Astor had a feud with her nephew, who replaced his father’s home next door to her mansion with the first Waldorf Astoria Hotel.  She called it a tavern.  Today it is the site of the Empire State Building, and the current hotel is further north on Fifth Avenue close to Central Park.

She suffered from dementia in her last few years, walking through her ballroom talking to people who had already passed away, and died herself in 1908.  Four years later her son, John Jacob Astor IV, lost his life on the Titanic.  He was worth $85,000,000.  When his body was found, there were $2400 in U.S. bills — and 225 pounds in British notes — in his pockets.

Fashion always returns to certain themes, as does the show of monetary worth.

Central Park Today


In the early 1900s immigrants were moving to the neighborhoods by Central Park.  By its seventieth anniversary in 1928, the parks department had installed the first children’s playground, and, during the Depression, Mayor LaGuardia used federal funds to add twenty more.  Workers made roads more accommodating to car traffic, built new boathouses, and laid out permanent softball fields.

Rock and roll concerts were added the park’s attractions in the 1950s.  Budget cuts in the 70s led to “barren dustbowls” where meadows had been, and broken benches, lights, and playground equipment.  Stories of jogger attacks and crimes prevailed in the news.

Enter Betsy Barlow Rogers as its administrator in 1979.  She began a hands-on partnership between the private and public sectors: funds were raised, neglected landscapes and buildings fixed, and, best of all, respect for the park restored.  “It’s important to see the way the park is used; you’ve got to touch it, feel it,” she said.  By 1993 $100,000,000 had been donated.  The Luce Foundation gave $1,300,000 for education projects, which extended opportunities for children far past the original milk station of the 18oos.  There is now zero tolerance for garbage and graffiti in the park — for maintenance, it has been divided into 49 geographic zones, each one headed by a gardener who oversees grounds, technology, and volunteers.





DSCN1957                                                                     author photos

On a sunny afternoon last October, before reading about its history, I spent some time in Central Park.  I didn’t know much about the deterioration or restoration, only that it’s a land between the skyscrapers where New Yorkers and their guests enjoy open spaces.  I sat on the velvet of a carriage seat looking out over green grass and waterscapes, and felt as privileged as those who planned it ever did.

^     ^     ^

For more information, visit and  Rogers has authored several books, including “Rebuilding Central Park, A Management and Restoration Plan” (1987)

Podcast the First



In the cold outside/cozy inside days of winter, maybe you’ll have time to listen to some of my book.  Or is there a restless younger person in your house who would like to hear a different take on history?  One of the things I miss most about the classroom is reading aloud to the kids, and if you want to sit Indian-style on the floor, go right ahead!  The first reading is from Chapter Two, “Our Young Folks.”



Book cover photograph courtesy

The House

This is the week of homecoming, warm welcomes, families gathered, and blessings counted.  And the places we connect ourselves with.  A recent Hallmark movie, The Thanksgiving House, caught the nostalgia that polarizes the feelings for people we love.

There was once a house in uptown Manhattan.  In 1873 when it was built, it was at the city’s edge, two blocks away from 800 acres of newly-plotted Central Park.  The family who lived there could look out its upper windows to see picnickers in summer and ice skaters in winter.  It was very large, so much so that it could accommodate 500 guests at a time, which it did for the elder daughter’s debut into society.  Stately on the outside, its interior gave a glimpse of the indulgent late Victorians: wood paneling and fireplaces, thick Persian carpets, custom carved furnishings, and room after room of brick-a-brack.

Harvard University photo.

Six West Fifty-Seventh Street was home for Theodore Roosevelt as he grew into manhood, and the setting for much of my book.  But I found that aside from a few pictures showcasing the interior, it was gone.  I could not find what the outside looked like, what they would have seen walking in the front door or leaving for the opera, or any other visual idea to help me understand their lives at the time.  I could do that for their early home downtown, which has been reconstructed and is a National Parks site today.  Or Sagamore Hill, Theodore and Edith’s permanent home on Long Island, which is close to a hundred percent the way it was when they lived there.  Even his small cabin in North Dakota is open to the public.

Why had this home vanished?

The head of the family, Theodore Sr., died there in 1878, a major blow to the family.  The mother and her adult children continued to live in the home for another six years, but then, the unthinkable happened: Martha and her daughter-in-law, Alice, succumbed to different illnesses there on the same day.  Brother Elliott told Theodore there was a curse on it, and in at least one place it is referenced as being “the bad luck house.”  It was too much for the rest of the family.  The shell of memories was sold off and household possessions dispersed, and in the 1920s it and adjoining houses on the block were torn down to make way for commercial buildings.

I started digging to find out what it had looked like.  I found one photograph on a blog that was mistakenly identified (which turned out to be one of the Vanderbilt homes) and many other well-documented photos of mansions on another blog, Daytonian in Manhattan.  Just not the one I needed.  At the New York Public library I discovered a picture of the cousins’ house at Four West Fifty-Seventh Street, right before demolition.   Then I found one of the row of houses on the street, taken from Fifth Avenue, which showed horses and carriages passing by.

West 57th Street photo for page 94

Third on the left, with bay windows, is the Roosevelt home on West Fifty-Seventh Street.  This photograph was taken from Fifth Avenue.  Across the street is the Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion, the largest home ever built in New York City, where the Bergdorf-Goodman department store is today.  New York Public Library photo.

Finally, in the archives of the New York Times, there was a Sunday article, “President’s Roosevelt’s Many Homes,” from October 1905.  There, although grainy and overprinted by the family crest, were the bay windows and the brick, the face of Six West Fifty-Seventh.  Theodore’s sister, Bamie, remembered, “From the beginning Father had brought to the house the people who were most delightful to know, people interested in political and civic matters.”  Among them were John Hay, Joseph Choate, Louisa Schuyler, and William Dodge.  From the home the family went to society dinners, weddings, cotillions, art galleries, and concerts.  Then, of course, there were family gatherings, which could have been almost daily since the James Alfred Roosevelts lived next door.  The teenaged children had friends over after the picnics and ice skating, and Theodore’s nature club often met there to report on their adventures.


One of the buildings between Fifty-Sixth and Fifty-Seventh Streets today.

Happiness.  Tragedy.  The story of a family.  As in all of our lives, it is good to remember the times, even measured in a few short years, when doors are closed and voices and laughter ring out inside.


You’d think by now I would have covered most of the story of TR’s father, “Thee,” among posts about the rest of the immediate family.  But the elder Theodore’s influence was very, very, large.  It is hard to imagine it occured in a lifetime of only forty-six years, before telephones and motorized vehicles.  In his time he was mightily revered by the people of New York.

President Theodore Roosevelt kept a portrait of his father above his desk.

He was his parents’ youngest, born in 1831.  A friend of the family remembered that people would say, “There is lovely Mrs. Roosevelt with those five horrid boys.”  Coming from a Quaker background, she told her sons that along with greater wealth came greater responsibility to the less fortunate.  Thee took this to heart.

He didn’t attend college, which his father thought would ruin him, but instead traveled in Europe and became a junior partner in the family glass importing business.  He courted and won a southern girl for his wife.  After he brought her north to New York City to live, they had four children, but each one suffered from a physical malady: a defect of the spine, or asthma, or seizures.  In the meantime their father’s “troublesome conscience” was struck by the multitude of poor immigrants living in the city.

 Brooklyn newsboys, late Nineteenth Century.  New York Public Library photo.

The Children’s Aid Society had several divisions, one of which was the Newsboys’ Lodging House.  Thee visited the boys there every week, eating supper with them and talking with them as if they were his own.  He helped send many children to homes in the west, one of whom became the governor of Alaska.  In other charity work, he was careful to make inquiries into the actual conditions of the poor and not “do harm by teaching those who were independent to rely on others for their support.”

During the Civil War he did not join the army because of his wife’s Confederate sympathies, and regretted the decision the rest of his life.  He was away for weeks at a time in an organized effort to support families of soldiers.  With philanthropist William Dodge, he started the Allotment Commission to urge troops to send some of their paychecks home instead of wasting money on sutlers.  He stood out in cold, muddy fields enrolling men in the program with great success.  When he returned home himself, he did his best to help injured veterans get back into the workforce, finding jobs they could do without the use of an arm or a leg.

 .The Famous New York Seventh, Just after Reaching Washington in April, 1861.

Seventh Infantry of New York, 1861.

He taught a missions class, and when his sister-in-law saw him gathering his own little ones outside the church, it reminded her of the character “Greatheart,” protector of children, in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  He helped start a new building for the Children’s Orthopedic Hospital by inviting wealthy friends to his own parlor.  Children with spinal and bone defects were waiting there, along with braces and devices that might help them if funds were given.  When he entered friends’ offices, the checkbooks automatically came out.  “How much this time, Theodore?” they would ask.

Thee was neither solemn nor sad.  The Sunday School teacher who also gave daily Bible lessons to his young children was a strong, handsome man who dressed well and enjoyed life in general.  He danced at parties late into the night, never seeming to get tired, and drove fine horses.  He took his family on a Grand Tour of Europe not once, but twice.  In the cultural arena, he was in on the founding of both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and American Museum of Natural History.

It seemed he was the healthiest in the family, but he was the one who left first.  After a brief foray into politics, he died in horrific pain of cancer, in 1878.  Hundreds of men, women, and children waited outside his home at Six West Fifty-Seventh Street that February hoping for news of his recovery.  When he passed away, he was mourned and remembered from pulpits all over the city.  The son named for him tried his best to carry out his ideals as long as he lived: in the battlefield, in the state, the nation, and the world.  It is odd no one would have written a biography of such a man.  There is one, however, currently in the works by Keith Muchowski, an academic librarian and National Park Service volunteer.  Thee’s older son said many times, “He was the best man I ever knew.”  He was Greatheart, the first Theodore Roosevelt.