Van Cortlandt House

Van Cortlandt House Museum


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Van Cortlandt House

Also popularly known as Frederick Van Cortlandt House or simply Van Cortlandt House, the Van Cortlandt House Museum is among the oldest surviving buildings of the United States and is located in the Bronx, New York City. The museum is a non-profit and private institution that was founded in the year 1896 by the NSCD (National Society of Colonial Dames) in the New York State, a New York City’s licensee.

The interpretive period of Van Cortlandt House Museum falls between the years 1748 and 1823, during the time when Frederick Van Cortlandt along with his sons Augustus and James were the owners of the property. The items that make the museum worth a visit are mainly the furnishings and materials that belonged to the Van Cortlandt family, and is reflective of the period that the family stayed in the house.

The museum continues to be an important highlight of the cultural community of Bronx, and the area surrounding it. The people taking care of the museum have been diligently preserving its historical collections as grounds for research and interpretation for a wide audience that wishes to find meaningful connections between its present and the past. It is for many such reasons that Van Cortlandt House has been rated as one of the best museums to be visited in and around the New York City area. The research and interpretation aspect of the museum involves studying its decorative arts and the social history of people who stayed and worked at the property for a long time.

The house was constructed by and for Frederick Van Cortlandt (1699 to 1749) in a Georgian style using fieldstone, and its construction began in the year 1748. It became the focal point of the prosperous and expansive wheat plantation that had been a property of his family since the year 1691. The main intent behind the construction of the house was to serve as a dwelling unit for Frederick and his family, which included Frances Jay, his wife and Eve, 13 and Anna Maria, 14, his daughters. Frederick’s sons Frederick, 19, Augustus, 21 and James, 22 were not supposed to reside permanently in the house. Quite sadly, Frederick could not live to see the completion of his house. As per his will, the ownership of the Van Cortlandt House went to his eldest son James Van Cortlandt. The will also granted lifetime tenancy of the Van Cortlandt House to his widow Frances Jay Van Cortlandt. Talking about its design, the Van Cortlandt House is a 2 ½ story building and is of ‘L’ shape, with a double hipped roof.

The members of the Van Cortlandt family had played an important role in the affairs of the New York State. Frederick’s father Jacobus had established a profitable wheat cultivation and processing facility in the area, including a mill for processing wheat into flour. Once processed, the entire consignment used to be taken in a fleet of shallow boats through the Hudson and Harlem Rivers, and into the market. During its peak times, the plantation used to comprise of two mills, several farm buildings and a huge variety of livestock.

The Van Cortlandt House was also used by personalities like Washington, Lafayette and Rochambeau during the times of the Revolutionary War. Hence it holds an important place in the history due to those occupations too. The turbulent years of American Revolution resulted in troops heading down to the lower areas of Yonkers, thereby threatening the security and well-being of the local residents and their properties. The Cortlandt house hosted several military encampments by the British and the Americans. In fact, General Washington had set up his headquarters inside the Van Cortlandt House in the years 1776 and 1783 during the initial and final periods of his campaign. The house was always either close to or behind the enemy lines during the entire war period, situated in an area that was normally referred to as no man’s land, as it used to fall between the American troops in the north and the British forces in the New York City.

How it turned into a museum?

After the Van Cortlandt family and the plantation workers’ community stayed at the Van Cortlandt property for nearly 140 years, it was sold off to the New York City and turned into a public park land. The house was used for several other purposes such as a dormitory and a police precinct house before getting turned into a full-time museum.

Around 1895, New York’s National Society of Colonial Dames showed interest in the restoration of the house and turning it into a museum open to the general public. However, there was one major obstacle that was holding back the Colonial Dames from going ahead with this project – there wasn’t any provision in the New York State law that allowed a private organization to hold stewardship of a building that was mainly a public property. Undaunted by this obstacle, the First President of the Society Mrs. Townsend took up the cause and presented it to the government for approval. On the historic day of May 22, 1896, during the New York State legislature’s 199th session, the law regarding it was approved by the Governor via chapter 837. It became a formal law by 3/5 majority.

The house underwent repairs and restoration work for almost a year and the Van Cortlandt House Museum was opened to a great fanfare on the memorable date of May 25, 1897. As per the license agreement, the custody of Van Cortlandt House was initially granted to the National Society of Colonial Dames only for a time period of 25 years, at a very nominal rent of $ 1 per year. The license has been undergoing continuous renewals since then. Although the society is no longer required to pay any rent to the New York City, it continues to stay as dedicated to the upkeep of Van Cortlandt House as it used to be back in the year 1896.

Van Cortlandt House later got included in the National Register of Historic Places in the year 1967 and was also designated as a National Historic Landmark in the same year. It was further declared an important landmark of the New York City in the year 1966, with the New York City recognizing its architectural and historic importance at both interior and exterior levels.

Even though it was reported in New York Times in July 1995 that it needed at least a $ 1 million for repairs and restoration, a fair amount of that work has been completed over a period of time. Today, Van Cortlandt house attracts a large number of visitors, including many school students who wish to learn about American history and its importance through this significant landmark.