November 2, 2012, Friday, 306

The Old Stone House

From The Peopling of New York City

Jump to: navigation, search


The Old Stone House

When the Vechte family emigrated to New York from the Netherlands in the 17th century, they purchased the land that would one day become 3rd Street between 4th and 5th avenues. In 1699, the Old Stone House was built, and almost eighty years later the house played a key role in the Battle of Brooklyn in the Revolutionary War. Toward the end of the 18th century, the Vechtes sold the house to the Cortelyous, who eventually sold the land to a developer by the name of Edwin C. Litchfield. No longer a residential building, the house was used for a Brooklyn baseball team's clubhouse and the grounds used for a park and skating rink at the end of the 19th century. But before long, the house was knocked down and its foundations buried. When the Old Stone House's remains were recovered in the 1930s, reconstruction soon began. It would be years, though, before the new Old Stone House was historically recognized and began to be utilized in the way it is today. The following history attempts to uncover not just the history-the war, the reconstruction, etc-but the people who lived in the house, how and why they let go of the land, and what they did there. My research begins in the 1630s and takes me to the present day, where the house stands on a block with condominiums, brownstones, restaurants, a park, a handball court, and a hair salon, centuries away from the farm of the Vechtes. By observing the prosperity, the grief, the deaths, and the raising of families that occurred here I hope to transform a history into a human experience.

A History of the House In Images

I began my research by looking at the information provided on the Old Stone House website, and then I branched out to find out about the house centuries ago (in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle) and more recently (in the New York Times). Reading the articles was enlightening and helped shape my knowledge of how the house and block changed over time. But it was when I visited the Old Stone House, looked at their museum, and read some of the literature they have on the premises that I really began to find out about the people in detail.

Following is a synthesis of what I know about the people who inhabited the original house, combining the information I have found from various primary and secondary sources. More research still to come.

Before the Vechtes

The first owner of the land that would someday contain the Old Stone House was Jan Cornelissen Van Rotterdam. He owned the land in 1637 or 1638, and presumably did not actually use the land. He was killed by Native Americans in 1643. [8]

The next owner of the land was Thomas Beeche, an Englishman from Massachusetts. He bought the farm in 1638 and sold it on May 17, 1639. Van Rotterdam and Beeche both owned adjacent tobacco plantations in Manhattan as well. Beeche was in a great deal of debt, and owed mortgages on all of his farms/properties, further exacerbated by his unruly wife, Nan. Sometime between June 8, 1640 and July 10, 1640, Beeche either died or disappeared. [9]

Beeche had already sold the farm to Cornelius Lambertsen Cool at this point, however. Cool payed 300 guilders (equivalent to 120 silver dollars) to Beeche for the property. On the same day that Cool bought the land, he also bought two cows, so we can assume he intended to use the land for a farm. In 1643, Native Americans burned a great deal of land and houses due to a provoked war, and Cool died in the attack. [10]

On January 5, 1644, Cool's wife Aeltje signed an agreement with Gerrit Wolphertsen Van Couwenhoven and Claes Jansen Van Emden (her stepsons-in-law) in order to divide the estate. The farm was in ruin at this point, presumably because of the attacks. [11]

The house then passed on to Cool’s heirs, but because the deed has never been found from when the Vechtes purchased the land, we do not know what year or who exactly was involved. [12]

We do know, however, that some time between 1660 and 1689, the Vechte family purchased the land on which they would build the Old Stone House. [13]

The Vechtes (including the Battle of Brooklyn)

The Vechte family came to New York from the Norg, in the Province of Drenthe, in the Netherlands. The family was originally from the Province of Utrecht in the Netherlands. Claes Arentsen Vechte came to America on a ship called the Spotted Cow, leaving the Netherlands on April 15, 1660 with his wife (Lummetje Hendricks) and three children (ages 6 years, 4 years, and 9 months), and another boy of 14, who was presumably a servant. The only children mentioned in subsequent records are Hendrick and Gerrit Vechte. [14]

Once in America, Lummetje gave birth to another child, Arent, who died when he was still a baby. Records show that he had a horse and seven cows in 1675, as well as 28 acres of cultivated land. In 1676, he had one horse and eight cows, and in 1683, he had eight cows and no horse. In 1683, his son Hendrick Claessen Vechte was living with him, while his other son Gerrit Claessen Vechte was living in Staten Island. It was either Claes or Hendrick who built the Old Stone House in 1699. [15] The House was one of the largest in the area at two and a half stories, because most were single story buildings. [16]

It is not known when Claes died, but the last record of him is in 1698. It is generally assumed, I gather, that he was alive when the house was built, but he did not leave a will, so all we know is that Hendrick either built it himself or inherited it from his father, without an official will. [17]Thus, Hendrick Vechte is the key figure in the first years of the Old Stone House, making some background information necessary…

Hendrick was born in either 1654 or 1656 in the Netherlands (I gather historians are not sure whether he was the 6 year old or the 4 year old recorded on the boat voyage to America). He was confirmed as part of the Brooklyn Reformed Church in 1677 and married Gerritje Reyniers Wizzelpennig in 1680 at the Flatbush Reformed Church. Hendrick had six children baptized with Gerritje (any number of children could have died as infants and been unrecorded, which was not uncommon: Hilletje (born in 1684 and married to Heironemus Rapalje), Jannetje (born in 1687 and married to Pieter DuMont), Lummetje (born in 1693 and married to Pieter Staats), Gerritje (born in 1696), Reynier (1701-1758, married to Jacomyntje Van Duyn), and Nicholas (Dutch equivalent of Claes, 1704-1779, married to Cornelius Van Duyn).[18] (On a side note, some of my research leads me to believe that some historians and newspapers have confused Nicholas Vechte as the builder of the Old Stone House, but given that he was born five years after it was built, this is clearly impossible. It is really interesting to see how the actual records and more reliable accounts I have now read run contrary to some of the information I found in Eagle, NYT articles, etc.)

Hendrick was appointed a Justice of the Peace by King William III in 1698, and owned lands in Bedford and Gownaus. He was a carpenter, a wheelwright, and a farmer, and owned three slaves. He was reportedly wealthy. Hendrick died at the Old Stone House on December 7, 1716, and his widow followed suit on November 9, 1754.[19]

Nicholas Vechte is the only one of the children of Hendrick and Gerritje who factors into our story significantly, because it was he who inherited the house from his parents. While the rest of Hendrick’s offspring moved westward, or to New Jersey where his brother’s descendants also lived, Nicholas remained in the house until his death.[20]

Nicholas had a number of children, but many of them died in infancy. Only two daughters survived to adulthood: Machteltje III (Machteljes I and II both died before turning 2) and Gerritje. His son Hendrick died at age 10. Machtelje III married Rem Cowenhoven (1724-783), but died at age 32, in 1771. Gerritje survived the longest; she was born in 1727 and married Folkert Duryea, who died in 1752. She then married Teunis Tiebout in 1754. All of these children lived in the Gowanus area. According to census records, Nicholas also had about three slaves.[21]

Nicholas Vechte dug canals on his property in order to transport produce to Manhattan. He also bought a strip of land running through Red Hook from north to south, on which he and his neighbors dug a six foot ditch, which became a canal and provided a shortcut from the Gowanus Creek to the East River. [22]

Nicholas Vechte was in the Old Stone House during the Battle of Brooklyn, and undoubtedly his reaction to it would be interesting to hear firsthand. Vechte remained loyal to the king throughout the war in written documents, but it is unclear whether he actually supported the king or was coerced into singing petitions for restoration of British influence in America.[23]

The Battle of Brooklyn began on August 27, 1776. On this day, the Maryland 400, under command of General William Alexander, fought against the British General Cornwallis’s troops. The British army occupied the Vechte-Cortelyou house in order to shoot at American troops crossing what was then known as Gowanus Creek. By holding off Cornwallis’s troops, Alexander’s men made it possible for George Washington’s army to make it across the Gowanus Creek. They assaulted the house six times to make this escape possible. The Maryland brigade did briefly drive the British out of the house, but British reinforcements caused destruction for the American army. The number of deaths for the Americans amounted to 250 men. [24]

The presence of the British in Brooklyn was difficult for the farmers, as soldiers took property, livestock, and firewood. The soldiers would sometimes resort to burning fences and trees. Rem Cowenhowen, Nicholas Vechte's son-in-law, was a Patriot and member of the Kings County Committee of Safety. During the British occupation of Brooklyn, Rem changed allegiance and dissolved the Committee. He became a captain in the Kings County Loyalist Militia after the Battle of Brooklyn took place. Rem died on January 15, 1783. [25]

While many farmers experienced devastating loss in the time before, during, and after the Battle of Brooklyn, Nicholas Vechte made it through with most of his property in tact, despite the occupation of his house. His will mentions seven different slaves by name (Mink, Bet, Frank, Tom, Nan, Hannah, and Gin). It also speaks of six cows, three horses, a cider mill, sleighs and wagons (one painted blue), a Dutch cupboard, and a small blue-painted cupboard." The farm itself, which he referred to as his "Old Farm or Plantation," and which included "wood lots, meadows, a salt meadow, a creek, a pond, and oyster bed," went to his grandson. [26]

Nicholas Vechte died on September 9, 1779 and was buried on the farm (though it appears that he was buried between 5th and 6th avenues, rather than between 4th and 5th). At this point, the farm passed on to Nicholas R. Cowenhowen, who was only eleven-years-old and had to lease the farm to his aunt Gerritje Tiebout, until he was old enough to take the farm.[27]

The story of the graves of Nicholas and his family is an interesting one. Though Cowenhowen and Cortelyou (who purchased the farm from him) preserved the graves, it appears that Edwin C. Litchfield (discussed later) did not pay any attention to them once he purchased the land in the mid-19th century. By 1873, the tombstones had been vandalized and only four remained, located on 5th Avenue between 2nd and 3rd Streets. A few years later, not even these tombstones remained. When the house was reconstructed in the 1930s, the developers did not acknowledge that there were bodies buried there, probably because they actually had no right to that land, seeing as it was separated from the property of the Old Stone House.[28]

The Cortelyous

Nicholas R. Cowenhowen inherited the house in 1779 and sold in to Jacques Cortelyou in 1790 for 2,500 pounds. Cowenhowen excluded the land on which his family was buried when he sold the farm. The Cortelyou name would have been well known at the time. Jacques' great great grandfather acquired Nayack in 1650s and owned a home in New Utrecht, which Jacques Cortelyou inhabited with his brother, both of whom were Loyalists. During the war, they signed allegiance to the king and were kidnapped by patriots in 1778 and held in New Jersey. Jacques continued to live in New Utrecht after the war and bought the Old Stone House for his newly married son Peter J. Cortelyou. [29]

Peter Cortelyou was born in 1768. At age 21, he married Phebe Voorhees and moved into the House the following year. According to the Federal Census of 1790, they moved in with two 16-year old white males, one white female, and four slaves. The census of 1800 lists the following members of the household: a white males aged 26-45, a white male aged 10-16, 2 white males younger than 10, one white female older than 45, a white female aged 26-45, a white female younger than 10, eight slaves, and two other free people. We can assume these additional people were relatives, boarders, servants, etc. The Cortelyous 4 children: Adrian Voorhees (1790-1872), Maria H. (born in 1792 and married to Simon Cornell), Jacques (1796-1891), and Timothy Townsend (1800-1803). [30]

In 1802, Phebe died, and the following year, the youngest son Timothy drowned in a nearby pool. Peter remarried in 1803 to a woman named Mary Alstyne, and had a child named Phebe in 1804 (who lived until 1841 and married Daniel Lawrence Rapelje). The same year Phebe was born, Peter, still upset about the loss of his wife and son, hung himself on a pear tree behind the house. [31]

Eleven years later (1815), Peter's son Jacques inherited the Old Stone House. The farm itself was split between Jacques (southern half) and Adrian (northern half). Jacques served with the 64th Ne York Militia Regiment during the War of 1812, and married Ann Maria Fowler in 1830, who had previously been married to a George D. Davenport. Together they had three children: Adriana (1831-1882), Caroline Amelia (1833-1912, who married Merwin Rushmore), and Lawrence Voorhees (1837-1896). When Ann Maria died in 1852, Cortelyou sold the house to Edwin Litchfield and moved to Dutchess County. He died there in 1891, and his entire family is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery. With respect to the family preceeding him at the Old Stone House, Cortelyou again excluded the burial grounds from his sale, continuing to preserve the space for the Vechtes. [32]

After the Cortelyous

A significant chapter of the Old Stone House is closed here, because Litchfield was not going to care for a farm or raise a family on the grounds; he was a renowned developer. The first occupant of the House after the Cortelyous left was an African American caretaker. [33]Also, during the 1850s, streets were built around Washington Park and the Old Stone House at approximately fifteen foot high embankments, leaving the Park and House in basins. I have yet to find out a great deal about Edwin Litchfield, but I have found one reference to him in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, in an 1846 documentation of his limited partnership in a business intended for the “manufacture and sale of Sperm and Lard Oil and Sperm and Stearine or Adamantine Candles.” The small article says that Litchfield put twenty thousand dollars “towards the common stock” in the business. [34]

I have been working on uncovering more about Litchfield. By looking at the 1860 federal census, I was able to learn some details about his life. He was born around 1815 in New York. The value of his personal real estate in 1860 was $30,000, while the value of his total real estate was $300,000. He is listed as a lawyer. There are ten people listed as members of his household, though many do not have the last name Litchfield. [35]Based on my earlier findings with the Vechtes and Cortelyous, I would venture to say these other people were servants, though they could be in-laws and married children as well. The 1880 census reveals that he was married to Grace H. at this point, who is listed with Keeping House as her profession. He is now listed as "Real Estate" under profession, as is his son, Henry P. Litchfield, who was born in 1850.[36]

An 1887 article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reveals that the House was originally known, by iron markers on the exterior, as “1699,” the year it was built.[37] These markers were removed in the mid-1850s. Though the article cites “unknown parties” as those responsible for the removal, I would postulate that any change to the house in the 1850s related directly to Litchfield’s purchase. Apparently Litchfield began developing the area in an attempt to make his property on Third Avenue connect to his mansion on Prospect Park West. (See picture on side).

The Litchfield mansion in Prospect Park
The Litchfield mansion in Prospect Park[38]

In 1861, the house was used as a clubhouse for the Washington Skating Club and was the first private rink in the city. At some point in the 1860s, the house was also apparently being used as a stable, and a Mr. Stilos, unidentified in Brooklyn Eagle article beyond his name, described it as “destined soon to disappear.” However, when this article was written, the house was naturally still standing, though it had undergone some changes: “the high roof and domer windows” were replaced by more modern counterparts and inside partitions of the building were removed." The writer of the article celebrates the fact that the Vechte-Cortelyou house would probably be standing long after the more modern buildings around it fell. After the Battle of Brooklyn, the house and surrounding area was titled Washington Park. In 1887, the house stood in the northeast corner of the park. At this time, C.H. Ebbets was general superintendant of the park, and William Windram was ground keeper. The writer of the article says that the house is commonly misconceived as Washington’s headquarters, though Washington did not arrive at the scene until the battle on August 27, 1776. [39]

During the 1880s, the pre-Dodgers Brooklyn baseball team, the Bridegrooms, used Washington Park as a baseball field, and the house consequently became their clubhouse. At some point after the team moved in 1891, the house was destroyed (probably in 1897) and its foundations buried as city planners made way for continued development on what is now Third Street. [40]

The Reconstruction

The foundations of the Old Stone House were rediscovered in 1930, when it was rebuilt. Then-Parks Commissioner Robert Moses used $750,000 for the restoration ordered by the Borough President. The reconstruction, 75 feet from the original house and now in the center of the park, was completed in 1934, and was used, in the words of the Parks Department, as a “park office and comfort station.” The house was not, however, an official historic landmark at this time. [41]

Horrified by the way the Old Stone House had been used since the Revolutionary War, Brooklyn residents John Gallagher and Herb Yellin decided in the 1980s to take steps to give the building its rightful place in history. The First Battle Revival Alliance was created in 1988 by Gallagher and Yellin in order to work toward restoring the house, a goal that was achieved eight years later when the Alliance received a $750,000 grant, interestingly equal to the funds allocated to rebuild the house sixty years earlier, from the office of Howard Golden, Borough President. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation describes these 1996 changes to the Old Stone House as improvements in windows, roofing, finishing, and various new electrical and plumbing systems. [42]

A year after the 1996 refurbishments, the Old Stone House opened as a museum with educational programs, maintained by the Parks Department. Promotional material for the Old Stone House advertises a sample of the educational classes now offered there, with go for $90 per 90 minute class. Classes for students ranging from Pre-K to 12th grade include Dutch Toys and Games: Work and Play - A Child´s Life in Colonial Brooklyn, The First Battle for American Freedom: Understanding Brooklyn´s Unique Role in the Revolution through Maps, A Sense of Place: OSH History through Primary and Secondary Source Documents, Searching for Freedom: African Americans in the American Revolutionary War Era, Pinkster: An African American Celebration, From Many One: Colonial and Revolutionary Currency, and From Many One: Colonial and Revolutionary Flags. Educators from the Old Stone House can also visit classrooms for a $130 fee. The Old Stone House has “historical exhibits open to the public,” which I plan to visit, and is currently available for rentals, with certain rules and allowances about food, alcohol, etc applying. [43]


  4. <ref>William J. Parry, ''Life at the Old Stone House, 1636-1852'' (New York: First Battle Revival Alliance, 2000), 23. </li> <li id="cite_note-4">[[#cite_ref-4|↑]] Parry, 21. </li> <li id="cite_note-5">[[#cite_ref-5|↑]] Parry, 15. </li> <li id="cite_note-6">[[#cite_ref-6|↑]] Parry, 29. </li> <li id="cite_note-7">[[#cite_ref-7|↑]] Parry, 14. </li> <li id="cite_note-8">[[#cite_ref-8|↑]] Parry, 14-15. </li> <li id="cite_note-9">[[#cite_ref-9|↑]] Parry, 15-16. </li> <li id="cite_note-10">[[#cite_ref-10|↑]] Parry, 16. </li> <li id="cite_note-11">[[#cite_ref-11|↑]] Parry, 16. </li> <li id="cite_note-12">[[#cite_ref-12|↑]] Parry, 16. </li> <li id="cite_note-13">[[#cite_ref-13|↑]] Parry, 17-18. </li> <li id="cite_note-14">[[#cite_ref-14|↑]] Parry, 16-17. </li> <li id="cite_note-15">[[#cite_ref-15|↑]] Old Stone House museum</li> <li id="cite_note-16">[[#cite_ref-16|↑]] Parry, 18. </li> <li id="cite_note-17">[[#cite_ref-17|↑]] Parry, 18. </li> <li id="cite_note-18">[[#cite_ref-18|↑]] Parry, 18. </li> <li id="cite_note-19">[[#cite_ref-19|↑]] Parry, 19. </li> <li id="cite_note-20">[[#cite_ref-20|↑]] Parry, 20. </li> <li id="cite_note-21">[[#cite_ref-21|↑]] Parry, 21. </li> <li id="cite_note-22">[[#cite_ref-22|↑]] Parry, 22. </li> <li id="cite_note-23">[[#cite_ref-23|↑]]</li> <li id="cite_note-24">[[#cite_ref-24|↑]] Parry, 22. </li> <li id="cite_note-25">[[#cite_ref-25|↑]] Parry, 25. </li> <li id="cite_note-26">[[#cite_ref-26|↑]] Parry, 26. </li> <li id="cite_note-27">[[#cite_ref-27|↑]] Parry, 26-27. </li> <li id="cite_note-28">[[#cite_ref-28|↑]] Parry, 27. </li> <li id="cite_note-29">[[#cite_ref-29|↑]] Parry, 27-28. </li> <li id="cite_note-30">[[#cite_ref-30|↑]] Parry, 28. </li> <li id="cite_note-31">[[#cite_ref-31|↑]] Parry, 30. </li> <li id="cite_note-32">[[#cite_ref-32|↑]] Parry, 30. </li> <li id="cite_note-33">[[#cite_ref-33|↑]] "“Limited Partnership,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 5, 1846, 3, at</li> <li id="cite_note-34">[[#cite_ref-34|↑]] 1860 census</li> <li id="cite_note-35">[[#cite_ref-35|↑]] 1880 census</li> <li id="cite_note-36">[[#cite_ref-36|↑]] H.J.S, “The Old Gowanus Road: Line of the Second Section to the Southerly Ending,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 11, 1887, 6, at </li> <li id="cite_note-37">[[#cite_ref-37|↑]]</li> <li id="cite_note-38">[[#cite_ref-38|↑]] H.J.S. </li> <li id="cite_note-39">[[#cite_ref-39|↑]] New York City Parks and Recreation</li> <li id="cite_note-40">[[#cite_ref-40|↑]] New York Parks and Recreation</li> <li id="cite_note-41">[[#cite_ref-41|↑]] Lewine</li> <li id="cite_note-42">[[#cite_ref-42|↑]]</li></ol></ref>