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
"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
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. …