I have a fascination with kitchens. I loved the 1930s kitchen in the Williams House. Full of obsolete appliances and a pantry stocked with canned good brands that no longer exist.
In 1838, about a decade after New York State abolished slavery, James Weeks bought some land in central Brooklyn with the aim of creating a community of free, landowning, African Americans.
Weeksville thrived for about a century, before changing times and demographics conspired to end it as a distinct neighborhood. While local people never quite forgot Weeksville, the larger city did, as Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant absorbed and paved over it. Continue reading “Weeksville Heritage Center”
In the dormant children’s garden, the sign for Egyptian walking onions, which I learned are a type of perennial onion.
This is a necessarily incomplete review. Visiting a “farm museum” in midwinter is not a recipe for seeing the place at its best, busiest, or most inviting. Indeed, I’m not sure why the Queens County Farm Museum doesn’t just shut down from December til March. But it was open and it’s on my list. So I gathered an intrepid friend and we trooped out to the far eastern fringes of Queens, where New York City blurs into Nassau County, to get the lay of the land.
I imagine this place exists mainly so that city kids can learn that chickens come in forms other than McNuggets and wool doesn’t start out life as a sweater. And I bet most visitors arrive on school buses.
The Farm in Winter
I’m sure that in more clement seasons the 40+ acres of grounds are verdant and bucolic. This time of year, not so much.
On a winter weekday, the only things to see are the livestock and some dormant farm equipment. A couple of alpacas, some goats, a few sheep, a couple of cows, and a whole flock of laying hens. Indeed on that last point, you can buy farm fresh eggs at the gift shop when it’s not winter (hens apparently don’t do much laying in cold months). You can also get farm-fresh honey and alpaca yarn at the gift shop.
As I was flying the coop a touring school group came crowding around to look at the birds. One kid asked if he could pet them, the answer to which was a resounding “no!” Chickens like to peck. And as I got further away I thought I heard a kid say “KFC! KFC!” However, I was almost out of earshot. It might have been “I can’t see! I can’t see!”
A Little History
The origins of today’s farm museum extend all the way back to an actual farm founded in 1697, though there aren’t any physical traces from that era. The grounds do still have an historic house belonging to the Adriance family, dating to just before the American Revolution.
The Adriances kept the place in their family for about a century, before it passed quickly through a succession of other farming families, and from there to the Creedmoor State Hospital, which owned and operated it from 1926 through the 1970s.
Creedmoor is a nearby psychiatric hospital associated with this and another New York museum, the Living Museum (review coming very soon). Creedmoor used the farm for rehabilitation and to grow food for patients, and flowers and ornamental plants to brighten its campus.
As Creedmoor’s population shrank, it had less need of its own farm, and so the place spun off into a museum in 1975.
Should You Visit the Farm?
The Queens County Farm Museum website claims that its receives 500,000 visitors annually, making it “the highest attended cultural institution in Queens County.” I feel skeptical about the superlative given that the borough is home to New York’s great contemporary bastion of tragedy (and occasional farce), Citifield. But it likely is the highest attendance of a Queens County museum.
Regardless of the myriads of others who go, should you?
Certainly you shouldn’t visit the farm in the dead of February. Most of the buildings are shut down, there’s no public greenhouses like the New York and Brooklyn Botanic Gardens or Wave Hill have, and the various zoos offer more convenient places to encounter a goat if you feel inclined to do that.
I felt disappointed in the place from a learning perspective; I wanted more in the way of explanatory texts. Even with fields fallow, the place could explain what farms do during the winter. But perhaps they have an awesome brochure, or do a great guides/docents/explainers program in warmer seasons. I will have to come back.
The largest downside to the Queens County Farm Museum is its location. For anyone coming from more central parts of the city it’s decidedly inconvenient. You have to really want to go (and ideally have a car).
Additionally, I didn’t see much attraction for grown-ups. Buying farmstand stuff grown right there would be neat, but New York these days is blessed with an abundance of farmers markets offering terrific produce. But I reckon the Queens County Farm Museum offers a fascinating and eye-opening experience for city kids. And New York has nothing else quite like it.
Leffert’s House has a scraggly little wormwood plant growing in its garden. Artisanal Brooklyn absinthe, anyone?
Leffert Pieterson, a Dutch farmer, obtained a tract of land in the village of Flatbush in 1687, and built himself a house there. That original Lefferts homestead was burned by the Americans just before the Battle of Brooklyn, to prevent the British from seizing and using it. However, Pieter Lefferts, in the fourth generation of a family that as some point reversed names, rebuilt a fine farmhouse for himself and his family in 1783. Continue reading “Lefferts Historic House”
The library at King Manor houses beautiful, custom, glass-doored bookshelves and a library of 3,500 books.
I like that the museum put a statue of Rufus King there. I imagine it was his favorite room in the house.
Of all the historic houses in New York this is the only Manor. As in “Stately Wayne…” We have multiple “Houses” of course, a “Grange,” a “Birthplace,” and a “Mansion” or two. A “Homestead.” And now, a Manor.
Long Live the King
I now regret that I used “The King of Queens” in my review of Kingsland Homestead. Sea captain Joseph King was probably a fine guy, but Rufus King was far more deserving of the sobriquet.
Rufus King, owner of King Manor, served as a Major in the Continental Army, a friend to Alexander Hamilton, and a staunch abolitionist before that was fashionable. King contributed to the framing of the Constitution and signed it as a delegate from Massachusetts, his home state.
Washington wanted him in the Cabinet, but King demurred, and instead served in London as the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James. He reportedly got on well with King George III.
On his return to the States, family connections along with Hamilton persuaded him to move his household from Boston to bigger, badder New York City.
King decided that he wanted a country farm as well as a place in town, and that’s how he came to discover his house in Jamaica. He bought King Manor in 1803. King added substantially to the house he purchased, taking an asymmetrical Dutch farmhouse and making it at least faux-symmetrical, on trend with the then-current Federal style.
What with the renovations and expansion King’s family didn’t move in until 1806 or so. Hamilton was of course dead by then, so sadly never set foot in King Manor. However, King and Hamilton were so close that A.Ham was godfather to King’s eldest son.
The King family was also close with Archibald Gracie. Two King sons married two Gracie daughters. Moreover, for a short time, King held a mortgage on Gracie Mansion.
Mind Your Manors
I was the sole visitor on a random weekday afternoon. The volunteer minding the place was terrific, though, giving me a thorough and thoroughly interesting tour.
The tour takes you to the kitchen, decked out with a beautiful cast iron stove that dates from after Rufus’s day (his household cooked on an open hearth, which the stove tidily fills). Visitors also see the parlor, King’s library, and the dining room, which is complete with a trendy curved wall.
That graceful curved wall is just internal. It wouldn’t do to have a semicircular exterior wall breaking the house’s symmetry. There are two closets tucked into the odd spaces between the interior and exterior walls
King Manor doesn’t have much in the way of genuine King furnishings. It’s got some reproduction portraits. I wish it were more furnished than it is–even if the furniture is ersatz, it helps convey a sense of what life was like. It does have a genuinely old piano, and hosts concerts.
King Manor stayed in the King family until 1896, when Cornelia King, one of Rufus’s granddaughters, died. Soon thereafter the village of Jamaica bought the house and 11 acres of land to create King Park, preserving the building in its original location — a relative rarity in New York City.
Absent original fixtures and furnishings, the kitchen, parlor, and hall are given over to displays geared toward the school kids who constitute a massive proportion of visitors. Wall texts discuss Rufus King and his role in drafting the Constitution — and his opposition to the way that document basically punted on slavery, with the abolitionists among the Framers just sort of hoping it would go away on its own. One of King’s sons, John Alsop King, continued his father’s anti-slavery fight after his father died in 1827.
Another wall display discusses life in Jamaica when it was an independent village a long way from the towns of Brooklyn and Manhattan. My guide pointed out that Mr. and Mrs. King (and son John King) are buried in the churchyard of the Grace Episcopal Church just a few blocks away, so after departing King Manor I went to pay my respects.
Should you Visit the King Manor Museum?
King Manor fulfills its mandate really well. While I’m not saying “get thee to Jamaica!” if you like historic houses or founding fathers at all then you should unquestionably visit King Manor. It’s a beautiful old house, and the home of a person who turns out to be more interesting than I first expected.
My guide pointed out that King ran for president in 1816. Unsuccessfully, of course (we got Monroe instead). But not just unsuccessfully: King won only 34 electoral votes to Monroe’s 183, and put the final nail in the coffin of the Federalist party. My guide quizzed me: “In the history of the United States, two people from Jamaica have run for president. One was Rufus King. Do you know the other?” I thought a moment before suggesting, “The current president.” Yep.
His failure as a presidential candidate notwithstanding, King found many ways to serve his country during a time when his country was just being invented.
On the topic of slavery, Rufus King was ahead of his time. You can’t say that about all of his cohort. A visit to his home will acquaint you with someone who might be a B-list Founding Father, but who deserves better treatment from history, writers of hit Broadway musicals, and his adopted city.
King Park, 153rd Street and Jamaica Avenue, Jamaica, Queens
Rather than the grounds or the view I decided to limit myself to the “Call and Response” exhibit. Steven Millar’s “Many-Eyed Object,” 2017, is wood and glass, constructed and organic, and all about changing vistas and views.
In that, it neatly summarizes Wave Hill as a whole.
For the first time since I started this project, I feel the need for absolution.
“Forgive me, City, for I have sinned.”
“My son, how long has it been since your last confession?”
“Well, Bloomberg was in office, so it’s been a while…”
“What did you do?”
“It’s not a sin of commission, but a sin of omission. I confess that it has been twenty-three years since I last paid a visit to Wave Hill.”
What the Heck is Wave Hill?
Wave Hill is difficult to describe.
I mean, partly it’s easy:
Two fancy old mansions and associated outbuildings and landscaping across 28 acres of surrounding land, on a bluff in Riverdale in the Bronx, overlooking the Hudson and the majestic cliffs of the Palisades in New Jersey, now used as a venue for contemporary art.
So it’s a hybrid art museum, botanic garden, and historic home. Cut and dried.
Before January, 1769 the towns of Newtown and Bushwick disputed the exact disposition of their border — and therefore the border between the counties of Kings and Queens.
A survey line finally settled the issue, and Arbitration Rock, now located on the grounds of Onderdonk House, helped mark the divide.
In the flatlands of Queens near the Brooklyn border, where hipster Bushwick transitions into less-gentrified Ridgewood, amidst warehouses and tawdry wholesalers, stands one of New York’s historic houses. Unlike several of its fellows (which tend to get moved to less valuable real estate), the Vander Ende Onderdonk House still stands on the site where it was built over 200 years ago.
The views from Fort Wadsworth are really spectacular.
There’s no more scenic vista of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
The Verrazano Narrows divides New York Bay into two bodies of water, the Upper Bay (what everyone usually thinks of as “New York Harbor”) and the Lower Bay, which connects to the Atlantic Ocean. As a narrow body of water, the Narrows has always been strategically vital in defending New York from naval attacks. So it’s not surprising that fortifications exist on both the Brooklyn and Staten Island shores of the narrows.
Its narrowness also makes it a natural place for a bridge, so it’s also not surprising that Robert Moses built one of those there, too.
This project has given me a reason to visit all of the city’s extant historic harbor defense installations. I find them fascinating, particularly how fast-changing military technology rendered them mostly obsolete just a few decades after their completion. Nowadays, of course, we defend our port cities from naval attacks via long range missiles, not cannons and mortars.
One of the owners of the Mount Vernon was a guy named Joseph C. Hart, who was, in the words of my guide, a Renaissance man. In addition to running the hotel, his career spanned roles including teaching school, writing geography textbooks, serving as a Colonel in the national guard, writing a novel about whaling that influenced Moby-Dick, writing a memoir called “The Romance of Yachting,” in which he became one of the first people ever to assert that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, and dying while serving as U.S. Consul in Tenerife, the Canary Islands. Clearly a Joe after my own heart.
Imagine yourself an up-and-coming middle class antebellum New Yorker. You live in the grime and congestion and excitement of the city, and spend a great deal of time working. What do you do for respectable fun on Sundays, or whenever you’re able to snatch a bit of leisure time?
The answer is probably the same as it is for respectable middle class New Yorkers today. You get the heck out of the city. Today, New Yorkers decamp to the Hamptons, the Jersey Shore, or the Rockaways. In the era before the Civil War, they didn’t have to go quite as far. Indeed, one popular day-trip destination from that era survives today, tucked near the midtown East River shore of East 61st Street.
History of the Mount Vernon Hotel
The Mount Vernon Hotel was built in 1799 as a carriage house for a great estate. However, the building was quickly converted into a residence. The associated mansion burned down in 1826, and coincidentally that same year the carriage house opened as the Mount Vernon Hotel.
The public parts of the building today are decorated as a hotel of that era would look. You can visit the ladies’ parlors, the downstairs tavern area, a sample of a room for an overnight guest, see what supper would have looked like (turtle soup!), and view a well stocked, “modern” kitchen.
Most visitors to the hotel would have just gone for the day, to socialize and relax in the country, returning to the city in the evening the same way they came — typically by stagecoach or ferry. So the place emphasized public spaces over private rooms.
Hart and the other owners furnished the hotel with things that would’ve spoken the aspirations of New Yorkers of the era: an upright piano, birds, transferware china, lacquerware and other import goods from the Far East. And it would have featured equipment for suitably respectable pastimes: needlework, music, parlor games, keeping up with the news. Drinking, naturally. The hotel also featured riding trails on the grounds, and commanding views of the East River and a rather impressive prison that once stood across the way on today’s Roosevelt Island.
The house only served as a hotel for about 7 years— it changed back into a private residence in 1833. The Treadwells of the Merchant’s House Museum just barely missed the chance to visit.
What You’ll See
I had a great guided tour of the Hotel. I think that’s the only way to see it; there’s little in the way of written explanations or descriptions of the furnishings of the rooms.
A visit begins with a rather lengthy “setting the stage” video. The introduction room also holds a model of the carriage house when it was actually used for horses and carriages, a great timeline, and a model of the hotel’s neighborhood back when it was the countryside.
The tour wraps in a peaceful little back garden, though it’s not representative of the hotel’s actual garden, which would have stretched a lot farther. And it’s not nearly as nice as the grounds of the Morris-Jumel or the Barstow-Pell mansions.
The Hotel deploys specific people well in its story — for example, the aforementioned story of Joe Hart. And the tour highlights one of the Hotel’s more famous guests, James Stuart, a Scottish “duelist and pamphleteer,” who wrote about visiting America, including his stay at the Mount Vernon. They help bring the place to life.
Currently, the Hotel also has a small exhibit on the rise of newspapers in 19th century New York. It feels a little beside the point. That said, catching up on and discussing the news of the day was an important activity for guests. It’s always good to check what ships are departing and arriving.
An Historic Building With Differentiation
The hotel survived because the Colonial Dames of America decided to make it their headquarters in the early 1900s. Originally they called the place the Abigail Adams Smith Museum, and focused on the original builders of the carriage house. Makes sense: daughters of founding fathers tightly align with the Colonial Dames’ interests. But in the 1980s the Dames decided to re-focus on the hotel story instead.
I’m really glad they did. Historic houses are somewhat common in New York, but aside from this place and Fraunces Tavern, places where people went to socialize or enjoy a spiked lemonade are rare. It’s a distinctive story and perspective. Even though Hamilton never visited and no one you ever heard of stayed at the Mount Vernon Hotel, the sheer unlikelihood that Turtle Bay served briefly as sort of the Hamptons of its day justifies a visit to this even more unlikely survivor of that era.
The broad array of games: deck of cards, dice, checkers, arrayed around the upstairs sitting room. Makes me appreciate our sophisticated modern timekillers like Settlers of Catan and Pandemic.
Long ago (1654) and far away (under an oak tree on what is now the frontier of the Bronx), a, Englishman named Thomas Pell signed a treaty with the local Siwanoy/ Lenape Indian tribe. He gained ownership of either 9,166 acres (City of New York, Friends of Pelham Bay Park, other reputable sources) or 50,000 acres (Bartow-Pell Mansion printout, Wikipedia) of land. While his descendants sold off the massive holding over time, in 1836 Robert Bartow, scion of the Bartow-Pell family, bought back part of the original estate and started building a fine country house and working farm on it. In 1842, he and his wife Maria Lorillard Bartow, their seven kids, and assorted Irish servants moved out from the filth and hubbub of New York City. The family resided there for over 40 years.
Like all of the country retreats I’ve visited, the family’s fortunes ebbed, and the expanding City eventually caught up with the Bartow-Pell Mansion. Mostly. Today the house stands in the heart of Pelham Bay Park (in fact, the City bought the house and land as it was creating the park), the only survivor of what used to be a string of mansions in the area. Continue reading “Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum”