For more than 200 years, Point Breeze — the sprawling, 60-acre estate in Bordentown that once belonged to Joseph Bonaparte, older brother of Napoleon and an exiled king himself — has been haunted.
But it’s not what you may be thinking. There is no evidence of ghosts here. No apparitions, no banshees, no specters. Instead, during its 200 year history, Point Breeze has been benevolently haunted with the spirits of generosity and friendship.
When Joseph Bonaparte fled Europe after his brother’s defeat at Waterloo, he found refuge in New Jersey in 1817, at the confluence of the Delaware River and Crosswicks Creek.
He purchased the Point Breeze property and promptly demolished the existing home and began the process of recreating the look and feel of the Château de Mortefontaine – his former lavish home north of Paris.
During his time in Bordentown, Bonaparte formed a warm relationship with the townspeople, employing hundreds of the local citizens to make his transformational dream a reality, and to keep it going for two decades.
“I think the best way to think about it is for the people of Bordentown, he was really like a one-person WPA project,” said Peter Tucci, a board member for the Bordentown Historical Society and the D&R Greenway Land Trust, comparing Point Breeze to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s public works initiative in the 1930s.
“He literally employed hundreds of workers from Bordentown and the surrounding areas and paid them a very fair wage,” Tucci said. “And he spent roughly 20 years in Bordentown, most of his adult life.”
Bonaparte had ruled as monarch over Spain and Naples (⅔ of present day Italy) so naturally, the accommodations were to be, well, fit for a king.
Spread across 60 acres, there were gorgeous gardens, sculptures, 12 miles of carriage trails, 9 brick bridges, tunnels, stables, a gardener’s house and a lake that Bonaparte had created by damming nearby Thornton Creek.
Looking back through the smudged lens of incomplete historical records, it’s difficult to discern precisely, but Tucci estimates that in total, there were once 10 major structures on the property.
The jewel of the Point Breeze crown was the original dwelling place. In all of America at the time, it was second in size only to the White House. Tucci estimates the 3-story main mansion was a staggering 38,000 square feet.
Bonaparte’s library had more volumes than the Library of Congress and comprised the biggest collection of books in America at the time.
According to Tucci’s research, Bonaparte would routinely allow visitors in to browse the library, as well as the displaced king’s extensive art collection, which was the largest assemblage of European art in America at the time.
“He would let them (local townspeople) come in and study the paintings,” Tucci said. “He was very generous.”
Further evidence of the firm bond between Bonaparte and the people of his adopted hometown can be seen today in a painting at the Bordentown Post Office.
The mural depicts a panoramic view of Point Breeze and includes the lake Bonaparte created, frozen in winter, and populated with ice-skaters enjoying the king’s beneficence.
At its center, it shows the king seated in a horse-drawn carriage while his attendant is rolling oranges (a rare delicacy at the time) onto the frozen surface to be picked up and enjoyed by the local townspeople.
Another physical reminder of the meaningful relationship and a direct link from past to present is a golden chalice.
Tucci relates that Bonaparte had a chapel within his mansion and he had mass every day or every other day. Years later, when he was leaving the estate, as a thank you to the local priest and the local church, Bonaparte donated the chalice, which is still in use today for special occasions at Mary Mother of the Church Parish on Crosswicks Street.
The king cared for the people and the people cared for the king, Tucci said.
So much so, that one unfortunate day when the main mansion caught fire and was burning to the ground, locals rushed in a vain attempt to douse the flames with water brought up from the Crosswicks Creek. When that didn’t work, they ran in to retrieve as many of the beloved benefactor’s possessions as they could carry, including the Spanish crown jewels.
Tucci says Bonaparte was returning from a trip to Trenton and arrived in time to see the burning roof collapse from the flames.
After the fire, he wrote a letter to a judge friend in Bordentown, which was later published in newspapers, expressing his gratitude.
An excerpt reads: “This event has proved to me how much the inhabitants of Bordentown appreciate the interests I have always felt for them; and shows that men, in general, are good.”
After the fire, the exiled king built a new mansion even more ambitious than the first.
After a few visits to England in later years as the political situation became more stable in Europe, Joseph Bonaparte left Point Breeze and America for the last time in 1838. He suffered a serious stroke near London in 1840, and died in 1844, at Villa Serristori in Florence, Italy, at the age of 76.
In modern times, the land was home to Divine Word Missionaries, also referred to as Divine Word Seminary, a religious group. When the Catholic order recently decided to sell the property, high-priced offers came pouring in from developers, and with them, pressure to sell to the highest bidder.
Based on the booming real estate sales trends, it looked like the unique and historic grounds could soon become covered with concrete, with modern buildings covering its nature and history.
But, the benevolent haunting of the estate struck again.
A partnership agreement saw the City of Bordentown, the D&R Greenway Land Trust, and the State of New Jersey, throw their hat into the ring to purchase Point Breeze, with an eye toward preservation, not profit margins.
Divine Word decided to sell to the partnership. Bordentown Mayor Jim Lynch, a lifelong resident, has high praise for each of “the good fathers” at Divine Word, calling them “our biggest cheerleaders.”
“They elected to sell it to the state of New Jersey, the city of Bordentown the D&R Greenway at a significantly reduced price because, as in (Divine Word Minister) Father Padovani’s words, ‘We wanted to leave this property the way we found it,’” Lynch said.
The property sold for $4.6 million in late 2020, with the city paying $1,655,000 for its portion of the land. Existing buildings from Divine Word will be repurposed to house the city administration offices, including the police department.
“We saved a remarkable piece of property from development,” Lynch said. “They could have taken a significant amount of money more for this property.”
No doubt helped by his part in the process in the acquisition of what will tentatively be named the “King Joseph Napoleon Bonaparte Historic Site,” the D & R Greenway Land Trust has named Lynch as the 27th recipient of the annual Donald B. Jones Conservation Award.
The property’s 60 acres will remain as open space, with walking trails and outdoor and indoor recreation opportunities, and will reportedly be part of the state’s park system.
The portion that the D&R Greenway Trust is acquiring includes the Gardener’s House, which is the only remaining intact structure original to the Bonaparte era.
The house sits directly off Park Street, which in Bonaparte’s time was known as the New York Turnpike.
“The collective vision is to open the Gardener’s House (as a museum) and restore the gardens, providing an educational opportunity to learn about the property’s history that goes back to Native Americans,” D&R Greenway said in a release on its website.
Conveniently for the museum, Tucci is the proud owner of the premiere collection of Bonaparte artifacts that he has been building for twenty years, so the museum will have no shortage of authentic pieces to display.
Tucci and D&R Greenway CEO Linda Mead have already been formulating plans on how to best develop the visitor experience, including how to make the 200-year-old building ADA compliant.
The first-phase grand opening of the museum may come as soon as this fall, they said.
The gardens will have a particular place in future plans. Although in the present day, within a two-mile radius of Point Breeze there are a ShopRite, an Aldi, two Wawas and two 7-11 convenience stores, along with other small markets, in the early 1800′s there were no grocery stores, only gardens.
“The vision is to recreate the gardens on this site and to do in a way that expresses the history of the property and also is relevant today,” Mead said. “So for instance, I hope that we’ll be able to grow some vegetables here that might be able to be donated locally, and that the community will come in and help us do that.”
Once again, the noble grounds will be opened and the public invited in, to commune with nature and nurture in a place where the familiar lasting spirits of friendship and generosity continue to haunt Point Breeze.
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Michael Mancuso may be reached at [email protected]