Van Cortlandt House Museum

Edification value  
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  
Time spent 138 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned All the front windows of the house have neat, scary terra cotta faces centered above them. This was apparently a Dutch thing to ward off bad spirits.  Reproductions are available at the gift shop!

At the northern terminus of the Number 1 subway line lies Van Cortlandt Park, home of one of the oldest surviving houses in New York City.  Within the park, \ surrounded by an ancient iron fence, is a very fancy residence built in 1748 as a summer home by (surprise!) the Van Cortlandt family.  The grandest home in the area, the Van Cortlandts owned and lived in the house for about 140 years, until in 1887 as the family fortunes ebbed, they sold the property to the city as a park.  The National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of New York took over the house and opened it as a museum in 1897.  It is, of course, a New York City landmark.

The Van Cortlandts in the early days were super-wealthy, and the house showed it. They were also super-Dutch, proud of their heritage as New Amsterdammers, and many of the details of the house (including a blue and orange color scheme for the china cabinets in the parlor) reflect that as well. Little that’s in the house today remains from the Van Cortlandts, but most of the publicly accessible rooms are filled with period furniture and knick-knacks that give a sense of what the lives of the earlier generations of the family might have been like.

When it opened as a museum, one room was redone to depict a modest city house, simulating how a much less successful Dutch family would have lived down in Manhattan.  They’ve kept that to this day and while I would’ve liked  the place to be as close as possible to how the family lived in it, the contrast is informative.

I joined a tour being given by a guy named Paul — when they have tours, they do them in a repeated loop (which is probably not that fun for Paul), so you can join in progress and then stick around for the beginning of the next one to pick up what you missed.  It’s a little odd, leaving the Van Cortlandt background until the end, but it was very efficient.

Fancy, newly refurbished parlor/dining room, decorated a little later than the rest of the house. Note the neat Dutch tiles around the fireplace.

As I’m conditioned to do, I asked Paul about Hamilton.  There is no recorded occurrence of the great man visiting.  Washington did, though, thrice, as did John Adams.  The VC house was the only large, fancy home for miles around.  So Ham might’ve visited, but there’s no proof.

The Van Cortlandts lived a very different kind of life than the Dyckmans or the Hamiltons.  And of course their home is a huge contrast to a city house like the Treadwells’.  I wish that more of it was open — there are slave quarters up the back stairs that the only accessible periodically for special small-group tours because of the fire code.  And we didn’t get to see the kitchen — as a food lover I’m highly interested in the evolution of kitchens and cooking. But with each one of these homes I visit, my sense for life in and around the city in the 1700s-to-early-1800s gets deeper and richer.  And I have yet more appreciation for life in the 2010s.

On a sunny Sunday spring afternoon, Van Cortlandt park was full of people strolling, and several cricket teams in full whites, which made for interesting if rather bewildering spectating.  I highly recommend a visit to the park.  If you do, definitely venture past the iron fence and see how the Van Cortlandts lived.

For Reference:

Address Inside Van Cortlandt Park at 246th Street, the Bronx
Cost  General Admission:  $5, Free/donation on Wednesdays
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