Monday, May 10, 2010

the resurrection of Sparta

The tiny village of Sparta was first occupied by Europeans at the end of the 17th century. In 1698, a family named Davis settled there as tenants of Frederick Philipse. A few years before, Philipse, a wealthy New York landowner, had purchased all the land in the vicinity from the local Indian tribe, called the Sint Sincks. Half a century later, the Davises built a structure which came to be called Jug Tavern. According to the historic preservation organization that now owns it, the house was probably built by Peter Davis in January 1758. Peter left the place to his widow when he pied and she lived there until about 1810. The next owners were Nathaniel Garrison and his wife Annie. Nathaniel died in 1843, but Annie lived there until her death in 1869 at the age of 99. It seems likely that the place was called Jug Tavern because Garrison sold liquor by the jug though without troubling to obtain the required license.

{The Jug Tavern, or Davis-Garrison House, 74 Revolutionary Road, Sparta; source:}

This is a map of Sparta from 1862. The Jug Tavern can be found a bit below the center point and is labeled "Mrs. Garrison." I've put an underscore to locate it.

{source: A Land of Peace; the Early History of Sparta, a Landing Town on the Hudson by Philip Field Horne (Ossining, NY: Ossining Restoration Committee, 1976)}

A bit to the left of Mrs. Garrison's house is one marked "A. Lyons." According to local lore the house at one time served as George Washington's headquarters. It had been built in 1784 by Josiah Rhodes who ran a mustard mill. The map names it for Andrew Lyons, a weaver, who lived in the house during the 1860s and '70s. Here's what it looks like today. The wings at both sides were added in the 1920s.


Early in the 19th century Sparta lost much of its economic viability to the neighboring community of Sing Sing and a century later was absorbed into that village. The little hamlet hung on as home to a few fishermen, farmers, agricultural laborers, and their families as well as quarrymen from the local marble mine and accompanying lime kiln. In 1920 a reporter summed up the situation thus:
The dock on the river front fell into disuse. Some of the old families moved away. The young folks sought employment elsewhere, and Italian and Swedish gardeners and laborers on the neighboring rich estates took their places in the life of the village. Historic old houses that had figured in the lives of Gen. Washington, Gen. Israel Putnam, Major Andre and others of the Revolution began to have a tired and sometimes gray and neglected look. Roses ran wild over the back yard fences into the blackberries and burdocks. The peppermint and catnip, once confined with precision to grandma’s garden beds, strayed out along the dusty road. The sleepy village went to sleep.
-- from an account in the [Ossining] Democratic Register, Saturday, December 4, 1920
By the early 20th century, a resident of a nearby estate characterized the place as a slum having "unpaved streets and ill-kept houses packed much more closely together than they are today." In an interview, this person said people believed it to be a center for illicit drugs and liquor smuggling into nearby Sing Sing Prison, and he reported that they said the grocery store ran a brothel on its upper floor. The person being interviewed said the level of violence was high and remembered his parents as worrying about "the regular Saturday night murder."*

{Caption: 2 Rockledge Avenue. This white-painted brick house was built as a warehouse in about 1820. A large opening in the front, probably to allow horse-drawn carts to enter and exit, has been bricked in. A mercantile firm, Cypher & Slater, occupied the building in the 1860s and '70s, and a grocery store was on the ground floor (and possibly a brothel on the upper floors) at the turn of the century. The house now contains five apartments. Source:}

In 1920 Sparta was characterized as a "ramshackle collection of shanties" and "a desolate waste of twenty-five houses, huts, shacks, sodden sagging roofs, boards never nailed back to place, broken rag-stuffed windows and weed-smothered dooryards" whose presence offended the eyes, ears, or the nostrils of residents in nearby properties. One writer went so far as to call the place "a flotsam, a handful of driftwood cast up on a cliff by the backwaters of life, there content to bleach her bones in the sun of time."**

These descriptions appeared in writings that supported Frank A. Vanderlip's plan to purchase the village, renovate and renew it. Vanderlip and his wife intended to remove from Sparta all "undesirable elements" and eliminate "conditions existing there, conditions dangerous to youth and to Americanism." He could afford the purchase. As president of City Bank, he was one of the wealthiest men in New York. His motivation was not particularly altruistic. He and his wife lived nearby on an estate. The dilapidated and low-class village offended their sensibilities, but also presented an opportunity. They believed (rightly as things turned out) that they could rent Sparta's houses to a higher-class of residents: teachers from the local elementary school they had begun, workers on theirs and other nearby estates, staff connected with the school's fully equipped theater, and even sojourning members of the New York intelligentsia. One of the best known of the new type tenant was Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's admirable Secretary of Commerce, who rented the Rhodes-Lyons house in the mid-1930s.

As you might expect, Sparta's threat to Americanism was somewhat exaggerated by the Vanderlip couple who wished to transform the place and the writers to whom they fed stories, and Sparta was not quite universally acknowledged to be a pit of iniquity. In 1920 a reporter for the local newspaper described the place as sleepy and free of any remarkable events (such as weekly murders). Residents were said to be perplexed by the Vanderlips' crusade. Although almost none refused to sell, they didn't quite see what the purpose was. The reporter quoted a long-term resident:
"I don’t know," said Mrs. Andrew J. Robinson, who lives at the corner of Revolutionary Road, "when anything has happened in Sparta so exciting. It has been a quiet, peaceful, sweet little village as long as I can remember, and I lived here when I was a little girl, and used to go up to the Community House, as they call it now, to see Mr. Holden play Santa Claus. One thing I wish you’d print. The stories about Sparta being a sanctuary for escaped Sing Sing convicts in the old days is all false. (This was a fake sensation story of a local yellow journal.) "When anybody got out of Sing Sing then, as now, he put as many miles as he could between himself and the prison. He never tarried here. I have known years to go by in this hamlet without as much excitement as somebody’s horse running away. The people have always been nice, quiet country farmers and a few honest laborers on the railroad and in the quarry. Nobody ever did anything to get the village into the papers. We just lived quiet, happy lives."
-- Same source as above: Democratic Register, December 4, 1920
Of the big papers, only one wondered whether salvation at the hands of the Vanderlips was right for Sparta and it concluded that maybe this was so. A reporter for the Brookly Daily Eagle wrote, in part:
To what degree landlord-paternalism can be carried in America we do not know. There have been plenty of efforts since the model city of Pullman started the bitterness that led up to the greatest of railroad strikes in Illinois. We incline to the belief that Frank A. Vanderlip will not seek to discover what the limit is; that he will be satisfied to get good people in, and then let them lead their own lives. That is the safest modern way of reforming a village.
-- A Vanderlip-Owned Village (pdf), Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 16, 1920. The author's reference to "model city of Pullman" is an allusion to the Pullman Strike of 1894.
As is almost always the case when an area is renewed, gentrified, or resurrected by intervention from outside its boundaries, there is no information to be had about the fate of tenants and home owners who were forced to depart when the Vanderlips took over.


These paintings show the Haverstraw Bay which is the wide expanse of Hudson that lies off Sparta. The village began as a river landing and, although now its residents' business is almost all oriented landwards, its sloping hillside still gives it a riverfront orientation.

{Sandford Robinson Gifford's Morning in the Hudson, Haverstraw Bay, 1866; source: Wikipedia}

Detail of same:

{"An Indian Summer's Day On The Hudson Tappan Zee," 1868, by Sanford R. Gifford, 1868; source:}

{prospect of Sparta and vicinity; source:}

This USGS map from the end of the 19th c. shows the path of the Croton Aqueduct a bit to the east of Sparta.


See Also:

Short History of Sparta from the organization that has preserved the Jug Tavern

Self-Guided Tour of Sparta with photos of old houses from the same source

A Land of Peace; the Early History of Sparta, a Landing Town on the Hudson by Philip Field Horne (Ossining, NY: Ossining Restoration Committee, 1976)

The Vanderlip, Van Derlip, Vander Lippe family in America: also including some account of the Von Der Lippe family of Lippe, Germany, from which the Norwegian, Dutch and American lines have their descent by Charles Edwin Booth (Pub. priv. Press of L. Middleditch co., 1914)

The Destruction of Sparta (pdf),
The Post-Standard, Syracuse, N.Y., Tuesday Morning, November 9, 1920. Extract:
Scarboro is a handsome village in Westchester county, overlooking the Hudson, the home of millionaires who do business by day in New York, and who enjoy the quiet and beauty of the country in the dawn and twilight. Sparta lies alongside Scarboro to its eternal discomfort. It is a ramshackle collection of shanties. It is neither quiet nor beautiful, and it pains Scarboro. Scarboroites had registered anger, disgust, dismay, and miscellaneous suggestions that "something should be done about Sparta" for a generation. It remained to Frank Vanderlip, a citizen of Scarboro, to take Spartan action. He bought the whole hamlet. It wasn't much of a hamlet anyhow, and Mr. Vanderlip likes to spend money that way. He is now tearing Sparta down. What rises in its place will offend neither the eyes, ears, or the nostrils of fair Scarboro. Mr. Vanderlip's way of meeting a civic problem is a great deal more satisfactory than talking about it, or holding public meetings, or petitioning the legislature for an appropriation.
Sparta, Cinderella of Towns, Made Over by Magic Wand of Its Fairy God-Parents (pdf) by Jane Dixon, New York Evening Telegram, 1920. Extract:
Sparta is "a flotsam, a handful of driftwood cast up on a cliff by the backwaters of life, there content to bleach her bones in the sun of time. ... Men of Sparta, 'horny handed sons of toil,' worked in the quarry or in neighboring greenhouses. It was noticed, however, that certain of them worked less and less and drifted more and more on the tide of least resistance. ... Sparta [became] a desolate waste of twenty-five houses, huts, shacks, sodden sagging roofs, boards never nailed back to place, broken rag-stuffed windows and weed-smothered dooryards. ... [Mrs. Vanderlip said] everyone is welcome in Sparta, providing they fit into the new spirit of the town. We [i.e., she and her husband] have no notion of destroying the identify of the village. It was merely a matter of conscience with us. We knew of certain conditions existing there, conditions dangerous to youth and to Americanism. .. All that is over now."


*Frank A. Vanderlip, Jr. quoted in A Land of Peace; the Early History of Sparta, a Landing Town on the Hudson by Philip Field Horne (Ossining, NY: Ossining Restoration Committee, 1976).

**The quotes in this paragraph and the one below it come from the newspaper reports from the fall of 1920 which are listed under the "See Also" heading above.

No comments: