History

Hoboken

Returning to the site of their most well known legacy, S I T, one can ask what legacy the Stevenses bestowed upon Hoboken. What was their role in developing the city which, at the beginning, simply consisted of their private estates? To answer these questions, we have to return to the era of Colonel John.

Even though Colonel John Stevens built a Georgian-style mansion at the top of the cliff on their farm at Hoebuck in 1784, he continued to reside with his large family at 7 Broadway in New York City during the winters. For much of the summers when passage over the Hudson was safer, the family stayed at their "Stevens Villa" as it came to be known. In 1802 the colonel became president of the Bergen Turnpike which he built to terminate at the boatdock in his Hoboken estates.

In 1804, he sold lots in Hoboken parallel to the Bergen Turnpike which intersected with surveyed but unpaved streets 80 feet wide. In 1814, the year that the colonel and his family came to live permanently in Hoboken because of ready access through his steam ferry, the colonel sold the salt marshes or southwest and west Hoboken to the brothers Swartout. Failing in their venture to grow vegetables on the land, the Swartouts' land was acquired by John G. Coster who was plagued by the chronic flooding in his properties.

With the advent of the Stevenses' regular ferry service in 1821, the colonel rapidly improved the unsold bulk of his Hoboken estates to the east and north above Fourth Street. Intending to sell more land and to make his ferry and turnpike more profitable, the colonel advertised his estates as a healthy rural resort for New Yorkers.

Colonel John invested capital in his estates for this purpose: he created a "River Walk" winding from the ferry around the cliffs to the northernmost part of Hoboken. There he built a hotel and pavilion with Greek columns called the "Colonnade" where visitors and guests could find food and refreshment. He partly cleared woods and fields which stretched westward beyond the hotel and the Villa Stevens; upon these "Elysian Fields" as he termed them, he built amusements such as primitive ferris wheels and sights like his locomotive on its circular track.

Employing the best gardeners and horticulturalists, the colonel manicured the land around the Villa Stevens according to English theories of landscape gardening. Thus, during holiday weekends during the 1820s and 1830s, an estimated 20,000 people crossed the Hudson to view choice real estate or to enjoy themselves. Some, like John Jacob Astor, bought lots to build villas of their own, and others, like William Cullen Bryant and Robert Sands, came to write romantic prose and poetry about the rural beauty of Hoboken.

When the population grew to nearly 7,000 two years before the city was incorporated in 1855, Colonel John's sons, Edwin and Robert, started to replace the Stevens Villa with a new mansion, the "Stevens Castle." This residence was designed by Alexander Jackson Davis, a premier architect of his time, and was based on sketches and designs made by Robert L. Stevens and others. It was an Italian-style mansion, with coach portal, campinale, piazzas, and a renown hanging staircase. Completed in 1859 it gave its name to the point on which it sat.

By the 1860s when the population of Hoboken reached some 10 to 20 thousand, the personal property of the Stevenses extended from Washington Street eastward to the river and northward through a still rural section of the Elysian Fields, and by 1900 it had been diminished to the area between Seventh and Tenth streets east of Hudson Street.