If you drive by 18 Elm Ave. in the area of Larchmont called the Manor, you'll see a big, beautiful, yellow house with a red double door.
Judith Doolin Spikes, Larchmont's village historian, sees more.
"You could reconstruct American history through the Manor House," says Spikes, author of a number of Larchmont histories, including Images of America: Larchmont. Spikes has lived in Larchmont since 1973.
"Eighteen Elm was the centerpiece of what is now the Manor. It's the oldest home in Larchmont," she adds.
The home is the reason the area is called Larchmont, and the neighborhood along the sound is called the Manor.
The address housed the rise, and sometimes the fall, of several prominent businessmen.
From family estate to auction block
"This was the time of the gentleman's farm," says Spikes, "when New York City gentlemen bought themselves country estates."
18 Elm was built in 1797 by Peter Jay Munro (born 1767), who "yearned to have a country estate like his uncle, John Jay," says the historian.
Munro's mother was Eve, sister of John Jay, in Rye. When Munro's father returned to England at the start of the American Revolution, Eve and Peter moved into the Jay family's American Greek Revival mansion on 400 acres.
His uncle's influence was inescapable. John Jay was president of the Continental Congress (1778 to 1779), the first U.S. chief justice (1789 to 1795) and a governor of New York (1795 to 1801).
When he was sixteen, Munro accompanied Jay to Paris to negotiate the end of the war, and returned to study law under the tutelage of Aaron Burr, the third U.S. vice president.
In 1790, while practicing law in New York City, Munro began buying property in Larchmont—about a half-square-mile--and built the farmhouse as his weekend country estate. He and wife Margaret had three children.
To combat the noise and dirt of Boston Post Road, which the house faced, Munro planted a row of fast growing Scottish larch trees.
When he died in 1833, the estate went to his third child, Henry, an attorney.
"Henry mortgaged the property and ran into debt, and in 1845 the estate was sold at auction to satisfy his creditors," wrote Spikes in Larchmont, U.S.A.: The Story of the Village of Larchmont to the Turn of the Century.
"Yankee Lord of the Atlantic Ocean" to auction
World famous steamship tycoon Edward Knight Collins (born 1802) won the estate at auction and vacationed there for twenty years. He was one of the richest men in New York and "the most important person who has ever lived in Larchmont," wrote Spikes.
Collins had the first U.S. transatlantic mail contract, built the first American steamships to cross the Atlantic and ran the fastest, most luxurious ships.
He added a ballroom (torn down in 1890) and built the two-story front porch. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed the grounds. Because the house was on a small hill with larch trees, Collins named the estate Larchmont.
"It took him 48 long years to reach the top, and only eight years later, he was bankrupt," wrote Spikes.
Cornelius Vanderbilt (born 1794), his competitor, ran him out of business. Collins' last ships were sold at auction in 1858. The property was auctioned in 1865.
Beginning of Larchmont Manor
"1865 is when gentleman farms pretty much dried up," tells Spikes, "coinciding with the Civil War. It's the time you see summer resorts for the wealthy turning into something more settled."
In 1865, banker Thompson J.S. Flint (born 1811) and his wife, Elizabeth, bought most of the estate. He subdivided the 288 acres, creating Larchmont Manor Company to develop the property.
In 1872 it was advertised as ideal "suburban homes for New York City businessmen of moderate incomes."
When a four-track railroad was built in 1887, the mansion became a hotel for train excursions from the city for prospective buyers, and a clubhouse for property owners.
They named it the Manor House.
Katherine Ann Samon is the author of four books, including Ranch House Style, and is on the board of the Larchmont Historical Society. Her column, "Historical Wonders," about important buildings in Larchmont and Mamaroneck, appears twice a month on Larchmont-Mamaroneck Patch. To learn more about the author, visit her Web site.