A Lost House of Edgar Allan Poe

Poe lived a peripatetic life. He was born in Boston, raised in Richmond, educated in London, and moved regularly between Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. A number of his houses are still standing and open to the public as museums. One of the most important of these is in New York City: the Poe Cottage in the Bronx, where he wrote “Annabelle Lee,” and where his wife Virginia died in 1846.

Another of Poe’s New York residences was still standing as late as 2001. Poe wrote “The Cask of Amontillado” and published “The Raven” while living at 85 West Third Street in Manhattan, between 1844 and the beginning of 1846. As a native of Greenwich Village I remember it well. I passed it almost daily in my youth. To the horror of everyone who knew its history, the townhouse was demolished by New York University, along with the Stanford White-designed Judson House, to make room for an ugly modernist campus building. This is the city that allowed developers to level Charles McKim’s Penn Station, after all. And the university that erected two monstrous Le Corbusier Unités d’Habitation in a little bucolic neighborhood.

Before moving into the house on West Third Street (Amity Street as it was known in the nineteenth century), Poe and his family lived in a farmhouse on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The island was still largely rural above Midtown. Appleton Morgan explains that, “Poe was advised to seek summer quarters among the ancient farmhouses along the Hudson River” for his wife’s health. Virginia had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1842. Poe rented rooms at what is now 84th Street and Broadway.

The Brennan Farmhouse sat on a 216-acre homestead owned by Patrick Brennan and his wife Mary. It was a modest two-story clapboard house built in the eighteenth century with an addition added later. A photograph from 1879 shows the house in its last days. The modern rectangular grid of streets mandated by The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 had finally caught up with northern Manhattan. The rocky outcrop on which the house sat had been plowed through to make 84th Street and the house itself clung to the edge of a precipice over the road.

Brennan_Farmhouse_1879

An etching shows the house as it would have looked in Poe’s day, surrounded by grassy lawn and shade trees, with a little pond where the street now runs.

Brennan_Farmhouse_1840

The Brennans and their six children made room for Poe, his wife, and his mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, over the summers of 1843 and 1844. Martha Brennan, who was ten years old at the time, recalled that the Poes lived in a suite of rooms on the second floor of the main house with “two windows toward the river and two toward the East.” She remembered Poe as “a shy, solitary, taciturn sort of man, fond of rambling down in the woods, between the house and the river, and sitting for hours upon a certain stump on the edge of the bank of the river.” According to William Hand Brown, “It was Poe’s custom to wander away from the house in pleasant weather to ‘Mount Tom’ an immense rock which may still be seen in Riverside Park, where he would sit silently for hours gazing out upon the Hudson.”

Mount_Tom_1923
Mount Tom, photographed in 1923, from Valentine’s Manual

Poe wrote “The Raven” at the Brennan Farmhouse, and elements of the surroundings found their way into the poem. There was a fireplace in his room with an ornamental mantel. One day Poe absent-mindedly cut his name into the wood. Martha described it as the only time he displeased her mother. Was this the fireplace where “each separate dying ember / Wrought its ghost upon the floor”? According to Martha’s husband, General James O’Beirne, there was a plaster cast of Minerva on a shelf above the door, which doubtless became “the pallid bust of Pallas just above [the] chamber door.”

Benjamin Waldman and Andy Newman write in The New York Times that, “The house became a place of pilgrimage in the decades after Poe’s death,” until it was torn down in 1888, to make way for the development of the Upper West Side. While demolition was underway, Colonel William Hemstreet, who sat on the board of the Brooklyn art museum, paid a last visit to the house. Waldman and Newman write that he regarded the Raven Room, as it was called, “‘with profound sentiment.’ But he had to decide quickly what to salvage.” Hemstreet “handed the contractor $5, pried the mantel off the wall with a crowbar, and had it shipped to his home” where it was “installed around his own hearth.” There it remained for two decades. In 1907 Colonel Hemstreet offered to donate the mantel to “any public institution that will competently preserve it.” He ultimately chose to give it to Columbia University.

This last remnant of the house where Poe wrote “The Raven” can be seen today in the rare books and manuscripts department of the Butler Library at Columbia. As Waldman and Newman write, “The stairs leading up to the mantel say “Staff Access Only,” but a simple request at the desk of the manuscript library is all it takes to gain admission.”

Poe_Mantel
The mantel from the Brennan Farmhouse (photograph by J.W. Ocker, via Atlas Obscura)

Sources:

Morgan, Appleton. (1923) “Edgar Allan Poe in New York,” in Valentine’s Manual of Old New York. Number 7. New York: Valentine’s Manual, Inc.

Miller, Tom. (June 19, 2017) “The Lost Brennan House—84th Street and Broadway,” Daytonian in Manhattan. http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2017/06/the-lost-brennan-house-84th-street-and.html

Ocker, J.W. “Leave No Black Plume as a Token: Tracking Poe’s Raven,” Atlas Obscura. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/leave-no-black-plume-as-a-token-tracking-poe-s-raven

Waldman, Benjamin; Newman, Andy. (August 11, 2012) “After a Part in Poe’s ‘Raven,’ the Dust of Obscurity,” The New York Times. https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/10/mystery-of-a-poe-relic-the-raven-mantels-curious-journey/


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