Fonthill Castle: Edwin Forrest’s Country Estate

Fonthill Castle was built in 1852 in The Bronx borough of New York City by prominent American Shakespearean actor Edwin Forrest and his wife Catherine Norton Sinclair. According to American actor Lawrence Barrett, the architectural designs used to build Fonthill Castle came from the ideas generated by Sinclair and were then approved by Forrest. However, who the architect was remains controversial as reported by the Landmarks Preservation Committee in 1981:

“Several of Forrest’s nineteenth-century biographers, who knew him personally, wrote that the design was worked out by Forrest and his wife, and then turned to Thomas L. Smith, a local builder. Alexander Jackson Davis, one of the country’s most important architects at the time, had some connection with the design: he corresponded with Forrest about Fonthill, and made a drawing of it. A likely solution may be that the Forrests worked out the basic scheme with some advice from Davis, and that the work was then carried out by Smith.”[1]

Fonthill Castle - Edwin Forrest

Edwin Forrest. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Whoever the architect was the Fonthill country estate planned by the Forrests was meant to serve a two-fold purpose, which was noted by Forrest:

“In building this house, I am impelled by no vain desire to occupy a grand mansion for the gratification of self-love; but my object is to build a desirable, spacious, and comfortable abode for myself and my wife, to serve us during our natural lives, and at our death to endow the building with a sufficient yearly income, so that a certain number of decayed or superannuated actors and actress of American birth … may inhabit the mansion and enjoy the grounds thereunto belonging, so long as they live.”[2]  

The Fonthill Castle derived its name from Fonthill Abbey built by William Thomas Beckford. He was an English novelist, critic, travel writer, sometime politician, profligate, and knowledgeable art collector and patron. He was also the brainchild behind the building of the remarkable Fonthill Abbey that was built in Wiltshire, England. However, because the Abbey was structurally unsound, it was also known as Beckford’s Folly. Although Forrest may have named Fonthill Castle after Fonthill Abby it had little resemblance to its British namesake.

William Thomas Beckford by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, 1782. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Forrest had originally planned to build the castle on the Hudson River where a natural promontory jutted out into the river but when he learned that the railroad planned to lay track there, he moved it to the slopes above the Hudson River. This created breathtaking views of the river. Moreover, when Forrest thought of Fonthill Castle he supposedly imagined it in the following manner:

“[S]omewhat after the fashion of the old ruined structures on the banks of the Rhine, whose beauty should gratify his taste, whose conveniences should secure his household comfort, whose historic and poetic suggestiveness should please his countrymen passing up and down the river, and whose final object should be an enduring memorial of his love for his profession and of his compassion for its less fortunate members.”[3]

When the cornerstone was laid inside it Forrest placed a few American coins, a volume of Shakespeare, and note that stated his reason for building it. His castle was created from “gray silicious granite of extraordinary hardness and fine grain, hammer-dressed and pointed with gray cement.”[4] It also had six octagon towers clumped together with battlements that were either notched with embrasures or capped with corniced coping. Loop-holes and buttresses also gave Fonthill Castle a military air like that of a fortified castle.

The highest tower rose seventy feet and the remaining five towers – the center tower, main tower, library tower, drawing-room tower, and dining room tower – were of proportioned heights. Fonthill Castle had two entrances, one on the water side and the other on the land side. The main floor contained the parlor, banquet hall, study, library, and bedroom. The center tower comprised a hall or rotunda, and above this was a picture gallery lighted from the dome. The basement held the kitchen, cellar, and storerooms and the upper rooms were divided into guest chambers and servant apartments. In addition, it was reported:

“The staircase tower has a spiral staircase of granite inserted in a solid brick column, rising from the basement to the top of the tower, with landings on each floor leading to the chief apartments. The architectural design … combined the Norman and Gothic styles, softened in detail so as to embrace some of the luxuries of modern improvements. For instance, the drawing-room and banqueting-room are lighted with deep, square, bay-windows, while those of the upper chambers and of the boudoir are of the Gothic order. In other portions of the edifice are to be seen the rounded windows of the Norman period, with their solid stone mullions dividing the compartments again into pointed Gothic.”[5]

Fonthill Castle circa 1860. Courtesy of New York Public Library

Forrest had acquired his money to buy Fonthill Castle because of his acting. He had been born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 9 March 1806 and was the son of Rebecca Lauman, a member of an affluent German-American family, and William Forrest, a Scottish merchandise peddler. At the age of 11, Forrest made his first stage appearance at Philadelphia’s South Street Theatre, playing the female role of Rosalia de Borgia in the John D. Turnbull melodrama Rudolph: or, The Robbers of Calabria.

When Forrest’s father died in 1819, the 13-year-old attempted to apprentice with a printer, a cooper, and finally a ship chandler. However, the occupation he was meant to embrace became obvious to him while attending a lecture on nitrous oxide in early 1820. During the lecture he volunteered to participate in an experiment with the gas. Like others who took it, he behaved somewhat strangely and broke into a soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Richard III. His performance so impressed a Philadelphia lawyer named John Swift that he arranged an audition for Forrest at Walnut Street Theatre, and it was there that he had his formal stage debut on 27 November 1820 as Young Norval in John Home’s Douglas.

John Swift. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

By the mid-1820s Forrest was having great success on stage, and by 1836, he sailed for England and made his first appearance at Drury Lane, where actors and actresses like John Philip Kemble, Elizabeth Farren, Sarah Siddons, Robert William Elliston or Charlotte Charke might be seen and where people like Eliza de Feuillide, Romeo Coates, or the Prince Regent might attend. Forrest also began performing as Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear and his professional triumphs were as great in England as his social triumphs because two years after Madame Tussaud established her wax museum on Baker’s Street, Forrest married Miss Catherine Norton Sinclair, daughter of John Sinclair, a popular English singer in June 1837.

Fonhill Castle - Catherine Norton Sinclair

Catherine Norton Sinclair. Courtesy of Daguerreotype Archive.

The couple returned to Philadelphia in November of the same year. Those who met Sinclair were deeply impressed, received her graciously, and accepted her into New York City’s social circle of the literary and artistic elite. While her husband was performing on stage, Sinclair stayed home and functioned as a socialite hostess, like Madame Récamier or Ann Bingham, entertaining their mutual friends. Sinclair also got pregnant four times but sadly lost all four children.

Everyone thought the couple would live a life of wedded bliss but unfortunately, their happy state did not last. They sought a separation after Forrest supposedly found a love letter written to his wife by a fellow actor. The couple then pledged to avoid publicizing the reasons for their separation, but that did not last long as both made public accusations that the other party had been unfaithful. A divorce was the result with Forrest suing in Pennsylvania and Sinclair responded by filing a counter-suit in New York.

In the meantime, Forrest also blamed Nathaniel Parker Willis, a well-known writer, for having an affair with his wife. Their divorce became a cause célèbre and the suggestion was that Forrest was making false accusations against his wife because he was jealous of her intellectual superiority. Soon after filing for divorce Forrest attacked and beat Willis with a gutta-percha whip in New York’s Washington square shouting “this man is the seducer of my wife.”[6]

Drawing of Nathaniel Parker Willis. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Because Willis was sick with rheumatic fever at the time that Forrest beat him, he could not fight back. However, he was upset about the accusations made by Forrest against Sinclair and himself. When the case went to trial, Willis struck back by proceeding to sketch Forrest as “Lord of Fonthill” and saying caustically of him:

“He has built himself ‘a castle,’ on the Hudson, named it after one of the most costly of the noble residence of England, and is – by his own baptism with turrets and battlements – the lord of ‘Fonthill.’ To the Court of Gentlemen’s Opinion, Mr. Edwin Forrest, as the master of this lordly estate, is responsible that the standard of American gentlemanlike-ness shall not suffer in such conspicuous handling. That the lord of the American Fonthill, which every traveller and stranger watches to see, as he passes along the palace-lined shore of the Hudson, should do that which the lord of ‘Fonthill’ in England could never have done – that the standard delicacy to a lady is lower among the owners of castles in America than among the owners of castles in England – that an American gentleman is not as honourable to women as an English lord – is what the new and fresh blood of our bright land cannot hear said in silence. It will be said – if no protest is made to the base nature of the hostilities by which this American lord of Fonthill is trying for a divorce; … that when a pure wife’s indisputable superiority nettles the vanity of a rich man, he may enlist kitchen and brothel against her, and so sully her fair name, by cheap and easy falsehood, that he can throw her off like a mistress paid up to parting … and whose hopes for life were all staked upon the trust in his affection.”[7]  

Forrest then sullied his wife’s good name, and both parties lashed out at each other in the press accusing each other of infidelity. This made for interesting fodder for newspaper readers. Ultimately, however, the court sided with Catherine, Willis’s name was cleared, and Forrest’s reputation was permanently ruined. Of the court’s decision, Reynolds’s Newspaper reported in 1852:

“After thirty-three days audience … the jury delivered a sealed verdict into court. A divorce has been granted Mrs. Forrest. Mr. Forrest is judge guilty of adultery, and adjudged to pay 8,000 dollars per annum alimony. Two circumstances destroyed Mr. Forrest’s position with the jury and the public. He was proved to have maintained an intimacy with … Josephine Clifton … It was proved that he was to a very late period in the habit of constantly visiting a celebrated assignation house and paying for private rooms there. He was not deemed, therefore, by the jury to have had clean hands.”[8]

Edwin Forrest daguerreotype between 1840 and 1860. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Throughout a large portion of his acrimonious divorce Forrest lived in a “rude residence” near where Fonthill Castle was being built. He stayed there partly because he had nowhere else to go and partly because it allowed him to easily view the castle’s progress. Of his lodgings at this time, Elias L. Magoon, a pastor at the Oliver Street Baptist Church, testified at Forrest’s divorce trial stating:

“He was in a farm-house, and the place did not manifest any good housewifery; there was an air of desolation about the place, and myself and my wife both felt oppressed with it as we came away, there were a few books there; the coal lay in one quarter of the room, and shavings in another; his garments were there; one of my books was there, addressed to them as personal friends; it was ‘Republican Christianity.’”[9]

Still not every day was dismal for Forrest while Fonthill Castle was being built. This was demonstrated when he invited neighbors and friends to attend a celebration on the fourth of July where the Declaration of Independence was read, along with an oration. Afterwards refreshments were served under waving flags and booming guns. Unfortunately, because of the acrimony with his wife Fonthill Castle really held no joy for Forrest and supposedly even after it was finished, he never spent a single night in it:

“[Because of his divorce] the associations with the spot became hateful to him, and Fonthill Castle was finally sold to a Catholic Sisterhood [the Sisters of Charity of New York] for a conventual school. … After disposing of Fonthill Castle, Forrest established his residence in Philadelphia, in the house which he occupied through the remainder of his life. Here he gathered about him a library of between 10,000 and 15,000 carefully-selected volumes, and in their company passed the great numbers of hours in which he was not occupied with his profession.”[10]

The Sisters of Charity of New York eventually relocated the Academy of Mount St. Vincent. However, Fonthill Castle was then used to serve as a convent, chapel, museum, chaplain’s residence, and the college library. It was later used to house the admissions office for the College of Mount St. Vincent.

Fonthille Castle - Central Park

New York’s Central Park in 1861. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As to Sinclair, she began to use to her maiden name after her divorce. She also took up the challenge of being an actress and moved to San Francisco, a spot where author Mark Twain had also lived. She then performed on stage in many places, including in London and Australia and received favorable reviews for her performances, stage presence, and physical beauty. However, the primary interest in her by theatre goers appears to have been that she was the former wife of Forrest. Her last stage performance took place on 18 December 1859 in New York, and she passed away in 1819 in that same city from a cerebral embolism.

Forrest’s love of theatre continued after his divorce from Sinclair. He also continued to dream of providing a home for actors. In 1865, when the country held actors in low esteem because of the shooting of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth, he was somewhat able to provide this when he sheltered actors at his summer home near Philadelphia.

Forrest’s mansion in Philadelphia. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Forrest also continued to perform on stage to the end of his life. In October 1871, his last annual tour started at the Walnut Theater in his hometown of Philadelphia. His then gave his final performance about a year later. It happened on 7 December 1872 when he read “Othello” in the Tremont Temple in Boston.

“Five days later the country was startled with the intelligence of his sudden death, which occurred while he was alone in his chamber, performing his morning-toilet. His servant found him lying half-dressed on the bed, with a pair of light dumbbells in his hands.”[11]  

After he was interred at Old Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in Philadelphia his will was read. It instructed that a home for retired actors be created. Forrest Home, as it was called, was then established four years after his death. It lasted for over one hundred years before it was folded into the much larger Actors Fund facility in Englewood, New Jersey, where his name lives.

References:

  • [1] A. Robbins, “Landmarks Preservation Committee July 28, 1981, Designation List 145 LP-1085,” Landmarks Preservation Committee, p. 3.
  • [2] W. R. Alger, Life of Edwin Forrest, the American Tragedian, Life of Edwin Forrest, the American Tragedian (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Company, 1877), p. 484.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 485.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] T. N. Baker, Sentiment and Celebrity: Nathaniel Parker Willis and the Trials of Literary Fame (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 115.
  • [7] Cork Examiner, “N.P. Willis and Edwin Forrest,” May 17, 1850, p. 4.
  • [8] Reynold’s Newspaper, “The Forrest Divorce Case,” February 15, 1852, p. 3.
  • [9] New York Superior Court, Catharine Norton Forrest Vs. Edwin Forrest (Boston: Superior Court of New York, 1852), p. 38.
  • [10] Chicago Tribune, “Literature,” June 30, 1877, p. 9.
  • [11] Ibid.

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