[All photos by Max Touhey.]
"It was a cold November night, our second date," Marion Duckworth Smith recalls, visibly transported back to 1979. "I said, 'Where are we going?' And he said, 'How would you like to see my cemetery?'" And so began a love storyone that unfolded between Duckworth Smith and her then wooer and later husband Michael, who died in 2010but also one between Duckworth Smith and her home for more than three decades, a Dutch farmhouse built from 1654 to 1656 in East Elmhurst, Queens.
Not only is it one of the oldest buildings in New York City, but because many of the five boroughs' older historic homes have been converted into house museums, Duckworth Smith holds that the Lent-Riker Smith homestead is the oldest "inhabited private dwelling" in the cityand, she believes, the country.
After she married Michael in 1983, Duckworth Smith moved her belongings past the white picket fence and into the ivy-covered yellow house, which is enveloped by one acre of lush, romantic gardens as well as the aforementioned cemetery, where 132 members of the Riker family (yes, of the island) are buried.
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It was in a state: the wisteria overgrown; candles lit because electricity was out; two stories crammed with junk from previous owners; centuries-old floors and beams sagging. "The house of my dreams and the man of my dreamsI stood in the center hallway and I got goosebumps. I loved it instantly," says Duckworth Smith, who turns 75 later this year. "I said, 'Boy, this house has been waiting for me. I'm going bring it back to life, and it's going to bring me back to life.'"
Michael had been renting the house for a grand total of $100/month when the last of the Rikers died off, so he bought it from the estate. "This was considered a poor house in a poor neighborhood," Duckworth Smith explains. She spent the last 30 years overseeing painstaking restoration work; the house is an NYC landmarkone of the earliest, too, designated in 1966as well as recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, annual maintenance of the house and grounds runs her about $100,000/year. Duckworth Smith, sometimes dressed in period costume, offers tours of her beloved estate to help defray some of the costs. The first one is this Saturday, June 13, and she is accepting RSVPs.
The entrance hall divides the house in two: on the left lie the dining room and kitchen, which are original to the 17th-century building. The wooden fireplace with cupboards on either side, and other features of the dining room are typical of New Amsterdam architecture of the time. For every room, Duckworth Smithwhose knowledge of the house is encyclopedichas a story: "Legend that in the Revolutionary War, the house was a tavern where soldiers stopped off."
Upon move-in, Duckworth Smith found that many of the house's quirky, historic attributes were heartbreakingly smothered by modern design. The kitchen floors weregasplinoleum; the counter Formica; the hallway vinyl. The staircase was covered in red indoor-outdoor carpet. Sacrilege! So she led the charge to bring it back to its former glory.
To the right of the entrance hall, at the front of the house, is one sitting room (↑), with a piano. On the same side, at the back, is another one (↓). Along with the upstairs, which contains four bedrooms, they were added to the original farmhouse in 1729. (And yes, that painting above the couch is of Duckworth Smith, painted by her first husband Paul Duckworth, a photographer and artist.)
Duckworth Smith, it should be noted, is an avid collectorof everything. She and Michael would frequent antique auctions in Manhattan, coming home with an array of furniture, art, mirrors, knick-knacks, and more. A display case near the front door houses historic paraphernalia, from keys to an old day pass to Coney Island. "During storms, things just wash up," she says. "Every time there is a heavy rain, things get uncovered. I found a sterling silver thimble."
Of particular interest? Anything from the 1940s, anything related to theater, and toys. Specifically, dolls. "I have like 48 Snow Whites," she says. Many of them live in the solarium at the back of the house, which leads out into the backyard.
Outside, the landscaping is wild yet deliberate. There are two urns gifted from the Steinway Mansion, another history-laden house in Queens. There was once a gazebo, but Hurricane Sandy destroyed it, so it lies in pieces in the storage shed. Benches and other seating dot the space; sculpture also abounds. Duckworth Smith's rescue cats dart across stone paths and behind bushes.
The cemetery adds a special, albeit spooky, touch. Open a gate overgrown with vines and emblazoned with the word RIKER to find a haphazard array of gravestones, many with engravings worn off over time. (The earliest stone dates back to the 1700s.) Duckworth Smith also buried her mother, brother, and Michael there. One favorite is the plot for the house's erstwhile caretaker, whose tombstone has a dog carved onto it. "The legend is that he lived there with 47 dogs and 33 cats, and Rikers buried him in the cemetery," Duckworth Smith says. "Local children would bring their sick animals to him to heal."
It looks adorable and old-fashioned, what with the heart-shaped shutters and all, but this yellow shack in the backyard is actually a workshop Duckworth Smith had built for her long-time handyman. "I call it my gingerbread house," she says.
Now, the house is not far from LaGuardia Airport, and part of the backyard abuts a busy road and a parking lot. Lest anyone forget the history of the Lent-Riker-Smith Homestead, though, the front door is there to remind themthe top and bottom half swing and swivel independently. It's a Dutch door, surrounded by memorabilia and letters related to the house and the accolades it's won.
Duckworth Smith keeps a guest book, and asks that visitors sign it. The notes left by school tours are particularly poignant. She agrees with its signatories about her special home; she's happy here, a little oasis from another era in a busy pocket of the big city. She is gearing up to lead more tours and to seek nonprofit status so that she can apply for grants and turn her home "into an enterprise that's self-supporting." The thought of moving is anathema to her. "I should live in a one-bedroom with no garden, no birds, no antiques?" she asks. "I like to say I've lived my fairy tale."
And now, for the complete photo touras you can see, Curbed went into literally every nook and cranny of this historic house and grounds but for the upstairs rooms. Enjoy!
· The Lent-Riker-Smith Homestead [official]
· Upcoming Tours [rikerhome.com]
· The 20 Oldest Buildings in New York City [Curbed]
· See 11 Centuries-Old Remnants of New Amsterdam in NYC [Curbed]
· House Calls archive [Curbed]