17th-century farmhouse makes way for feminist art center at museum

for The Brooklyn Paper
Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook

Get our stories in your inbox, free.

Like The Brooklyn Paper on Facebook.

If you think moving your belongings to a new apartment is hard work, try moving an entire 17th-century Dutch farmhouse.

That is the effort underway at the Brooklyn Museum, where piles of faded, navy blue wooden panels lie atop 19-foot wooden beams in a fourth-floor exhibition hall. As yet unassembled, those panels and beams are as sturdy and capable of supporting a house today as they were more than 300 years ago.

The staff of Traditional Line, Ltd. Restoration Company is now hoping the framework of Jan Martense Schenck’s farmhouse will hold up one more time.

The crew is in the final stages of the painstaking process of restoring and rebuilding the quaint farmhouse, a five-month endeavor. (While the farmhouse is expected to be finished in July, the rest of the gallery must be completed before the hall reopens to the public.)

"It was interesting and fun, to say the least, moving this whole thing," Jim Boorstein, president of Traditional Line, told GO Brooklyn during a behind-the-scenes tour. "The house is so old that we had to figure out a way to lift the heaviest beams without damaging anything, and we’re using almost the entire original structure and framework. We had to take apart the whole house and put it up again, like a giant, and very complicated, jigsaw puzzle. It wasn’t easy, but I’d say everything went pretty well."

The skeleton of the house itself sits in the middle of the room, still a work-in-progress, but nonetheless an alluring glimpse into Brooklyn’s bygone days. The house is being moved from one location to another within the Brooklyn Museum, where it was first put on display in 1964. Its new address will still be on the museum’s fourth floor, but this time alongside a farmhouse owned by Jan Martense Schenck’s grandson, Nicholas Schenck.

The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, scheduled to open to the public in early 2007, will take over the old site of the Jan Martense Schenck house.

"Once the new feminist arts center was going to go up, we decided that [the Jan Martense Schenck house] should go up next to a related house," explained the museum’s curator of decorative arts, Barry Harwood. "It’s very wonderful to have two of the oldest houses in Brooklyn side by side, it’s a very nice touch."

The Jan Martense Schenck house is the oldest one in the United States. It was built in 1675 in what is now the Flatlands section of Brooklyn, on land granted to Schenck by Peter Stuyvesant and the Council of the New Netherlands.

The relocation of the house is no small feat, as it’s made up of two large, low-ceilinged rooms with a main support structure weighing more than 8,000 pounds, not counting the siding, roof, windows or door, which were added later, Boorstein said.

The house survived through the first half of the 20th century in its original Flatlands location, but in 1952 the house was at risk of demolition because of development in the area. The Brooklyn Museum arranged to have it dismantled and stored for a decade until preparations for installation of the house could be made. On April 26, 1964, the house was opened to the public inside the Decorative Arts gallery on the museum’s fourth floor.

The Schenck house was originally acquired to be part of the museum’s collection of period rooms and houses, to represent the Dutch vernacular tradition of the 17th century. The museum has been acquiring period rooms and houses since 1915, with the procurement of an 18th-century Connecticut room, which Harwood said was actually a reproduction.

"When the museum started to acquire period rooms, beginning in 1915, the goal was to show the history of architecture, beginning with the colonial period," said Harwood. "The earliest houses we had then were 18th-century houses and that’s when we received the Nicholas Schenck house. In the 1940s, we began to get some 17th-century ones.

"All of the rooms are a little juggled around now, and the time periods vary, but we saw this as a great opportunity to put both Schenck houses side-by-side, as a kind of comparison of architectural evolution in New York."

The Schenck house is slightly less than 23 feet wide and 43 feet long, with an 8-foot 6-inch doorway. The roof, previously 17 feet high at its old location in the museum, has been restored to its full 19-foot height in the new room, said Boorstein.

"The reconstruction of the house has been interesting for many reasons," said Boorstein. "It has given us a taste of the past in how it is constructed, but we hope to delve even deeper into the past. We have been taking core samples out of the timber of the wooden beams and using dendrochronology to try and find out what the climate was like back then. It’s a big test and the results won’t be in for awhile, but it could be very interesting to see how New York has changed over the past 300 years."

Harwood hopes to open the reinstalled house this fall, when the galleries are to be completed.

The Jan Martense Schenck House and the Nicholas Schenck House will be on display again this September at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights). Admission is $8 for adults, $4 for students and seniors, free for members and children under 12.

The Brooklyn Museum is open every Wednesday through Friday, from 10 am to 5 pm, and every Saturday and Sunday, from 11 am to 6 pm. The first Saturday of every month (except September), the museum has free entertainment, including music, dancing or free art, from 5 pm to 11 pm.

For more information, call the Brooklyn Museum at (718) 638-5000 or visit the Web site at

Today’s news:
Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook

Get our stories in your inbox, free.

Like The Brooklyn Paper on Facebook.

Reader Feedback

Mary Treacy from Prospect Heights says:
Thank you for the information on the Schenck House. I just met a member of the Schenck Family. For years, I have been visiting the houses displayed in the Brooklyn Museum. I was born just a few blocks from the Museum and my mother took us when I probably was to young to know what I was seeing. When the Museum was free, as a young girl I use to bring many of the young children from my block to visit. The old homes were the first place we always went to. Even today, when people ask for suggestions where to go in Brooklyn, it is the first place I mention.
Thank you again for your historical love for Brooklyn.
Brooklyn Mary
Feb. 16, 2008, 6:31 pm
Scott Schenck from Flat Rock,NC says:
I'm really glad the museum has kept my family's houses intact. I got to see them in the 1970's when my Grandfather August H. Schenck and my father Peter S. Schenck took my brother and I to the museum.

Now that I am 48 years old. I'd love to see them again. Hopefully, I'll get back to Brooklyn someday.
Scott N. Schenck
March 2, 2008, 11:11 pm
Donald Tatum from Virginia says:
My grandfather was Benjamin Francis Woolstein Schenck, born in Dinwiddie, Virginia. His father was Benjamin Bennet Schenck, from New York. He moved to Dinwiddie in l860. He was the son of Nicholas Schenck and Phebe Anne Schenck. I am trying to find out more about my people. My grandfather was born in 1872 aand his parents died in 1909. I am trying to find Nicholas's family
May 15, 2009, 11:29 pm
Heather Wint from Coral Springs, FL says:
My grandmother was Mary Alice Schenck of Cincinnati, OH. Roelof Martense Schenck, brother of Jan Martense Schenck, was my 9th great-grandfather. I only recently started researching the Schenck line and can't believe all the history there is!! Anyone of the Schenck family that has information they are willing to share can reach me at

Thanks in advance,
Heather Leek-Wint
Nov. 18, 2010, 7:34 am

Enter your comment below

By submitting this comment, you agree to the following terms:

You agree that you, and not or its affiliates, are fully responsible for the content that you post. You agree not to post any abusive, obscene, vulgar, slanderous, hateful, threatening or sexually-oriented material or any material that may violate applicable law; doing so may lead to the removal of your post and to your being permanently banned from posting to the site. You grant to the royalty-free, irrevocable, perpetual and fully sublicensable license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display such content in whole or in part world-wide and to incorporate it in other works in any form, media or technology now known or later developed.

First name
Last name
Your neighborhood
Email address
Daytime phone

Your letter must be signed and include all of the information requested above. (Only your name and neighborhood are published with the letter.) Letters should be as brief as possible; while they may discuss any topic of interest to our readers, priority will be given to letters that relate to stories covered by The Brooklyn Paper.

Letters will be edited at the sole discretion of the editor, may be published in whole or part in any media, and upon publication become the property of The Brooklyn Paper. The earlier in the week you send your letter, the better.