A Brick Found, History Uncovered: The Washburn Mansion

BY JARED RODRIGUEZ

Last weekend on a walking trip through the historic brownstone neighborhood of Harsimus Cove in Jersey City, I came across a newly excavated foundation. Strewn about the floor of the future downtown restaurant and lofts were remnants of the building that once stood there. A light-colored brick caked with the mortar that held it in place for 100 years stood out amid the other bricks. It was a Washburn brick; one of millions churned out of Hudson River clay that once laid beneath marshes in Haverstraw and Stony Point.

This Washburn brick, in particular, actually hails from Saugerties and Glasco, New York, where relatives of Uriah F. Washburn of Grassy Point operated their own brickyards. Uriah maintained his own brickyard in partnership with Denton Fowler, who made his estate at Front Street and Canal Street in Haverstraw; the mansion that now houses the Haverstraw Elk’s Club. The Washburn bricks made in Grassy Point were stamped with the emblem: “U F W & Co.”

Months ago, there was talk in Stony Point that a gas station would take the place of the historic Washburn mansion and homestead. The house sits on a promontory that overlooks the outstretching Minisceongo Creek and Cedar Pond Brook Marsh, which is encircled by the narrow land mass that comprises Grassy Point. The marsh was the lifeblood of the Washburn family’s booming brick business; it supplied the clay that was formed into bricks, printed with the family’s insignia and tempered in massive wood-fired kilns. Bricks flowed south and money flowed north, and with this newly found wealth, the brickmaking titans of then southern Orange County (today Rockland) built breathtaking estate houses beginning as early as 1800. The Washburn house is an exemplary Hudson River estate home.

The family’s New York roots date to the late 1600s in Port Chester in Westchester County. By 1800, the family had moved to Haverstraw to take part in the thriving brick industry. The hinterlands (now known as Stony Point) around the bustling Village of Haverstraw were a lush oasis of dense forest, dazzling waterfalls and deep gorges, lakes and very productive farm land. The Washburns may very well have seen and replied to the following advertisement offering the finest in brickyard land:

“VALUABLE BRICKYARD PROPERTY! For Sale or Exchange! The subscriber offers for sale or exchange his Brick Yard Property, known as Crum Island, situated about one hundred and fifty yards from the mouth of the ‘Minisceongo’ Creek, with sufficient depth of water to float a laden vessel at any time of tide; said property has upon it sufficient clay of the best quality for the manufacture of Brick for at least eight years, at the rate of three million per year; also three good dwelling houses, machines, barrows, plank, saddles, battens, and in fact, everything necessary for the manufacture of Brick. For further particulars, inquire of JAMES CRENEY. Haverstraw, Jan. 10, 1860.”

The house has been host to several popular restaurants over the years, including the famed Fiesta Cancun, A Bit of Sweden, and now Las Margaritas. While the house has been altered by fire, it retains fine architectural details, a steeply pitched roof, and craftsmanship common among Rockland’s industry captains’ estates. The house likely began as a more modest structure and was updated to meet prevailing tastes in architecture. In its existing form, the home likely dates to the 1870s, when the Queen Anne style dominated the design standards of most architects and craftsmen in Rockland. Sweeping front and rear porches adorn the house and carved corbels accent the eaves. The defining architectural element is a bay window within the main, front gable of the home.

At the time, before Route 9W existed, the area now known as Stony Point was a sprawling enclave of such manor homes surrounded by meticulously cultivated gardens. It was a paradise for the rich. Dozens of similar estates dot the area, now vestiges of their former greatness as these land tracts have been subdivided by suburban developers and many similar homes have been demolished. Those that remain stand as tributes to the industries that put Rockland on the map and built New York City.