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|Wyckoff family members lived in the Wyckoff House right through the start of the 1900s. 250 years of family history in a single domicile boggles my mind.
Before starting my project, I never realized how many historic houses exist in modern New York. Some surprisingly old. Manhattan’s oldest, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, dates from the 1760s. The Van Cortlandt House in the Bronx was built in 1748. Bowne House in Queens dates to the 1660s. But in any city, there can be only one oldest house. In New York that is the Wyckoff House, located in the prosaically named Flatlands, a nondescript part of Brooklyn far from any subway line.
And so, on the first snowy day of the year, I made my trek, over the river and through the woods, half-metaphorically and half-literally, to the Wyckoffs’ ancestral home.
Pieter in the New World
Pieter Claesen (“Son of Clae”) moved to the Dutch colony of New Netherlands in the 1630s, when he was a young lad in a young land. He indentured himself to cover the cost of the passage, and worked off his service in the town of Rensselaerwyck near today’s Albany.
Once he’d finished his years of servitude, he decided he’d stay in New Netherlands. The Dutch were encouraging people to do that, to bulk themselves up against the encroaching English colonies on either side of them. Claesen and his wife Grietje got 150 acres and in 1652 they moved into a single-room, dirt-floored, open-hearthed house near a town called Nieuw Amersfoort. Gods only know what they were thinking, but they probably prayed that they would be fruitful and multiply.
That is the first record documenting the existence of the Wyckoff House.
Wyckoff Fruitfulness and Multiplication
When the English took over and New Netherlands became New York, the Claesen clan rolled with that. The English made Dutch families stop using patronymic last names, and Pieter came up with “Wyckoff” for his new name under the new regime.
And they were indeed fruitful, and they did indeed multiply. Pieter and his wife had eleven kids who survived into adulthood. I can’t even imagine 13 people living in their original one-room house. It’s like the Tenement Museum only more so.
Today the museum estimates that there are something like 80,000 Wyckoff descendants around the world. And the name is plastered all over the area. There’s an Avenue in Flushing, a Street and a Heights in Brooklyn. A whole town in New Jersey.
Over time, the family added on, a second room (double the number of rooms!) in the 1730s and a cellar (status symbol: the refrigerator of the early 18th century). And from there another room – a parlor with fancy Delft tiles around the hearth. Eventually a hallway and formal entry. Imagine the luxury of space that serves no purpose except to connect other spaces And in the 1800s bedrooms as well.
But that original room remained.
The vicissitudes of the house in the 20th century make for another great story. I’ll leave that for the house and its guides to relate, though. Suffice it to say that it is a miracle that Wyckoff House still stands, in its original location.
The House Museum
The Wyckoff House today sits in the midst of a small park, next door to an auto shop. You enter the house through what was formerly the back door, where there’s a small gift shop and offices for the museum staff.
The tour is short, starting with the oldest room, which still boasts an amazing open, whitewashed hearth. It’s not quite authentic to the 17th century — there’s glass in the windows and wood on the floor. Adorably, in December stockings for each of the original Wyckoff children hang by the hearth with care.
Then visitors see the parlors, and hear the story of how the house evolved as the family (and house technology and fashion) did over the centuries.
Visitors may also see a Wyckoff House cat. I’ve been to a lot of historic houses but this was the first museum cat I’ve encountered. It was nice to have company as I was waiting for the tour before me to wrap up. I was surprised, but pleased, that I was not the only Wyckoff House tourists on a snow day.
When I visited, one parlor was a bit of jumble — the house is reorganizing its attic and moved some artifacts downstairs temporarily.
And the exterior of the place wasn’t looking its best. The City is embarking on a roof repair project that means it is surrounded by scaffolding. I felt grateful for snow’s ability to beautify anything — and the Museum staff put some holiday greenery on the chain link. Still, my guide said the City’s doing it right — it will be a Historically Accurate roof. No vinyl shingles for the Wyckoffs.
Visit the Wyckoff House Museum
The Wyckoff House does a good, solid job with the story it tells. And what a story! The oldest house in New York City, possibly New York State.
Wyckoff House was the first landmark named when New York City started creating landmarks in the 1960s. Not the Empire State Building, not Gracie Mansion, not Federal Hall or City Hall. This humble home in the far reaches of Canarsie.
Because it’s the oldest. It’s a survivor. It rolls with the punches. It cradled a family that has grown beyond all sane comprehension. It held onto its Dutch roots, but became first English and then American.
In short, Wyckoff House is a metaphor for its city.
I’m not sure tourists need to navigate their way out there. But If you consider yourself a New Yorker, in reality or just in spirit, you must visit this monument to the beginning of the story.
|5816 Clarendon Road, Brooklyn
|General Admission: $5 (suggested)
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