Joseph S. Bell-Bey’s abstract acrylics were pretty cool. I particularly liked his deep blue one.
In the late 1960s a group of business and community leaders in Jamaica, Queens decided to do something to try to arrest the decline of the Jamaica Avenue shopping district. Among other strategies, they decided their neighborhood needed a new arts institution.
The City abandoning its beautiful, Italian Renaissance-style Queens Register of Titles & Deeds building around the same time created an opportunity for some adaptive reuse, and the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning was born in 1972.
Programming at JCAL heavily emphasizes the performing arts, film screenings and lectures. JCAL’s main building has a theater, and it manages a nearby church building as a converted performing arts space. Classes are also a big part of the mission, including workshops and after-school programs for kids.
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