This weekend I visited two historic houses up the Hudson River: Kykuit and Sunnyside.
Kykuit is the Rockefeller estate overlooking the Hudson (“kykuit” is Dutch for “high place”). The house was built in the first decade of the 20th century and expanded over the years. The space houses the family’s amazing art collection – Ming pottery, Wharhols, Calder mobiles, Sargent paintings, and more.
Sunnyside is writer Washington Irving’s “bachelor pad” – which he ended up sharing with his brother and five nieces. It’s designed as a Romantic retreat, full of winding paths and crawling ivy. The house has been restored to how it might have looked towards the end of Irving’s life, in the 1850s. Many of the family’s furnishings are in place.
Both sites are accessible only by guided tour, which of course leads to a comparison of what we do here at the Tenement Museum.
In this case, both tours were informative, but I found myself thinking of what I really love about ours. We rely heavily on storytelling, and we have a goal with our programs: to promote tolerance and historical perspective on a variety of immigrant experiences.
Many historic homes focus solely on preservation and conservation of buildings, grounds, and artifacts. These museums tend to offer object-based tours – you learn about the antiques that the family collected, how the architecture changed over time, which firm landscaped the grounds. For art history lovers, this can be really enjoyable. But for those of us who aim to experience history – how people lived, how world events impacted individuals – we often find something missing.
I think the greatest historic house tours are those that incorporate storytelling and use objects to further our understanding of history. One of my favorites is the Seward House in Auburn, NY. This is the home of William Seward, the secretary of state under Abraham Lincoln most famous for later buying Alaska for the United States (“Seward’s Folly”). He was also New York’s governor and a US senator. We on the Lower East Side remember him as the namesake for our local Seward Park, the first municipal playground in the country. His life and times are incredibly exciting – an assassination attempt, travels around the world, working with the Underground Railroad – and the tour brings all those moments alive for you.
It helps that the house is filled with things that Seward and his family used. Everything there, with the exception of some carpets and curtains, actually belonged to the Sewards. This is so rare for a house museum portraying this era (mid/late 19th century). You can stand in front of his writing desk as a guide describes Seward’s important correspondence back to Washington. You can stand in Seward’s bedroom and hear about the assassin who came up the stairs and stabbed him in that very bed.
It’s an incredibly vivid way to bring history to life and reminds me of the best of the Tenement Museum – looking at a sewing machine and imagining Harris Levine sitting there stitching all those dresses, seeing the dim light in the kitchen and imagining a child bent over a slate practicing Hebrew letters. For us imaginative types, it’s an amazing way to connect to the past.
Have you visited a historic house that you love?
- Posted by Kate