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Our Life in a Museum
What’s it like caring for the oldest Dutch Colonial farmhouse in New York City? Quite frankly, it’s a pain the neck (but still pretty rad).

The eighteen-wheelers begin barreling down Flushing Avenue at four in the morning. Asleep inside a 300-year-old farmhouse in New York City, I hear the trucks as they back into the warehouse loading docks nearby. Beep beep beep beep beep. The sounds rouse me well before the quack quack quack of my iPhone alarm clock. Sometimes I pretend the rumblings of passing trucks are ocean waves, but eventually, I give up on sleep and start my morning chores—the first of which is crab-walking to the end of the bed. With my boyfriend Keith on the bed’s outer side, I have to shimmy between the sheets and the low-hanging sloped ceiling of our attic apartment. At five-foot-eight, I can’t stand up fully until I reach the middle of the room. Mornings at the ’Donk start out pretty rough.

Our kitchen.The Vander Ende-Onderdonk House, to go by its full name, is the oldest surviving Dutch Colonial farmhouse in the city. Earlier this summer, Keith and I became the live-in caretakers of this piece of history on the border between Brooklyn and Queens (find out how we got this gig here). After four months, he and I are getting the hang of farm life in the big city, learning how to keep chickens, what vegetables to plant, and when to duck. While colonial homes typically have low ceilings and doorways (for one thing, people were shorter in olden times), our triangular-shaped attic space is especially hobbit-like—adorable yet tricky. We crook our necks while washing the dishes and crouch our heads in the shower. (Peeing standing up—not usually a challenge for Keith—has become so.)

But soon enough, we’re outside, standing upright, strolling through a chirping garden complete with tall trees, white lattice archways, and a 15-foot-deep stone cistern that’s been collecting rainwater for almost four centuries. Nowadays, it also holds litter and oily runoff from the warehouse parking lot about seven feet to the south. By eight a.m. the Chinese wholesale center next door is bustling with employees and truck drivers. Sometimes I wave. Sometimes they nod and smile. But usually language barriers, a 13-foot-high chain-link fence, and towers of wooden pallets separate our worlds. Their noise, however, is a constant reminder that though I live on an old farm, the second I step through its gates, I am in the city.

More in this series: This Really Old House

Every morning, Keith walks the perimeter of the property, picking up trash on the sidewalk and the litter that blows in from the industrial neighborhood surrounding the Onderdonk House. There is a lot of it. The city doesn’t provide street trashcans to this area of town, and refuse creeps in from all directions. Curiously, people take our little green space for a dumping site. Last week, I found a bathroom sink, but Keith has also had to remove giant truck tires, janitor carts, La-z-boys, and daily doses of dog waste, inside the bag and out. Sometimes I catch him checking out women walking down the street with their pooches. I’m not jealous; I know he’s just trying to identify the dog-doo bandit.

Antique medicine bottles fill one box, while another holds female firefighter helmets from WWII. And then there's the box simply marked, “Bones.”

While he patrols the border, I step into the backyard, egg basket and hose in hand. The 200-foot green tube barely makes it to the vegetable garden at the top of the hill. As I tug and yank and untangle the hose across the grass, our favorite feral cat (one of many) leaps from the bushes to attack the wiggling rubber snake. He’s pretty cute. I pick some cherry tomatoes for “the ladies” and head to the chicken coop. We have six hens, the most dominant of whom will hip-check—wing-check?—any bird that stands between her and a tiny tomato. The other girls just peck at the fruit as if they’ve never seen it before and wait for their organic corn and pellet feed to arrive.

The first few times I stepped into the homemade henhouse to collect eggs, I slammed my head against the top of the door. More than once this sent me to the ground—head in hands, knees in bird shit. But like I said, I’ve grown accustomed to ducking, inside the house and out.

* * *

One place where we get to reach up high is the library beneath our apartment. The books, stacked to the 8-foot ceiling, contain just about everything ever written down about Queens and Brooklyn—well, not everything. The library shelves don't hold blog posts or Yelp reviews, but perhaps everything penned on a typewriter, or even with a feather and some ink.

The library holds records of who lived where and belonged to what church going back to the 1600s, and New Yorkers looking to find their roots attend genealogy workshops at the Onderdonk every few months. Oh, if only my ancestors stepped off the boat in New York instead of Boston! But I still find plenty to read. Want to know what happened to NYC’s Civil War orphans? We’ve got a little book on it. Ku Klux Klan activity in Queens? There is a whole binder full of the dirty details (unfortunately). After a nice night out last week though, I opted for some lighter material: a collection of “Teen Talk” newsletters from the 1940s. Wow, those kids were lame (and sexist).

The bookshelves stand atop trapdoors that open into the cellar, the oldest place in the home. Dating back as far as the 1660s, the basement stores an eclectic trove of artifacts collected from around New York City—or simply dug up in the ’Donk’s backyard. Antique medicine bottles fill one box, while another holds the helmets of female firefighters who served the community during World War II. And then there's the box that is simply marked, “Bones.” A family cemetery did once exist on the farm, but I’m pretty sure the bone fragments are of the animal variety, perhaps from pets or former feasts. Even so, when I’m alone late at night and hear the house (or something) creak, I’m grateful for those heavy bookshelves holding the basement hatches shut. The only other way down to the cellar is through the museum, and we rarely find reason to venture there at night.

Drawing room a la Onderdonk.

Don’t laugh. Your imagination might run wild, too, if you lived in a place previously occupied by 17 generations of New Yorkers—some against their will. Records show the Van der Endes had at least three slaves living on the premises in 1737, two males and one female. Growing up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, I was proud to work in two restaurants that were part of the Underground Railroad. At a childhood friend’s house, I remember peering down into a vent hidden in the grass in his backyard. The opening led to a secret room beneath the dirt. His house helped free people. My current home, at one point, enslaved them. What were their names? Where did they go to church? No one wrote it down.

Walking out of the library and into the exhibition section of the house, the first thing that always grabs my attention is a mannequin dressed to the nines in a Victorian-era gown. As I enter, she stands right in the sweet spot of my peripheral vision, sending those fight-or-flight hormones into overdrive. Only after I avert my eyes from the figure’s penetrating stare can I take in the rest of the room, which is richly decorated with 19th-century relics: gilded chandeliers and candelabras, oil paintings, heavy curtains, and a doll sitting in a tiny rocking chair, clutching an even smaller doll. This drawing room represents what the home may have looked like when the Onderdonk family lived here between 1821 and 1912.

Standing opposite the mannequin’s lair is a dining room that hails from the Colonial era, when the Vander-Endes supped here. It’s a much more modest country-styled room, filled with cabinetry that’s blue on the outside and bright orange within, the signature colors of the Dutch. A musket sits above the fireplace, and on the far wall is a map showing the farm’s former acreage. Though now a two-acre property, the Vander Ende farm once ended at the M train line, 20 long city blocks away.

Dining room a la Vander Ende.

Across the hall lies the exhibit room where a glass case holds objects excavated in the yard in the 1970s by archeological students from NYU. Before there were sanitation departments, the home’s residents buried their trash. Along with old jugs, broken china, and utensils, staring out of the case with one painted blue eye is a shattered porcelain doll head. Do you notice a pattern here?

Next to the gift shop (where you can buy a wooden clog keychain or a good ol’ hoop-and-stick) is a winding staircase leading to the museum’s attic—which is quite different from our tiny attic over the library. It’s huge, with a ceiling that rises to an apex of 17 feet. I love it up here. During the day, dappled sunlight peeks through the windows and small holes in the roof, illuminating the home’s wooden beams. Holding it all together are wooden pegs, used by homebuilders way-back-when in lieu of metal nails. Currently a project is in the works to renovate the roof: fix the holes, keep the beams.

"Dutch Gothic"

In the far corner of the attic is a workshop where curator Richard Asbell, a retired singer from the Metropolitan Opera, saws pickets for the yard’s fences. The other end of the attic—decorated with antique mirrors, dried flowers, sconces, and a church pew—serves as a bridal suite for weddings thrown at the Onderdonk throughout the summer. Pro tip: A bride smiling down at her guests from the high windows of the old stone house is wedding album gold.

This attic is where many of the home’s former residents slept, dividing the space into separate rooms for their large families. Lucky for them, the giant roof slopes ever so gently. The Vander Endes and the Onderdonks didn’t need to crab-walk out of their beds, or listen to eighteen-wheelers rattle their windows.

But I bet they, too, often woke to the sounds of travellers outside. Before it was converted into a Colonial road for conveying goods to a port in Queens, Flushing Avenue was an old trading route for Native Americans. I can’t help but wonder if the Vander Endes waved at them on their way to feed the chickens. And if it felt like another world outside their gates.

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Melissa Mahony is OnEarth.org's senior editor. She previously worked at Wildlife Conservation magazine, blogged about energy for SmartPlanet, and has written for many publications about science and the environment. MORE STORIES ➔
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I thought this was a wonderful glimpse into your daily life, and a charming set of snapshots of the many generations who lived there before you. I really enjoyed your tone - not romanticising the house or its history but showing a deep affection nonetheless. Thanks for this lovely piece. You are part of that long history now!! I'm not sure whether "two males and one female" is a quote from the records of the house (I feel it must be). If so, I think you might consider adding quotation marks - as it stands it reads (jarringly) as though that is how the author is describing those people - two men and one woman. I'm sure that the author intended to use of the words of the time to show how these people were dehumanised - quotation marks will help make that point more clearly. Thank you again for this fascinating insight into an interesting house - at times the juxtapositions gave a lovely sense of time travel, which I'm sure the house itself does too. and a creep mannequin too..!
"Wow, those kids were lame (and sexist)". Careful with the editorializing. By today's standards, EVERYONE was sexist and racist once you get before say, 1980. (Homophobic too before 2006). The sexist part is most lilely a valid criticism-----but "lame"? Remeber---birth control was harder to come by, and the mores of thetime were quite different---even here in NYC! Otherwise fascinating article.