Monday, November 19, 2007

Sunday at the Lefferts Homestead: "Disappearing Dutch Brooklyn"

This post appeared on Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Monday, November 19, 2007:

I have a blog post reporting on yesterday's presentation at the Lefferts Historic House running today at Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn:

Sunday was the last day of "5 Dutch Days, 5 Boroughs" – the annual celebration of Dutch culture in New York City. The day's events included a morning service at the Old First Reformed Church on Carroll Street and Seventh Avenue as done in its congregation 300 years ago, using the Netherlands Liturgy of 1619, and an afternoon family exhibit at the Vander Ende-Onderdonk House in Ridgewood to show kids what life was like for young people in the early years of the city.

Four centuries ago, of course, Brooklyn was part of the great Dutch commercial world empire, but traces of Dutch Brooklyn have all but vanished in my lifetime along with the dirt roads like Mill Lane I used to walk and the wooden planks that preceded sidewalks in my little corner of what had been Nieuw Amersfoort.

When I was born, about 70 Dutch-American farmhouses stood in Brooklyn. Today only 14 are left.

On Sunday afternoon, I was at the Lefferts Homestead for "Disappearing Dutch Brooklyn – Where Have All the Houses Gone?" -- a presentation by anthropologist and archaeologist Christopher Ricciardi, who showed slides from his dig at an old house I know well, the Hendrick I. Lott House on East 36th Street, down the block from my friend Ken Falk's house in Marine Park not far from where I grew up.

Living in this Dutch Colonial farmhouse from 1720 until 1989, members of the prominent Lott family participated in the Revolutionary War, supported abolition – freeing their slaves as early as 1801 and then hiring them as paid servants – and may have later used the house as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

In 2001 Ricciardi and his colleagues from the Brooklyn College Archaeological Research Center discovered the slave quarters, a windowless, cramped garret room roughly ten feet square. A tiny space – a closet within a closet, its door hidden behind coat hooks that would have held a curtain of garments – may have been a way station for escaping slaves.

Ricciardi acknowledged that just as many 18th century houses claim that George Washington slept there, most pre-Civil War houses in the North claim to be a stop on the Underground Railroad.

But two different descendants of the Lott family, who didn't know each other, both remembered the same story when given tours of the old homestead. "They said this was where they kept their runaway slaves," Ricciardi said.

Although southern Brooklyn Dutch farmers were quite wealthy, Ricciardi noted, apparently they were not materialists like their equally rich counterparts in Manhattan and what is today brownstone Brooklyn, who had more opulent homes.

The dig proved that the Lotts lived frugally, with plain dishes, glasses and pipes and no fancy materials in the construction of their house.

The Lott House is one of four Brooklyn sites owned by the Historic House Trust of New York City, along with the Lefferts Historic House Museum (c. 1783), the Old Stone House (1699), and the oldest structure in New York City, one I can recall my first girlfriend's mother, an East Flatbush community planning board member, fighting to save in the late 1960s: the original portion of the Pieter Classen Wyckoff House on Clarendon Road and East 58th Street, which dates from 1652.
The Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum now looks a lot better than the old dump with a caved-in roof sporting a crooked TV antenna I remember from that day in August 1970, when Mayor Lindsay presided over a ceremony marking the start of its restoration.

In a fascinating Q&A session following his presentation, Chris Ricciardi said that it's hard to get New Yorkers interested in southern Brooklyn's old Dutch farmhouses because they're a bit out of the way. But, he concluded, it's important to respect our borough's past and preserve our common heritage.

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