|Should you go?|
|Time spent||16 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||Captain King’s great-grandsons, twins Ernest and Charnley Murray, also became sailors. Bearded and beret-ed in 1898, they’d fit in perfectly with the hipster denizens of today’s Bushwick or Williamsburg.
Kingsland Homestead, the home of sea captain Joseph King and his offspring, today houses the Queens Historical Society. Much like the Museum of Bronx History in the Valentine-Varian House, this building thus serves the dual purpose of historic house and museum for the borough. As in the Bronx, it’s difficult to pull off.
The House of Kings… In Queens
The house was built in 1785, in a vernacular style called the “Long Island Half-House.” I think the name comes from the fact that it violates the colonial/Greek revival love of symmetry by having the entry and hallway to one side, rather than centrally located. So it’s like part of the house is missing. At any rate, the descendants of Captain King, whom we should consider the original “King of Queens,” held onto the place until the 1930s, when bad real estate investments and the Depression forced them to sell. The organization that became the Queens Historical Society was founded in the 1960s specifically to save the house from destruction.
Add Kingsland Homestead to the list of historic houses that have moved in order to remain intact in a changing, real-estate-hungry city. The house was originally located around what’s today 155th Street. In Captain King’s day the “homestead” comprised 60 acres of Flushing, making him a gentleman farmer as well as a sea captain.
Today the house stands in Weeping Beech Park. The park commemorates an apparently extremely famous weeping beech tree, dating from a time when trees amassed notoriety like Kardashians. The first of its species in the United States, Samuel Bowne Parsons (one of the Bownes of nearby Bowne House) brought it from Belgium in the 1840s. That tree is long-since defunct, but there’s a rather nice specimen of its type growing in the park now.
Aside from the building itself, there’s little left of the Kings. The museum presents a detailed timeline on the ground floor hallway wall, which tells the family’s story well and entertainingly. And the curators have turned one upstairs room into a facsimile of a parlor from around 1870. That’s pretty interesting, though I’ve seen better parlors, and in any event the parlor should be on the ground floor. It’s weirdly anachronistic to decorate an upstairs room to resemble one.
The Sport of Kings…In Queens
The museum uses its ground floor rooms for temporary exhibits — the Historical Society part of the mission statement. The current show covers horse racing in the borough, hence, “The Sport of Kings in Queens.” I give them credit for the catchy title, although from a certain angle kings sporting in queens sounds risqué. That’s how you get princes or princesses, anyway.
The horse racing show mainly features photographs and wall texts depicting and describing horse racing venues, jockeys, and of course famous thoroughbreds like Man O’War. A few artifacts tantalize, I wish the show had more of them. Also it deploys three iPads on the walls, loaded with more photos depicting the sport.
As a topic for a modestly sized exhibit, I love it. But at the same time, I wanted more from the execution. There was little about the rise, peak, and decline (assuming it’s declined?) of thoroughbred racing in Queens; it wasn’t a particularly chronological or narrative show. And I didn’t see much about betting, or racing as a spectator sport, both of which would also seem like rich areas of history and lore.
As a result, I left a little disappointed. The exhibit piqued my curiosity about the topic, but didn’t satisfy the curiosity it aroused.
Is Kingsland Homestead Worth the Trip to Flushing?
I don’t think you miss much by skipping the Queens Historical Society. It has great theoretical potential, but based on my experience it is not executing at that level in practice.
What this museum really needs is a friendly, life-sized fiberglass Fran Fine to welcome visitors, like the Bernard Museum’s fiberglass Golda Meir.
Actually, in all seriousness, a show on Queens in popular culture would be fascinating. I’d go to that.
Barring that, the Brooklyn Historical Society, and of course the New-York Historical Society and the Museum of the City of New York, remain far better places for those wishing to delve into New York’s history.
Still, if you’re a Queens fan, or a new or former resident, you should consider stopping by.
In terms of planning a trip, it is not even five minutes walk from the Bowne House, though limited opening hours there prevent visiting both at one go. It’s also reasonably close to the Voelker-Orth Museum (and Victorian Garden and Bird Sanctuary) too. I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about either of those places, but a combination visit to two historic homes of different vintages might prove worth more than the sum of their parts.
|Address||143-35 37th Avenue, Flushing|
|Cost||General Admission: Free|
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