The Historic House Trust of New York City is a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 to help the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation preserve its collection of historic houses. The Trust works with Parks and the nonprofit boards of each house to restore, interpret, and promote the sites, which span 350 years of New York City life. From modest farmers’ cottages to grand mansions, the 23 sites in the Trust’s collection are located in all five boroughs and chronicle a wide range of cultural, historical, and architectural aspects of New York City.
One by one, the houses were saved by concerned citizens, civic organizations, or descendents of the houses’ owners. Gradually they were acquired by the City, brought under the care of the Trust, and preserved. When the Trust was created, many of the buildings in its collection were in disrepair and the first mission was to stabilize them. While conservation remains a central focus, the Trust has expanded its services and aims to present the sites as a unified collection and strengthen the relationship between the buildings and the urban landscapes around them.
The Trust’s staff includes experts in the following six areas: conservation, care of collections, education and interpretation, property management, fundraising, and marketing. Typical services provided by the Trust’s staff include consultation on restoration projects, museum exhibitions and education programs; assistance with fundraising and promotion; and providing training opportunities for house staff and board members.
Partnering with Parks
Under the New York City Charter, the Department of Parks & Recreation is charged with the care and management of these houses for the beneficial use of the public. As stated in a 2002 memorandum of understanding, the Trust is in a public/private partnership with Parks, under the supervision of the Parks Commissioner and the Trust’s Board of Directors, to oversee care and operation of the houses and to foster coordination of activities between Parks and the houses’ boards and staffs. Parks partially funds the Trust, providing office space and assigning certain Parks employees to work exclusively for the Trust. In this capacity, the Trust serves as a liaison between the houses and city government.
Collectively, the 23 sites, which reside in parks across the five boroughs, tell the story of New York City’s evolution—and America’s history in microcosm—from its beginnings as a Dutch outpost, through the American Revolution, to its rise as a mercantile center and great 20th-century city. Each house tells the story of a family or era, letting visitors experience—through scale, feel, texture, color, smell, and sound—how Americans really lived their lives in the past. Many of the historic houses, most of which are New York City Landmarks and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, are open to the public as museums. They offer cultural opportunities ranging from museum exhibitions to education programs to special events for more than 750,000 visitors each year, 480,000 of whom are New York City schoolchildren. Ambassadors from the past, the Trust’s historic houses capture and preserve New York City’s colorful and fascinating history.
The Trust’s Conservation staff consults on and manages all restoration projects, ranging from smaller repairs to large-scale capital projects. These projects include those funded individually by the houses, by the Trust, or through the City’s capital budget. The Trust’s Conservators offer expert consultation and ensure that work performed on the houses is historically accurate. The Trust approaches projects holistically, using not only the structural needs, but the sites’ history, collections, and cultural landscape to make informed decisions. The Trust also sets high standards for day-to-day maintenance and serves as a liaison between Parks and the houses to coordinate routine repairs and emergency work.
Care of Collections
The nonprofit organization that operates each site is generally responsible for its collections and furnishings; however, most lack the resources to employ a curator. The Trust’s full-time Curator collaborates with the house staffs to ensure accuracy of exhibitions and interpretation and advises on the care of the museums’ fine and decorative art objects. The Trust also works to improve general curatorial practices at all of the houses.
Educating residents and visitors about New York’s rich history is one of the Trust’s highest priorities. Each year nearly half a million children participate in diverse education programs at the Trust’s sites. Through hands-on experiences, they learn what life was like hundreds of years ago, gaining a perspective that no textbook can offer. The Trust hired its first full-time Education Director in 2006 to help standardize and promote these programs, upgrade teaching materials, and ensure that each program is aligned with state and citywide curriculum standards. The Trust also participates in the Teaching American History grant program (TAHG), which facilitates professional training for history teachers.
Since its inception, the Trust has worked to increase public awareness of the individual sites and the collection as a whole. It produces and distributes collection-wide promotional materials such as brochures, rack cards, maps, and a quarterly newsletter. In 2006, the Trust re-launched its identity with a newly designed logo, website, and other collateral materials to brand the Trust and its member houses as a unified collection. With the addition of a full-time Communications Director in 2008, the Trust is expanding its collaboration with the houses on media coverage, marketing materials, cross promotions, and citywide events.
Building Better Organizations
The Trust has recently expanded its mission to include strengthening and training the small nonprofits that operate each house museum. It provides professional development workshops for the houses’ board and staff members to sharpen their skills in fundraising, board governance, and strategic planning. The Trust also advises member houses on fundraising initiatives and administrative issues such as appropriate by-laws, accounting procedures, and staff hiring.
The Trust’s Development staff works with the member houses to secure funding from foundations, individuals, corporations, and government agencies for a full range of projects. Each year, the Trust also awards grants to the sites for general operations and special projects. The Development staff also maintains a membership program and continuously researches potential funders. Peachy Deegan recently found out more about the Trust for Whom You Know readers through conversation with Abby Lootens, of the Trust.
Peachy Deegan: How specifically did the Historic House Trust originate?
Abby Lootens: This year marks the 20th Anniversary of the Historic House Trust. In June of 1989, Mayor Edward I. Koch and Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern gathered at Gracie Mansion with preservationists, historians, architects, and others to announce the creation of the Historic House Trust of New York City. Mary Ellen Hern became the Trust’s first Executive Director and 18 prominent and committed citizens joined the Trust’s Board of Directors, 11 of whom are still on the board today.
At that time, the 15 historic houses in the City’s collection suffered from decay, improper maintenance, or inappropriate restoration treatments. One by one, the Trust worked with the individual nonprofit organizations that operate the properties to address these structural needs. Over time we have expanded the services we provide to the houses, offering guidance on restoration, curatorial, and education projects. Today, the Trust’s collection has grown to 22 historic sites across the five boroughs, ranging from modest farmers’ cottages to grand mansions. The sites now thrive as cultural institutions that represent New York City’s colorful history and attract more than 700,000 visitors annually. Each year the Trust helps fund 72 programs for more than 480,000 New York City schoolchildren, 36 restoration projects, care for more than 8,000 pieces in the City’s collection of historic artifacts, support for the Trust’s staff of 10, and ultimately helps preserve 350 years of New York City history.
What are some of the most interesting stories of preservation in keeping these buildings intact?
Many of houses were saved by the families and/or neighborhoods surrounding them. It is grassroots preservation at its finest. For example, Mary Alice Dyckman Dean and Fannie Fredericka Dyckman Welch, daughters of Isaac Michael Dyckman, bought the Dyckman Farmhouse in 1915 to ensure its preservation. They thoughtfully restored and furnished the house and donated it to the city in 1916. The Wyckoff family formed the Wyckoff House & Association in 1937 and has since been intimately involved in the preservation of the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum, New York City’s oldest structure.
Another interesting angle of preservation is the history of moving houses to parkland. Lefferts Historic House, Kingsland Homestead, Poe Cottage, Valentine-Varian House, several buildings at Historic Richmond Town, the Little Red Lighthouse, and the Lewis H. Latimer House Museum have all been moved to parks in an effort to save them.
What qualifies a house to be part of the collection?
All of the sites in the Trust’s collection are located on New York City parkland, are operated by an independent nonprofit organization, are historically accurate, and tell an important piece of New York City history.
How can the public view the houses?
Nineteen of the houses are open to the public as museums. The Urban Park Rangers host periodic tours of the Little Red Lighthouse and Seguine Mansion. The Hendrick I. Lott House is currently close for restoration. During the Historic House Festival, this year on September 12 and 13, all of the sites in the Trust’s collection are open.
Are the houses used on a regular basis?
What are the 23 sites?
The information I previously sent does say 23 in anticipation of the acquisition of the Bowne House in Flushing. That property will soon be acquired by the Parks Department and join the Trust. Currently, the Historic House Trust collection includes: Bronx: Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Edgar Allan Poe Cottage, Valentine-Varian House, Van Cortlandt House Museum; Brooklyn: Lefferts Historic House Museum, Hendrick I. Lott House, Old Stone House, Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum & Education Center; Manhattan: Dyckman Farmhouse Museum, Gracie Mansion, Little Red Lighthouse, Merchant’s House Museum, Morris-Jumel Mansion Museum, Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre; Queens: King Manor Museum, Kingsland Homestead, Lewis H. Latimer House Museum, Queens County Farm Museum; Staten Island: Alice Austen House Museum, Conference House, Historic Richmond Town, Seguine Mansion.
Are they available for private events?
As small house museums, most have limited capacity but several of the sites are available for rentals depending on the size and requirements of the event. The individual site can be contacted to discuss logistics.
What else should Whom You Know readers be aware of?
On June 18, 2009, the Historic House Trust of New York City will host its annual Founders Award Dinner on the lawn of Gracie Mansion. In celebration of the Trust’s 20th Anniversary, this year’s gala will be unlike any other. In years past, we have been proud to celebrate our major corporate and individual supporters. This year, we will honor our most important partners, who form the very basis of what we do—the historic houses themselves.
For more information:
History Begins at Home. Historic House Trust is a not-for-profit organization operating in tandem with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. Their mission is to provide essential support for houses of architectural and cultural significance, spanning 350 years of New York City life. These treasures reside within city parks and are open to the public. www.historichousetrust.org