Williamsburg On The Subway

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Famous for tearing down the old and for being oblivious of its past, New York City would hardly seem to be the kind of place in which to find a distinguished collection of fine old houses. Yet a surprising number do exist—sentinels from another era, survivors that stand quietly and incongruously in the midst of the city’s endless cycle of growth and obliteration. Among the most remarkable are sixteen properties that have recently been awarded special attention by the city and that provide an unexampled look at architectural styles, craftsmen’s skills, and social customs in the New York area over two and a half centuries. They range all the way from the serene, elegant, and nobly situated Gracie Mansion, home of New York’s mayors, down to the humble little Wyckoff House in the far reaches of Brooklyn, which, dating from about 1652, is the city’s oldest dwelling. Many have been home to personages like Aaron Burr and Edgar Allan Poe; one was the temporary residence of George Washington. Others have been the sites of great events. A 1776 meeting in Staten Island’s Conference House affected the course of the American Revolution. Together they serve as a reminder that New York, for all its apparent disregard for the past, is by far the oldest large city in the United States and has plenty to show for it. Not only most Americans but most New Yorkers, too, are scarcely aware that the houses are there and are surprised to learn that nearly all of them—even the extraordinary Richmondtown Restoration on Staten Island, a kind of Williamsburg in the making—are readily reachable by public transportation. All are open to the public.

Many survived to the present by some fluke—a single family’s continued ownership, or the chance near miss of the bulldozer. Even so, despite the recent vogue for historic preservation and despite the dedication of volunteer groups that have kept many of them going during hard times, most of the properties have been chronically strapped for funds for repairs or improved programs. Recently, however, a mechanism for providing money and expertise was set up with the creation by the city of the Historic House Trust of New York City, a body of public-spirited, influential citizens whose fundraising efforts are already showing results. The lovely buildings look better and are receiving more expert attention. Said the trust’s director, Mary Ellen W. Hern of New York’s Parks Department (which administers the project), “Our goal is to have pristine, properly set gems.” As the work progresses, they should glow even more brightly.

The six of these exceptional properties shown here give a sense of the scope and charm of one of New York’s least-known resources.

The Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House, 1636

Wedged in between an auto repair shop and a busy car wash in a thoroughly unprepossessing Brooklyn neighborhood, the modest Wyckoff House hardly looks like a place that was once the home of one of the area’s most important citizens and the centerpiece of a vastly successful four-hundred-acre farm. Yet Pieter Claesen Wyckoff was one of early New York’s great success stories.

As Pieter Claesen he had come to America at age twelve in 1637 from East Friesland, in today’s Germany, to work as an indentured servant. He was untrained and illiterate but extremely ambitious. After completing his indenture on Kiliaen van Rensselaer’s holdings south of Albany and accumulating a little cash, he moved back down to the Nieuw Amsterdam area, to the fertile farming region east of the village of Breuckelen, and in the 1650s acquired—by means of his recently minted friendship with the colony’s director general, Peter Stuyvesant—a choice tract of land in the community of Amersfoort, today’s Flatlands.

The Wyckoff House hardly looks like the former home of one of the area’s most important citizens.
 

A tiny house dating probably from 1638 sat on the land; Claesen, after moving in, enlarged it, as did later generations, though by today’s standards it is still compact. Direct access to Jamaica Bay enabled Claesen to ship his produce to Manhattan, and as he prospered, he acquired other parcels of land. Following the British conquest of Nieuw Amsterdam, Claesen (whose name meant only that he was the son of Claes), like many other Dutch settlers, adopted the English custom of using fixed surnames. He chose Wyckoff, probably adapting it from a place-name in Friesland. By 1675, though still illiterate, he was Amersfoort’s richest citizen and biggest landowner.

Pieter and his wife, Grietie, had ten children, and those had more, so that in due course there were Wyckoffs living not only throughout Long Island but all over the United States. Eight generations of them lived in the house and continued to farm, but in 1902 the family sold its holdings (by then reduced to forty-four acres). The house deteriorated; in 1952 it narrowly escaped demolition when the city at the last moment changed its plans for a new street that was to cut through the property. Some years later the Wyckoff family nationwide formed a foundation to repurchase the house, and in 1965 the city’s newly formed Landmarks Preservation Commission designated it as New York’s first landmark. Five years later the foundation donated its venerable possession to the city.