As the Bronx’s oldest house, the Van Cortlandt House Museum testifies to the vivid and eclectic history of New York’s third largest park. The 18th–century fieldstone and brick Georgian style manor house is both a New York City Landmark and a National Historical Landmark. It is located in the southwestern part of the park, near Broadway and West 246th Street.
Early History and Land Use
Much of the park was acquired by the Dutch West India Company from the Wiechquaeskeck Indians in 1639. Subsequent owners included New Amsterdam’s first lawyer, Adrian Van der Donck, and Frederick Philipse, who when he purchased the area in 1670 was New York’s wealthiest man. In 1699 Philipse’s son–in–law, Jacobus Van Cortlandt, a merchant who became mayor of New York in 1710, purchased a parcel of the estate. Jacobus’ son, Frederick, built the two–and–a–half story house in 1748 but died before it was completed, becoming the first occupant of the family burial plot on Vault Hill.
During the Revolutionary War, the house was the scene of military maneuvers and intrigue. While it remained under British rule for most of the war, Augustus Van Cortlandt, a city clerk, hid city records from the British by storing them in Vault Hill. George Washington stayed in the house for the first time in 1776 and returned there twice more in 1781 and 1783. According to legend, the general had bonfires lit around the house as a decoy while his troops withdrew to Yorktown. On his final visit he turned the mansion into his temporary headquarters before triumphantly marching into Manhattan. “Indian Field”, in the northeast end of the park, marks the burial ground of 37 patriot Stockbridge Indians who were killed by British soldiers in 1778 in an ambush near what is now 233rd Street.
A New Park for New York City
The Van Cortlandt family continued to farm the land until the 1870s. They lived in the house until 1888, when the City acquired the lands of Van Cortlandt and Pelham Bay Parks and initiated the Bronx’s parks system. The Parks Department filled in swamps, planted new trees, and built several recreational facilities, including the nation’s first municipal golf course in 1895.
The House Museum
Van Cortlandt House has been operated as a museum since 1897 by the National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of New York. It is one of the 19 historic houses under the jurisdiction of Parks and the Historical House Trust of New York City. In addition to its notable exterior details such as carved brownstone “grotesques” for keystones, the landmarked interior houses a distinguished collection of 18th and 19th–century furniture and decorative arts.
South of the mansion lies a grand iron and brick gateway that leads to where the Colonial Gardens, created in 1902 by landscape designer Samuel Parsons Jr., once grew. Today the house grounds include an herb garden and shade trees. Also added in 1902 were the bronze statue of Civil War General Josiah Porter by William Clark Noble and a window from the Rhinelander Sugar House (and one–time prison), formerly located on Duane Street in Manhattan.
Van Cortlandt House Museum external site