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Historic Houses
Lake Villa
Where the Princess Zenaide translated Schiller,
and Prince Charles wrote on American Ornithology

From Historic Houses of New Jersey by W. Jay Mills, 1902
Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2002

CONNECTED with the former Bonaparte House by a one-time covered passage is a dwelling erected by the count for his daughter Zenaide and her husband Charles Lucien, Prince de Canino and Musignano, whom she married at Brussels in 1822 It is a long, low dwelling of plastered bricks, and is still standing on the borders of the dried up little lake from which it took the name of Lake Villa.

There behind its cool, wide green shutters, in the midst of the great park garden, with its hundreds of blooming trees and shrubs, the romantic flower-painting and poetic princess and her handsome prince spent the first summers of their happy married life. Many pleasing pictures of them have come down to us in the traditions of old Bordentown. Scores of little maids in the long ago, lured by the fragrance which crept through the princess's garden hedge, tore their frocks and pantalets and hurt their childish fingers in trying to obtain a peep of the hidden world beyond it. The princess was very fond of children, and every wistful face she found there was always made happy by a present of some wonderful foreign sweetmeat or a spray of flowers. A pretty story is told of her loaning her first-born's christening-robes to be worn in a like service by the daughter of one of her father's humble female servitors. The poor woman, it is said, was so overwhelmed by the honor that she stopped at the doors of all her friends' homes on the night of the ceremony to tell of her child's luck, which she regarded as something miraculous.

Lake Villa, Bordentown, showing a view of the Princess Zenaide's garden in 1885

One of the large upper-story rooms of Lake Villa was used by the princess as a studio, and in the adjoining room, her husband kept his cases and cabinets of insects and birds. The villagers took great delight in securing specimens for the latter room, as the prince when pleased was very liberal with his silver pieces. The princess spent many happy hours in her studio working with her brush over some bit of Bordentown landscape, or translating Schiller, of whose dramas she was very fond. In the afternoons, when wearied from his woodland rambles, the prince would join her with his literary work on American ornithology. While at Lake Villa he wrote several volumes on bird history from the knowledge he had obtained of the feathered inhabitants of old Bordentown. A very sumptuous edition of his "Natural History of the Birds of the United States," written with Alexander Wilson, was brought out in London about twenty-five years ago.

In the first summer of this noble couple's residence at Lake Villa they gave many garden-parties. A notable one occurred in June of the year 1824, given as a farewell entertainment for the Countess Charlotte, the prin- cess's younger sister. This maiden, who is said to have been the fairer of the two, set sail in the following month for Italy to visit her mother. The pretty and somewhat coquettish Charlotte was a favorite in American society. Old Dame Gossip has it that two prominent young men of the Quaker City once fought a duel with pistols over one of her disputed dances ; and from the gushing lines inscribed to her by a gallant of the house of Biddle when she left our shores she must have been very popular indeed.

Many aristocratic assemblages met among the rose-bordered walks of Bonaparte Park on garden-party days while the birds sang and the gentle deer gazed at the company from behind green coverts. Surrounded by an attentive audience we see Commodore Stewart, with his blue eyes sparkling, telling one of his anecdotes. " Old Ironsides," as his neighbors lovingly referred to him after his death, was then living at beautiful Montpellier, up on the bluffs. This old house, now occupied as an industrial school for colored children, has a gruesome story connected with its early history, – the hot-tempered Francois Frederici, General of Surinam, according to local tradition, having there beaten one of his bound servants to death. The ghost of the poor unfortunate is still a terror to the superstitious persons who wander in the vicinity of the house at night.

Another notable who visited there was Joseph Hopkinson, a leader of the literati of Philadelphia. Among the many guests one might be sure of finding the Grenvilles, Coxes, Redmans, and Dickinsons from Trenton ; the Morrises, Binneys, Shippens, and Moreaus from nearby Morrisville ; the Couverts, Bainbridges, and Greens from Maidenhead, and always a large contingent of Philadelphia aristocracy. Here the inevitable strawberries and shad, the usual garden-party menu of early Trenton and Philadelphia, was varied by fancy concoctions planned by the count's chef. His men servants acting as waiters, garbed in black civilian dress and wearing beards and mustachios, must have caused much comment. Another feature of entertainment was the sails in the swan-boats on the lake. These boats were made in Europe for Bonaparte, and added greatly to the embellishment of the Park.

Although life at Bonaparte House was conducted with a show of elegance dazzling to the eyes of Bordentown, there was always a republican simplicity exhibited in the princess's private mode of living at the Lake Villa. Her children were generally dressed in the simplest of fabrics, often procured by the princess at Trenton emporiums. She frequently drove over from Bordentown to that city and did her shopping, attended only by one woman servant. A prominent New Jersey antiquarian has in his collection of old chintzes taken from famous beds a portion of a patch-work quilt given to him by an old lady of Bordentown, interesting from having once been the coverlet of the little Prince de Musignano, Zenaide's oldest son, and the inheritor of Bonaparte House. It is of the cheapest cotton material, costing in those days half a shilling a yard, and yet it is said his highness reposed under it many winter nights.

The Lake Villa, from being so near the highway, was generally the first stopping-place for visitors en route to visit the count. Of all the Bonaparte houses left in Bordentown it is the most interesting. There are five still standing in various states of neglect. The dilapidated lodge, now called the "Wash-House," facing directly opposite the nearby home of the count's physician, at present occupied by Mr. J. Turner Brakeley, the well-known naturalist and authority on mosquitoes ; the home of the count's faithful secretary, Mailliard, now used as a military academy ; and the Garden House, out on the Trenton Road. They all have their stories and tales clinging to them as fondly as the ivy does in reality, but none have been made famous by as charming a personality as the fairy-story-like princess of whom it could be written, as the famous Madame Junot said of the queen her mother, "She was an angel of goodness."

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