We recently put together a list of the best in fall house tours, and if you’ve gotten your fix of seeing how the other half lives, why not make your way to the city’s house museums to explore how historic New Yorkers lived?
There are 23 house museums across the five boroughs, all supported by the Historic House Trust, a nonprofit that works in conjunction with the Department of Parks & Recreation to preserve these sites of cultural and architectural significance. From farmer’s cottages to gilded mansions, the public museums span 350 years of city history.
Merchant’s House Museum
Arguably the most high-profile of the lot, the Merchant’s House Museum boasts an 1832 late-Federal brick exterior, along with Greek revival interior rooms. It’s best known for featuring a collection of over 3,000 items of the Treadwell family (the wealthy merchant-class family who lived in the house from 1835 to 1933), including original furnishings and personal possessions, therefore offering a rare and intimate glimpse into domestic life during 19th century New York.
Merchant’s House Museum façade and dining room, via Wiki Commons
Located on the border of the East Village and Noho, the Merchant’s House has served as a house museum for 78 years, and is one of the first buildings designated an official landmark by the city. Today, the museum educates the public about life during this historic time through public programs, specialized tours, and an always innovative series of exhibits.
Edgar Allan Poe Cottage
Some of the Historic House Trust’s sites were designated not for their architecture or the role they played in the city’s history, but rather for the famous individual who lived at the address. A perfect example of such a house is the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage, located in the Bronx. The modest structure is where the famed poet spent the remaining years of his life, deciding on the tranquil spot in 1844 in the hope that it would cure his wife’s tuberculosis (it did not; she passed away in 1847, and he followed two years later).
Edgar Allan Poe Cottage, courtesy of the Bronx County Historical Society
Built in 1812, the five-room cottage was typical of the working-class houses that filled the old village of Fordham. It was where Poe wrote some of his most famous works, including Annabel Lee, Eureka, and The Bells. In 1913, the house was saved from demolition by the New York Shakespeare Society. The organization raised funds to move the cottage across the street to a public park, where it still remains. Today, the museum’s rooms have been restored with period furnishings to resemble how they would have looked during Poe’s stay in the 1840’s. On a guided tour, visitors can see the bed in which Virginia died and the rocking chair Poe used.
Alice Austen House Museum
Another former home of a notable New Yorker, the Alice Austen House Museum recalls the life of one of America’s earliest and most prolific female photographers and an inspiring “modern woman” of the Victorian age. Alice Austen captured over 8,000 images throughout her lifetime and is best known for her documentary work, including photos of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island and everyday street scenes. As a young girl she moved into her grandfather’s suburban farmhouse in Staten Island, known as Clear Comfort, which he transformed into a Victorian Gothic Cottage.
Alice Austen House Museum, via Wiki Commons
When Alice had to leave the home in 1945, she was devastated, and she passed away in 1952. In 1985, though, a restoration of the property was completed, and today the house and garden are operated as a public museum that not only gives visitors a glimpse into Austen’s home life, but displays photos from her collections. It also offers educational programs for New York City schoolchildren and hosts a range of public arts programs.
You might be surprised to know that this is a public museum, but you can, in fact, tour the current residence of the de Blasio clan. Gracie Mansion was built in 1799 by shipping merchant Archibald Gracie, and it is the only surviving example of the elegant country homes that once lined the East River.
Gracie Mansion, via Wiki Commons
After years of use as a comfort station and ice cream stand for surrounding Carl Schurz Park, the mansion became home to its first mayor in 1942 when Fiorello H. La Guardia took up residency. Today, the Gracie Mansion Conservancy operates both public and private tours of the mayoral home.
Morris-Jumel Mansion Museum
Located in Rogers Morris Park at 160th Street, the Morris-Jumel Mansion Museum was erected in 1765 in the Georgian Style as a country retreat for Roger and Mary Morris. The home played host to some of the colony’s most fashionable parties until being seized by the Continental Army in 1776 to serve as George Washington’s headquarters during the Battle of Harlem Heights. In 1810, wealthy French wine merchant Stephen Jumel bought the home and outfitted it with luxurious furniture and paintings from Paris.
Image courtesy of Morris-Jumel Mansion Museum
The mansion was first opened to the public in 1904 by the Daughters of the American Revolution as Washington’s Headquarters. Today, it features restored period rooms from the Morris, Washington, and Jumel eras. The museum offers guided tours, exhibitions, after-school programs, and musical events. It is also available for rent for weddings, galas, and the like.
Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum
Built around 1652 in what is today East Flatbush, the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum is the oldest structure in New York City. It had been the home of Pieter Claesen Wyckoff, who arrived in Brooklyn in 1637 from Germany as an illiterate teenage farm laborer. After working for the van Rensselaer family, he became a successful farmer and magistrate and lived in a simple, one-room structure with a packed-earth floor. The house has been reconfigured over the years, as the Wyckoff family occupied the site for eight generations until 1901, but the original building still stands.
Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum, via Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum
In 1965, the house became the city’s first individual landmark, and in 1982, after more than 50 years in disrepair, it was restored and opened as a public museum. It exemplifies the vernacular architecture of the Dutch-American farms of Brooklyn and Queens. In addition to offering tours and exhibits, the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum hosts the annual Breukelen Country Fair (taking place this Saturday), a variety of plating and agricultural programs in the garden, and many school and summer programs.
Van Cortlandt House Museum
The Van Cortlandt House Museum has the honor of being the city’s first house museum and the oldest building in the Bronx. It’s the centerpiece of a 1,000-acre urban park that was once the Van Cortlandt family estate. Jacobus Van Cortlandt, a merchant, started buying land in the Bronx in 1694, and developed his property into an extensive wheat plantation. His son Frederick inherited the estate and built the current Georgian home in 1748, a display of the family’s wealth and elegance. During the Revolutionary War, it was occupied by both the Colonial and British armies and hosted George Washington and William Howe.
The Van Cortlandt family, along with their slaves, stayed in the house until 1886, at which time they sold the entire estate to the city as part of Van Cortlandt Park. In 1896, the National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of New York restored the house as a museum of 18th-century life, boasting an impressive collection of historic furniture and decorative arts.
To learn more about all 23 house museums, visit the Historic House Trust’s website.
Tags : Alice Austen House Museum, Edgar Allan Poe Cottage, Gracie Mansion, Historic House Trust, Merchant's House Museum, Morris-Jumel Mansion Museum, NYC historic homes, NYC house museums, NYC landmarks, Van Cortlandt House Museum, Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum