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Arriving In Style: Treasures Of Eighteenth-Century New York

November 23, 2004 - February 20, 2005

One of the rarest and most opulent carriages used in early New York, the Beekman Coach, is display at the New-York Historical Society in its newest exhibit, Arriving in Style: Treasures of 18th-Century New York.

Beekman Family coach, ca. 1770. Wood, iron, paint. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Gerard Beekman, 1911.25

The Beekman Coach is one of only three such 18th Century American coaches to survive in original condition. Acquired in 1771 the carriage was the pride of the Beekman family, one of the first founding families of New York. The Beekman name still lives on in New York City landmarks such as Beekman Place and the Beekman Theatre.

Arriving in Style: Treasures of 18th-Century New York is part of the Historical Society's 200th anniversary celebration, and showcases the Historical Society's renowned museum and library collections. Taking as its centerpiece the Beekman family coach, an exceedingly rare artifact of genteel life in early New York, Arriving in Style explores themes of cultural refinement and public pageantry, through fine paintings, rare documents, and decorative objects. The exhibition also examines the dilemma faced by many late eighteenth-century Americans as they embraced aristocratic trappings in a nation founded upon republican principles of equality.

The coach is the centerpiece of the Arriving in Style exhibition, which presents the Beekman family through colonial portraits (James, his wife, and their six children), images of their mansion on the East River, and household furnishings. Original documents, including James Beekman's account book noting the purchase of the coach, will reveal Beekman's frequent purchases of horse-drawn vehicles and continued patronage of local coachmakers. The Beekman family coat of arms, painted prominently on the coach and also presented in carved wood (to hang in the parlor), as a bookplate, and engraved on family silver, illuminates the ambivalence felt by James Beekman and many of his American elite contemporaries about their prized aristocratic trappings while embracing the democratic values of a new nation.

THE BEEKMAN COACH

The horse-drawn coach was the eighteenth-century's ultimate prestige vehicle. With four wheels, a luxurious enclosed body, and accommodation for liveried driver and footman, a coach heralded its owner's gentility and signaled his position among the ranks of elite society. Colonial coaches were frequently emblazoned with the owner's coat of arms, a symbol of refinement suggesting aristocratic ambition and emulation of European court traditions. Guaranteed to turn colonial heads, the coach in the 1700s was an American rarity. A visitor to New York in 1716 noted only two coaches in the entire province; a half-century later, just twenty-six New Yorkers owned such a status symbol.

New York merchant James Beekman (1732-1807) acquired this coach in 1771, the crown jewel in his fleet of prestigious vehicles that already included a chaise, chariot, and phaeton. Beekman's account book records the purchase of the coach for £138 from London ship captain Peter Burton, with additional expenditures for painting the family arms and varnishing. Beekman likely reserved traveling in his coach for special occasions, such as transportation to balls, dancing assemblies, and other formal social engagements.

Precious few early coaches survive today, since their owners quickly discarded obsolete models, replacing them with the latest models. The Beekman coach, a tangible link to our nation's founding era, was carefully preserved by generations of descendants until its donation to the Historical Society by James Beekman's great-grandson, Gerard Beekman, in 1911.

THE BEEKMAN FAMILY

The great-grandson of Dutch settlers to New Amsterdam, James Beekman was born into a prominent New York family in 1732. Beekman's solid social connections and lucrative mercantile career assured his place among the highest ranks of New York society. In 1763, at the height of his professional success, James Beekman built Mount Pleasant, a mansion on the East River near what is now Fifty-first Street. Filled with both fashionable imports and locally-made furnishings in the latest English style, the country estate, like the coach, showcased Beekman's gentility and emulation of aristocratic style.

Like many of his contemporaries who supported independence for the American colonies, James Beekman may have felt ambivalent about his aristocratic pretensions as the colonies stepped up resistance to British control. Amidst an uprising over the Stamp Act in 1765, Lieutenant Governor Cadwalader Colden's coach, a hated symbol of British power, was publicly burned in a dramatic bonfire on Bowling Green opposite the governor's residence. After the Revolution, many fashion-conscious Americans faced an awkward dilemma: they found the allure of genteel culture irresistible, but its association with monarchy and the trappings of nobility was inconsistent with the values of simplicity, virtue, and freedom espoused by the new republic.

Surviving newspaper accounts and broadsides offer fascinating details of ceremonial processions led by fully-liveried coaches. One of the most famous processions took place in New York on April 30, 1789, when George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States. A carved and gilded English-made coach drawn by four horses carried Washington from his home on Cherry Street to Federal Hall on Wall Street, escorted by militia, members of Congress, and other eminent citizens. A chorus of cheering crowds observed the procession and followed in carriages and on foot. Washington's secretary Tobias Lear (1762-1816) observed of the ceremonial coach: "It was so elegant that some persons professed to think it too pompous for a Republican President."

Creative: Tronvig Group