In Search of Old New York

In Search of Old New York

The city's legacy lives through its Historic House Trust

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.

Bartow-Pell is the sole reminder of the area's long pedigreed past, when more than two dozen impressive structures overlooked the sound. The land, purchased directly from the local Siwanoy chieftains by Thomas Pell, an English doctor from Connecticut, remained in the family until 1889. In 1914 the International Garden Club was formed to save and restore the house. The rooms are expertly decorated with Empire furnishings, many on loan from New York City museums. Last year the large stone and brick carriage house next door, also from 1842 and the only surviving structure of its type and scale in the area, opened to the public. This is an especially attractive destination for children, as it has an elegant coach, a stable, and, in the cellar, an exhibition of the history of local transportation. The terraced formal garden in back is an ideal spot for picnics.

The grandeur of Bartow-Pell contrasts greatly with the Queens County Farm Museum in that borough's Floral Park section. The farmhouse, one wing of which dates to 1772, is a modest little structure, yellow clapboard on one side and red shingle on the other. Though now in a largely residential area, it's the oldest working farm in New York State. The property passed through several families, and in 1927, New York State bought it to serve as a physical therapy project for patients at Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital next door. Until 1960 the staff and patients tilled the fields and raised livestock and crops; they also built the greenhouse.

Like many historic sites, the farm survives, ironically, thanks to benign neglect and, more importantly, the efforts of local residents who stepped in just before the bulldozers, raising funds and forming groups to save the site. The Colonial Farmhouse Restoration Society of Bellerose helped turn the deteriorating 47-acre property into a city park, as well as a national and city landmark. Once again it's a scrappy working farm, with orchards, pigs, cows, goats, sheep, ducks, and peacocks. Doing chores on the farm is part of the curriculum at a nearby high school.

Lefferts Homestead, a Dutch Colonial farmhouse in Brooklyn, will also appeal to kids. Last year it began its conversion into the Children's Historic House Museum. The Lefferts family, still alive and well (many members reside in the New York area), can trace its lineage to an ancestor, Pieter Janse Hagewout, who made the journey from Holland in 1660 aboard the Spotted Cow. In 1783 Peter Lefferts, a descendant of Hagewout's, built for his large family this well-crafted gambrel-roofed dwelling in the farming village of Flatbush. It replaced an earlier house burned by colonists during the Battle of Long Island. Lefferts became one of the richest men in the county, with 240 acres of land, much of which was used for growing flax, and a dozen slaves.

Except for two period rooms—the Best Parlor and Grandmother's Bedroom—the house has been filled with activities and games for youngsters. There is a dollhouse model of the homestead, a history board game, a crafts room, a library with pillows on the floor, equipment for conducting digs in the backyard, and murals, some of which were painted recently by children. Overall, the museum is homey, a place for families to gather.

The Alice Austin House, near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on Staten Island, is worth a visit just for the experience of turning off Bay Street, one of the borough's main thoroughfares, and heading down a side street where you are met with perhaps the best view of New York Harbor and Manhattan. The sky is huge, the harbor vast and dotted with ferries; Manhattan is a small crystalline mountain on the horizon.

The house, which sits behind a charming rustic gate at the end of a gravel path, is a small gingerbread cottage on a sloping lawn. Austin's grandfather, who bought the 1710 house in 1844, expanded it, named it Clear Comfort, and gave it a Gothic Revival look.

The life story of Alice Austin (1866-1952) is as much like a fairy tale as the house itself. She was a member of the gentry who became one of the late 19th century's finest photographers and documentarians, capturing not only the world of the society to which she belonged but the larger, and largely immigrant, world beyond of organ grinders, barefoot newspaper boys, and ragpickers. Some historians consider her to have been a keener chronicler of the age than even Jacob Riis or Matthew Brady.

Austin lived at Clear Comfort most of her life, moving there with her mother as a child, just after her father deserted the family. She never married, but had a longtime female companion. During the Great Depression, Austin lost everything, and by 1945 was forced to move to the poorhouse. She might have died there, but her admirers came forth and raised money for her by selling some of her pictures.

The interior of Clear Comfort is modest, though the parlor re-creates the cheerfully cluttered late-Victorian style in which Austin lived. The house serves as a gallery for changing exhibitions of her photos, and they in turn bring it to life.

Most historic villages, it seems, are found at the edge of a large parking lot off a highway exit. To get to Richmond Town in Staten Island, you travel along centuries-old local roads and happen upon it as if in a time warp. Though the actual town of Richmond no longer exists, it's easy to picture this once-thriving 18th-century county seat. The restoration of this village began in 1939 with the purchase of the county's oldest extant elementary school. Some 20 other Staten Island houses and shops have since been added to the hilly 100-acre site, including the county courthouse, now the visitor center.

Unlike Williamsburg, Virginia, where every house is restored to the same period and every shop sells identical crafts, the buildings in Richmond Town range from the tiny 1695 Voorlezer House and school ("Voorlezer" is Dutch for lay minister and teacher) to the 1869 Edwards-Barton House, done up in a high-Victorian palette. Some structures are fully restored; others hang on for dear life as they await work. Despite the cars, the setting is almost bucolic. Down a hill is a pond, behind which is the basketmaker's house, a stone church, and a small stream with a cemetery beyond.

Inside the restoration's Historical Museum, the former Richmond County Clerk's and Surrogate's Office (1848), is a comprehensive exhibition of Staten Island history that could as easily be a record of Anytown, U.S.A. Among its inventory are beer barrels from the local breweries, a carousel horse, silk-printing blocks, packages from the island's Procter & Gamble factory, and a loaded dairy cart. The general store mock-up a few doors away, rebuilt as it was around 1860, is stocked with things like pen nibs, lengths of cloth, a wax mannequin, and irons.

A 25-minute ride on the Staten Island Ferry back to Manhattan means a reacquaintance with the 20th century. The service, by the way, has been running regularly ever since Staten Island native Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt started it in 1810 as a teenager with an investment (supposedly $100) borrowed from his mother.

MICHELE HERMAN writes often about New York's history for various periodicals

The Facts

The booklet "Historic Houses in New York City Parks" provides detailed histories and photos of each of the 16 official houses, as well as precise directions. It's available for $3 from the Historic House Trust, The Arsenal, 830 Fifth Ave., Rm. 203, New York, NY 10021.

65 Jumel Terrace, between W. 160th St. and W. 162nd St.
Although the property can be reached by subway, you will feel safer taking a taxi (about $16 from Times Square)

Broadway north of W. 242nd St.
Call for directions by subway

895 Shore Rd.
Pelham Bay Park, Bronx
Call for directions by subway and bus

73-50 Little Neck Pkwy.
Floral Park, Queens
Call for directions by subway

Prospect Park
Flatbush Ave. at Empire Blvd.
Best to go by taxi ($15-$20 from Times Square)

2 Hylan Blvd.
Staten Island
Call for directions by ferry and bus

441 Clarke Ave.
Staten Island
Call for directions by ferry and bus

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