Monday, May 17, 2010

Van Cortlandt House Museum

4/24/2010, Saturday

TIME: 3 hrs 
COST: $5 each 

It was one of the first sunny weekends of spring: a warm 74 degrees, bright blue sky with little fluffy clouds, the leaves had just covered the trees again and were a spectacular shade of new-green, birds were singing, and there were flowers everywhere.  Paul turned to me and said, “It’s too nice to spend the day inside.  Lets play hooky from the museums and go for a hike somewhere.”

This flabbergasted me, as Paul hates both warm weather and the un-airconditioned outdoors, but I humored him. “Do I have the museum for you,” I said.  “There’s a historic house in the Bronx in the middle of a huge park.  The house is a tiny seven-room affair.  We’ll see some historic chairs and hear a story about how George Washington slept there, because every historic house from Boston to Richmond has a story about how old GW slept there.  The whole thing shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes, then we’ll have over 1100 acres of forest and trails to hike.”  Paul agreed and we packed a picnic lunch and headed to the Bronx.  It’s amazing how something that starts off sounding so reasonable can go so horribly awry. As Paul (and Carl von Clausewitz) said, “ No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” 

The “enemy” here is the Van Cortlandt House and it is indeed a small but charming historic house, and George Washington did actually sleep there.  It was built in 1748, making it the oldest building in the Bronx, but not the oldest in NYC.  That honor goes to the Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House in Brooklyn.  Built in 1652, the Wyckoff House is almost 100 years older, and yes, it’s on our Museum list, so expect to hear about it here.  We had a bit of trouble finding the Museum, as the house is small and the park is huge.  I had assumed there would be a sign, but no such luck, and we ended up driving around the periphery of the gigantic park for a while looking for something that looked “Museum-y”.  It’s hard to describe how big this park is to people with no experience of huge urban parks (like us).  There are 18 baseball fields, 7 football fields, 7 basketball courts, 8 tennis courts, 13 cricket pitches and a 3000-seat stadium.  Additionally, there’s a golf course and driving range, horse stables and jumping course, a lake, a nursery, a parade ground, a swimming pool, 4 playgrounds, 2 historic cemeteries and picnic grounds beyond count.  There is also extensive acreage of forest, a wetland marsh and a nature center.  All this, and it’s only the fourth largest park in NYC, behind Pelham Bay Park, Flushing Meadows Park and the cleverly named Staten Island Greenbelt.

After some wandering, we realized that we weren’t just going to stumble upon the house, so we stopped at the horse stables and Paul went inside to ask for directions.  Let me stop right here and give you a vital piece of information: Paul is afraid of horses.  Not “run screaming” afraid, more the “nervous, deep breaths, getting the shakes” kind.  So I was surprised when he volunteered to go in, and worried when he didn’t come back.  I watched the little girls on ponies bounce around the paddock for a few minutes, debating when would be a good time to rescue him.  Too soon and it might hurt his pride, too late and he might need something a lot stronger than what was in our picnic basket.  Fortunately he reappeared after about 5 minutes, and after some walking around to “shake it off” he was able to form complete sentences.

There was no one in the stables, and he’d been wandering around futilely looking for anyone who wasn’t four-legged.  After some cool off time, we did what we should have done in the first place and consulted Paul’s Blackberry, once we found a place with signal.  Turns out we weren’t far off, so we found a place to park and hiked in with our picnic basket.  Already tired of being lost, we ate our lunch on the property’s back stairs, perched on the side of a small bluff with a view of some co-eds sunning themselves on a raised platform in the marsh.  You’d think they’d never heard of mosquitoes. 

We bought our $5 tickets at the modest gift shop and received what I realized only later was a warning.  (Cue ominous music.)  As she handed us our tickets, the receptionist asked if we wanted our tour to be self-guided or led by the docent.  We asked for the docent, as we’ve found that we get much more information from talking to actual people in museums than squinting at dry descriptions in small print.   She nodded and handed us the self-guide tour sheets, encased in plastic folders like a Chinese menu.  Confused, I asked “Is the docent not available?”

“He’s in there, but you may want to break from the tour at some point and explore on your own.”  Puzzled, we thought that maybe he was overly busy or had a large group, but when we got inside there was only a tour group of three: two school-aged girls and a woman, plus the docent, David Kappes.  The tour had just begun when we arrived, and Mr. Kappes was regaling the group with stories of the house’s past, setting the stage at 250 years ago, when this whole park was a massive grain plantation, home to one of the country’s wealthiest families: the Van Courtlands. 

Mr. Kappes was amazingly well informed and detailed, telling us everything from how many slaves lived in the house, to the story of the near arrest and flight of the Van Cortlands in the Revolutionary War.  During that war, the house changed hands multiple times as British and colony forces skirmished in the area.  George Washington used the house as a command center (and slept here) during the period when colony forces held the area.  Now Paul considers himself a bit of an amateur historian, so when the docent made a comment about Washington not being a great General, Paul began to debate him, and that’s when things really got going.

After 20 minutes of watching Paul and Mr. Kappes debating the minutia of Revolutionary war troupe movements, I was ready to move on, but the school girls had a paper to write and were furiously scribbling down every word and asking for more details.  Mr. Kappes, clearly enjoying such an enthusiastic audience, obliged them.  For the next 2 hours we got the most comprehensive history lesson of our lives.

We heard exhaustive details on every part of the house, from the placement of the original wainscoting to the lack of nails in the attic ceiling.  We discussed the shockingly high rate of infant mortality at the time and its influence on child rearing (the lesson: don’t get too attached).  We saw a crumbling piece of wood recovered from the mill pond, barely recognizable as a toy boat, and learned about the importance of a keel.  We questioned the design of baby bottles (originally made of pewter) and wondered about the leakage of lead and water acidity levels at the time.  We saw 200 year-old soap, had a horrifying discussion on past hygiene and the origins of germ theory, and went into great detail on how to use a bedpan.  We heard about bed tightners and the details of a remote door un-locking mechanism (now gone).  Mr. Kappes continued this amazing lecture until the museum closed for the day and we stumbled, exhausted and blinking, back into the bright sunlight.  Feet aching from standing for 2.5 hours, we no longer felt up for a hike, so we wandered around the grounds for 20 minutes and went home.

In summary, while the day did not go as planned, spending 2.5 hours with an extremely knowledgeable historian was a marvelous way to spend the afternoon.  Time and time again, we’ve found that leaving ourselves open to a change of plans leads to our most rewarding experiences and the moments that we’ll treasure for years to come.  As in museums, so in life.

Images in this post, from the top: exterior of the Van Courtland House; west parlor; and east bedchamber.

1 comment:

  1. It's amazing how much history can be seen in just one house, especially in the coastal areas north of Philadelphia all the way to Boston. I once visited a cafe/bar in Maryland that had served many a meal to George Washington and his generals. I could just imagine the lively barmaids and the swilling of bear. Some things never change! Lynn