Archive Sleuth

The Davids/Stephens/Hawes/Rockefeller House

Question: What’s the only continuously occupied colonial-era residence in Sleepy Hollow, NY?

(Aside from the obvious Philipsburg Manor, which is no longer a private residence, and could be argued, is largely a reconstruction.)

Answer: It’s the old William Davids house on Tower Hill Road.

William Davids Esq. was born Nov. 6, 1707 and married Nelle (or, Nellie) Storms in 1733. The couple built a home together sometime around 1750 near the corner of Bedford Road and the old White Plains Road (which has since been called County House Road, and now Tower Hill Road) in Philipsburg Manor (now Sleepy Hollow). William Davids then became “Justice of the Peace on this Manor, Supervisor, and one of its most prominent and respected citizens”. His son William Davids Jr. was baptised in 1735, and would later be severely wounded during the Revolutionary War on July 19th 1779 at Verplank’s Point, and was exempted from further service during the war.

(See page 172-173 of the 1894 “Souvenir of the Revolutionary Soldiers’ Monument Dedication…”)

General George Washington held a council of war with Col Hammond in the Davids home shortly before the Battle of White Plains in October 1776.  This council was said to have taken place in the large west room of the house, and resulted in the erection of earthen breastworks on the west side of the house. The area was known as the ‘Breastworks Lot’ for much of the 19th century.

In William Owens’s book Pocantico Hills: 1609-1959 (Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1960) we read: “According to legend, General Washington stopped to rest at this house after the battle of White Plains. Just after he had gone on his way, British pursuers arrived. In anger because he had escaped, they slashed the door frames with their sabers.” (pg 20.) The slashed doorframes were said to be preserved by the Davids family.

After the war, the loyalist Philipse family forfeited their lands to New York State’s Commissioners of Forfeitures, which then sold the lands to the tenant farmers. William Davids bought the land surrounding his home, including all of Kykuit Hill for 460 pounds.  Two maps at NYPL’s Map Division showing the post-colonial landowners include the home of William Davids:

By 1867 Sarah Davids (granddaughter or great-granddaughter of William Davids Esq.) had married John R. Stephens of New York City, and lived in her family’s old home, thereafter known as the old Davids-Stephens House. “J.R. Stevens” appears on the 1867 Beers Atlas of Westchester County:

During the post-Civil War period the Stephens family sold off most of Kykuit Hill to real estate developers and wealthy New York businessmen looking for country estates. The family retained only about 41 acres in the southwest corner of the former Davids property. The extra income might have been used to build a new home, just west of the old Davids house, where the Revolutionary-era ‘Breastworks’ had been. The ‘New Stephens’ House first appears in the 1893 Bien Atlas of Westchester County:

However, this 1893 atlas became inaccurate pretty quickly. In the autumn of that year the Stephens family sold off 32.6 of those remaining 41 acres for $61,000 to an accountant of modest means named Edward V. Cary. The Stephens family might have noticed Mr. Cary’s business address was an office at 26 Broadway in New York. This would have tipped them off that Cary wasn’t the true buyer, but an agent of John D. Rockefeller Sr.

This left the Stephens family with 9 acres of land, including the old & new houses, carriage house, and outbuildings. The Stephens family now consisted of siblings Abram D. Stephens, Charles G. Stephens, and Annie Stephens Hawes (who’d married James B. Hawes). The 1908 Hyde Atlas shows the last 9 acres of the Stephens estate, but only one house (probably the New Stephens House):

However, this atlas was inaccurate too. Rockefeller bought the last 9 acres of the Stephens estate from Charles G. Stephens and Annie Stephens Hawes in 1906 for $42,000. (Abram must have passed away). Annie and her husband James Hawes had been living in the old Davids house, which the Rockefeller family started referring to as the Hawes House.

The 1914 Bromley Atlas clearly shows the new Stephens House and the old Davids House, now part of the Rockefeller estate:

Neither house was demolished, or renovated for that matter, and during the teens and 20s the Hawes House was used by Rockefeller estate superintendent Dyson DeLap. By 1930 the Hawes House was being remodeled for newly-weds Nelson Rockefeller and Mary Todhunter Clark Rockefeller, and decorated with antique early-American furniture. The house was significantly renovated and expanded throughout the 1930s to accommodate Nelson & Mary’s growing family.

Here’s a few photos of the expanded Hawes House, circa 1940s:

(Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.)

And here’s a couple Kodachromes circa 1950:

(Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.)

And one Kodachrome of the New Stephens House next door, circa 1950s:

(Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.)

But that’s not all. In 1939 Nelson Rockefeller commissioned architect Wallace K. Harrison to build a modernist guesthouse next to the Hawes House. The Hawes Guest House, as it’s been known since, featured “floor to ceiling electrically operated windows that opened upon a semicircular swimming pool in the back”, and “a living-room pond fed by water from the outdoor pool” (See pg 84 of Cary Reich’s The Life of Nelson A. Rockefeller: Worlds to Conquer, 1908-1958, Doubleday, 1996). The building was divided between the circular living room (left) and the bedrooms (right) by an open passageway. The abstract shape of the roof’s cutout opening was designed by artist Fernand Leger.

(Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.)

Here’s an aerial photo circa 1940, showing the Hawes House, Hawes Guest House, and the New Stephens House:

(Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.)

But that’s still not all. Here’s a couple photos of the Hawes House living room, circa 1950, the same room where Gen. George Washington met with Col. Hammond in 1776:

(Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.)

Let’s take a closer look at the painting above the sofa:

(Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.)

It’s a painting of Tarrytown & Sleepy Hollow’s original claim to fame, the capture of Major Andre:

(Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.)

This brings us full-circle, back to the Revolutionary War.

In the unknown artist’s painting we see Major Andre, who stands partially undressed in the center of the group. His captors, militiamen John Paulding, Issac Van Wart, and David Williams (not to be confused with William Davids Jr.) have removed Andre’s boots and found the secret plans to West Point. In his outstretched left hand Major Andre hold his pocket watch, offering it to the three captors as a bribe. Also notice the playing cards on the ground next to Andre’s boots; according to legend, the three captors were playing a game of cards only moments before the spy’s capture. It seems entirely appropriate that Nelson Rockefeller would hang this painting in this specific room. After all, the three captors of Major Andre had passed by the home of William Davids Esq. less than an hour before Andre’s capture, and passed by again afterwards, as they escorted Andre to North Castle.

The visual imagery surrounding Major Andre’s capture deserves a fuller treatment than I’ll give it here, but if you’re familiar with the story, this painting might seem a little familiar. In fact, there have been many paintings of Major Andre’s capture, the most famous of which is probably Asher B. Durand’s version of 1845:

Anyway, back to the Hawes house. Yes, it still exists, as can be seen in this contemporary aerial view via Bing.com.

But what of the slash marks in the doorway you ask. Are they still there? Well, let me close by quoting William Owens again, and remember this was written in 1960: “The boards with saber slashes have been preserved and may be seen at the present time. The skeptical may wonder at such ill use of sabers. No matter. The legend will persist with its own meaning” (Pocantico Hills, 1609-1959, pg. 21).

The legend will persist indeed.

Please let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.

12 comments on “The Davids/Stephens/Hawes/Rockefeller House

  1. HV-Rob
    March 5, 2012

    Great work Lucas! Thanks for shedding light on this under-reported part of Sleepy Hollow history. That guest house is pretty awesome too.

  2. Jim
    March 5, 2012

    Good work Lucas. Thank you for shedding light on this historic house.

  3. xmowers
    March 5, 2012

    As usual……Well done, new look at a old subject

  4. Robbie Buresch
    March 5, 2012

    So much detail, I am impressed. I love the history and the circle you brought us in. I can feel the living history of this area thru your words.
    an aside..don’t really care for the last house built..too modern and out of synch with the other houses in the area for my taste. Seems an odd choice for the family to build when they took such effort to maintain the true appearance in the add-ons they did on the original house

    • Lucas Buresch
      March 5, 2012

      Actually, I didn’t mention this in the article, but the Guest House was built with the same fieldstone and white-painted woodwork used in old colonial farmhouses. Wally Harrison and Nelson Rockefeller made a conscious effort to find harmony between the old and the new. ‘Eclectic taste’ is putting it mildly, take a look at another modernist house on the estate:

      http://www.rbf.org/content/marcel-breuer-house-pocantico

  5. Henry Steiner, Sleepy Hollow Village Historian
    March 5, 2012

    You have done important and invaluable research here Lucas. Well done! Although the Davids homestead is still standing, for generations it has been a “lost” or forgotten landmark to the community in which it lies. It is one of great historic significance to Sleepy Hollow as one of its last surviving Revolutionary and colonial relics.

  6. Scott Craven
    March 6, 2012

    Mr Buresch
    Great entry, how do you reproduce the pictures of the maps, are they photographs?
    SC

  7. Mirla Morrison
    August 17, 2012

    I found this article fascinating, and will use the blog to show my local history teachers what some sleuthing can do to bring authentic history to their students.
    Thanks for such a well-written and valuable piece.

    Mirla

    • Lucas Buresch
      August 18, 2012

      Thanks Mirla, I’m glad you liked it. And yes, please share a link to my blog.

      Best, Lucas

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This entry was posted on March 5, 2012 by in Historic sites, Pocantico Hills.

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