Maybe it’s because I’m a history nerd, but I’m not really sure why the Wyckoff (pronounced ‘WYE-koff’) House Museum, also known as the Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House, isn’t better known among tourists or New Yorkers. Eclipsing any building in Manhattan by a significant margin, it’s the oldest surviving structure in New York City, part of it having been built in 1652.
On the other hand, it’s not the most easily-accessible landmark. Though less than three miles from my Brooklyn apartment, the house is a subway ride and a bus ride (or two bus rides) away. It’s nestled in the mostly-residential Brooklyn neighborhood of Flatlands, not convenient to subway lines or other sites of historical interest. And it didn’t open as a museum until 2001, despite having stood for over 300 years before then. But it’s well worth the trek.
Bad luck with that whole two-buses situation meant that my friend and I arrived at the museum ten minutes late, walking, for the earlier of the two tours available on Saturdays. (The house is only open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays, though school and group tours can be arranged at other times.) I called ahead when the house opened, at 1 PM, and breathlessly asked whether we could join the tour late. The woman at the other end laughed. “It looks like you are the tour today,” she responded.
The Wyckoff House is set into tiny Fidler-Wyckoff Park, which was hosting a neighborhood Halloween party when we arrived. The crowds cleared out pretty soon after one o’clock, leaving just my friend, me, and the tour guide, plus a couple who arrived about 20 minutes after we did (presumably, they waited for the second bus instead of walking).
It’s hard to imagine the house sitting on 100 acres of farmland when it’s now sandwiched between a car wash and a McDonald’s. This is a common conundrum when visiting historic homes in the city; similarly, the Morris-Jumel Mansion in upper Manhattan once sat on 130 acres of property. According to statistics from the City of New York website, the population density of Manhattan is now more than 100 people per single acre.
The shorter section of the building is the original structure, a one-room house that was the home of Pieter Claesen Wykoff, his wife, and their 11 (!) children, all of whom lived to adulthood. The Wyckoffs were reasonably wealthy, despite the tight quarters; they owned 100 acres of farmland, and our guide noted that Pieter was able to leave land to all 11 children when he died.
Pieter’s grandson expanded the house, adding two more rooms and a cellar in the 18th century, and three bedrooms at the back — now the front — of the house later on. It’s still not a large place, and the house’s tumultuous history means that no original possessions remain (with the possible exception of a map of Brooklyn that was found during restoration), but it’s been lovingly furnished with reconstructions or period pieces acquired elsewhere. The narrative of expansion of the house throughout history lent itself well to a tour, and our guide knew the story inside-out, as well as the broader local history and how it related to the Wyckoffs.
In the Wyckoffs’ story pop up some other names that will be familiar to students of New York City history. Pieter worked for a time for Peter Stuyvesant, whose name survives in the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, and other places. Pieter’s descendents had as neighbors the Lott family, of whose house photographs exist (though, alas, the building does not); another Lott residence, the nearby Hendrick I. Lott House, is also a New York City Landmark, with a section dating to 1720.
The Wyckoff House Museum is now one of my favorite tourist spots to recommend in the city. Of course, I don’t think anyone’s actually taken me up on it yet; if you don’t live in the area, and especially if you’re visiting from out of town, it’s daunting to contemplate the time that’s required to get out there — why spend three hours in Brooklyn when you could hit 3 or 4 historic sites in Manhattan during the same amount of time? But if you’re tired of crowded same-olds and want to see an off-the-beaten-path bit of the city’s history, it’s well worth your while.
Location: 5816 Clarendon Road, Brooklyn
Nearest Public Transit: B8 to Beverly Rd/Ralph Ave (connect from the 2 or the B44); B47 to Ralph Ave/Clarendon Rd (connect from the 3)
Estimated Timespan: Between the tour and peeking in the garden, we were there about an hour
Cost: Adults $5, Children/Students/Seniors $3