If you are (a) an old-house lover and renovator and (b) a passionate Brooklynite, it does not get any cooler than this, people: Check out the oldest house in New York. Hell, this may be the oldest house in this sector of the galaxy--the Wyckoff Farm House and Museum. How old? How's about 1654...and we're not talking "rebuilt on the site" or "moved from elsewhere," no, this baby has clung tenaciously to its tiny fertile patch of Brooklyn clay, in situ, continuously for some 350 years.
I've been meaning to check out this place forever, but never got to it...because, for one thing, it's not easy to get to. Dutch settler Pieter Claesen Wyckoff bought his land in the old village of New Amersfoort, a few miles southeast of our village of Flatbush, and two days' traveling time from Manhattan. Now, buried in the heart of vast East Flatbush, it can still take two days to get to the city, or at least that's how it feels in this two-fare zone. For a more contextual view, let's pull back.
The surrounding farmland was swallowed by residential streets by the first few decades of the 20th century. But what sprouted up like weeds immediately around the little house is now a jarring pastiche of auto body shops, car washes (one is visible at left), and, behind it, a towering menace of a junkyard, a virtual Mordor of auto-squashing. The property, which once held a Mobil station (for which the house served as a shed--!), is now a bucolic pie-wedge lot with a flourishing community garden, but the padlocking gate at right attests to the area's hardscrabble side.
The ancient heart of the house is a single square room (entered from the white door on the right in the photo above--the larger section to the left is "newer," built in the 174o's). Stoop to avoid hitting your head on a beam, and squint, because the windows admit only scant late-November daylight. As our wonderful docent Lucie pointed out, this economy-model home design was basically unchanged since the Middle Ages--a box with an open hearth and dirt (now plank) floors. The table is about the same age as the house (although from another locale); a family crib and other nifty wood appurtenances like butter churns and candle-making thingies stood nearby. A section of wall, exposed under Plexiglas, showed the original hand-hewn white oak beams and wattle-and-daub construction, and clear as day, we saw 300-year-old corncobs stuck in for insulation. Plentiful and indestructible, they were the fiberglass of their day. But what really blew me away was learning that Mrs. Wyckoff had 11 babies in this room. This was before running water, and before windows had glass. Welcome to medieval Brooklyn.
In the house's midsection, we jumped forward almost half a century, to a more refined space (got to love those Dutch built-ins). Note a bit of the English-style hearth at right, with some spun flax hung up; after learning what it takes to mill and spin flax, I decided that I would have preferred to skin animals for my clothing. (The fibers are combed through a wire brush called a hackle--hence the term, "raise your hackles." And the stuff that got combed out is tow--perhaps the origin of tow-headed? For more Handy Words for Colonial Gadgets, go here.)
Of course, I was itching to learn the story of the house's incredible survival and restoration. In a nutshell, the Wyckoff family owned it 'til the 1880s, when it was sold and fell on hard times. The house was a sagging shanty by the 1920s, and a ruin by the 1980s, when neighborhood kids set it on fire. (Because of its proximity to an elementary school, it got superquick service from the FDNY and suffered only scorch marks.) Landmarking came in 1961, but it took further decades to oust the gas station, gather support from farflung Wyckoffs (supposedly there are some 50,000 descendants of the 11 babies birthed in that room), and restore it to its primitive splendor. Next year, they're planning to raise a barn, too--a real Dutch one, albeit imported from New Jersey.
So, I've meant to come here for decades, and I finally get here, unknowingly, on what day? I kid you not: Today was Dutch-American Heritage Day. And this weekend is part of "Five Dutch Days in the Five Boroughs," celebrating all things tulipy and wooden shoe-ish throughout the city; tomorrow, the Wyckoff House is offering an attic-to-cellar tour. (On our visit today, the root cellar was off-limits, which saddened me, because I've always wanted a root cellar.)
Now, get over there and see this house, before Barbara Corcoran has it paved over for parking.
I mention this peaceful spot with all possible laud; for it is in such little retired Dutch valleys, found here and there embosomed in the great State of New-York, that population, manners, and customs, remain fixed; while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved. They are like those little nooks of still water which border a rapid stream; where we may see the straw and bubble riding quietly at anchor, or slowly revolving in their mimic harbor, undisturbed by the rush of the passing current.
Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow