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In Search of Old New York

New York has never been a city of good breeding. It's my home and I'll defend it to the death, but architecturally it has always been far less interested in the pedigree of a given building than in the revenue-producing potential of the real estate upon which it sits. Other great cities of the Northeast, such as Boston and Philadelphia, have long revered their heritage, managing to preserve whole neighborhoods of pristine 18th-century dwellings, complete with historical markers and guided tours. Although New York has 65 official historic districts with 20,152 landmark buildings, the city's recognition of its rich architectural legacy is a recent one. New York has always been considered the place to see what's new.

That's one reason it's so rewarding to go hunting for history at the 16 museums of the Historic House Trust of New York City, scattered throughout the five boroughs. The city has an abundant, yet largely unsung collection of Colonial mansions and Dutch farmhouses that somehow have remained intact through wars, fires, neglect, and real estate booms. Taken together, they present a vivid and textured view of life in early New York.

The Historic House Trust was formed in 1989 by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation to preserve and promote the 16 disparate properties, many of which were narrowly saved from destruction and are still undergoing restoration. The houses themselves are run by a variety of nonprofit groups. In mapping out a weekend itinerary, keep in mind that because the city grew up around these sites, some are in marginal neighborhoods best reached by taxi, although subway lines lead to many of them. And while most of the properties have small gift shops, there are few other amenities. Pack a picnic and you'll be set. The following itinerary (a mere sampler of the properties) traces a clockwise route through the city's five boroughs.

Manhattan's oldest standing house, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, an 18th-century Palladian-style manor high atop Washington Heights, was built in 1765 as a summer retreat for Colonel Roger Morris. Engulfed these days by a rather gritty Hispanic neighborhood and block after block of monotonous buff-colored apartment buildings, the house is an incongruous sight: a grand white clapboard edifice surrounded by a sloping lawn and winding brick paths. It has an imposing portico and a rare octagonal room. Because of the sweeping view that in more pastoral times (long before the blaring of music from nearby car stereos was a possibility) took in Long Island and Westchester, George Washington established headquarters here during the Battle of Harlem Heights.

In 1833 the social event of the season took place in the house's front parlor. An aging Aaron Burr, his reputation long since tarnished, married the rich socialite Eliza Jumel (a friend of Napoleon's), whose husband had died the year before. The couple was separated after six months, unusual for the time. Jumel continued to live in the house, where gradually she went mad; she is said to have sat on a throne on a raised dais, holding court with imaginary kings.

The pillared facade of the house was recently restored, as were most of the rooms, largely with 18th- and 19th-century furniture, some pieces belonging to the Jumels. Upstairs, there's an orgy of Francophilia, including Jumel's startling turquoise bedroom (the bed may have belonged to Napoleon) with the walls, fabrics, and carpeting done in the distinctive hue. Downstairs, note the deep blue wallpaper in the octagonal drawing room, its highly ornate pattern never repeating. Just outside the mansion on tiny Sylvan Terrace (once the carriage drive) is a row of wood-frame houses, built in 1882 and restored in 1981; they are rare relics of a once common building style in New York City.

A few miles north, in Van Cortlandt Park in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, you'll find a more restrained example of 18th-century country life. The 1748 Van Cortlandt House, set off by a circular wrought-iron fence near the entrance to the park, was named for the family that ran a wheat plantation here for 140 years, complete with grist mill and slave labor.

The large dormered fieldstone and brick Georgian-style house is the Bronx's oldest standing dwelling. The baseball diamonds you see were once wheat fields, and the graffiti-covered hill to the north is where Augustus Van Cortlandt, city clerk during the American Revolution, kept New York's official records safe from the British in a family vault.

The house has been run as a museum for a century by the National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of New York. The rooms are restored to the Colonial and immediate post-Colonial period, with Dutch-and English-style furnishings. Despite its seeming inappropriateness, the West Parlor retains the exact color scheme, bright orange and blue, that it had at the end of the 18th century. All houses have their conversation pieces, and at Van Cortlandt my favorite is an odd pair of carved-teak birds hovering over the dining room; they're buzzards, stolen supposedly from an 18th-century Spanish galleon.

Of the three other historic houses in The Bronx, the 1842 Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum is perhaps the most compelling. Located near Long Island Sound in the northeastern Bronx within vast Pelham Bay Park, the gray stone structure is marked by an austere Greek Revival facade. Inside it is graceful and airy, with a magnificent freestanding elliptical stairway as the centerpiece.


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