The Wyckoff House – an ancient treasure

The Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House in East Flatbush wears many laurels. It’s the oldest structure in New York State on its original foundation (c. 1652). It’s the only building in the city surviving from Dutch rule (1625-1664). It was the first city landmark (1965).

What a shame how few people know about this place.

The site today is beautiful – the result of years of restoration and investment. But in Harley Nemzer’s youth, it was decrepit and in danger of being torn down.

Wyckoff House Mark IX 1969

In front of the Wyckoff House, 1969. Photo courtesy Harley Nemzer.

Some of you will recall Harley: he’s the gentleman who wrote my first guest post, on growing up in the area. He invited me to join him on a tour of the Wyckoff House, which he referred to as a “bucket list” item. How could I say no?

The house lies along the former Canarsie Lane, an ancient trail still extant in some parts. Like the Hunterfly Road, on which the Weeksville Heritage Houses were discovered, structures on the path of the old route are positioned at strange angles. (I’ve conscripted Harley to write another guest post on this, as he is very interested in this particular history.)

Canarsie Lane in East Flatbush. The red portions no longer exist.

Canarsie Lane in East Flatbush. The Wyckoff House is at right. The red portions no longer exist.

The house had three additions, in 1730, 1750, and 1819. Although the “official” date of  the original portion is 1652 (based on property records), family lore says the house was built in the 1630s. The museum plans to perform dendrochronological testing this summer on the wood beams to establish an accurate date.

A subsequent addition is a hallway that runs from front to back. I thought this square hole in the interior wall – formerly an exterior window – was a cool touch.

EFB_0312

We had the opportunity to enter the off-limits attic. It’s now used for storage, but Josh, our guide, knew we weren’t your run-of-the-mill tourists. We were excited to see the unique Dutch woodwork joints, and the scratches in the wood used by the illiterate craftsmen. (IIII connects with IIII; II connects with II; etc. It’s like color by numbers, only this finished product goes over people’s heads.)

Wycoff & Vandeveer 057EFB_0318

Josh was friendly and knowledgeable – he has a masters’ degree in history education, but doesn’t want to be cloistered in a library 40 hours a week. This role seemed like the perfect feature for his talents, and he answered our obscure, nerdy questions with aplomb.

The house slowly fell into disrepair in the 20th century. In 1961, a group of Pieter Wyckoff’s descendants purchased the plot for $30,000 – the high price owing to a gas station sitting in front of the house. The header image is of caretaker and Wyckoff descendant Edith Schwenke in 1963 – a beautiful structure at its nadir.

Restoration was completed in 1982, with the house turned into a museum.

The estate has plans for a visitors’ center à la Weeksville. For now there’s a community garden in front, and the museum has many outdoor events planned for the coming summer. I missed the peak of blossoming but I did manage to catch some eye-popping color.

Tulips in front of a Dutch house. How appropriate.

Tulips in front of a Dutch house. How appropriate.

As for my first meeting with Harley: he is as fascinating in person as he is over email. Goateed and sporting sunglasses, he loves riding bikes (both motorized and not) and long considered himself “weird” for being so into Brooklyn history.

I’d say “join the club”, but I’m way behind.

This post was edited to correct the dates of the additions (there were three, not two) and the status of the garden. Thanks to Josh for pointing these out.

This entry was posted in Visit recaps and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Wyckoff House – an ancient treasure

  1. Harley N says:

    I had a fancy camera, but Keith’s cell phone shots are far better! Another not very well known fact is that he knows all the incredible “hole in the wall” kitchens in Brooklyn.

  2. I am determined to visit the ancestral home on my next trip back East. I have heard about this house my whole life.

    • Keith says:

      Welcome, Ann! You should indeed check it out; it is a beautiful piece of history – perhaps even more so for you than for most.

      My favorite fact is that every “Wyckoff” (and its variations) descends from Pieter!

      Keith

  3. This is such a national treasure. Thanks so much for sharing. My son’s are Wyckoff descendents. I haven’t been able to determine which line. Their Grandfather was Francis Wyckoff, born in Boston and their Great-grandfather was Frank Conklin Wyckoff and his father was, I believe Ely Wyckoff of Chester NJ. I am not sure who his father was. Is there Wyckoff genealogy site I can attempt to try to trace further back?

  4. Jay says:

    I visited the museum last year. What a hidden Brooklyn treasure!

Leave a Reply