Houses bring New York's past to life

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. The Jumels were never really accepted by New York society, and Eliza's brief second marriage to Aaron Burr, who was notorious for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, was hardly a step in the direction of respectability.

All historic houses are rich in anecdotes, but some are appreciated principally for the reputation of the inhabitants. The Edgar Allen Poe Cottage is a melancholy tribute to one of America's great writers. Poe rented the rural cottage in 1846 in the hope that his wife would benefit from the salubrious Bronx air. After her death the following year, he stayed on, writing poetry and making midnight visits to her grave.

A sunnier existence is recalled at the Louis Armstrong House in Queens, which opened to the public last fall and has already attracted thousands of visitors. In 1943, Armstrong and his wife, Lucille, bought the two-story clapboard house, which lived up to their modest notions of luxury, and, despite Armstrong's fame and wealth, they remained there until their deaths.

More than a museum

To the rather ordinary interior, the couple added such flamboyant embellishments as gilt swan-shaped faucets and crystal sconces in the bathroom. "You're not going to a museum, you're going to visit Louis and Lucille" is how director Michael Cogswell characterizes the experience.

The restoration, which relied on the copious documentation left behind by the Armstrongs, was comprehensive to a degree normally reserved for much older buildings. "The house is as historically accurate as we could make it," says Scott Duenow of Platt Byard Dovell White, the project's architect.

Alice Austen is another artist whose house is open to the public. The reputation of this Victorian photographer came largely after her death and owes much to the reevaluation of women's artistic achievements.

Austen also played an active role in Staten Island society. Her home, originally a one-room farmhouse from the 1690s, was expanded and transformed in the mid-19th century into a Gothic Revival cottage.

The house is noted for its Victorian garden and its view of New York Harbor.

In a city rich in museums, historic houses remain, in Ms. Braddick's words, "wonderful hidden treasures." Like New York itself, there is a range to suit all tastes, from the aesthetic to the historical to the gossipy.

New York's historic houses

Alice Austen House (718) 816-4506

Bartow-Pell Mansion; (718) 885-1461

Edgar Allan Poe Cottage: (718) 881-8900

Historic House Trust (212) 360-8282

Historic Richmond Town (718) 351-1611

Louis Armstrong House (718) 478-8274

Morris-Jumel Mansion (212) 923-8008

Van Cortlandt House (718) 543-3344

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