Monday, January 4, 2016

Bonaparte's (New Jersey) Retreat

What happens when you’re done being the King of Naples?  You move on to be the King of Spain.  What happens when you’re done being the King of Spain?  You move on to New Jersey and build yourself a mansion and a man-made lake stocked with white swans imported from Europe.  At least that’s what Joseph Bonaparte did after his little brother, Napoleon, made a mess of things and got the whole clan kicked out of France. 

In 1816, the Bonapartes were forever banished from French soil.  Napoleon was exiled to the Island of Elba.  Big brother, Joseph, fled to Switzerland where he buried, and later retrieved, some of the family jewels.  From there, he sailed incognito to New York.  Carrying a suitcase filled with the jewels he hadn’t buried, Bonaparte traveled to Philadelphia and then on to New Jersey where he introduced himself as the Count de Survilliers.  But his alias never fooled the Garden State citizenry.  They knew a Bonaparte when they saw one. 

Back then, it was illegal for someone born outside of the United States to buy land here.  That minor detail hardly stopped the former king from procuring approximately 211 acres near Bordentown, New Jersey between the Delaware River and Crosswick Creek for $17,500.  In 1817, the State of New Jersey saw the error of their ways.  They passed a law allowing Bonaparte to own property.  Like a kid in a candy shop, he went on a spree and bought well over 1,000 acres. 

In three years time, Bonaparte created Point Breeze, a magnificent country estate unlike anything the locals had ever seen before.  In addition to the elaborate brick and wood mansion, he laid twelve miles worth of winding carriage trails, planted exotic trees, imported wildlife and built a picturesque lake complete with boats and an arched stone bridge crossing over it.  He also created a network of underground tunnels—something that gave his Bordentown neighbors plenty to gossip about.  They weren’t too crazy about the nude statues dotting the property either, but that’s how it was with kings—even ex-ones.
Along with his extravagant lifestyle, Joseph kept good company.  While living in New Jersey, he entertained famous Americans like John Quincy Adams, Henry Clary and Daniel Webster.  Distinguished international visitors also came to Point Breeze including several adventurers who offered Joseph the throne of Mexico--twice.  He refused--twice.  After Naples and Spain, he knew better.  Wearing a crown wasn't all it was cracked up to be.  He now favored the quiet life.
That quiet life was interrupted in 1820, when the mansion caught fire.  An avid art lover, Bonaparte’s vast collection of paintings, including works by Rembrandt and daVinci, were almost lost.  His good New Jersey neighbors came to the rescue leaving the ex-king ever so grateful.  Genuinely touched by their bravery and kindness, he embraced the locals welcoming them and their children at Point Breeze any time.  In the summer, the kids played in his gardens and in the winter, they skated on his frozen lake.  A soft touch, Bonaparte was always good for fresh oranges and apples—a luxury their parents could rarely afford.
Ex-King Joseph rebuilt his home, which included one of the nation’s finest art galleries, an enormous library filled with 8,000 books, and a large formal dining room where 24 guests could eat.  He lived in this house until 1832 when he returned to Europe coming back to Point Breeze for sporadic visits over the next several years.  He ended up in Florence, Italy, where he died in 1844 at the age of 76.  His grandson and namesake eventually inherited the place.  Overwhelmed by the extravagance, the younger Joseph sold the estate in 1847 and then auctioned off his grandfather’s furniture and artwork.  Kids!
Henry Beckett purchased the property in 1850 and razed the house.  In its place, he built an Italian-style villa.  Harris Hammon later remodeled the villa in 1924.  In 1941, the Divine Word Mission bought the property to open a seminary.  Three schools were built on the grounds in 1963, and twenty years later Beckett’s remodeled villa burned down.  The Divine Word Mission still occupies the site. 
 As for the man himself, Joseph Bonaparte is remembered as a gracious gentleman who brought fine European culture into the United States.  The hard-working people of Bordentown had never met royalty before, but as neighbors, they shared a mutual respect and sincere affection for each other.  When all was said and done, the ex-king of Naples and Spain much preferred the serene kingdom he built in the land of New Jersey where the good citizens of the Garden State knew a Bonaparte when they saw one!