Historic Houses in NYC

Annie Bergen

New York City is known for skyscrapers, but its smaller-scale historic houses offer an opportunity to time travel to a rich cultural past. Once functioning as country estates for New York's wealthiest families as well as working farms and homesteads, the houses are a throwback to an era that's hard to imagine in today's bustling urban environment. Preserved in bucolic settings in City parks and located in all five boroughs, the houses boast grand architecture, lovely gardens, working farms and commanding views. Inside, you'll find many personal items of NYC's earliest residents and finely restored decorative arts and furnishings—and you'll learn how these homes serve as an important link to New York City's social and architectural history from colonial times to the present. Read on for more about some of these marvelous manses.

Photo: Peter Borghard

Alice Austen House Museum
Alice Austen Park, 2 Hylan Blvd., 718-816-4506, Rosebank, Staten Island
Alice Austen was one of America's earliest and most accomplished female photographers. Her home was situated on Staten Island in an idyllic setting overlooking New York Harbor. The house, named "Clear Comfort," provided a backdrop for many of her photos, which are displayed in the home today along with her celebrated street photography. What began as a small 17th-century Dutch farmhouse underwent several renovations and additions in the 18th and 19th centuries, resulting in the ivy-accented Victorian Gothic cottage it is today. The house, restored in the mid-1980s, features period rooms, regular photography exhibitions, photography classes and photography summer camps for kids.

Don't Miss: the 1891 photograph in the foyer bathroom of Alice and her friend Miss Eccleston striking poses, wearing masks and pretending to smoke (in an era when women were arrested for doing so).

Holiday Fun:
November 29–December 1, 11am–5pm
Annual Juried Holiday Art & Craft Fair

At this fete, local vendors will sell vintage accessories, holiday foods, housewares and handmade goods.

Photo: Julienne Schaer

Gracie Mansion
Carl Schurz Park, East End Avenue and East 88th Street, 212-570-4773, Upper East Side, Manhattan
New York City's mayors have resided there since 1942, but Gracie Mansion was once the country home of Archibald and Esther Gracie, a wealthy Scottish shipping merchant and his wife. Far away from the workaday world downtown (back then, at least), the area that is now known as the Upper East Side offered a serene setting for a large home where the Gracies could entertain in grand style. Completed in 1799, the mansion is in the Federal style, with wide porches and a generous yard with views of the East River. Under the Gracie Mansion Conservancy, the house has acquired furnishings that illustrate New York's rich history. In 2002, Mayor Bloomberg chose not to use the house as a private residence but transformed it into the "People's House," with increased access for the public and City agencies (it remains to be seen what his successor will do). It's open to the public for guided tours on Wednesdays, and special tea tours are offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Don't Miss: the foyer's faux-marble floor and the dining room with its 1830s wallpaper depicting French gardens.

Courtesy, NYC Parks & Recreation

Van Cortlandt House Museum
Van Cortlandt Park, Broadway and West 246th Street, 718-543-3344, Kingsbridge, Bronx
"George Washington slept here" rings true for the Van Cortlandt House, the oldest in the Bronx. A grand Georgian manor built of fieldstone, the house was occupied at various points by both the Continental and British armies during the Revolutionary War. Its original purpose, though, was as the home to the wealthy Van Cortlandt family, who built it in 1748 and established a wheat plantation with vast milling operations on the property. The house boasts distinctive characteristics, such as exceptionally tall windows on the first and second floors. Visitors can view elaborately decorated rooms containing many 18th- and 19th-century items, including cupboards with the family's original Chinese dinner service.

Don't Miss: the 18th-century musical quarter-chiming tall case clock with six distinct chimes.

Holiday Fun:
December 7, 6:30–7:30pm
Santa Claus Pajama Story Time
Kids can wear comfy pj's to this storytelling event, which features a reading of the poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" (more properly known as "A Visit from St. Nicholas"). Visitors can expect hot cocoa and, of course, a visit from Santa. RSVP by calling 718-543-3344.

December 15, 4–7pm
Van Cortlandt by Candlelight
See what life was like before electricity during this tour. The house will be decked out in its 18th-century holiday finest. RSVP by calling 718-543-3344.

Photo: Richard Warren

Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum
Pelham Bay Park, 895 Shore Rd., 718-885-1461, Pelham Manor, Bronx
For 50 years the Bartow family enjoyed gracious country living in the Bronx on land settled by their ancestor Thomas Pell. Robert Bartow was a wealthy publisher and printer. He built the Greek Revival mansion, completed in 1842, on a sloping lawn overlooking the Pelham Bay inlet, surrounded by orchards and pastures. The grand gray-stone two-story main house provided spacious accommodation for his wife and seven children. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia used the mansion as a summer office in 1936. A grand spiral staircase, on the left side of the entrance hall, leads to interiors restored to their 19th-century splendor with period furnishings from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The mansion offers garden talks, concerts on the first Fridays of each month and various educational programs.

Don't Miss: the master bedroom, with its dramatic early 19th-century bed made by French-born American cabinetmaker Charles-Honoré Lannuier.

Holiday Fun:
December 6, 5:30–8:30pm
Holiday First Friday! with the MetropoliTones
Shop, sip refreshments and enjoy a holiday performance by female a cappella group the MetropoliTones. Registration is preferred; call 718-885-1461 or email info@bpmm.org.

December 7, 10am–10pm
Annual Holiday Family Day: A Storybook Christmas and Holiday Evening Celebration
Early on, families will be treated to holiday story time, while photos with Santa, shopping and crafts continue throughout the day. For the adults, a party featuring cocktails, caroling and an auction begins at 7pm. Registration is required; call 718-885-1461 or email info@bpmm.org.

December 14, 6–8pm
Holiday Candlelight Tours and Victorian Carolers
Take a twilight tour for a glimpse of the museum's Victorian past, and hear a performance of holiday tunes by the Bronx Arts Ensemble and Singers. Tickets are required for the concert; call 718-601-7399.

Photo: Robert Levine

The Old Stone House
Washington Park, 336 3rd St., 718-768-3195, Park Slope, Brooklyn
Not many houses have ties to both the American Revolutionary War and baseball, but The Old Stone House does. It's a reconstruction of an original structure (using the same stones) from 1699. During the Battle of Brooklyn, a group of several hundred Maryland soldiers took on almost 2,000 British troops here in order to help Continental Army forces safely escape. Later, in the late 19th century, the building served as the first clubhouse for what would become the Brooklyn Dodgers. The house was demolished in 1897, but preservationists subsequently stepped in, and it was rebuilt in 1933. Today, it operates as a museum where visitors can learn more about its role in the Revolutionary War and New York City baseball.

Don't Miss: the diorama at the center of the house featuring 1:8-scale Revolutionary soldiers fighting the Battle of Brooklyn.

Courtesy, King Manor Museum

King Manor Museum
King Park, 150-03 Jamaica Ave., 718-206-0545, Jamaica, Queens
The only historic house in southeast Queens is King Manor, which was home to Rufus King, one of the signers of the Constitution and a fervent opponent of slavery. King lived a hectic political life as Massachusetts lawmaker, New York senator and ambassador to England. He and his family settled down at a country estate in Jamaica, Queens, where he spent time renovating the 18th-century farmhouse. The acreage surrounding the house served as a working farm where King experimented with innovative growing methods for his crops and raised livestock including sheep and cows. These days, King Manor educates visitors on the legacy of the family, and its programs focus on the Kings' role in the early anti-slavery movement.

Don't Miss: hearing a rendition of Rufus King's 1820 speech regarding Missouri statehood and slavery.

The King family. Courtesy, Queens Historical Society

Kingsland Homestead
Weeping Beech Park, 143-35 37th Ave., 718-939-0647, Flushing, Queens
This 18th-century farmhouse in Queens is named for British sea captain James King, who acquired it from his father-in-law in 1801. It was built circa 1785 in the Long Island half-house style. The present location of the house—twice moved to accommodate construction and prevent destruction—is Weeping Beech Park, which was home to America's first weeping beech tree. Now home to the Queens Historical Society, the house welcomes visitors, who will find Victorian-period furnishings alongside personal items belonging to the home's former residents, plus archival material covering the history of Queens. Group tours are offered by appointment.

Don't Miss: the Victorian parlor, with its period furnishings, including a large 19th-century secretary and horsehair sofa.

Photo: S. De Vries/Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
4881 Broadway, 212-304-9422, Inwood, Manhattan
On Manhattan's northern tip, overlooking Broadway at West 204th Street, is the borough's last surviving Dutch colonial farmhouse, home to many generations of the Dyckman family, who were among New Amsterdam's earliest settlers. After the original house was destroyed by British forces during the Revolutionary War, a new home was built circa 1784. In the 20th century, Dyckman descendants restored the fieldstone, brick and clapboard house into a reminder of the area's rural past. Objects evoking the family's heritage are displayed in period rooms throughout the museum. Today, the house presents educational programs and Early American craft activities.

Don't Miss: the opportunity to sit on a back porch in Manhattan. Tucked behind the farmhouse is a green oasis of a garden, and the back porch is the perfect resting spot from which to enjoy the view.

Photo: Melissa Branfman

Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum
Fidler-Wyckoff House Park, 5816 Clarendon Rd., 718-629-5400, East Flatbush, Brooklyn
It's hard to imagine the busy East Flatbush section of Brooklyn of today as the fertile farmland it was in the 17th century, but the Wyckoff Farmhouse is there to serve as a reminder. Built circa 1652, it's the oldest house in New York City and a microcosm of Dutch colonial life. Pieter Claesen arrived in New Netherland and worked his way up from an illiterate farmhand to a wealthy farmer and magistrate. He and his wife raised 11 children in the tiny one-room house, which was handed down to generations of family members. Nowadays, the farmhouse is a museum that can be accessed only by guided tour. During school programs or special public programs, kids can enjoy hands-on activities such as butter churning and crafts while learning about colonial life.

Don't Miss: the 17th-century room where you can see the original wattle-and-daub construction featuring mud and straw with corncobs that were used for insulation.

Holiday Fun:
December 7, 12–4pm
Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas Day)
Learn about Sinterklaas, the Dutch holiday figure who evolved into the American Santa Claus. Dressed in bishop’s robes, he will arrive on horseback to greet children. The afternoon will also include holiday songs, food and crafts.