May/June 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 3
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
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.
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.
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.
Restored in the early 1980s, the house—with its mauve and white ceramic tiles imported from Holland, its open hearth trimmed with lace, its Dutch cupboard and wide floorboards and its round-bottomed shingles and distinctive Dutch Colonial flared eaves—is operated by the foundation as a museum showing how a well-to-do farm family lived for a quarter of a millenium. Touring groups of schoolchildren enjoy the demonstrations of spinning, weaving, and other early crafts offered in the small rooms. Open wall sections show the original construction of wooden slats filled with handmade bricks and mud for insulation. Outside, a kitchen garden is planted with flax, mint, parsley, and other crops that would have grown there. On some days, indeed, it is hard not to believe that the industrious early owner, Pieter Claesen himself, is still in residence, wondering at his unlikely prosperity while being shown how to fix his mark on yet another land acquisition.
Because it is surrounded by ample acreage in the large city park that bears its name, the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt House appears much as it would have two centuries ago, when it was the rural manor house of a large working plantation. Its back windows, in fact, look out on broad open fields ringed by seemingly timeless woodlands.
The land—today’s park—was part of a large tract originally obtained from the Mohican Indians in 1646 by a prominent citizen of Nieuw Amsterdam, Adriaen Van der Donck, who is thought to have built himself a stone house near where the present structure stands. (Van der Donck, incidentally, was known as the jonkheer, or young lordship, and so his property was the jonkheers —thus the latter-day neighboring city of Yonkers.) After his death in 1655 his widow sold off the property; in 1694 Jacobus Van Cortlandt, a wealthy merchant and future mayor of what was by then New York, purchased a small central portion and over a thirty-year period bought back much of what Van der Donck had owned. Around this time wheat growing suddenly became highly profitable in the New York region, and Van Cortlandt set up an efficient grain-growing and milling operation on his property. In 1748 his son Frederick erected the present mansion of gray fieldstone (quarried nearby) in a style its current custodians call vernacular Georgian, a handsome mix of Georgian, Dutch, and other motifs. This was no rural retreat for leisurely living; it was a simple (though ample) house, comfortably furnished but very much the core of a lucrative wheat plantation, some of whose workers were slaves.
During the American Revolution the house had its brief brush with history. With the British threatening New York City, Augustus Van Cortlandt, Frederick’s son, who was the city clerk, hid the most valuable of the city’s records in the family burial vault northeast of the house, where they remained for the duration. In October 1776, as George Washington pulled his forces back from the lost city, he spent a few nights at Van Cortlandt House on his way to fight the hopeless Battle of White Plains; seven years later, in November 1783, he again slept there on the eve of his triumphal return to New York as victor.
Augustus Van Cortlandt’s descendants remained in the house through most of the nineteenth century; under the terms of his will, those bearing other names assumed the name of Van Cortlandt when they inherited the property. Finally, in 1889, the family deeded the house to New York City. For a while an unlikely herd of bison—someone’s well-meaning gift to the city—roamed the park, and their herdsmen inhabited the mansion, giving it scant care. Then, in 1896, after the bison had been shipped to the Bronx Zoo, the National Society of Colonial Dames came to the rescue and contracted to lease the house and operate it as a museum. They are still there. Their representatives are happy to show off the commodious formal rooms and bedchambers, each of which is furnished with fine period pieces, and they like to point out, on the front facade, the grotesque faces in carved stone that serve as keystones above the windows; although not uncommon in Europe at that time, such devices were rare in precolonial America.
The Historic House Trust has already benefited Van Cortlandt House directly. Through the aegis of one of its board members, students from Brooklyn College in the summer of 1990 conducted an archeological dig on the property. In addition to an underground stone room and numerous clay pipes and pieces of eighteenth-century pottery, they came upon the foundations of a very old structure. Their hunch is that it may be the residence of Adriaen Van der Donck, the jonkheer himself.
The lordly Morris-Jumel Mansion, high on a bluff in northern Manhattan, enjoys a checkered history. Coveted during the American Revolution as a key command post, it later felt the breath of social scandal.
The house was built as a Palladian villa in 1765 by a British colonel, Roger Morris, who may have been its designer (his father was a well-known English architect) and who strove for elegance. A felicitous two-story portico ennobles the front, an octagonal extension (the first in America) projects from the back, and the wood siding is scored to resemble masonry; within, the rooms are grandly proportioned.
From the house Morris could view not only his whole 130-acre estate but the entire New York Harbor miles away and parts of New Jersey and Connecticut. Loyal to his monarch, however, the colonel fled the colonies as war approached, and in 1776 George Washington took over the house as his headquarters as he struggled unsuccessfully to defend New York. The octagonal drawing room was the scene of courts-martial, and on the night of September 28, 1776, with lower Manhattan lost to the enemy, the general stood on the porch and watched a calamitous fire wipe out much of the city. After he too had departed, the house was occupied by Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in New York, and later by the Hessian leader Baron Wilhelm von Knyphausen.
At the war’s end the American government took over the house, and for a while it served as a tavern, called Calumet Hall, that was frequented by travelers on the Albany Post Road. One evening in 1790 Washington, now President, returned for a sentimental dinner accompanied by Vice President John Adams, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and their wives.
A new chapter began in 1810, when the mansion was purchased by Stephen Jumel, a wealthy French merchant and shipowner, whose wife, Eliza, was unusual, to say the least. Beautiful, brilliant, the daughter of an impoverished family from Providence, Rhode Island, she had been Jumel’s mistress and was said to have worked as a prostitute. New York society rejected her. Unfazed, the Jumels lavishly redecorated and refurbished the house in high French Empire style, importing many objects from Paris, including a bed reputed to have belonged to Napoleon. Stephen Jumel died in 1832 after a carriage accident, and the following year Eliza, now fifty-nine, and the “richest widow in America,” further thumbed her nose at society by marrying, in the front parlor, the disgraced former U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr, age seventy-seven. The liaison failed after six months, and they were divorced; Eliza lived on in the mansion while becoming steadily more eccentric. She sometimes traveled in Europe calling herself “Madame Burr, ex vice-Queen of America.”
After her death in 1865 the estate was long tied up in litigation, but in 1904 a subsequent owner, Mrs. Ferdinand P. Earle, persuaded the City of New York to buy the property (whose acreage had by then been greatly reduced) and operate the house as a museum. The city agreed, entrusting maintenance and operation to a newly formed local organization called the Washington Headquarters Association. Fine pieces of furniture and other objects had been auctioned off during the lengthy estate dispute, but in recent years many of these have been located and reacquired, most notably three large gilded wooden wings that Eliza Jumel seems to have believed were Napoleon’s and that in the interim had been in the possession of none other than Adm. Richard E. Byrd, the polar explorer. Such bizarre items abound in the mansion, which is currently undergoing an extensive renovation. Today, despite the advent of some tall buildings nearby, the view from the porch where George Washington stood is still impressive. Under any circumstances the house is one of New York’s most striking monuments.
Archibald Gracie, a man accustomed to getting what he wanted, was one of a remarkable coterie of aggressive merchants who in the early nineteenth century helped make New York City the commercial capital of the United States. Scottish-born, the son of a weaver, Gracie had clerked for a London shipping firm and acquired a part interest in a ship. In 1784, not yet thirty, he sailed to America in charge of a full cargo of goods whose profits went directly into his pocket. With this windfall he helped form a mercantile company in New York, then transferred to Petersburg, Virginia, where he made a bundle trading tobacco. Back in New York in 1793 he went into business as a commissary merchant and shipowner. A friend of Alexander Hamilton and John Jay and a member of the Tontine Association, which supervised the trading of stocks, active in insurance and banking affairs, Gracie was one of the most powerful men in town. Although he maintained a principal residence near his office downtown, he presently began looking for a spot in the outlying countryside on which to build a suitable summer home.
He got the best—one of the supreme sites in New York, located on the East River near present-day Eighty-eighth Street and commanding an unexampled view of the treacherous strait known as Hell Gate. Gracie in 1799 constructed a comfortable Federal-style center-hall dwelling that faced roughly south to give him a good view of the river. A few years later, however, perhaps realizing he had scanted his main attraction, he added onto the north side, rearranged interior walls, and turned the house’s axis ninety degrees to orient it to the east, with a new front door dramatically facing Hell Gate. (The switch produced an imbalance of windows on the eastern facade that most visitors hardly notice.) The wide porch that surrounded the house on three sides was, like the roofline, surmounted with delicate trellis railings, while the interior was sumptuous, with exquisitely carved Adam mantels and delicate chandeliers. It was a marvelous setting for parties, and Gracie gave elaborate ones, gathering under his roof the likes of John Quincy Adams, Washington Irving, and Louis Philippe, future king of France.
The splurging was short-lived. During Jefferson’s ruinous embargo of 1807 to 1809, Gracie lost two valuable ships laden with gold and silver; other setbacks followed, and his fortune disappeared. In 1823 he sold his beloved mansion; he died six years later.
Luckily the two families that owned the mansion during the next sixty years cared for it well. The same could not be said of the city, which acquired the property in 1896 following condemnation proceedings because of a park it was constructing nearby (today’s Carl Schurz Park). The ornamental trellis railings were torn off, and the house became a kind of shabby outbuilding in the park. For a while it housed public rest rooms and an ice-cream parlor. In the 1920s it briefly served as the first home of the Museum of the City of New York, but in 1932 it again fell vacant.
Its rescuer, oddly enough, was Robert Moses, New York’s immensely creative and domineering parks commissioner and a man ordinarily more given to wiping out his city’s past than to preserving it. In 1934 Moses was busy upgrading Carl Schurz Park, and he insisted that the mansion be properly restored; he got it a new roof and porch, new clapboards, and much needed interior repairs. Then, during the late 1930s, when the East River Drive was being built—it actually tunnels under the front lawn—Moses proposed that the house become the mayor’s official residence. Fiorello La Guardia, who was mayor at the time, would have none of it: too fancy, he said. But as his widow later recalled, “Bob Moses wore him down.” The La Guardias moved there in 1942, and New York’s chief executives have been there ever since.
In the 1960s a large and tasteful back wing for receptions and other official functions was added at the suggestion of, and under the guidance of, Mayor Robert F. Wagner’s wife Susan. Recently, a private group called the Gracie Mansion Conservancy was organized to help furnish and maintain the house, and under its tutelage superb paintings and fine period pieces—all from New York originally—have been introduced, and delightful gardens planted about the grounds. Archibald Gracie would have been happy to see his old country seat serving so handsomely as the number-one house of the nation’s number-one city.
Richmondtown Restoration, 1695 through 1869
One of New York City’s best-kept secrets is the existence on Staten Island of an expertly restored collection of fine old houses, government buildings, stores, and other structures that offers a revealing glimpse of life in a small community more than a century and a half ago. The group, known as the Richmondtown Restoration, comprises the largest collection of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century structures in New York City and the finest display of Dutch-American vernacular buildings in the country.
A crossroads village in mid-island first settled in the 1690s by Dutch, English, and French farmers, Richmondtown (originally called Cocclestown) became the seat of Richmond County—Staten Island’s official designation—in 1728. By 1850 it was a thriving governmental center, with an impressive Greek Revival courthouse (1837) and a handsome brick county clerk’s office (1848). But the town’s primacy did not last. When a new railroad line bypassed it, Richmondtown began a slow decline, and shortly after the 1898 annexation of Staten Island by New York City—part of the creation of Greater New York—the county seat was moved to St. George, on the island’s north shore. By 1920 most of the government buildings had been abandoned; the town’s Dutch Reformed church had been closed and its building was moved away to be used as a carriage garage. Richmondtown became just another quiet residential community.
Stirrings of revival began in the 1930s, when the Staten Island Historical Society acquired and began restoring the Voorlezer’s House, a structure dating from 1695 just down the road from the old courthouse; it had been used by the Reformed Dutch church as a school and church (voorlezer is Dutch for lay minister and teacher) and is the oldest known elementary-school building in the United States. Soon the idea of a restored village took hold. More buildings were acquired, and the City of New York helped by purchasing the land. Today the thirty-acre complex—operated by the historical society with help from New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs—contains twenty-six historic structures, about half of them moved from elsewhere on Staten Island when the society learned they were in danger of being lost. Most were built between 1750 and 1850, and currently a dozen or so are open to the public; the rest are being restored as funds permit. In many of the buildings crafts are demonstrated. There is a well-stocked one-room general store that ceased operation in 1915 but looks today as if it could reopen on a moment’s notice; most of its contents were donated by local history buffs. The old courthouse serves as a visitors’ center, while the county clerk’s building has been made over into a museum of the island’s history.
In due course the society hopes to detour traffic around the complex to heighten the sense of the quiet past, and to add more buildings on an even larger site. But even as it stands, the restoration is a considerable achievement.
Staten Island’s Alice Austen House, though delightful for its own sake, occupies a special place among New York’s great historic properties in that it commemorates, and is imbued with the spirit of, a woman who devoted her life to taking photographs in which she chronicled, with rare skill and perception, the world around her that she knew best. And what gives her story special poignancy is that both her house and her astonishing collection of some three thousand photographs just barely missed being lost entirely to posterity.
Born in 1866, Alice Austen was only a few months old when she and her mother (her father had left them) came to live at Clear Comfort, her grandfather’s pleasant house on Staten Island’s shore. The house dated from the 1690s, but her grandfather, who had bought it in 1844, had added onto the small frame structure and given it a charming Gothic Revival look with steeply peaked dormer windows and gingerbread trim. When Alice was ten, her uncle, a ship’s captain, gave her a camera, and soon she had learned not only how to use it but how to develop its awkward glass negatives and make expert prints from them. She began by photographing the house, her family, and close friends, then over the years branched out to record the tennis parties and picnics of the island’s stylish younger set, important ships coming through the Narrows past the house, everyday life on Staten Island, and all manner of New York City street scenes, from immigrants arriving at the docks to fishmongers, street sweepers, and children hawking newspapers. She never considered herself a professional, but her pioneering work ranks with the best.
She never married and, because she was well off, never had to support herself. She never thought to sell her pictures. When the stock market crash came in 1929—she was sixty-three—her money vanished. She and a friend tried to generate some income by operating a tearoom at the house, but it hardly covered their expenses. She mortgaged the house but was unable to make the payments, and the bank foreclosed. In 1945 the house’s contents were sold, and Alice moved to a poorhouse. Only by chance did an official of the Staten Island Historical Society learn about the sale at the last moment and gather up several boxes of her glass negatives for safekeeping. The boxes went to the society’s storerooms.
In 1950 a researcher looking for pictures to illustrate a history of American women heard about the collection and came to the society to inquire. She was overwhelmed by what she saw. The upshot was that Life—at the urging of a future founder of American Heritage, Oliver Jensen, rushed to publish Alice’s work, and other sales followed. By this time the photographer was in her eighties and very feeble, but her admirers—suddenly there were a great many of them—used the income to move her to a proper nursing home, where she died in 1952.
They also formed the Friends of Alice Austen House, which is dedicated to supporting and improving Clear Comfort. At the Friends urging, the city, which now owns both the house and the land, spent more than a million dollars in the mid-1980s on a full-scale restoration. The house and grounds are now a museum, which offers changing exhibitions of Alice Austen’s voluminous work. The photographs and the house together can be captivating. The director, Mitchell Grubler, remarks, “I don’t know what it is—the small rooms, the memory of Alice maybe—but people tell me that right after they come in the front door, they feel a sense of history, of a time in the past. They also begin to see why the name Clear Comfort is so appropriate.”
Further restoration is needed, but the restorers have a valuable ally—the photographer herself. When expert craftpersons from the Historic House Restoration Crew set to replicating intricate lost scrollwork that had adorned the living-room mantel, they had only to enlarge some of Alice’s photographs from the 1890s. The pictures showed them exactly what to do.