A Visit to Lefferts House

I went to the Lefferts Historic House on the east side of Prospect Park last Sunday. It was a delight to see a house with an outdoor garden. Lefferts’ first house was burned during the revolution by interestingly American instead of British. The current house or more precisely homestead was built in the 1780’s; therefore it has approximately the same age of the Nicholas Schenck’s house in Brooklyn Museum.

The construction feature of the Lefferts’ Homestead is a typical Dutch Colonial house (more as some scholars call Dutch Farmhouse) with its gambrel roof with flare overhanging eaves. But unlike the Nicholas Schenck’s house, whose missing kitchen wing can not be determined as a later-on addition or the part of older house built by Nicholas’ father, the kitchen wing on the right side of the house is probably original because the guide said there is an original beam that was laid across from the main part to the kitchen wing. I also noticed the side-gamble roof of the kitchen wing is much less steeper compared to the Dutch house in the 17th century, an evidence that Dutch American adapted the architecture based on the climate.

The walls were built of oak wood beams with straws and mud in between (the same as Schenck’s house) and they are covered with clapboards. Clapboards and shingles are typical in New Jersey and Long Island areas because the soil is sandy. Although the chimneys are not original, their positions (on each side of the wall) show that Peter Lefferts still clinged to the Dutch tradition.

But that’s almost all that I found about the Dutch identity of this historical house. When I walked inside (awkwardly from the back door), I could only sense English style in their middle or late 19th century. The stairway that runs on the right side of the hallway was a later addition. (Based on the guide, the house had undergone two major renovations, one in 1820’s, the other possibly in the late 1890’s before it was donated and moved in 1917) The later changes especially the stairway have totally eliminated the earlier floor plan for the back of the house. Even more, the visible exposed beams support the wide plank boards in Nicholas Schenck house which can be traced back to H-bent design of the Dutch houses are totally missing. Kevin Stayton, the Curator of Decorative Art in Brooklyn Museum, said Dutch built houses by layering up while English built houses from box frame. If so, then the inside of the Lefferts Homestead, with its box square looking, shows at least at certain time the house has been anglicized.

Since the Lefferts family was among the richest in Kings County, the hall way is much wider compared to that of Nicholas Schenck. It is understandable that period furniture is not displayed in the wide hall way because visitors pass through inevitably, it is for sure that the hall would be furnished quite well in the 1780’s, probably with some chairs, some desk for business etc. The social class difference was much wider than that today and the hallway was probably the only place that low-level guests could see.

The left front room is a parlor, the most formal room of the house. A pair of portrait paintings showed Lefferts likeness in primitive style. (In fact, Peter Lefferts looks quite amicable.) There is also a square piano near the fire place. Pianos were not made in United States before the revolution and most of the firniture downstairs is in the period of the 1820s renovation; although Lefferts’s probably could have had an earlier American or European piano. The right front room is supposed to be dining room. (Now it is basically an open space.)

The back of the first floor has no trace of original Dutch design. In general, the back should have three rooms, which are most likely chambers. And it is possible there will be an antechamber connecting the dining room with the kitchen wing. But now the right rear room is represented as a kitchen and the wall between the kitchen and the dining room is totally eliminated and replaced by a Georgian style arch. It is understandable that the house museum opened the rear chamber as a kitchen as a educational purpose (kids love to play with the solid kitchen utensils!) , such a kitchen would for sure take the place in the kitchen wing (where the staff office is) to avoid spreading oder. The present open arch (although I am not sure how early it was reconstructed to look this way) and the plastered medallions on the board ceiling indicate that Lefferts family no doubt readily accepted the newest trend and by doing so like their house they became more American.

The left rear room shows some paintings or pictures related to the family. Like those pictures taken by Wallace Nutting, a braided rug is placed in the center of the room. Although such rugs are actually 20th century invention, because the room is not furnished at all there is no need for historical precision. (Some kids toys were dispersed around the floor when I was there.)

Most of the period rooms in museums try to be a snapshot of a certain period. Even with such an specific intention, curators still have a puzzling challenge: Houses at any time will not only have furniture most up-to-date, they may also have older furniture and some could be inherited from several generations ago. A period-correct presentation of those rooms may not actually reflect what it really looks like the real houses at the time that imaginal snapshot is taken.

Lefferts’s house, on the contrary, shows the evolving changes that were inevitable to any houses in history. It is a house with late 18th century Dutch American house frame and an almost English interior. It shows the fading consciousness of Dutch American to cling to their heritage root when a new national identity took place in both their mind and their house. (Peter Lefferts became a delegate to the state convention in Poughkeepsie.) In such a way, it is like a silent film with traces of different cultures and marks of style changes that rolls in front of keen eyes.

Lefferts house does not have additional storage so the rest of the rooms are used as such. It is probably not ideal since the insulation of the old house makes preservation of certain material much harder. Currently, visitors can wander around the rooms (except the parlor and the chamber), a practice that most of the museums abandoned long time ago. I can see the benefit of walking into the rooms, the kind of fulfillment and living experience that I have never had in front of those beautiful period rooms in museums. But as the museum serves as children education outpost within the historical context, there is certain danger that the wood floor may be worn in an accelerated pace. Maybe I am wrong. I heard the rumbling sounds of kids walking and climbing inside the house, by exploring the rooms, they are in some sense reliving the past, a past period that defined the making of a nation.

For more pictures, please visit Eric Miller’s photos from here.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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