I was walking downtown the other evening (enjoying the finally-spring weather), when I happened across a history display in the windows of a building! 60 Hudson Street was built to be the headquarters of the Western Union Company, and while it no longer holds that position, several of its windows have displays about the history of the company.
One window displayed telegraphs that had been sent through Western Union, and my favorite was this one, sent from Duke Ellington to Ella Fitzgerald.
Park Slope’s Old Stone House is an oddity. It’s neither the original house nor located on the original site, though it’s near the original site and the reconstruction used some original materials. The original was important to the Battle of Brooklyn, also known as the Battle of Long Island, of the Revolutionary War. The reconstruction seems to serve as little more than background to the families who bring their children to the playground that serves as its front lawn.
I had a somewhat disappointing visit, too, because the house was closed for a private event. The perils of visiting off-the-beaten-path historic sites! Neither the website nor their limited social media indicated the closing and I didn’t call in advance. (In contrast to my visit to Poe Park, where showing up on a day when the house was closed was entirely my fault.)
I was able to take a turn in the garden associated with the house, but without any signs or labels, it wasn’t very enlightening.
Park Slope may be easy to get to, but the rewards were greater when I schlepped out to the Wyckoff House.
Location: Nearest Public Transit: Cost: Park is free; I couldn’t find any information about the house! Website
Possibly the oldest surviving building in Manhattan, 54 Pearl Street was constructed in 1719 as the home of Stephen Delancey (Delancey Street was named after his son James), converted to the Queen’s Head Tavern in 1762, and later renamed Fraunces Tavern.
The Tavern is inextricably tied up in New York’s history; besides the connection to the Delanceys, it was the site of George Washington’s farewell dinner for his troops, and briefly housed government offices, before the capital of the United States moved to Philadelphia.
This will be a short post, and a lesson in doing your research in advance.
Edgar Allan Poe lived the last years of his life in a cottage in Fordham, New York — now a neighborhood of the Bronx. Though Poe himself in fact died in Baltimore, the cottage was still his primary home at that time, and his wife Virginia did die in the Fordham cottage. It was subsequently moved and the land around it became Poe Park.
I got out of work early on a Friday afternoon and thought I’d pop up to the Bronx to check it out. However, I didn’t think to check the house’s hours… which go only until 3 PM on Thursday and Friday. Oops!
I did take a quick stroll around the park, and was able to take a photo of the house (above) from afar. But I can’t quite check this one off my to-visit list yet.
Location: Poe Park: Grand Concourse between E 92nd St and E Kingsbridge Rd (the Cottage is at the north end) Nearest Public Transit: B/D at Kingsbridge Rd; 4 at Kingsbridge Rd Cost: Free entrance to the park; the Cottage is $5 for adults, $3 for students, seniors, and children Website
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 Website
The Merchant’s House Museum is a perfect place to get yourself in the mood for Halloween; it’s reputed to be “Manhattan’s most haunted house,” according to the New York Times. In fact, few people who put together a list of haunted places in New York City seem to be able to resist it. For example:
The house at 29 East 4th Street has come up a couple times in my reading lately. First, a couple months ago, I read Henry James’s Washington Square for the first time, and learned not long afterwards that James allegedly based his heroine, Catherine Sloper, on a real historical Village resident, Gertrude Tredwell. Then I read Footprints in New York, which went into some detail about Gertrude’s life and the house in which she lived (from birth until death).
During the week leading up to Halloween (and once a month the rest of the year), the Merchant’s House hosts candlelit ghost tours. I’m a raving skeptic, but also a sucker for a good ghost story, and this house has plenty of them. The tours take place after dark, most of the rooms lit with nothing but candles and the guides’ flashlights as you learn about the possible ghostly inhabitants, including Gertrude, her father, and several of her siblings.
The ghost tour is a bit light on the history, focusing instead on recounting visitors’ and staff members’ strange experiences and the results of various paranormal “investigations.” But they’ve made the house effectively atmospheric — enough to make this skeptic shiver once or twice. I’ll just have to go back in daylight to fill in the gaps.
Location: 29 East 4th Street, Manhattan Nearest Public Transit: N/R at 8 St – NYU; 6 at Astor Place; B/D/F/M at Broadway-Lafayette St Estimated Timespan: Candlelit tours take 1 hour Cost: General Admission: $13; Special Events/Tours: Prices vary Website
This evening I took a jaunt down to Pearl Street and Water Street — coincidentally, both routes that mark previous water lines of Manhattan, though the island has now, of course, been extended several blocks farther outward.
I was searching for a spot on Pearl Street that marked a building I knew no longer existed, but had once stood on that spot. I was out of luck, it turned out; the remaining buildings didn’t even have Pearl Street addresses, officially sitting on its cross streets.
Right around where I had estimated that spot would be, though, I found something else interesting: an undated and untitled plaque.
The plaque commemorates the former site of Bowne & Co., New York’s”oldest business concern operating under the same name since its founding.” (No longer true, as it was acquired by R. R. Donnelley in 2010.) The plaque further directs one to the historic South Street Seaport area and 211 Water Street, where a restored Bowne & Co. stationery store operates part of the South Street Seaport Museum.
Along the way, I encountered another landmark that I’d probably walked by many times without recognizing what it was.
The RMS Titanic Memorial Lighthouse was supposedly erected at the insistence of “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, one of the survivors of the Titanic‘s sinking. Relocated from its original location, it now sits at the corner of Pearl Street and Fulton Street, just down the block from Bowne & Co. and at the entrance to the South Street Seaport area.
Do you stop and read the historic plaques you walk past?
Location: Memorial Lighthouse: corner of Fulton St and Pearl St; Bowne & Co. plaque: Pearl St between John St and Fulton St; reconstructed Bowne & Co.: 211 Water St Nearest Subway: 2/3, 4/5, A/C, or J/Z to Fulton St. Cost: Free!