“An Old Colonial Homestead Born Again”: A Peek Inside Lady Moody’s House, 1909

Copyright © 2014 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

The Lady Moody Homestead, at Gravesend, L.I.

In response to the recent interest in the historic house at 27 Gravesend Neck Road, a.k.a. “Lady Moody’s House,” – generated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s attempt to “de-calendar” the property from its list of potential designation sites – we are presenting, in full, Isabelle Platt’s article, “An Old Colonial Homestead Born Again,” which appeared in Country Life in America, vol. 16, no. 2 (June 1909). Mrs. Platt and her husband, the real estate speculator William E. Platt (whose accompanying photographs appear here in slightly reordered form), bought the house in 1906 from the heirs of the Hicks family, who had held the property since 1842. The Platts, by this article, bestowed the name “Lady Moody Homestead” on this building which stands on land once owned by the founder of Gravesend, but which likely dates from after her lifetime (she died in 1658). It is a convenient name, one that to this day reminds the neighborhood of its remarkable founding mother.

Although Mrs. Platt’s flowery language and dreamy tales of George Washington and Pieter Stuyvesant should be read with a healthy dose of skepticism, her article provides a fascinating glimpse of the layout of this ancient Gravesend dwelling, and of the “restoration” practices of the early 20th century. Platt’s finished product was a highly romanticized version of a Colonial farmhouse, but a very beautiful one, nonetheless. One imagines it would be relatively easy to peel off its current skin of false stone and stucco to return the house to its 1909 state.

One bright June morning, while strolling along an old country road, I suddenly came across a delightful, rambling, old-fashioned house – delightful indeed from an artistic point of view.

The shingles on the roof were covered with moss. A few pickets were off the fence. Some gay-colored hollyhocks and an ancient quince tree, gnarled and twisted with age (it had not been pruned in many years), broke the line of the white-washed west wall. In the background of the house stood some very old apple and pear trees.

At a glance I could see it was a rare subject for a painting, and having my materials with me I sat down and sketched in the shade of a great willow tree. It was a quiet hour of the day; the ever inquisitive small boy was not in evidence. As my sketch progressed one of the old residents who was passing, stopped, smiled pleasantly and said, glancing over my shoulder: “I am seventy years old, and I was born in that house. It was then the oldest house in this place, which is the oldest village on Long Island.”

Eleven years after[,] I chanced to pass through an auction room, and noticing the crowd found they were about to sell the subject of my sketch. On one side of the auction room were the sad-eyed partitioners whose homestead was being sold to divide their estate. On the other side were the idle onlookers – the disinterested men who wanted to buy it, if it went cheap – curious neighbors, real estate speculators, and the usual crowd that hangs around the sale of a piece of country property.

Stepping up on his box the auctioneer read a brief description of the property, and the sale started. A ridiculously low bid was made by a little man. This brought a laugh from the spectators and raised the ire of the auctioneer, who squelched “Mr. First Bidder,” and he disappeared in the crowd.

Bids followed slowly from the different neighbors. Taking advantage of a lull in the bidding, I offered a substantial increase over the last bid. The auctioneer gave me a pleased look of admiration. Looking at his audience he said, “Here’s an outsider bidding. She knows what the property’s worth!” His eloquence was of no avail. Turning to some countrymen who had been glaring at him, speechless, he cried, “Don’t be clams! Give us a bid.” No reply came. Then followed the familiar cry: “Going once! Going twice! Third and last call. Sold!” And the old place, with all the charms of its antiquity, its ancient, romantic history, that had watched the birth of many generations, was knocked down to me.


“The Lady Moody Homestead, at Gravesend, L.I. In this long, low, half-stone, half-timber structure both Governor Kieft and Governor Stuyvesant were often entertained. The neighboring colonists took advantage of the protection afforded by its heavy stone walls, and sought refuge here from the Indians.”

Shortly after taking title I visited the homestead. Lifting the latch of the garden gate I walked up the grass-grown path. The air was balmy and sweet with the fragrance of blossoms that covered the trees in the yard. A robin, perched on the roof of the old well-house, trilled what seemed to me a song of welcome. Covering the hood of the lean-to kitchen doorway was a large wistaria [sic] vine in full bloom.

The Dutch door creaked on its time-worn hinges as I entered, and the place seemed strangely still and quiet. A shutter banging in the attic startled me. Although not a believer in ghosts, I must admit that the many stories I had heard left their impression.

Opening the rear kitchen window, I looked out on what had once been a beautiful garden. Old pear, apple, and cherry trees, regal in the splendor and beauty of their pink and white blossoms, seemed to look down disdainfully on the heaps of rubbish that made a motley array about the yard. The grape-arbor and queer little settee underneath were both sadly in need of repair. But the garden, like the house, had great possibilities.

Closing the window and stepping into the living-room, I made a mental survey.

The fireplaces, beamed ceilings, and trim were black with smoke and discolored with age – plainly an evidence of years of neglect, which cast a gloom over the interior. This did not prevent me from admiring the quaint, venerable architecture, and I resolved to restore all the old-time prestige of the place. This resolution was religiously carried out to the best of my ability.

In a few days the work of restoration was begun. A new roof of cedar shingles soon replaced the moss-covered one, which leaked in many places.  The outside walls of the first story were of large field stones or boulders, which had received several coats of plaster, paint, and whitewash. This had scaled and fallen off in places, giving the exterior a mottled appearance. These walls were scraped, and then the entire stone-work of the building was covered with a rough grouting of Portland cement.

Underneath the rear of the house was discovered a cellar 12 x 12 feet. This serious drawback of a small cellar was overcome by taking up all the flooring on the ground floor, shoring up the heavy walls (which were 18 to 22 inches thick) from the inside, taking up the oak floor beams and excavating for a more roomy cellar.

Excavating under stone walls is an extremely difficult task. There is danger of undermining. Although the job was offered to several local contractors, it was refused on the ground of being “too risky.” Finally, a number of laborers having been secured, the work was started and successfully carried out.

Holes 9 feet in depth and 4 feet wide were dug at intervals of 4 feet under the walls. Board forms were erected and cement was poured in. These inserts were filled with concrete of Portland cement and small stones; when this had sufficiently hardened the surplus dirt was excavated, this being repeated under the entire foundation until the cellar was completed.

While this work was going on many ancient coins were found, the laborers who discovered them being delighted to exchange them with me for new coins. Another find was a package of Colonial money, two old pewter mugs, and a brass tankard.

The original floor beams – roughly hewn oak timbers – were so hard and bent with age that it was necessary to replace them with new ones. The old flooring being unfit for use, new flooring was laid in all the rooms on the main floor.

The next consideration was the heating. It was thought best to install a steam furnace, and this necessitated the building of a new chimney, as we did not wish to close up the open fireplaces. Close to the outside wall of the building an excavation was made a few feet deeper than the new cellar wall. In this was laid the foundation of a chimney to be built entirely outside of the house. By means of an opening in the cellar wall the chimney was connected with the flue pipe of a steam furnace which thoroughly heats every part of the house. Often the steam is shut off in order that the luxury of blazing wood-fires in the large open fireplaces may be more fully enjoyed.

The house, which faces the south, measures 42 feet front by 31 feet deep, with a kitchen wing 14 x 14 feet. In the front there is a general living-room, extending the full width of the building. At either end of this room are two great fireplaces, with large hearths (measuring 17 feet wide by 8 feet deep) of red Holland tiles (8 x 9 inches). The ceiling is beamed; these beams (the largest I have ever seen) still show the marks of the broadaxe, and are 12 x 14 inches.

The Colonial fashion of combining the dining- and sitting-rooms in one large living room gives and effect of spaciousness even to a small house.

“The Colonial fashion of combining the dining- and sitting-rooms in one large living room gives an effect of spaciousness even to a small house. The stone walls are two feet thick.”

When I first inspected the room, the walls were covered with an atrocious wall paper. Close examination revealed that it had been plastered on six thicknesses of other paper, each of a different design. On one side, where the paper hung down, the wall was damp. It was found out afterward that this wall had been plastered directly up against the stone-work. We furred this wall with furring strips on which the lath was laid, thus giving an air space and a dry foundation for the plaster, and the dampness disappeared.

All the old paper was scraped from the rest of the walls, which were refinished with a rough coat of white cement plaster. This plaster received several coats of white paint mixed with enough boiled oil to give it a slightly yellow cast. All the wood-work was painted in the same way with the exception of the mahogany rail and newel posts of the stairway. The ceiling between the beams was painted a pale blue. Boiled oil was again used, which gave the blue an antique greenish tinge.

On the second floor the only modern touch is the bathroom.

“On the second floor the only modern touch is the bathroom.”

The rear of the house is divided into three smaller rooms, now used respectively as servants’ bathroom, rear entrance to garden and tradesmen’s entrance, storage room for preserved fruits and vegetables (all raised in the garden and carefully preserved in glass), and also a separate storage room for green vegetables, ice, etc.

Beyond these rooms, on the east, is the kitchen wing. This room is very attractive, with its white wainscoted walls and flooring of Dutch tiles. The windows overlook the garden and through the half-open door we catch a glimpse of the old well-house.

The kitchen and bathrooms were the only rooms in the house which had to be brought up to date. Modern plumbing has been installed and a fine new range replaces the primitive cooking apparatus of earlier days.

In placing the wash-tubs, we found the old kitchen window in the way, so this was studded up and plastered over and a high, wide casement window cut into the wall directly over the sink. This window, while being out of the way, yet gives a fine light, and many a busy day’s work has been lightened by that glimpse of the green tree-tops and the blue of the sky.

In the centre [sic] of the living-room there is an antique staircase with old oak treads and mahogany rails and newel posts. This stairway leads into a square upper hall which ends in a long corridor. Into this L-shaped hall open all the rooms of the second story.

The antique staircase, with its oak treads and mahogany rail and newel posts, was left undisturbed.

“The antique staircase, with its oak treads and mahogany rail and newel posts, was left undisturbed.”

One of the back rooms was decided upon as a bathroom and its has been fitted up with the best of plumbing, the room directly underneath being converted into a servants’ bathroom.

Four months elapsed. The work of restoration – my labor of love and pleasure – had come to an end, and it was with a great deal of satisfaction that I visited the old house one September afternoon.

As a contrast to my first visit, I approached by the main entrance. Taking hold of the odd [old?], wrought-iron ring latch I turned it to the right; this raised the latch on the inside and the door swung open on its old hinges. Crossing the threshold I realized that I was at last in a house of the days of long ago. Everything was old. There was nothing new; so that if Governor Stuyvesant and his “Merrie Men” should have stepped in, they would have felt perfectly at home. So agreeable was the impression made that September day that no change has since been made.

To the right is a long, English casement window set in solid oak timbers, while suspended from a brass rod overhead hang chintz curtains of an old-fashioned, little, formal rose design on a cream ground, through which the sun-light streams across the window ledge with its pots of bright geraniums and primroses. From a hook in the beam above swings a curious brass lantern as old as the house itself. On the mantels are two pewter mugs, one bearing the date 1655, while a brass jug is dated 1541.

The great oak ceiling beams are 12 x 14 in., and still show the marks of the broadaxe.

“The great oak ceiling beams are 12 x 14 in., and still show the marks of the broadaxe.”

From the walls look down old portraits. The room is furnished with mahogany and oak in Chippendale and older period designs, some of which was collected on a trip through England. Gay rag-carpet rugs are on the floor. At the foot of the staircase hang the pistols which were taken from the camp of Sitting Bull after his death. In a corner of the west room stands a tall clock in a black oak case, the date showing that it is over 200 years old. North of the west end of this large room is a wing whose walls are covered with ancient paintings. The corner cupboards are filled with rare antique china.

Among some dusty papers in the attic was discovered a written account of the history of the house and of events which happened about that time [sic]. The writing was so faded as to be barely legible and it was with difficulty I made the following notes:

This house, known as “Ye Bouwerie of Lady Moody,” was erected about 1643 on land that was part of a grant received from the Dutch Director General, Governor Kieft.

The oak timbers of which the building was constructed were roughly hewn with a broadaxe from trees in the virgin woods of the neighborhood. The walls were built of large field stones laid in mortar. The lime for this mortar was obtained by burning shells collected on the shore. The plaster for the inside walls was a combination of loam, lime, and straw, plastered on a frame-work of hand-made oak laths nailed with hand-wrought nails on oak studding.

This photograph, from Aymar Embury's 1913 book, "The Dutch Colonial House: Its Origin, Design, Modern Plan and Construction," shows the "living-room of the Lady Moody House, with tile floor and good mantel treatment."

This photograph, from Aymar Embury’s 1913 book, The Dutch Colonial House: Its Origin, Design, Modern Plan and Construction, shows “[t]he living-room of the Lady Moody House, with tile floor and good mantel treatment.”

Here in this long, low, half-stone, half-timber structure, both Governors Kieft and Stuyvesant often enjoyed the hospitality of Lady Deborah Moody, an Englishwoman of letters and the leader of the little band of Colonists among whom she lived. So great was her influence that her advice was sought by both governors on matters relating to the public affairs of the colony.

The early settlers, most of them friends of Lady Moody, were often attacked by the neighboring Indians. Lady Moody’s home seems to have been the principal point of attack. The Colonists took advantage of the protection afforded by its heavy stone walls and at one time it was ably defended by a party of forty men, some of whom had the reputation of being expert Indian fighters.

In the memorable year of 1776 word was received from General Washington to watch the coast for the arrival of the British. Excitement ran high in the little village of Gravesend. In the gray dawn of that summer morning (August 22d) a farmer’s boy crept up the slippery roof of an adjoining barn. Through the mist he watched the advance of the British troops like a long strip of red flannel moving across the meadows.

The battle of Long Island was fought only a few miles distant. When the fighting was over some of the terribly wounded patriots made their way through the British lines, through the woods into the village. It was then that the old house was used as a hospital. There the men were taken care of and carefully nursed by the women of the vicinity. Those that died were laid to rest in the quaint cemetery across the way, now over 250 years old.

Thirteen years afterward General Washington was entertained at this house when he visited the town in 1789.

Many years have passed since then, but the historical old dwelling still stands, practically unchanged, a picturesque, sturdy reminder of bygone days, and a never-ending joy to its present owner.

A less artistic perception might have spoiled this beautiful old Long Island homestead by attempting to remodel rather than to restore it.

“A less artistic perception might have spoiled this beautiful old Long Island homestead by attempting to remodel rather than to restore it.”

Copyright © 2014 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

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A Melancholy Bicentennial

Copyright © 2014 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

Barnardus Ryder stone (d. 1814), photograph by Ned Berke.

Barnardus Ryder stone (d. 1814), Gravesend Cemetery. (Photograph by Ned Berke, 2010. Used by permission.)

Near the center of Brooklyn’s Gravesend Cemetery stand two unexceptional sandstone markers from the early nineteenth century, separated only by the crumbled remains of a third stone between them. Like many stones in this fragile graveyard, they are cracked and flaking. Parts of their inscriptions are chipped and missing. The southern stone tilts back precariously. It reads:


Memory of


son of Jacobus & Johanna

Ry[de]r who departed this

[life] May 29, 1814

age[d] 2 years & 29 day[s.]

O sleep sweet babe and take thy r[est]

God call’d thee hence he thought it b[est]

The other says:


Memory of


who departed this life

June 8th 1814

aged 44 years 3 months

and 23 days. 

This world is vain and full of pain

With grief and trouble sore

But those are blest who are at rest

With Christ for evermore.

Those of us who frequent cemeteries know that stones with a common surname, standing near each other, usually mark the graves of family members. If the stones bear close or identical dates of death, the implication is that contagion carried off multiple relatives, as it did for eons before the advent of standardized sanitation and medical care.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Saturday 25 August 1849, p. #, col. #.

Account of the Van Sicklen family tragedy, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Saturday, August 25, 1849, p. 3, col. 1. [Click image to enlarge.]

Because they died ten days apart, one might assume that Barnardus and Jacobus (pronounced ya-CO-bus) Ryder succumbed to the same disease. The Gravesend Cemetery is peppered with other chronologically adjacent burials, like the five members of the Van Sicklen family who died of cholera between August 18 and 23, 1849 (see the article at left). Or Mathias Derby and his mother, Emelie, who died of scarlet fever two days apart in November 1895. And Richard Samuel Vanderbilt, who expired a week after catching a heavy cold at his son Richard’s funeral on January 30, 1919. Ida Voorhies, widow of Jacobus, died during her husband’s funeral on October 6, 1831, though whether from the “prevailing fever” that killed her husband, or from grief, is lost to time.

But assumptions often prove dangerously wrong. On Monday, May 30, 1814, the day after little Barnardus Ryder died, readers of the Commercial Advertiser, one of New York City’s leading newspapers, stumbled across this shocking report from the otherwise tranquil reaches of southern Kings County:

New York, Commercial Advertiser, Monday, May 30, 1814, p.2, col. 3.

New York, Commercial Advertiser, Monday, May 30, 1814, p.2, col. 3. [Note: “Saturday morning last” = May 28, 1814.]

Newspapers up and down the eastern seaboard, from New Hampshire to Maryland, and as far inland as Ohio, recounted the tale of Gravesend’s “horrid transaction.” The version printed on June 1 in the Long-Island Star, Brooklyn’s leading weekly, managed to spell “Ryder” correctly, and added the detail that Jacobus — “long esteemed as a worthy and pious man, and . . . apparently in his right mind on the evening previous to the melancholy and dreadful act” — confessed in the letter to his father that he “imagined he heard a voice commanding him to execute the deed.” He lingered, sadly, until June 8, and died at the age of 44 years, three months, and 23 days. (As well as misspelling “Rider,” the newspapers all misstate his age: Jacobus was not “about thirty-five,” but, rather, nearly four months past 44.) The Long-Island Star ran a brief death notice on June 15:

Long-Island Star, Wednesday, June 15, 1814, p. 3, col. 2.

Brooklyn, Long-Island Star, Wednesday, June 15, 1814, p. 3, col. 2. [Note: “Wednesday last” = June 8, 1814. The “28th ult.” = the 28th day of the previous month, i.e., May 28, 1814.]

His widow, Johanna, never remarried. She lived another 33 years, and died at age 65 on August 7, 1845. She is buried near Jacobus and Barnardus, and another infant son, William, who was born in 1804 and died in 1805, long before their family’s tragedy. The other children — Femmetie (1802-?), Johanna (1807-1894), and a second William (1809-?) — presumably all outlived their mother. They almost certainly did not hand down the terrible memories of 1814 to their descendants. May they rest in peace.

Jaocubs B. Ryder stone (d. 1814), photograph by Andrea Coyle.

Jacobus B. Ryder stone (d. 1814), Gravesend Cemetery. (Photograph by Andrea Coyle, 2010. Used by permission.)

Copyright © 2014 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)


Filed under Derby family, Gravesend Cemetery, Ryder family, Van Sicklen family, Vanderbilt family, Voorhies family

The Mud-Gutter Band

Copyright © 2014 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

Post-1907 real photo postcard identified on back as “Ed Clark’s Band, Brooklyn, NY / X is Ed.” (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

Occasionally a small group of street musicians would find our community. On impressive brass horns which could be heard a long way off they played rollicking numbers, filling the children with excitement. Their serious, energetic approach and the loudness of their music on the quiet lanes amused the farmers who, to please their offspring, sent coins for these impromptu concerts, but among themselves, called the invaders, “The Mud-Gutter Band.” — Gertrude Ryder Bennett, Living in a Landmark (Francestown, New Hampshire: Marshall Jones Company, 1980), 65.

Copyright © 2014 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

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Dandelion Wine

Copyright © 2014 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

Charles W. Bauhan (1861-1938), sketch of a dandelion gatherer, April 25, 1911. (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

Charles W. Bauhan (1861-1938), sketch of a dandelion gatherer, April 25, 1911. (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

In the early years of the twentieth century, after the Bennett family sold the bulk of the property surrounding their Gravesend homestead — the Wyckoff-Bennett House at 1669 East 22nd Street — the farmland, no longer planted to crops, erupted in wildflowers. “The land, waiting to be developed, turned into meadows where as a child I gathered wild strawberries. Elderberries ripened for jelly, blackberries for pies.” So recalled Gertrude Ryder Bennett (1901-1982) in her memoir, Living in a Landmark (Francestown, New Hampshire: Marshall Jones Company, 1980). “In early spring each year, colorful dandelion gatherers came from the city with knives and worked in the meadows until almost sunset, filling huge bags and taking them away.” Gertrude’s mother, the poet Nellie May Bennett (1873-1951), penned a sonnet inspired by one of these women:


A hungry hawk could be no more intent

     Than she with yellow kerchief, crimson shawl

And purple apron. Shabby, shapeless, bent

     Above the field with eager blade, the call

Of mating robins fails to flush her seamed

     And sallow cheek. Could she have been that gay

And blushing, dark eyed flower girl who dreamed

     Of love and life in newer lands one day

In Italy? . . . With bold dexterity

     She cuts the tender weeds, a silent thing

That moves from patch to patch inquiringly.

     A leaf of autumn in a field of spring.

Upon her head she lifts her bulging load

And stately, proudly takes the dusty road.

Charles W. Bauhan (1861-1938), Dandelion gathering, April 25, 1911. (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

Charles W. Bauhan (1861-1938), Dandelion gathering, April 25, 1911. (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

Copyright © 2014 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

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Filed under art, Bennett family, Charles William Bauhan, Gertrude Ryder Bennett, historic houses, Wyckoff-Bennett Homestead

Gravesend’s Little Chapel That Could

Copyright © 2013 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

At the end of the long drive that runs beside the historic Ryder-Van Cleef House at 38 Village Road North, stands an odd structure that is hard to see clearly from the sidewalk, shrouded as it is by dense foliage today. Back on an overcast spring day in 1986, it looked like this:

Side view of 38 Village Road North taken Wednesday 9 April 1986. Note chapel behind the tree. (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

Side view of 38 Village Road North taken Wednesday 9 April 1986. (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

Although it was then blocked by a tree, its alignment with the driveway suggests the little building might once have been a garage. But its entrance seems too narrow for a car. And why would a garage have a Gothic-arched doorway with similar, flanking windows? (See the closeup below.) Like other sites in Gravesend, legend surrounds this one, fed, no doubt, by the pull of that sinister black portal.

Closeup of the chapel behind 38 Village Road North, taken Wednesday 9 April 1986. (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

Closeup of the structure behind 38 Village Road North taken Wednesday 9 April 1986. (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

A friend who grew up a few houses down doesn’t recall the place ever in use. She was too scared to go near it, and in her 29 years there, worked up the nerve to look inside just once, when she saw what looked like an altar. Turns out it was an altar, but not one for human sacrifice.

Around 1943 an enterprising young Lutheran divinity student named William George Luger (born 1927), who lived with his family at 30 Village Road North, decided to build a devotional chapel. The Lugers owned the three houses at 28, 30, and 32 Village Road North, so it is a mystery why William chose a spot behind number 38 on which to build. Presumably he did so with the owner’s permission. On a plot 12′ x 12′ he constructed a building of discarded brick and cobblestone scrounged up from vacant lots in the neighborhood. He furnished it with benches and imitation stained glass windows, and even managed to squeeze in an organ (probably a reed organ). Between June 1944 and Christmas 1945, the incipient Reverend Luger preached on Sundays to a congregation as large as 17 members in his tiny chapel. Luger was appointed assistant to the pastor of St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church on Newkirk Avenue on 6 January 1946, a month before his family moved from Village Road North. The Brooklyn Eagle mourned the abandonment of his endearing and short-lived house of worship (see below).

“Reverend 12 x 12 ” went on to a distinguished career at multiple churches in the United States. His little chapel on Village Road North still stands, now roofless and empty. The organ is gone, its music only an echo. And the congregation, only a memory.

The chapel behind 38 Village Road North as it looked on Sunday 25 August 2013. Photograph by Lisanne Anderson.

[Please note: This post does not constitute an invitation to visit the chapel, which stands on private property.]

Copyright © 2013 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

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Thanksgiving, Gravesend style!

Copyright © 2012 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

On its front page for Friday 30 November 1923, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran the following tale, which could only have happened in good old Gravesend, Brooklyn. Happy Thanksgiving!


Pipenbring Had Won It at Raffle and Wife Had Given One He Bought to Church.

A wild chase after a live turkey, and in a cemetery at that, was the strange pastime indulged in by several prominent members of the Gravesend Civic Association, headed by the president, Edward Pipenbring, in the wee sma’ hours of Thanksgiving morning. And the lively bird got away from his pursuers at that by flying over the cemetery fence.

Mrs. Pipenbring, the good wife of the president of the G.C.A., had just put the finishing touches to a fine $8 turkey intended for the family dinner on Thursday when her phone bell rang.

The cheery voice of Friend Husband announced with glee that he was the lucky winner of a real live turkey at the rooms of the G.C.A. He suggested to his wife that she take the large, juicy turkey that she had prepared for the oven around to a church euchre and offer it as a special prize.

Mrs. Pipenbring carried out her husband’s idea and lugged the turkey around to the hall, much to the delight of a lady who won ten games out of a possible ten.

Mr. Pipenbring grabbed the live “turk” by the legs and started a triumphal march homeward, trying to look like a lithograph of a Pilgrim Father. When they got to Village rd., where the old Gravesend Cemetery is located, a bad spot in the street caused “Ed” to stumble. The bird took a mean advantage, freed himself and scooted into the cemetery. Then the merry chase began, the like of which Gravesend has not seen in a few hundred years. In and out among the old gravestones dodged the turkey, with “Ed” calling to him.

“Safety first” seemed to be the bird’s motto, and finally he flew over the high picket fence and disappeared into the shadows. The hunters gave it up and went their ways.

Mr. Pipenbring was up bright and early and bought another bird for $7. With the $8 bird he gave away, the $7 one he ate and the $1.20 he paid at the raffle for the turkey that got away[,] his Thanksgiving dinner was a bit expensive. He is hoping some one may find his prize bird and return it in time for Sunday’s dinner.

In the early years of the 20th century, the Gravesend Cemetery was enclosed by a low picket fence (perfect for hopping by escaping turkeys), which is just visible in this 1905 view looking west towards Van Sicklen Street. The large house at center, one of several belonging to the Lake family, stood where Corso Court is today.

Copyright © 2012 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

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Which farmhouse was it? And what’s it got to do with Bob Hope? Funny you should ask….

Copyright © 2012 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

In honor of the 70th anniversary of its creation this month, I hung a mystery painting above my bed. It doesn’t look terribly mysterious, and I’m sure those of you with a trained eye might say it isn’t even a very skillful picture. It shows a pleasant if somewhat lopsided wood-framed house set snugly amidst a riot of blooming shrubs. An empty stool beside a small basket near the stoop suggests the occupant has slipped inside to escape the summer heat. We can almost hear cicadas droning from the shady trees behind the house.

“Neck Road Farm House, Brooklyn, N.Y., painted by Louis Saphier, July 1942″ (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

The painting and its maker are identified on back: “neck road / farm house / Brooklyn / N.Y. / painted by / Louis Saphier / July 1942.” What makes it so mysterious? Try as I might — and believe me, I’ve tried — I cannot discover where this house stood.

In 1945, just three years after Saphier painted this farmhouse of clearly Dutch-American design — instantly recognizable by its ski-sloped roof overhanging the front porch — the historian Maud Esther Dilliard published Old Dutch Houses of Brooklyn, a survey of the borough’s surviving structures in that distinctive style. As she lamented,

It was not so long ago that many of [the] houses [of Brooklyn’s original settlers], and the houses of their children and grandchildren, were standing, but modern business is causing these old buildings fast to disappear. In order that their early owners, the founders of Kings County, may not be forgotten in the hurly-burly of twentieth-century Brooklyn, I have written the stories of all the ancient dwellings which are now in existence — or were at the time their photographs were taken.

Dilliard recorded just four Dutch houses on Gravesend Neck Road:

  • No. 27: Van Sicklen House [Dilliard mistakenly calls this 17]
  • No. 110: Abraham Emans House
  • No. 424: Agnes Lake House [some sources give this as 420]
  • No. 1240: Voris-Shepard House [Dilliard mistakenly calls this 1040]

Only No. 27, the Van Sicklen House (better known as the Hicks-Platt or “Lady Moody” House), stands today. No. 110, the Abraham Emans (or Emmons) House, disappeared between 1945 and 1951, and the Voris-Shepard House, at 1240, was demolished for an apartment building by 1961. None of these had the same layout as Saphier’s farmhouse, but Agnes Lake’s, at 424 (or 420) Neck Road, which was replaced by 1956, came very close. It stood on the south side of the street, and its rear facade bore the correct profile — the three-bay-wide Dutch portion to the left, an addition to the right, and a chimney between — but we do not know if it had dormer windows. (Its north, or street, facade, was “Victorianized” around 1890 through the addition of the tower seen in this 1931 photograph.)

So which house did Saphier paint? Did it vanish between July 1942 and the publication of Dilliard’s book in 1945? Actually, the margin is even narrower: Dilliard published a serialized version of her text in Long Island Forum between November 1943 and March 1945. The structures she covered in both journal and book are the same, so the building Saphier painted, if indeed it was an undocumented Dutch farmhouse on Gravesend Neck Road, would have disappeared in the sixteen months between July 1942 and November 1943, when Dilliard began her series.

From at least 1925 until his death in 1954, Saphier lived at 1544 East 17th Street, between Avenues O and P. Assuming he traveled south down East 17th Street that day back in July 1942, one wonders which direction he turned upon reaching Neck Road. In the 1920s Eugene L. Armbruster photographed practically every Dutch farmhouse then standing in Brooklyn; combing through his shots along the length of Neck Road has not revealed an obvious candidate for the one Saphier captured. The 1939-1941 tax photographs at the New York City Department of Records and Information Services (a.k.a. the Municipal Archives) might include the house closer to the period Saphier painted it, but searching them will have to wait until I find the time or the Municipal Archives digitizes the series, whichever comes first. Maybe Saphier simply painted from memory a long-vanished house he recalled from his walks. Who knows?

The artist himself, while not completely unknown, is not terribly well documented either. Incidentally, his son, James L. Saphier (1907-1974), was for nearly forty years Bob Hope’s business agent. In 1945 the elder Saphier did a lifelike portrait of Hope which sold at auction a few years back for $20,800.

Perhaps from its presence above my bed at night Saphier’s farmhouse painting will seep into my dreams and subconsciously supply the location of this lost corner of Gravesend.

Louis J. Saphier (1875-1954), portrait of Bob Hope, 1945.

Copyright © 2012 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)


Filed under art, Bob Hope, Families, Hicks family, Louis Saphier, Maud Esther Dilliard, Van Sicklen family