The Bronx is often overlooked in the history of Colonial New York, but for many years the landmarks made up a big part of its charm. The old taverns and battlefields, not to mention the fields and streams, were visited by New Yorkers in search of novelty and fresh air. By the 1890s, development was overrunning these places. The Van Cortlandt House, 1748-49, in the northern Bronx, was one of the few Colonial buildings to have been saved. It was fixed up and furnished, and it opened to the public in 1897 as the citys first historic house museum.
The Van Cortlandt House, Bronx: A Brief History
The Van Cortlandts were an established and influential family. Oloff Stevense Van Cortlandt (d. 1684) emigrated from the Netherlands to New Amsterdam in 1638. He began buying land three years later. At the end of his life he was rated the fourth richest man in the colony. He held various positions in the Colonial government and helped to negotiate the Dutch surrender to the English in 1664.
In 1691, his youngest son, Jacobus (1658-1740), married Evah, who was the step-daughter of Frederick Philipse. It was from Philipse that Jacobus Van Cortlandt acquired the first parcels of land that became the familys Bronx estate. A few years after Jacobus death, his only son, Frederick (b. 1699), began building (in his words) a large stone dwelling house on the plantation on which I live.
The house seems snug by our standards of suburban spaciousness, but back then it represented the good life. There are two parlors, two bedrooms, and two smaller rooms on the third floor. The family had a taste for comfortable living, and towards the end of the century, they built an addition in the back that was used as a dining room.
There are not many items on view that belonged to the Van Cortlandt family. Instead their story is the framework for a museum of domestic life in the years before the American Revolution.
Some of the Colonial furniture was based on English pattern books. In the East Parlor (the best room, judging by the fine marble mantel), the furniture is Rococo, a style that was popular in the North American colonies, beginning in the 1750s. Among the pieces in this style are a piecrust tea table and Chippendale chairs. The Chippendale card table, 1760, by a New York furniture maker, is one of the few pieces in the house that belonged to the Van Cortlandt family. The room is simply decorated with portraits and a porcelain garniture on the mantel. The candlesticks displayed in this space help remind us how dark the house was after sundown.
The house also has the sort of old family pieces that were preserved for generations, often in the back bedroom or second parlor. The East Bed Chamber illustrates the custom of holding onto things long after they had passed out of fashion. Some pieces, like the William and Mary chest of drawers, 1710-30, antedate the construction of the house and give an idea of the furniture that the family brought with them when they moved in.
The suggestion of inherited things is also reflected in the West Parlor, which was used as the family dining room. The furniture includes a gate-leg table, which must have seemed a little quaint after the emergence of the pedestal dining table. It is shown set for dinner, though between meals it was folded up and pushed against the wall. There is also a kas, a traditional Dutch wardrobe that was made in the Hudson River Valley, circa 1700.
The Van Cortlandt family lived in the house for 140 years. In 1889, they donated it with the surrounding land, an estate of more than 70 acres, to the city to create a park. It took many generations to transform the house into the museum it is today. But during those early days, when the house sat empty, its future unknown, it was the National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of New York who persuaded city hall that the house should become a museum.
The ladies who belonged to the Colonial Dames wanted to preserve the traditions of Colonial America. Genealogically, that period was not so very remote. For the senior members, the mid-18th century was the world of their grandparents and great-grandparents. They may not have known the men and women of that generation, but they were raised with relations who had. All the ladies had deep roots in Colonial New York, and some were descended from the Van Cortlandt family. In that closed, endogamous society, memories were kept alive with old letters and keepsakes and a thorough knowledge of bloodlines.
Eligibility to the Colonial Dames depended on descent from an officeholder in Colonial government or man of exceptional accomplishment. A list was drawn up of notable governors, justices, and military men. One omission was Frederick Van Cortlandt, whose public service was limited to a brief turn in the local militia. His father, Jacobus, and grandfather, Oloff Stevense, were, however, on the list.
Mrs. Howard Townsend, who was the president of the New York chapter, was descended from 19 Colonial eminences. Even more impressive was the family tree of Mrs. Morris Patterson Ferris, a formidable matron who was prominent in the cause of Colonial preservation. It counted 29 authorized ancestors.
The ladies wanted to preserve a house that was known to their forbears. There was another, less insular reason for founding a museum of Colonial history. Ethnically, the citys population was changing. The immigrants who came to New York during this period brought with them their own traditions and did not necessarily feel any connection to the citys Anglo-Dutch heritage. For this heritage to survive it was necessary to preserve the records and monuments of the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Colonial Dames was one of the many patriotic associations that flourished at the turn of the century. The Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) were founded in 1890, a year before the Colonial Dames, and were already their most important rival. The Daughters of Colonial Wars, the Colonial Daughters of the Seventeenth Century, and the Daughters of Holland Dames were some of the lesser known groups.
These groups were a soft target for the press, with newspapers running frequent stories on their conflation of social status and civic duty. The formation of another colonial society, wrote a social columnist, in 1894, shows that patriotism is by no means wanting in the smart set of New-York. One wit even recommended some new names, including "Colonial Crones."
The irreverence seems unkind in light of the many important preservation projects undertaken by these groups. In the case of the Colonial Dames, some of the blame must be borne by the ladies themselves. They did not conceal their odd customs and fantasies, with the result that they usually made the news for all the wrong reasons.
Their parties were held to commemorate obscure anniversaries. Menus were based on family recipes and served in the old family silver. In extreme cases, the guests wore Colonial costume. There was poetry, too. Mrs. Ferris went so far as to publish her rhymes, which evoked the faraway days of Dutch rule, when New Amsterdam was a queer strange land with funny redmen.
The restoration of the Van Cortlandt House was less newsworthy. The project was a tribute to the steely force of good manners. A delegation of Colonial Dames went to Albany (the state capitol) to meet with the governor and legislators. Historic preservation was, at this time, largely a matter for private initiative, and the government officials were happy to accede to the Colonial Dames plans. City Hall was also supportive, and granted the association a 25-year lease in exchange for assuming the renovation and operating costs.
It took a little more than a year to convert the house into a museum. From April 1896, when they obtained the lease, to the following May, they fixed up the house, furnishing it with 2,000 objects from the Colonial and Revolutionary era. At a time when the Metropolitan Museum of Art was being endowed with the most fantastic treasures, the Dames were busy gathering up old punch bowls and spinning wheels. Many objects were heirlooms, hence the confident and sometimes fanciful histories provided by the donors.
The Van Cortlandt House was formally opened as a museum on May 28, 1897. Representatives of the many patriotic societies attended, as did the mayor and lieutenant governor. A military band played The Star-Spangled Banner, and a pastor of the local Dutch church offered prayers. The New York Times was outspoken in its support. The new museum was proof that the citys history did not begin, as has sometimes in the neighborhood of City Hall been practically held, with the Irish Famine of 1846, nor with the German revolutions of 1848.
The installation of the house has changed since those early days. Originally, there was an emphasis on association items. There were many artifacts related to George Washington, who used the house as his headquarters during the Revolution. One prized exhibit was a bed that he had slept in, though this turned out to be not true. It was not a bed he slept in at the Van Cortlandt House or anyplace else; likewise for the Mount Vernon chairs and pewter platters, spurious relics all, with no connection to Washington or the Van Cortlandts.
The West Bed Chamber was the room occupied by Washington. His presence is suggested today not by odds and ends of doubtful provenance, but by the sort of fashionable furnishings he would have found when he retired for the night. A kneehole dressing table (a Van Cortlandt heirloom) and a Worcester tea service are some of the most stylish things in the house. At a time when textiles were the costliest part of decorating, ensuite upholstery was affordable only by the wealthiest. Here a blue and white fabric of a pattern popular during the 18th century is used for the bed hangings and furniture. The modern reproduction was made using the traditional resist-dyeing technique.
There is also a greater awareness of the people who made the Van Cortlandts life so comfortable. The family employed many servants and farm workers, most of whom lived in out-buildings on the estate. They were also slave owners, a fact that went unmentioned in the early guidebooks. On the third floor, across the landing from the nursery, is a room believed to have been used as both a bedroom and a lumber room. It has unfinished walls and no fireplace.
The Van Cortlandt House, under the direction of the Colonial Dames, continues to charm and instruct. It can be reached from midtown Manhattan by a 45-minute subway ride.
To learn more, call 718-543-3344 or visit www.historichousetrust.org.