Bowne House

Edification value 3/5 
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 61 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Bowne House, Flushing, QueensWe didn’t even discuss it on the tour but this vintage washing machine (definitely later than 1661) evoked for me all the artifacts from hundreds of years of Bowne family life in this house– the stories they could tell!

Imagine the year 1661.  Charles II was crowned King of England.  Sweden and Russia wrapped up a war.  The Netherlands ceded the territory of New Holland to Portugal (nowadays it’s a chunk of Brazil).  A kid named Isaac Newton enrolled at Cambridge.  And Englishman John Bowne and his wife Hannah settled in a small farmhouse in the Dutch village of Vlissingen, in the hinterlands of New Amsterdam.

Bowne House, Flushing, Queens

356 years later, that modest house (with several additions and alterations) still stands on its original plot of land. Today we call Vlissingen the neighborhood of Flushing in the borough of Queens.

The Bowne House feels and smells old. I’m not sure what the smell is.  It’s not musty…just old. An ancient hearth? Whatever they built walls out of back then?  Centuries-old oak, cut from local Flushing forests? Whatever it is, it’s impossible to counterfeit.  And so are the floors, which pitch and roll like a very small sea. In terms of showing its age, it reminded me of Dyckman Farmhouse in Manhattan.

The Bownes, Troublemakers

Hannah Bowne was a Quaker, which should have been fine in famously tolerant New Amsterdam.  But Peter Stuyvesant, last Dutch leader of the colony, emulated his New England peers and passed a law disallowing religious meetings outside the accepted Dutch Calvinist flavor of Christianity. John Bowne, who with Hannah had hosted Quaker meetings at their house, ended up on the wrong side of that law, to the extent that the colonial leaders shipped him back to Amsterdam for trial.

He returned in 1664, acquitted and with reinforcement from the Dutch government regarding freedom of conscience, just in time for the British to take over and rebrand New Amsterdam as New York.  Still, you can draw a line from that Dutch tolerance for religious differences straight to the First Amendment of the Constitution.

So the Bowne House is important both because it’s very (very!) old, and also because it is a monument to the fight for religious tolerance.

Moreover, the house stayed in the family — the Bownes and later their descendants the Parsons lived in it straight through the 1940s.  As someone just recently uncovering the identities and stories of my great-great-great grandparents, that unbroken connection astounds me.

House In Progress

That said, Bowne House isn’t the oldest house in Queens. For the record, the Lent-Riker-Smith House (built by the guy after whom Riker’s Island is named), dates to 1654.  Amazingly, people live in it–it’s not open to the public. Still, Bowne House is old.

Sadly, however, it’s not in the best of shape.  Visiting a historic house, you hope for a taste of what life was like as some specific moment in the timeline of the place:  period rooms, ideally authentic furniture, neat wallpaper. Mementoes of the family.  At a stretch, perhaps even a historical re-enactor in period dress to tell you about life in the rough old days.

Bowne House recently re-opened after being closed to the public for several years while undergoing a very long-term restoration project.  The exterior looks great, but the interior is in poor shape.  The rooms you can visit double as offices for the museum staff — and nothing throws off a 17th century vibe like a plastic folding table strewn with PCs and filing folders.

Bowne House, Flushing, Queens
One View of the Bowne House Parlor
Bowne House, Flushing, Queens
Another View of the Bowne House Parlor

So it is much harder than usual or ideal to get a sense of the Bownes’ life in the house through the centuries.  You can, occasionally.  

It helps to have a good guide.  Lizzie, the Bowne House Director of Education, gave an excellent tour, sharing her knowledge of the family and the house. The tour encompassed the original house (one room, the oldest in the building), the parlor, a little bit of the grounds, and the 18th century kitchen.  That last bit includes an enormous open hearth (with beehive oven) that vividly evokes a time long before microwaves. 

Hearth, Bowne House, Flushing, Queens
If you can’t stand the heat…

Should You Visit the Bowne House?

As of this review, and given the ongoing renovation, I’d call the Bowne House only “semi-open.”  You can visit on Wednesdays and by appointment, which aligns with the Lewis Latimer House, but neither of the other historic houses in the vicinity (Kingsland Homestead and the Voelker-Orth Museum).

The Bowne House restoration should be fantastic. The House has a collection of thousands of objects and documents from the Bowne family’s centuries of occupation of the place.  The plans include a visitor’s center, which will enable the house’s staff to display some of that rich heritage.

Bowne House, Flushing, New York
Bowne Family Archeology

But as with all home renovations, that’s taking longer than expected. Longer still when a tiny nonprofit needs to fundraise and get grants and maintain a very historic site and deal with city bureaucracy.

I’m hopeful for its trajectory — the staff all seem to love this place very much. But today Bowne House doesn’t live up to its potential to connect modern New Yorkers with the past. Therefore I can only so-so recommend it.  Still, if you really love history, old houses, ginormous family trees, or diamonds in the rough, you’ll enjoy visiting Bowne House even in its current state.

For Reference:

Address 37-01 Bowne Street, Flushing
Cost  General Admission:  Free (Donation)
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