Queens history comes alive through its historic houses

[We’re happy to have Anne Shisler-Hughes bring us this fascinating overview of Queens history through its historic buildings. -Ed.]

Queens history is rich and impressive, reaching back to colonial times. However, sometimes it’s tricky to get a sense of it, since new legacies rise up to take the place of old ones. Luckily, there are fantastic museums around the borough where you can tap into the stories of those who have lived in Queens over the centuries.

The Dutch were here first, so it’s fitting that some visible evidence of their early existence should remain. Industrial Ridgewood, with its massive warehouses, in contrast hosts “the oldest Dutch colonial stone house in New York City” in The Vander Ende – Onderdonk House. This traditional Dutch structure was built in 1709 by Paulus Vander Ende, who had purchased it from the owner of the original 1660 land grant from Peter Stuyvesant, Director-General of the Colony of New Netherland. Visit and learn how the property was important in deciding where to put the border between Queens and Brooklyn. Tours are offered Saturdays between 1 and 5 pm.

In those early days, Peter Stuyvesant did not want the Quakers in New Amsterdam; so they settled, prosperously, as farmers out in Queens. Stuyvesant prohibited all worship except that of the Dutch Reform Church, an injustice that lead a group of British settlers in 1656 to present him with the Flushing Remonstrance. This document is considered a precursor to the freedom of religion aspect of the Bill of Rights.

Image source: Gotham Gazette

Chief among those civilly protesting was John Bowne, (not a Quaker himself), a prominent farmer and businessman who built in 1661 what is now The Bowne House. In 1662 he was imprisoned for allowing Quakers to worship in his own home. Subsequent generations of Bownes followed in his bold footsteps – they launched the printing concern Bowne & Co.; founded the Bank of New York and New York Hospital; and Walter Bowne became Mayor of New York City from 1829 to 1833. The Bowne House is open for reserved group tours – call (718) 359-0528 to set that up.

Knowing the struggle of the early Quakers to worship publicly, it’s particularly meaningful to see the 300-year old Flushing Quaker Meeting House and Cemetery in downtown Flushing. It’s still a meeting place of the Society of Friends. Show up after service on Sunday afternoon, and someone will show you around. They’ll likely explain the techniques behind the building’s enduring construction and point out names on the simple gravestones out back, many of which are Bowne.

As the colonists got ready to let go of British rule, extraordinary people emerged to lead them into independence. One of these was Rufus King, who served in the Revolutionary War and was a framer and signer of the Constitution. An avid Federalist and passionately anti-slavery – a stance his son, Governor of New York John A. King, carried forth – he was a New York Senator and an Ambassador to England under three administrations.

You can visit his estate, King Manor Museum, in Jamaica, where he retired to a life of a gentleman farmer. The Museum is lucky to have a good collection of family and period objects, and the stately house is presented as it would have looked in the early 19th century. A prized possession is a Muzio Clementi square fortepiano that King bought in London, that will be played by renowned New York fortepianist Dongok Shin in a rare concert on December 7 at the Manor. Regular tours are given Thursday through Sunday.

Before the Erie Canal opened up new territories for farming in 1825, Queens and Long Island constituted a major American farming center. You may be familiar with the Queens County Farm Museum in Douglaston for its outstanding agricultural program and delicious offerings at Union Square Farmers Market. A 47-acre site with origins in 1697, the Museum uses the old farmhouse on site, Adriance House, to talk about farm life through the centuries. Admission to the site is free and there are guided tours of the farmhouse on Saturdays and Sundays.

So many accomplished and renowned people have, perhaps surprisingly, chosen to make their home in Queens over the centuries and our borough has been the address of choice for an astounding number of jazz musicians. The Queens Jazz Trail Map gives the precise addresses of legends who have lived here including Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Mingus, to name just a few.

Happily, one can visit the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, where Armstrong lived with his wife, Lucille, for 28 years, just around the corner from Dizzy Gillespie. Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong is certainly widely known for his profound contributions to music – at the Museum, you’ll learn the personal side of this jazz superstar. Born into extreme poverty in New Orleans in 1901, he deeply appreciated the sizable house his wife bought in 1943, and cherished the neighborhood and its families, especially the children. Walking through the house you get a sense of Lucille’s sophisticated style – she worked with interior designer Morris Grossberg and updated the furnishings and finishes continually. Since Louis was so often recorded, each of the rooms features audio snippets of him singing, playing or talking, a touching addition to the experience. Open Tuesday – Sunday for tours.


6 Comment

  • Awesome, didn’t know all of that incredible history was so well preserved. I have to make a trip out to see some of these places!

  • Thank you sharing some of Queens’ history. Just a few tpoints to clairify. John Bowne indeed did allow Quakers to worship in his house but did not sign the Flushing Remonstrance. It was authored by Edward Hart. Also sadly, the house has been closed for renovation for several yaers . The Bownes did not start the Bank Of New York. Alexander Hamilton started that in 1784.

  • This is just the tip of the iceberg (no relationship to Titanic). There is so much history in Queens, surprises around every other corner and much to marvel at. Want to discover Queens, make friends, take part in saving Queens history? Join the Queens Historical Society, 143-35 37th Ave., Flushing, NY 11354 or see http://www.queenshistorical society.org.

  • A correction- Stuyvesant did not prohibit ALL religions other than the Dutch reformed church. He allowed other churches who followed the reformed tradition as well. (Quakers did not.) In 1652 he allowed a small group of Englishmen from Long Island & CT, dissenters to the Church of England, to settle in western Queens in what is now Elmhurst. It was first named Middleburgh, or Middelburg, after a town in Holland that gave refuge to other English dissenters to the Church of England. When the English took over it was called Hastings briefly, then Newtown. The 1652 settlement was led by Rev. John Moore who began a church that still exists today-The First Presbyterian Church of Newtown. It is now celebrating its 361st year!!! It is in its fifth building at the corner of Queens Blvd. & 54th Ave., Elmhurst. It is a National Presbyterian Historic Site , and is applying for National Register of Historic Places status, already having been deemed eligible.
    The church was also involved in issues of Freedom of Religion- from a different cause. The English Governor Cornbury was under orders from Queens Anne to make the Church of England the religion of the new colony. He forced the dissident Presbyterian leaning pastor to resign, imposing his own choice, and arresting Presbyterian pastors the congregation had asked to preach. One was Francis MacKemie, a founder of Presbyterianism in the colonies.
    By the way, Stuyvesant’s predecessor William Kieft, in 1642 also allowed a settlement in nearby Maspeth of English religious dissenters under the leadership of Rev. Francis Doughty. That settlement was destroyed by Indians. Rev. Doughty married the daughter of Rev. Moore, which shows the connection between the settlements.