Houses Bring New York's Past to Life

Article excerpt

The Bronx rarely evokes country manors, formal gardens, and old carriage houses, but then few visitors to New York City know about the Bartow-Pell Mansion. Located in the heart of Pelham Park, north of Manhattan, it is one of the many historic house museums scattered throughout the five boroughs. These places often go overlooked in a city that counts the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a major tourist draw.

"You do not have to have a keen interest in history to appreciate a historic house," points out Therese Braddick, the executive director of the Historic House Trust, a local organization that oversees 22 such museums.

Indeed, historic houses satisfy the curiosity to know how families once lived. They can also turn upside down assumptions about urban history, by conveying better than any slide lecture the evolution of neighborhoods.

In the case of the Bartow-Pell Mansion, this means going back to the time when the Bronx was a patchwork of estates and farms. The house, which was built in the 1830s and '40s, is a showcase of Empire and Greek Revival furnishings.

It includes a carriage house that is "the best place in New York for understanding horse-drawn transportation," according to Robert Engel, the museum's executive director. The grounds, which were laid out in the early 20th century by the International Garden Club, are a further challenge to the hard-boiled reputation of the Bronx.

For every major period in New York history, there is a historic house museum. The city was founded in the early 1600s as a Dutch colony, a status that it retained until 1674, when it was captured by the British.

Dutch life of the 1600s

The Wyckoff House in Brooklyn, one of a handful of surviving Dutch farmhouses, dates from circa 1652, and is believed to be the oldest structure in New York City. It was built by Pieter Claesen Wyckoff, a former indentured servant who rose to prosperity as a farmer. Until the early 1900s, his descendants lived in the house, which is today a museum of colonial Dutch life.

Millions of tourists have taken the Staten Island Ferry, but comparatively few have gotten off at the other end. One reason to do so is Historic Richmond Town, a village of buildings from the late 17th to the mid-19th century. Many of the old houses and businesses have been renovated, and their arrangement reflects the time when urban centers were sufficiently dispersed to accommodate livestock and gardens.

Like many historic house museums, Historic Richmond Town offers a roster of educational programs for children.

Two houses in the northern part of the city played a minor role in the American Revolution. The Van Cortlandt House in the Bronx was alternately headquarters for British and American troops - with George Washington staying there at least twice. Washington also found shelter in the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Harlem Heights, which owed its strategic importance to its panoramic views of downtown Manhattan and New Jersey.

After the Revolution, the house was bought by a French merchant, Stephen Jumel, and his American wife, Eliza, a raffish couple with ties to the court of Napoleon I. …