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In Search of Old New York

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.


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