Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Brooklyn’s Wyckoff-Bennett Homestead Is an Old Dutch Farmhouse by Ralph Blumenthal -

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Near Kings Highway in the Madison section of Brooklyn, the Wyckoff-Bennett Homestead, a colonial-era Dutch farmhouse, is one of only a few such buildings remaining in the city. Built by Hendrick H. Wyckoff in 1766, it has been owned by only three families. Mr. Wyckoff sold the home to Cornelius W. Bennett in 1835 and it remained in the Bennett family until 1983. Photo: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

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WITH a spinning wheel in the attic, flintlock rifles on the walls, foot warmers at the hearth and a horse-drawn sleigh in the barn, Annette and Stuart Mont are well-equipped for 18th-century colonial farm life.

Except they are living in Brooklyn in 2010.

Home is an antiques-crammed pre-Revolutionary white Dutch farmhouse and barn that rise like ghostly apparitions amid apartment clusters and buzzing traffic on East 22nd Street and Avenue P in the Madison section. The Monts, who bought the place fully equipped for $160,000 in 1983, are only the third family to occupy what is known as the Wyckoff-Bennett Homestead since it was built around 1766.

“It’s a living museum,” said Mrs. Mont, 69, a retired psychotherapist and teacher.

But a plan for the city to acquire the 4,000-square-foot home, which was designated as a landmark by the city in 1968 and put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, has broken down in acrimony.

The Monts say that starting a decade ago, city officials offered to buy the house and its contents for $2 million while letting them stay on rent-free as caretakers, but that the officials reneged on the deal last year. Franklin Vagnone, executive director of the Historic House Trust, which helps the parks department preserve historic houses located in city parks, called the place “a wonderful artifact” but said the city “was unfortunately not able to negotiate terms with the current owners.”

The Wyckoff-Bennett Homestead is one of at least a dozen old Dutch houses, wraiths from a long-bygone age in various states of repair and bastardization, that still grace the County of Kings. There are some others scattered throughout the city, down from more than 70 that were intact as recently as the 1950s.

A handful are privately owned, like an even older house in the Flatlands section of Brooklyn that the Monts rented before buying theirs. Others are maintained as museums, including the oldest dwelling in the city and its first designated landmark, the Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House on Clarendon Road in East Flatbush, dating from 1652. On Thursday, city officials opened bids for relocating an old Wyckoff barn from New Jersey onto the Clarendon Road farmhouse property, for the first barn-raising in Brooklyn in 150 years.

The Monts’s home, near Kings Highway, is a curved-roofed paragon of Dutch-colonial architecture, and remains filled with original furnishings — dishes, silverware, quilts, toys, clothes, Bibles, daguerreotypes, even an edict of April 3, 1776, ordering householders “to preserve for the KING’s Use” bushels of rye, wheat and barley to provision the redcoat army.

A sword on the wall is etched with the royal crown and initials for George Rex III. And two Hessian mercenaries quartered there during the Revolution, Captain Toepfer of the Ditfourth regiment and Lieut. M. Bach of the Hessen-Hanau Artillerie, scratched their names and units into windowpanes, the graffiti sections now displayed proudly in two small picture frames.

(And of course the Monts say there is a ghost, the supposed one-legged owner of a single old boot found in the attic, who clomps around opening and closing doors.)

“This is not stuff we acquired,” said Mr. Mont, also 69, chief financial officer of a beauty-products company in Carteret, N.J. “This was left by two families over 250 years.”

The house is not officially open to the public, but the Monts, lovers of history and architecture, who sit on the boards of similar properties in Brooklyn, often play host to school groups and other interested visitors.

“Oh my God, this place is a gem,” Ron Schweiger, the Brooklyn borough historian, said after a recent tour. It was built in what was then Gravesend by Hendrick H. Wyckoff, whose forbear landed in New Amsterdam in 1637. (The family name had been Claesen, but the British, who took the colony from the Dutch in 1664, pressured settlers to adopt English names.) In 1835, the house and 100-acre farm were sold to Cornelius W. Bennett, whose ancestor was perhaps the first settler in what became Brooklyn, in 1636.

It remained in the Bennett family until Cornelius’s great-great-granddaughter, Gertrude Ryder Bennett, a poet and the author of two books on the house — “Living in a Landmark” (1980) and “Turning Back the Clock” (1982) — died childless in 1982, leaving behind handwritten notes on the provenance of many objects in the house.

She was born in 1900, around the time the city put in the street grid requiring the south-facing house to be jacked up and turned to the west, wiping out the original barns and slave quarters. A new barn, still standing, was built in 1899, the date scratched into a beam. Some century-old straw remains.

In the books, Ms. Ryder Bennett recalled watching horse races on Ocean Parkway, visiting the Canarsie Indians, and growing up by kerosene light — her grandmother feared both newfangled gas and electricity.

The federal government also had a chance to acquire the property, the Monts said, when the Bennetts took steps in 1975 to deed it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But the government failed to complete the acquisition, according to the Monts. Jenni Brewer, a spokeswoman for the trust in Washington, said no one there remembered the matter and no records could be located.

Ms. Ryder Bennett’s widower sold the house to the Monts, who claim no colonial pedigree. “We go back to Europe,” Mrs. Mont said, “but most of my family was wiped out in the Holocaust.”

She grew up in Sheepshead Bay, he in Bensonhurst; they met at Brooklyn College and married in 1961. From 1975 to 1982, when their son and daughter were young, the Monts rented part of the Stoothoff-Baxter House, less than two miles away, at 1640 East 48th Street. That house goes back to 1747, with an addition built in 1811 by John Baxter, who moved the house several blocks from its original site.

The house’s owner, Ken Friedlander, 58, a teacher, bought it in 1994 for $280,000, along with a trove of old papers, including a receipt for a slave whom Baxter bought for $325 in 1810.

The Monts said the city first approached them in 1999 with what became an offer of $2 million for their four lots, house and barn, plus the right to match any bid for the contents. And, they said, they were to be allowed to live out the rest of their days in the house rent-free.

As a first step, which was urged by the Brooklyn borough president, Marty Markowitz, the City Planning Commission on Dec. 5, 2007, approved the remapping of the property as a public park.

But the Department of Citywide Administrative Services wrote the Monts last Feb. 26, offering $1,387,000, including the contents, which it said had been appraised at $92,035. The offer, the agency said, had been discounted to offset theoretical rent — about $40,000 a year for the Monts’ expected life spans of 15 more years.

The Monts said they were insulted, and talks with the city collapsed. “Let my kids worry about it,” Mr. Mont said. “I’ll die some day.”