Because it is surrounded by ample acreage in the large city park that bears its name, the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt House appears much as it would have two centuries ago, when it was the rural manor house of a large working plantation. Its back windows, in fact, look out on broad open fields ringed by seemingly timeless woodlands.
The land—today’s park—was part of a large tract originally obtained from the Mohican Indians in 1646 by a prominent citizen of Nieuw Amsterdam, Adriaen Van der Donck, who is thought to have built himself a stone house near where the present structure stands. (Van der Donck, incidentally, was known as the jonkheer, or young lordship, and so his property was the jonkheers —thus the latter-day neighboring city of Yonkers.) After his death in 1655 his widow sold off the property; in 1694 Jacobus Van Cortlandt, a wealthy merchant and future mayor of what was by then New York, purchased a small central portion and over a thirty-year period bought back much of what Van der Donck had owned. Around this time wheat growing suddenly became highly profitable in the New York region, and Van Cortlandt set up an efficient grain-growing and milling operation on his property. In 1748 his son Frederick erected the present mansion of gray fieldstone (quarried nearby) in a style its current custodians call vernacular Georgian, a handsome mix of Georgian, Dutch, and other motifs. This was no rural retreat for leisurely living; it was a simple (though ample) house, comfortably furnished but very much the core of a lucrative wheat plantation, some of whose workers were slaves.
During the American Revolution the house had its brief brush with history. With the British threatening New York City, Augustus Van Cortlandt, Frederick’s son, who was the city clerk, hid the most valuable of the city’s records in the family burial vault northeast of the house, where they remained for the duration. In October 1776, as George Washington pulled his forces back from the lost city, he spent a few nights at Van Cortlandt House on his way to fight the hopeless Battle of White Plains; seven years later, in November 1783, he again slept there on the eve of his triumphal return to New York as victor.
Augustus Van Cortlandt’s descendants remained in the house through most of the nineteenth century; under the terms of his will, those bearing other names assumed the name of Van Cortlandt when they inherited the property. Finally, in 1889, the family deeded the house to New York City. For a while an unlikely herd of bison—someone’s well-meaning gift to the city—roamed the park, and their herdsmen inhabited the mansion, giving it scant care. Then, in 1896, after the bison had been shipped to the Bronx Zoo, the National Society of Colonial Dames came to the rescue and contracted to lease the house and operate it as a museum. They are still there. Their representatives are happy to show off the commodious formal rooms and bedchambers, each of which is furnished with fine period pieces, and they like to point out, on the front facade, the grotesque faces in carved stone that serve as keystones above the windows; although not uncommon in Europe at that time, such devices were rare in precolonial America.
The Historic House Trust has already benefited Van Cortlandt House directly. Through the aegis of one of its board members, students from Brooklyn College in the summer of 1990 conducted an archeological dig on the property. In addition to an underground stone room and numerous clay pipes and pieces of eighteenth-century pottery, they came upon the foundations of a very old structure. Their hunch is that it may be the residence of Adriaen Van der Donck, the jonkheer himself.