Recalling the Bryant Legacy in Roslyn
Born November 3, 1794 in Cummington, Massachusetts, William Cullen Bryant had been practicing law, writing poetry and reviews in Massachusetts, prior to his arrival in New York City in 1825. In that year, he became joint editor of a new literary publication called “The New York Review and Athenaeum Magazine.” Although this publication was not successful, Bryant remained in New York and in 1826 he was asked to become the temporary editor of the New York Evening Post newspaper. In 1829 he went on to become the Post’s Editor-in-Chief, a position he would hold for most of his long life.
Throughout the 1830s Bryant managed the newspaper, and although he continued to write and publish his own poems, his time was mainly occupied by his newspaper duties. Living at various residences in Manhattan, but looking for a country home, Bryant and his wife Frances purchased property along the eastern shore of Hempstead Harbor in 1843. One year later, he joined a group of residents who successfully petitioned the Post Office to change the name of the area from “Hempstead Harbor” to Roslyn.
The farmhouse Bryant purchased and named “Cedarmere,” had been built in 1787 by Richard Kirk. It was later owned and remodeled by Joseph W. Moulton, who sold it to the Bryants. By this time, Bryant was one of America’s most notable poets and thus became Roslyn’s most notable citizen. He would remain so for the next 35 years, until his death in 1878 at the age of 83.
One of Long Island’s first commuters, Bryant maintained a residence in New York City and would travel to Roslyn, mainly by steamboat, utilizing the steamboat dock that stood just north of his property. Later, the railroad would make travel to and from the city more accessible. While Bryant spent most of the week in the city, his wife and daughter Julia remained in Roslyn for most of the year. His oldest daughter, Fanny, married Parke Godwin (Bryant’s assistant at the Post) and they too came to live along the eastern shore of the harbor.
Through the years Bryant remodeled the house and enlarged his property. He also devoted time to developing the grounds and gardens. In 1874 Bryant purchased land south of his home and began building a ‘Reading Room’ for the people of Roslyn. Though he did not want it named for him, shortly after his death in 1878, his daughter Julia arranged to have the land and building turned over to the newly formed Bryant Library Association and “The Hall” was renamed The Bryant Library. Bryant’s son-in-law, Parke Godwin became the first President of the library. In the years that followed, Bryant’s grandson, Harold Godwin and his great-granddaughters, Frances Bryant Godwin and Elizabeth Love Godwin, would remain active in Roslyn affairs and would also serve as Trustees of the Library. Although the original Library building on Bryant Avenue was torn down in the late 1940s to make way for the Hempstead Harbor Viaduct, today’s library in the former War Memorial Building on East Broadway (designed by Bryant’s great-grandson Frederick M. Godwin) still proudly carries the Bryant name.
In addition to the library, which continues his legacy, most of us are also familiar with Bryant Avenue, the road that goes along the east side of Hempstead Harbor, passing his home, which sometime before 1893 was also named in his honor. It is also of interest to note that when the Roslyn Cemetery was established in 1861, Bryant bought the first plot. It was here in 1866 that he buried his beloved wife Frances, and it was here in 1878, that he was buried. The Roslyn Cemetery is now on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Sites.
In 1902 a fire destroyed most of Cedarmere. It was rebuilt by Harold Godwin (son of Fanny Bryant and Parke Godwin) who was also responsible for building the replica of the Paper Mill, which stands off Paper Mill Road in Gerry (Roslyn) Park, and for the 1916 restoration of the Grist Mill, which stands on Old Northern Boulevard in the Village. At the death of Harold Godwin in 1931, the Bryant property passed into the hands of Harold’s children.
Cedarmere was lived in by his daughter, Elizabeth Love Godwin, until her death in 1975, when it became the property of Nassau County. After restoration work by the County, Cedarmere was opened to the public as a house museum in 1994. Currently open on weekends, spring through fall, it, along with the library, is one of the visible reminders of Bryant, his family and their long devotion to the Roslyn community.
This article by former LHC Archivist Myrna Sloam was originally published in the May/June 2006 Bryant Library Newsletter.