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The Dyckman Farmhouse – a reminder of 18th century rural Manhattan

At the northern tip of Manhattan you’ll find the neighbourhood of Inwood. Here, as you stand on Broadway outside the Inwood-207th St A Express subway station you’re over eight miles from the world-famous Theater District and surrounded by the fast food joints, nail and hair salons, bodegas, supermarkets and residential blocks of urban development.

There’s little to suggest that until the late 19th and early 20th centuries this was an area of farming communities and rural landscapes. These were swept away by the rapid urban development that accompanied the arrival of the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) subway line extension.

However, a reminder of this 18th century Manhattan can be found amid Inwood’s urban landscape at the Dyckman Farmhouse, now the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum.

I first visited the Museum in February 2014 with deep snow on the ground.  Walking west from the subway station there was little to suggest the Museum’s presence until I came across a scene totally out of place with its urban setting.  Once the centre of a 250 acre (120 ha) farm whose meadows reached to the Harlem River, the house is set back from, and above, the northern sidewalk on a half-acre (0.2 ha) plot of land, giving a feeling of a disconnect from its surrounds – both in space and time.

Dyckman Farmhouse viewed from south-west corner
Dyckman Farmhouse viewed from the west.

The farmhouse was built on the site around 1784 and has the overhanging eaves and gambrel roof of the Dutch Colonial style. That it survived was down to Mary Alice Dyckman Dean and Fannie Fredericka Dyckman Welch, daughters of the last Dyckman child to grow up in the house. They purchased the house in 1915 to safeguard it against the urban development going on around it and with their husbands, curator Bashford Dean and architect Alexander McMillian Welch, restored and furnished it to what they believed was its earliest appearance. In the process the oldest features of the house were retained where possible, while later additions were demolished. The house was furnished using objects provided by friends and family,  and in 1916 when the restoration was complete, the house and grounds were donated to the City of New York as a museum of early American life.

Today the Museum represents all the layers of the farmhouse’s history: the original modest 18th century structure, 19th century room modernisations such as staircases, and the early 20th century alterations for museum use. Current knowledge has ensured that restorations are as historically accurate as possible, including a large period parlour on the first floor and Winter Kitchen in the cellar.  A Relic Room created during the 1915 – 16 alterations exhibits objects unearthed in digs prior to urban development that have helped inform the restorations’ accuracy.

Access to the cellar is down a narrow staircase (low light and headroom) that has been built around an exposed slab of Inwood marble too big to be excavated. The slab’s surface bears a carving of an ancient game known as ‘Nine Man Morris’; for an image and more information see the January 11 post on the Museum’s Facebook page.

On the second floor you can see a large bedroom that is being restored to its 1916 condition, and a room set up as a study from the same period.

When I dropped into the Museum last week there was a very different feel about the garden, which provides a pleasing counter to the urban landscape, compared to my February visit. The snow had disappeared and the seating area to the east of the house was now an inviting area to relax. It was also easier to appreciate the impressive trees, some of which date back to the original planting of the garden around 1916. Thankfully both the bigger trees and the farmhouse survived the travails of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, even though the house was hit by falling tree limbs.

Dyckman farmhouse, early February 2014 – looking from the north-east

In the garden you’ll also see the reconstruction of a smokehouse and a military hut, similar to those used by the British during the Revolutionary War when they camped on the farm.

Smokehouse and north end of Summer Kitchen - stone back of bread oven protudes from the clapboard.
Smokehouse in foreground. Summer Kitchen (closed to public) in background – note the stone back of a bread oven protruding from the wall.

Over the next few months plants including daffodils, bleeding heart, foxglove and dogwood will bloom with the garden peaking by about the end of May. I’m going to make time to see the changing displays; when the various trees are fully-leaved in summer it will be easy to forget the plot, which feels bigger than you’d expect, is surrounded by buildings on three sides.

Dyckman farmhouse - garden seating - cropped and resized 10pc

Looking around the Museum and garden is unlikely to take more than an hour, though you may spend longer relaxing in the garden. If your journey to Inwood is a long one (it takes me about an hour and a quarter from Astoria, Queens by public transport) it may be worth combining your visit with a walk through Inwood Hill Park or a trip to the Cloisters museum and gardens. Both are nearby and well worth visiting (see post on Inwood Hill Park).

I will be posting on the Cloisters museum and gardens soon but essentially it is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. Its 20th  century buildings and cloistered gardens are located in Fort Tryon Park, offering great views of the Palisades, a line of steep cliffs along the west side of the Hudson River.

Having grown up in the UK I’m used to old buildings and artefacts. As a kid my family would visit Waltham Abbey, 10 miles from where I grew up and dating back to the early 12th century. However, I still think an afternoon at the Cloisters with its great collections, the fine buildings in which they are housed, and a relaxed atmosphere created by the cloistered gardens makes for an experience to remember.

 

17th century Native American caves still providing shelter

At the northern tip of Manhattan Island you’ll find Inwood Hill Park, a living piece of old New York. Unlike other Manhattan parks it is a largely natural landscape that hasn’t been altered too much by the wars and development that followed the arrival of European colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Park’s human history dates back to Pre-Columbian times (before  significant European influences). Local Native Americans (the Lenape) inhabited the area through the 17th century, using the Hudson (to the west) and Harlem Rivers (to the north and east) as food sources. There is historical evidence of a main encampment along the Park’s eastern edge, while  discoveries of historical artefacts and campfire remains suggest natural rock overhangs, the  ‘Native American Caves’ (the caves),  provided shelter and temporary living quarters.

Henry Hudson Bridge - resized
Henry Hudson Bridge across the Harlem River at the northeast of Inwood Hill Park.

I set off to explore the caves on a toe-numbingly cold day. They are a pretty easy 0.7 miles (1.1 km) walk from the A (8 Avenue Express) Inwood-207 Street subway station, though the last little way up to them is a little steeper in places. Click here for walking route.

The Park’s terrain is impressive with giant rock ridges, a valley, rock overhangs and potholes. It was largely shaped by the Wisconsin ice sheet, the most recent southward advance of ice in the last Ice Age, which reached New York roughly 50,000 years ago.

Inwood Hill Park Outcrop - 12pc
Cliff in Inwood Hill Park

The Shorakkopoch Rock marks the site of the tulip tree under which Peter Minuit, Director General of New Netherland (17th-century colonial province of the Dutch Republic on the East Coast of North America), allegedly ‘purchased’ Manhattan from a band of Native Americans in 1626 for the Dutch West India Company for a shipment of goods worth 60 guilders. Arriving at the Rock it’s a short walk to the caves. The image below gives an idea of what the area looks like –  at least in snow!

american Indian caves 2 - resized 10pc
Area of ‘Native American Caves’ in Inwood Hill Park – seen from near Shorakkopoch Rock

Tramping uphill through knee-deep snow I heard the faint sound of a radio as I neared the caves.  After a slight double-take I saw that the nearest habitable space providing good shelter was occupied; rough material hangings covered part of the entrance and through the gap I could see a pair of feet tapping along to the music. Further uphill the next space providing shelter from the elements was also occupied and the slope steepened making further exploration risky in the conditions. Not wanting to disturb the occupants I retraced my steps.

American Indian Caves 1 - resized 10pc
Amongst the caves, with musical accompaniment

Though I wasn’t able to explore the caves area properly it was a beautifully bright day and I spent  more time walking through the Park. I’ll definitely visit again to further checkout the caves and look for other geological features such as glacial potholes.

Leaving the Park I found the Indian Road  Café, where I had a very tasty breakfast (Smoked Salmon Scrambled Eggs for $12). My latte was fairly average, but I’m fussy; I’d certainly use the café again.

That evening, warm at home,  I reflected on  how cold it had been up at Inwood  and that I could treat myself to breakfast and a hot drink while people are sleeping rough in such brutal weather conditions. It brought home why there are such concerns about growing inequality in New York City;  a combination of jobs that don’t pay “living wages” and a lack of “affordable housing” has seen homeless figures  rise to the highest since the Great Depression (1929 – 39).

In 2013 the total number of homeless people in municipal shelters in 2013 was 53,270. The NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS) estimated that in 2013 a further 3,180 homeless people were unsheltered, i.e. sleeping in parks, subways, and other public spaces; this figure was based on the DHS annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) survey, which takes place on a SINGLE winter night (27 January in 2014). The Coalition for the Homeless considers  the DHS figure to be an underestimate because the survey is unlikely to log those sleeping in out of the way places, such as those I came across and in the remoter parts of the subway.

It’s dangerous living rough especially in this winter’s brutal weather. Unfortunately, for some, municipal shelters aren’t necessarily a better option. Thinking back to earlier in the day and those feet tapping along to the music I hope that shelter sees its occupant safely through the winter.