by Mike Hays
The aroma of smoldering seaweed perfumed the September air in the hills above South Nyack as the President arrived for a traditional Rhode Island clambake. No, this was not POTUS 45. The visiting POTUS was 22… and 24: a between-terms Grover Cleveland. He was vacationing at Nyack’s premier resort, the spectacular Prospect House, high on the hills above South Nyack. It was Cleveland’s second visit to Nyack’s Prospect House during the summer of 1889.
The Prospect House
The Prospect House opened in 1876 on the hills above Nyack where S. Highland Avenue makes a turn west onto Highland Avenue. The property became a part of the Clarkstown Country Club and is now a part of Nyack College. A semi-circular driveway led to the entrance of the four-story, mansard-roofed hotel that faced east. A deep veranda wrapped around the first floor.
It was originally named the Palmer House after its builder, Mrs. Palmer. Around 1880, Jefferson Porter bought the hotel from Palmer and renamed it Prospect House for its views. Porter added an addition on the back and several cottages to the property that included a stable. The grounds had riding and walking trails over the hills to scenic Hudson River views like at Balance Rock. The hotel contained about 150 sleeping rooms, a 100-foot-long dining hall, and a very large parlor on the north side.
Nyack resorts were popular after the Civil War since Nyack was easily accessed by rail or steamboat by city dwellers escaping summer heat and pestilence like malaria. The elite of Philadelphia were especially drawn to the glamorous Prospect House setting. The Evening Journal noted that a million dollars’ worth of diamonds were worn at some of the balls held there.
The Prospect House Fire
Following the 1897 season, Porter sold the hotel to the Meserve family. On June 2, 1898, 32 employees were preparing for the summer opening. One early arrival, Winston Churchill, the American novelist (not the British Prime Minister), was already in his room.
The owners had smelled smoke during the day but found no source. Around 1:30 that night fire broke out and an alarm was sounded. Flames were already visible as the horse-powered fire engines worked their way up the hill from Nyack. The fire could not be contained. Firelight was visible for miles up and down the river that night.
The main building was a total loss; only the stables, laundry, and cottages remained. Just as with today’s Instagram culture, many were reported to have shown up afterwards to have their photos taken in front of the ruins. The hotel was never rebuilt and the glory days of belle époque hotels in Nyack were over for good.
Cleveland’s July visit to the Prospect House
In between his two terms as President, Cleveland joined the law firm of Bangs, Stetson in New York City. As it happens, Bangs had arranged family dwellings at the Prospect Hotel in Nyack for the summer of 1889. This friendship and Cleveland’s love of the outdoors precipitated two trips to the Prospect House during the summer.
Cleveland arrived in Nyack without much notice on July 10, 1889. The Northern Railroad “flyer” reached Nyack just before 6p, and out stepped Cleveland. After a short ride up to Hook Mountain and back, Cleveland remarked that he was “perfectly charmed with the scenery” and that he “had no idea there was such a beautiful region here.”
The rotund, mustachioed, and sun-tanned Cleveland attended dinner with Mr. Bangs and Mr. John Sinclair, a frequent hotel guest. They headed out to easy chairs on the veranda after dinner to enjoy the view of the Hudson and cigars
Word had spread about Cleveland’s visit and an impromptu Democrat rally ensued. Supporters gathered on the lawn. A cornet band played “Hail to the Chief.” Calls for “speech” rang out. Cleveland chose not to talk but did shake hands with some of those on the lawn. He retired and left Nyack on the 8:12a morning train.
Cleveland at the Prospect House Clambake
On September 21, 1889, Cleveland and his wife Francis Folsom Cleveland, the youngest wife of a sitting President, joined the outdoor clambake already under way on the grassy west lawn of the hotel. A large table was set up with Cleveland seated in a rustic chair at the head of the table. Also at the head of the table was Mr. Porter, George Bardin, owner of the St. George Hotel in Nyack, Sinclair and Charles Chapman, President of the Nyack National Bank. Published accounts don’t mention where Cleveland’s wife sat.
At least 42 others were seated at the table. The entire wait staff in full dress served the clambake using the best tableware. There were no speeches at dinner, but jokes and witty retorts abounded. Mr. Cleveland was reported to have “done his full share in the eating and joking line.” Just at the close of the meal, a shower came up and the guests retreated to the nearby carriage house, where they remained until the shower cleared and a rainbow appeared.
On Sunday morning at 11a, Cleveland and 20 or so guests took a cruise up the Hudson. Mr. Bardin gave Cleveland a tour of the magnificent Nyack Rowing Association building at the boat landing. They drove down River Road to Piermont and Sparkill, visiting the historic sites in Tappan. Upon returning to Nyack, Cleveland visited the quintessential Victorian home of William Gray at the corner of S. Broadway and Voorhis Avenue. Cleveland liked the house so much he used it as a model for a renovation of his Cape Cod summer home, naming it Grey Gables. The Clevelands left town on the Monday morning train.
The Clevelands promised to return to Nyack in October, but they never did. In one of life’s little ironies, the next President to visit Nyack was the man Cleveland beat for a second term in 1894, Benjamin Harrison.
The intricate and sprawling residence of William Gray was built in 1885 on the stone foundation originally laid for a Methodist Church. Somewhat different than its mansard-roofed neighbors on S. Broadway, the house had steep gables with spacious rooms and numerous chimneys, porches, and windows. A central corridor led up to the circular cupola.
By the 1930s, the house was converted into an apartment building. On the night of January 20, 1959, a spectacular blaze took the lives of three elderly women living there. Eight women were rescued from the upper windows. In some cases, firemen used the points of their helmets to break windows to free the women. It was a tragic end to one of Nyack’s most magnificent Victorian homes.
Nyack People & Places: Gilded Age Resort, St. George Hotel
Photo credits: The photos of Prospect Hotel and Graycourt courtesy of the Nyack Library.
Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. He grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.