- Historic Sites
Williamsburg On The Subway
In the most self-consuming of cities, an impressive and little-known architectural legacy remains to show us how New Yorkers have lived and prospered since the days when the population stood at around one thousand
May/June 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 3
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.