Voelker Orth Museum, Bird Sanctuary, and Victorian Garden

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 32 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Voelker Orth MuseumThe small “Victorian” garden hosts a couple of bird feeders, a grape arbor (they freeze grapes and make grape juice for visitors all year round), a patch of lawn, and even a teensy koi pond.

Voelker Orth Museum


Voelker Orth Museum

I didn’t believe that they could squeeze a museum, bird sanctuary and Victorian garden onto a residential lot in Queens. I mean, two of those things, maybe. But then, I’d never been to the Voelker-Orth House.

In 1899, German immigrant Konrad Voelker bought a rather pretty house on the outskirts of Flushing to live in with his wife Elizabeth and daughter Theresa.  Voelker published German language newspapers in New York, and the house reflected his success and the family’s prosperity.

Elizabeth Orth, Voelker Orth Museum
Betty Orth in 1936

In the fullness of time, Theresa grew up and married a Cornell-educated doctor (good going, Theresa!) named Rudolph Orth, and they in turn had a daughter, Elizabeth (“Betty” for short). They also adopted a daughter, Barbara. 

Betty grew up to be a schoolteacher, loved nature, and had many hobbies, but never married or had kids of her own.  She lived in the family house until she died in 1995, when she willed that her estate be turned into a museum reflecting her family’s times.  

Thus, a foundation was founded, renovations were done, rooms were arranged in period style, and in 2003 a museum was born.

By the way, Barbara is still living but (according to my guide) wants nothing to do with the house or the museum. I’m just speculating here but perhaps she is ticked off because Betty established a museum with the family legacy rather than leaving anything to her.

In any case, a tour of the house takes you through the living room (with an old-school wooden phonograph player and a 1930s era piano), a beautiful library, a modernized kitchen, and Betty’s bedroom (with a matched set of hand-painted furniture).

Voelker Orth Museum
Living Room
Voelker Orth Museum
Betty’s Bedroom

The museum had to make some changes — the bedroom floor isn’t original, because according to my guide Betty was a cat lady and there was a lingering odor.  And it updated the kitchen so that caterers can cook for events.  Where possible, the museum retained period details:  an ancient telephone on the wall, a cookbook collection, and the Voelker family recipe for Avocado Salad Ring…*shudder*.

Recipe from the Kitchen of the Voelker Orth Museum
Authentic Recipe

Somewhat inexplicably, the museum also hosts small temporary art exhibits, mainly in the dining room.  The current show displays work by German-born artist Elizabeth P. Korn, who fled Germany to the U.S. in the 1930s. Late in her career (in the 1960s and 1970s) she made weird, mixed media, Classical-looking sculpture-collages. I wonder what Betty would’ve made of them.

Elizabeth Korn Installation at the Voelker Orth Museum
Elizabeth P. Korn, at the Voelker Orth Museum

Should you Visit the Voelker Orth Museum?

I feel slightly conflicted about my verdict on the Voelker Orth Museum.  It’s not a particularly old house, and nothing noteworthy happened there.  The Voelkers and Orths were upstanding middle-class German Americans, neither notable nor notorious.  Unlike Lewis Latimer or Alice Austen or Madame Jumel, they also weren’t particularly interesting.  I mean, a tour highlight is a cabinet of Hummel figurines…

Voelker Orth Museum

It’s like, my family is lucky enough to still own the Victorian house in San Francisco where my grandmother grew up.  If the Voelker-Orth House can be a museum, why can’t the Marlow-Rose House?  In fact, maybe it should… [mental note to investigate registering a nonprofit in SF…and how Kickstarter feels about financing museums.]

In fairness, earlier in this project I complained, gently, about all the old colonial-era houses that are museums, and wished for an art deco house to visit.  This isn’t that.  But at least it’s not colonial, either.

Even after visiting, I still don’t know where the “bird sanctuary” thing came from.  Either Betty made it a requirement in her will, or maybe the museum board applied for a grant only given to combo museum+bird sanctuaries. Either way, do not bother bringing your life list and field glasses. However, I’m not reviewing bird sanctuaries.

If I’m reviewing New York’s museums on their individual merits, then the Voelker Orth Museum does what it sets out to do. It tells the story of one particular family’s life and times and the house they called home. However, those lives and times bore me and I just can’t recommend going. Even though I think I maybe ought to. If you want to see a great 20th century house in Queens, visit the Armstrongs instead.Voelker Orth Museum

Note the “eyebrow windows” on the second floorFor Reference:

Address 14-919 38th Avenue, Flushing, Queens
Website vomuseum.org
Cost  General Admission:  Free (Donation)