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.