Day: September 16th, 2007

The oldest home in NYC

Sunday, September 16th, 2007 | All Things, NYC History

After coming across a post on Charlie Suisman’s Manhattan User’s Guide, I called up the Queens Historical Society to reserve my spot on a Sunday afternoon tour of the 17th century Lent-Riker-Smith Homestead.

Who knew that that the oldest private dwelling in New York City (and arguably: the country) was located in Jackson Heights — or is this East Elmhurst? — in the shadow of LaGuardia Airport’s historic Marine Air Terminal? By most historical accounts, the original Dutch Colonial farmhouse at 78th Street and 19th Road was built by Abraham Rycken Van Lent circa 1655, on land granted to the Rycken (Riker) family by Governor Peter Stuyvesant. Around 1729, Abraham Lent, another Riker descendent, made several structural additions, which survived through the 20th century as the house changed ownership through generations of the Lent-Riker-Rapelyes clan. Eventually, the farmhouse left the family hands when it was passed to William Gooth, the personal secretary of the last Riker to own the house. Gooth rented out the home to a string of tenants into the 1960s, among which was Michael Smith, who opted to buy the dilapidated property — lock, stock and barrel — for $65,000 in 1975.

A 350-year old farmhouse, with its own cemetery, in the outer reaches of Queens? This I had to see for myself. But getting there was no easy task. I’d never been to this part of the borough before, which was situated a couple of miles from the nearest subway station. From Steinway Street in Astoria, I hopped on the Q101 to the last stop: Hazen and 19th Street.

The connection I did not make at the time – but which I came to rather quickly – was that the Q101 also happens to be the bus to Rikers Island — itself once part of the Riker estate, until it was purchased by the city in 1884. As the bus pulled up to its terminal at the entrance of the bridge to the penitentiary, and all the other riders trudged off, I paused unsure of which direction to head along these desolate streets marked by bail bondsmen and a taco truck. What had I gotten myself into?

“Sweetie, where are you going?,” the bus driver asked me incredulously. Yes, I must have been that obviously out of my element.

“Um… there’s a farmhouse around here?,” I began, thinking how ridiculous I must have sounded. Quizzical silence. I went on weakly: “The Queens Historical Society is uh,… giving tours this afternoon?”

The bus driver considered this carefully. “Well, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but whatever it is, it’s going to be in that direction.“ He indicated a leafy, tree-lined turn-off. “Stay on this side of the street,” he added helpfully. Away from the barbed wire fencing. Got it.

I did as directed, and sure enough, a couple of blocks after the turn-off, I spied other people randomly milling about, looking just as out of place as I.

Through the white picket fence, into another world: the Lent-Riker-Smith House:

Lent-Riker House

The house tours were being led in groups of about a dozen by the owner/savior of the house, Marion Duckworth Smith, nicknamed “Lady Legacy” (to her husband’s “Lord Legacy”) by Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern. Before our assigned time slots, there was ample opportunity to explore the grounds of Paradise Acre: gardens, gazebo, gingerbread house and cemetery.

Lent-Riker House

Lent-Riker House

The Riker family graveyard behind the house contains 132 marked graves of the once-prominent Rikers and Lents, several cracked and worn, the oldest of which dates to 1744, the most recent: Mrs. Smith’s brother, Charles. We were each given a geneology chart and detailed map of the cemetery to decipher the stones for ourselves.

Lent-Riker House

Entry hall (with original 300-year old planked floors, rescued from under layers of black paint):

Lent-Riker House

Mrs. Smith told us the story, which she’s no doubt told hundreds of times before, of how she lovingly restored the house as a newlywed in the early 1980s. Clearly, it was a tale she relished telling: how she first set foot in the house one chilly night in November 1979, a month after meeting the man who would become her husband. It was their second date, and he had lured her out to the dark, then-abandoned house with the improbable line, “How would you like to see my cemetery?”

Mrs. Smith felt a deep and immediate connection to the house and grounds, and after she and Mr. Smith were married, took it upon herself — almost single-handedly — to restore this piece of history to its former glory. The attic, which had remained untouched for almost a century, proved to be a dusty treasure trove of Riker family papers (most of which the Smiths donated to a museum for a sizable tax donation.)

Lady Legacy

Lord Legacy

The couple live in the house to this day. Their dream is to have the home converted into a museum after their deaths. (Shoutout to intrepid reporter and Sunnyside CSA member AP for the piece.)

Check out the rest of the Lent-Riker Homestead photos on flickr.

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Columbus Avenue street fair

Sunday, September 16th, 2007 | All Things

I stepped outside my door onto Columbus Avenue this warm September morning to find the Columbus Avenue street fair in full swing. Yes, the familiar smell of sausage and peppers, funnel cakes and crêpes. I didn’t mind so much, though; as Top Chef’s gentle giant Chris “CJ” Jacobson will tell you: all women love crêpes. (Ah, I will miss you, CJ. Though perhaps not quite as much as I missed Sam from Season 2.)

Columbus Avenue street fair

And in front of the Danskin: a performance artist confounded those gathered as she twirled and preened barefoot in a white slip. Not entirely sure that this was a fair-sanctioned performance, as I and a several others hastily dispersed once she launched into a round of maniacal laughter.

Columbus Avenue street fair

Another of the live entertainment acts consisted of a trio of youngsters, who commanded the stage set up at Columbus and 66th Street. As I passed through on my way to the subway, the band was in the middle of a cover of “Wild Thing.” The Troggs version, that is, not the Tone Lōc rap (co-written by fellow HCHS alum, Young M.C.) But still: there’s something a little disconcerting about a pre-pubescent boy growling out, “Wild thing… I think I looooooove you.”

Columbus Avenue street fair

Columbus Avenue street fair

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