clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

See 11 Centuries-Old Remnants of New Amsterdam in NYC

New, 15 comments

As spring finally arrives and tulips bloom across the city, it's a good time to remember New York's Dutch heritage. (Indeed, May 5, better known for its Mexican-themed celebrations, is also Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, though that's a commemoration of a different sort.) The timeliness notwithstanding, small reminders of New York's early settlers pervade the five boroughs, from the orange stripe on our flag to the old Dutch families whose names adorn streets like Beekman, Bayard, Van Wyck, and Van Cortlandt. While most physical remains of the Dutch period (1609-1664, and 1673, when the Dutch momentarily retook the colony) have been lost to time and new(er) development, there are still some great places across the city that date back to the bygone days of New Amsterdam.

Manhattan

The Financial District Street Plan
While most New Yorkers know there was once a wall on Wall Street (no trace of which remains), nearly every other street in today's Financial District also has a Dutch origin—and many still have their Dutch names. Beaver Street was the path for loading pelts onto waiting ships; Pearl Street, then the coastline, was awash in oyster shells; Stone Street was paved in 1655 to cut down on the mud churned up by the horses from the nearby brewery. If you want to start an exploration of New Amsterdam's street plan, start in Peter Minuit Plaza (named for the director-general who bought the island in 1626), where sculptor Simon Verity has taken the 1660 Castello Plan, surveyed by resident Jacques Cortelyou, and turned it into a three-dimensional depiction of the city, complete with the wall, massive fort, and every building.

The Stadt Huis Block
Near Peter Minuit Plaza is 85 Broad Street, the massive early '80s skyscraper that once housed Goldman Sachs. The building's developers hoped to de-map a block of Stone Street, but the city would not allow it. Instead, that block still exists in 85 Broad's lobby as a public thoroughfare—though good luck getting building security to allow you to walk through.

On the Pearl Street side of 85 Broad, a row of foundation stones encased in Plexiglas is all that remains of the Lovelace Tavern, a 1670 tavern and the oldest structure ever unearthed on Manhattan island. Storm damage from Hurricane Sandy makes this archaeological remnant hard to see, but it's still impressively old. Nearby, the outline of another building is commemorated by a yellow rectangle of bricks on the sidewalk. This was the site of the Stadt Huis, the Dutch City Hall. It was also the place my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents lived in the 1660s. Johnannes Nevius, my ancestor, came to New Amsterdam in 1652 and eventually became city secretary, a post that came with lodging in City Hall.

The Met's New York Dutch Room
Hidden away in the American wing, the Dutch Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art comes from a home built in 1751 by Daniel Pieter Winne. Though many of the furnishings in the room date to an earlier era, the room's architecture serves as a great reminder that even just a few years before the American Revolution, New Yorkers of Dutch descent were still building the same houses their ancestors had been constructing a century earlier. Many, in fact, were still speaking Dutch. President Martin Van Buren, for example, only spoke Dutch when he was growing up in New York.

Brooklyn

The Wyckoff House Museum
In the Flatlands section of Brooklyn stands New York City's oldest home, the 1652 farmhouse of Pieter and Grietje Claesen. The kitchen is the oldest section and originally would have been the entire house. The Claesens (who changed their surname to Wyckoff after the English takeover in 1664) were prominent citizens in what was then known as New Amersfoort, a farming community far removed from the hustle and bustle of New Amsterdam. The home is open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays, but only by appointment. It's also slated to get a modern visitors' center soon.

The Town Plan of Gravesend
Even older than the Wyckoff farmhouse is the street plan of Gravesend, the oldest English settlement in the city. Founded by religious dissenter Lady Deborah Moody in 1645, the town's patent was the first in the New World to be given to a woman. Moody laid out the streets of her new town in a perfect square, bisected by two main thoroughfares. Though some of the names have changed, Moody's original streets are all still there. Take the F train to Avenue U and you are in the heart of Moody's town. On Gravesend Neck Road sits the village cemetery where Moody is interred; across the street is the "Lady Moody House." Though she never lived there, it may have been built in 1690 by her son, Henry.

Queens

[Photo courtesy of the Riker Home.]

The Lent-Riker-Smith Homestead
The oldest home in Queens—and the oldest in the city that is still a private dwelling—shares a similar history with the Wyckoff farmhouse. It was built in 1654 as a one-room farmhouse by Abraham Riker. And, like the Claesens who eventually became the Wyckoff family, the Rikers (whose nearby island holds the famous prison) eventually came to be known as the Lents. The home has been owned by Michael and Marion Duckworth Smith since 1975, who have painstakingly restored the property. Though not generally open to the public, group tours can be booked.

The John Bowne House and Flushing Quaker Meeting House
Perhaps the most important home in Queens, though, is that of Quaker John Bowne in Flushing. In response to persecution of Quakers by Peter Stuyvesant, Flushing's most prominent citizens—none of them Quakers themselves—produced the Flushing Remonstrance in 1657, calling for the Dutch government to stop harassing people who weren't members of the official Dutch church.

While the Remonstrance had little immediate effect, when John Bowne was arrested in 1662 for allowing the Society of Friends to meet in his home, he insisted that he should be allowed freedom of conscience. Stuyvesant disagreed and shipped him off to the Netherlands to be punished. Much to Stuyvesant's surprise, Bowne came back having been granted his freedom of religion by Stuyvesant's bosses. Between the remonstrance and Bowne's civil disobedience, the citizens of Queens had guaranteed religious liberty for all New Yorkers. A couple of blocks from Bowne's house stands the 1694 Quaker Meeting House, the oldest house of worship in the city. The Bowne House is currently closed for restoration, but the Flushing Quaker Meeting House welcomes worshippers on Sundays.

The Bronx

The Van Cortlandt House
Interestingly, the oldest house in the Bronx was built relatively late—1748—but just like the Winne house in the Metropolitan Museum, it retains significant Dutch architectural features despite its later construction. The Van Cortlandts were among New Amsterdam's earliest and wealthiest colonists. Oloff Stevenson Van Cortlandt ran the brewery on Stone Street that caused the road to be paved. His son, Stephanus, was mayor, and his granddaughter Anne married Stephen Delancey, one of the most powerful figures in English Colonial New York. The Van Cortlandt House was built as the country seat of Frederick Van Cortlandt, and the property originally housed a farm, brewery, and timber mill.

Staten Island

[Photo of Voorlezer's House in Historic Richmond Town courtesy of the author.]

Historic Richmond Town
The single best collection of preserved 17th- and 18th-century buildings in the city are clustered together at Historic Richmond Town in the middle of Staten Island. The oldest houses in the complex date to the 1670s, including the Britton Cottage, which was moved to Richmond Town from New Dorp in 1967 (many of the sites buildings were relocated to save them from demolition). Often included on Richmond Town tours is Voorlezer's House, ca. 1695, which served as a religious meeting room, school, and pastor's house.

Unsurprisingly, the oldest home on Staten Island, the Billiou-Stillwell-Perine house from 1661, also has Dutch roots. It's owned by Historic Richmond Town, but it has never been relocated and is only occasionally open for visitation.
—James Nevius is not only a Knickerbocker (a descendant of the original Dutch settlers), but the co-author of three books about New York City. Many Dutch places are discussed in greater depth in his most recent, Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers, out now from Lyons Press.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

1000 5th Ave., New York, NY 10028