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.
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.
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.
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.
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.