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Prospect Hall
Where Colonel Richard Varick entertained the Marquis De Lafayette and his son

From Historic Houses of New Jersey by W. Jay Mills, 1902
Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2002

At the end of almost forgotten Essex Street, once the most aristocratic portion of Jersey City, there is still standing the imposing remains of Colonel Richard Varick's Prospect Hall, now fallen to the low estate of a tenement-house. The old mansion, which is of red brick and formerly had a pitch roof, was erected in the year 1807 by the jolly anecdotal Paulus Hook ferry-keeper, Major Hunt, whom Washington Irving mentions in his gossipy "Salmagundi" as a good story-teller. It was sold by him about a year later to Colonel Richard Varick, of New York, who, with Anthony Dey and Jacob Radcliff, two prominent leaders of the New York bar, founded the little city of Jersey, which they fondly hoped would some day rival the great metropolis across the river.

Colonel Varick was one of the most interesting figures in our early history. He was General Washington's private and military secretary during the latter part of the Revolution and a member of his household, and previous to that had acted in a like capacity for General Philip Schuyler. Later he was appointed inspector-general at West Point, on the staff of Benedict Arnold, and he held that position until taken into the personal service of Washington. In early life he married Maria Roosevelt, the eldest daughter of Isaac Roosevelt, the president of the Bank of New York and owner of the finest residence on Queen Street. After the war he became mayor of New York, and was in office during the city’s brilliant period as the seat of government, successfully guiding its corporation into the new century.

Prospect Hall, Jersey City, In 1812

His city dwelling was then on Broadway near Reade Street, but at the time he purchased Major Hunt’s property he was living on Pine Street in a new and very pretentious mansion. Owing to his shrewdness and sagacity and the many emoluments of his office, he accumulated a vast fortune for those days -- estimated at five hundred thousand dollars. When he crossed the river to establish a home at Paulus Hook, it contained few houses of any size, with the exception of the Van Vorst manor on the waterfront.

The simple Hunt house facing the bay he immediately enlarged and improved, until in point of elegance it surpassed many of the finest dwellings of Gotham. The proprietor of the “Frenchman’s Garden” at Bergen (The “Frenchman’s Garden,” a fashionable recreation spot for early New Yorkers, is now included in the present “Macpelah Cemetery”), Andre Michaux -- of whom a delightful fiction was current that he was the unfortunate Dauphin of Louis XVI -- was engaged to plan his garden, which ran to the waterfront. He must have succeeded admirably, for memories of the rare flowers in grotesquely shaped beds, and especially one long avenue of imported plum-trees, still linger in the minds of a few old Jersey citizens. It is said to have also contained the first of the Lombardy poplar-trees which were planted along the city's early streets.

Colonel Varick and his wife lived very quietly during most of their long residence in their new home. The coldest winter months they usually spent in New York. Sometimes in the summer they gave garden parties to their city friends, who crossed the river in periaguas manned by negro ferry-men. Among the families known to have visited them were the Glovers, Waddington's, and Bensons -- all old Broadway neighbors. Occasionally they gave coaching-parties to the many quaint Dutch villages at little distances from Paulus Hook. These gay journeys were often made in Washington's great plum-colored coach embellished with silver, which his excellency had presented to Colonel Varick when leaving the city of New York for the new seat of government at Philadelphia. Some interesting mementos of this old coach are in Jersey City at the present day in the shape of mirror-frames fashioned from its mahogany side panels, and silver teaspoons made from the Washington arms and initials.

Generally speaking, there was little gayety at the Hall. After Mrs. Varick's death, which occurred before 1820, the colonel became more or less of a recluse, and the great door above the almost circular stoop was rarely opened except for old friends. In these latter years there was no return to New York in the winter and the colonel and his small family of three black servants stoutly faced the terrors of those bleak seasons of long ago, when the few houses of the small city were at the entire mercy of the cold Atlantic winds, and the floating ice in the Hudson made communication with the opposite shore impossible. The two or three octogenarians who dimly remember Colonel Varick at this period of his life tell of him driving about the city streets or roads in an antique chaise drawn by an old white horse which seemed its match in age. He was never alone, but was always accompanied by “King Varick,” his faithful body-servant, who had been with him through the Revolution. This pompous individual, who rightly earned his name, used to proudly boast that he belonged to the quality. He earned the open contempt of the early citizens by his haughty demeanor, and in the morning, after visiting the wharf for his marketing, would often be seen flying homeward pursued by a motley crew of fish-women and urchins whom he had incensed with his remarks.

Colonel Varick, accustomed as he was to the best society of his time, must have been disquieted by the class of people which came to reside permanently in the city for which he had predicted so brilliant a future. Before the thirties few good substantial families made their appearance, most of the inhabitants being of so very low an order that missionaries came over from New York, notably Dr. Barry, the early pastor of St. Matthew’s church, to try and work reforms and abolish the bull-baiting and cock-fights which disgraced place. It was then considered unsafe for an unarmed man to be abroad at night, and a woman on foot after dark lost her reputation. A watch guarded the streets after the vesper hour, calling out at intervals the time of night and all’s well.

The city of Jersey which Colonel Varick knew was very different from the large and constantly growing Jersey City of today. Grand Street, the principal thoroughfare, was a wide, shady avenue with great old trees on either side, whose interlacing branches nearly shut out the sky. Through it the heavy English mail coaches, the successors of the old wooden flying machines, came from the North, South, and West. Their destination, the Lyons Hotel, later called the Hudson House, was quite a famous stopping-place for travelers, and afforded accommodation equal to any in the city of New York. Under the management of Joseph and William Lyons, some years before the establishment of Judge Lynch’s Thatched Cottage Garden, it had a nicely laid out park before it with many little rustic summerhouses on the waterfront. There guests tired after long and tedious stagecoach journeys could rest and enjoy the invigorating sea-breezes and the view of the beautiful shore line opposite.

It was from this old-time hostelry, a small portion of which is still standing, that the Marquis de Lafayette set out on his farewell tour of New Jersey. In its parlor, called the “Long Room,” one hazy morning in September of the year 1824, he was introduced by Governor Williamson to the chief officers and leading citizens of the State. There was one among the many comprising the distinguished gathering who needed no introduction, and that was Colonel Varick, whom the aged marquis joyfully embraced as an old friend, and presented with a souvenir from La Grange, in the shape of a valuable piece of Sevres. The reception committee, following Colonel Varick’s suggestion, had General Washington’s coach brought out from the Varick stables to bear the old hero to Newark, and drawn by six white horses, with its cream brocade interior carefully dusted and its panels newly varnished, it is said to have made a most impressive appearance. General Lafayette left the city of Jersey with a promise to pay Colonel Varick a visit on his return journey, which promise he kept before bidding good-by to America.

An old resident who lived when a boy directly back of the Varick coach-house on Morris Street, then better known as “Dishwater Lane,” remembers seeing the general and his son George Washington Lafayette walking through the Varick Garden when on their way to pay this memorable visit. He distinctly recollects the personal appearance of the aged Frenchman and his youthful son, and dwells on the curious crowd which followed them, eager to pay homage to the hero of the hour.

During the last years of Colonel Varick’s life he was visited at Prospect Hall by many old friends, notably Josiah Hornblower, the inventor of the steam engine, who is said to have often stopped at the Lyons Hotel, and Baron Steuben, who dwelt with fond recollection on the scenes of half a century before, and talked over Hackensack, where the baron once purchased an estate from the Zabriske family near Colonel Varick’s birthplace. Upon his death, which occurred at Prospect Hall, July 30, 1831, his funeral service at the house was attended by one of the largest gatherings of distinguished Americans the city has ever held. He was buried from the Dutch Church on Nassau Street, New York City. Owing to the honor of his having been for over thirty years the president of the Society of the Cincinnati, that organization wore mourning-badges for a period of thirty days. His heir and nephew, who inherited his Jersey City property, was noted for his many vagaries, such as dumping his uncle’s library of law books into the water at the foot of Bay Street, selling Washington’s coach for junk to a blacksmith on Greene Street, much to the indignation of his neighbors, and burning a large collection of valuable papers and letters. He resided in the old hall for many years, and after his decease it passed out of the family’s possession to become a boarding-house and share the fate of many noble mansions of the period.

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