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Sketch of An Old House: The Lefferts Mansion 1887

 
 
 

In 1664 New Netherlands passed from the hands of the Dutch to those of the English. In 1670, with the approval of the English Governor, Lovelace, the people of Brooklyn, or Breuckelen, as the Hollanders called it, bought the large tract of land known as Bedford from the Indians. About 100 years later, or in 1766, when Ratzer's survey was made, Bedford Corners, a forest environed cluster of ancient, low browed Dutch houses, had come to be recognized as especially the seat of the Lefferts family. Almost all the land in the vicinity belonged to them. The house of Judge Leffert being just south of the Brooklyn and Jamaica turnpike, near Bedford avenue, and his farm extended for a long distance east and west of that point on the south side of that road, while the house of Barent Lefferts was on the opposite side of the turnpike, at the present corner of Fulton street and Arlington place, and his land extended along the north side of the turnpike.

The farm owned by Barent Lefferts extended as far east as Reid avenue. It included the land lying between Jefferson and Hancock streets, at that point including the bed of the streets, and continued diagonally across blocks. At Nostrand it had followed its trend southward and reached from Halsey to Macon street. From Nostrand the northern boundary was along the north line of Halsey and the southern line followed the Jamaica turnpike south of Fulton. West of Bedford avenue the farm included the land from the middle of the block between Jefferson avenue and Hancock street to Brevoort place; at Classon avenue, from Fulton street to Atlantic avenue and about midway between Grand avenue and St. James place, it reached from Lefferts place to Atlantic avenue, it being borne in mind that the southern boundary west from Arlington place to beyond Grand street was on the line of the Brooklyn and Jamaica turnpike.

There was other land belonging to Barent Lefferts, notably a tract from Bedford to Lewis avenue, which, between Bedford and Nostrand avenues extended from Monroe street to Clifton place, while east of that it only included from Monroe to Quincy street, and at Sumner avenue from Gates to Greene avenue. A portion of this land lying between Gates avenue, Quincy street, Tompkins and Throop avenues have been known for a number of years as Lefferts Park.

Another tract lying between Fulton street and Atlantic avenue at Kingston avenue extended to the Clove road, between Atlantic avenue and Bergen street, while yet another, which is a historical point, commenced between Bergen and Butler streets at the Clove road and continued westward to beyond Classon avenue. It was on this last named tract or that portion of it lying between Bergen and Butler streets and Franklin and Classon avenues that the British had the camp in 1781, the flagstaff having stood at the entrance, which was located on Bergen street, just west of Franklin avenue. As late as 1853 the mound where the flagstaff stood and the location of the soldiers' barracks or huts could still be distinguished. These huts had been made by throwing out the earth from a trench along the hillside thirty to fifty feet long by twelve to fifteen feet wide, a board roof resting upon the bank formed by the excavated earth, leaving an opening for a door on the middle of the lower side.

The residence of Barent Lefferts, it formerly having belonged to Jeronimus Remsen, was located on the Jamaica turnpike at the corner now formed by Arlington place and Fulton street. Just when this house was built it seems impossible to tell, but it is given in Ratzer's survey of 1766, and one of the old barns which stood in the rear of the present house, on what is now the bed of Arlington place, pulled down about ten years ago, had the date 1716 cut in one of the posts. Whether the present house, commonly called Rem Lefferts' house, or rather the rear portion of it, can claim old age, is so far an unsolved question. The front part of this building was erected by Rem Lefferts in 1838, but it appears to be the impression among those who can recollect fifty years ago, as well as common tradition, that the rear part of this mansion was the old Barent Lefferts house which was standing in 1766, and certainly an examination of the premises would bear out this idea, if for no other reason than the fact that there is a step up from the passage way connecting the rear building to the hall of the front building. Surely no sane architect would put up a building with a difference of a foot in the level of the front and back building. The back building has its stairway to go to the second floor, which was entirely unnecessary in view of the other back stairway in the connecting passage, and the rear building is much lower, more cramped and inconvenient, and evidently built on a less liberal plan in point of room and ventilation than the front part. If we grant, therefore that this theory is correct, this back building is the oldest house in that section of the city.

The Rem Lefferts mansion, standing among the trees on the corner of Arlington place and Fulton street, and almost facing its venerable neighbor which was rebuilt 100 years ago, bears its half century of existence well, and in its massive solidity would seem to smile contemptuously upon some of its light walled modern neighbors, which are fast encroaching upon its preserves. It will not be long, in fact it is even now in contemplation, before the Rem Lefferts house is torn down, and a row of flat buildings will line the old grounds along Fulton street.

The Rem Lefferts mansion was built facing the old Jamaica turnpike, which at this particular point was identical with the p0resent bed of Fulton street. It stands back from the street, and its entrance is several feet higher than the sidewalk, there being several steps to go up from the yard to the portico, the roof of which is supported by four massive Corinthian columns. To one side of the large double doorway is a bell pull set in a circular plate, on which appears the name of Rem Lefferts, which will now awaken the echoes of the interior just the same as it did in years gone by, but in the Summer time it will bring no human response in the Winter it may cause a commotion in Miss Jennie Payne's Kindergarten, in the grand parlors, but awaken a Lefferts, never, unless it "can call spirits from the vastly deep," or rouse the crumbling ashes in the ex-graveyard in the rear of the mansion.

The interior of the house is on the old English style. On entering there is a large hallway, with a broad staircase in the center, which divides at a landing, before reaching the second floor, into two narrower stairways running toward the front of the house. On the left of the hall are double parlors; on the right side three large rooms. The landing of the grand stairway is even with the second floor of the back building. The second floor of the front building is divided into three rooms on the east side, a hall room in front and three communicating rooms on the west. But here it is unique. There are two doors from the main hall on the west side, one into the southwest or front corner room, the other into a narrow hall which runs parallel with the main hall, to the rear of the main building. At the extreme rear end of this narrow passage way are two doors, one leading into the room at the northwest corner of the main building, the other to an eighteen inch wide stairway that leads down into the back buildings, but which is so closely concealed as to lead one to think it was made a secret stairway designedly. Certainly, by means of the various stairways and halls there was ample opportunity for young folk to get a good deal of fun out of the old house, though, if tradition can be relied on, there were never many young folk about the premises to join in the Yuletide merrymaking, games at all Halloween, or New Year's festivities.

The back building (which, as before stated, is lower than the front part and connected therewith by a passageway, in which there is a stairway to the second floor,) has one central room with an entrance on the passage and a door leading out the opposite side into the yard toward the barns. On the rear side of this room by the huge fireplace is the mouth of an old Dutch brick bake oven. The oven itself is now torn away, but it is only a few years since its rounded form extended like a huge wart on the rear of the building. There is also a room at either end of this main room of the pack building, in one of which, until recently, was a stairway to the second floor. On the second floor there are three rooms, which are given light by dormer windows in the Dutch roof. There are three small plastered attic rooms in the main building, but they could hardly have been intended for anything save storage rooms, as there is no chance for light or ventilation save a skylight in the center of the roof over the middle room. This latter fact is an additional proof of the antiquity of the back building. The architecture of the front building is English, that of the back Dutch. If they were both built at the same time why should a difference be made in the architecture? Why should the attic rooms not have dormer windows to give them ventilation and make them habitable, the same as the upper rooms in the back building? The answer would seem to be that they could not put Dutch dormer windows in a square English roof and still preserve its style.

In the rear of the mansion there are several old buildings. There were three or four barns, which have been torn down within the past ten years, one of which, as stated above, is supposed to have been erected in 1716. There are still standing one barn and a square one story building, which is shingled on all four sides clear down to the ground. The upper part was formerly used as a smoke house, while the lower part, under ground, was used as an ice house, there being a floor between the two parts.

The barn that is still standing bears evidence of being very old. The doors are hung on great strap hinges about three feet long, and the architecture is massive. In the shed of this barn is the old family coach in which Mrs. Rem Lefferts used to ride in state, thirty or forty years ago. It is a substantial structure built to stand wear and tear, having three seats, two inside, with a place behind for the footman. The cushions of the inside seats are covered with silk, and the inside hangings of the coach are also of the same material, and are in a state of excellent preservation.

Under this same shed is also the Lefferts' sleigh. It is made of wood, and judging by its proportions, was also intended for family use. These were purchased by W. Payne, at a public sale, and are kept by him at the old place as relics of a bygone day.

In the course of years a great many articles accumulate at an old homestead, which the owners do not care to sell or do not know just what to do with. This was evidently the case at the Lefferts place, for when the executors came to settle up things after Mrs. Rem Lefferts' death, Mr. Lefferts having died some years before, they found a large variety of articles stored away in the barns. In order to dispose of the things they lumped them and sold to the highest bidder the contents of each barn. W. Payne purchased in this way the tools, implements and other articles in one of the barns, and among the things which fell to his lot was the ancient spinning wheel, with which, no doubt, many a busy hour of the Winter has been passed in by gone days by some nimble fingered Dutch matron, spinning her fleecy yearns on one side of the broad fireplace, while Meinher smoked his long stemmed pipe and spun his tough yearns on the other. And no doubt the music of the wheel kept time to the ticking of an old Dutch clock, the kind that Longfellow speaks of in "The Old Clock on the Stairs," when

From its case of massive oak,
Like a monk, who, under his cloak,
Crosses himself, and sighs, Alas!
With sorrowful voice to all who pass:
"Forever__never!
Never__forever!"

For Mr. Payne found one of those very clocks stowed away up on the cross beans of the old barn, where it lay covered with dust and where it had probably been laying for a score or more of years. A Revolutionary musket and a kettledrum were also among the articles in Mr. Payne's purchase. What was formerly the coach house used to stand on what is now Halsey street, near Arlington place. It was torn down about ten years ago.

After Rem Lefferts died the mansion and adjacent grounds went to his wife, and when Mrs. Lefferts departed this life it was found that she had willed the property to outside parties, instead of to those who thought they had a right by kinship to it. The consequence was litigation over the will and during this time Mr. Payne had charge of the property. Subsequently the executors sold it to C.C. Betts, and when the last named gentleman died it fell in the division of his property to his son Edward, w ho subsequently sold it tot he present owner, C.D. Wood. This one of the few remaining historic land marks of Brooklyn, and it will soon be swept away. Already have its grounds been circumscribed to a comparatively small space; the sound of the hammer, the trowel and the saw is heard all around it, and the chances are that ere the new part of the building passes its half century some modern vandals will be tearing down its time hallowed walls.

H.J.S.

 

 
 
Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Sketch of An Old House: The Lefferts Mansion 1887
Researcher/Transcriber: Miriam Medina

Source:

Brooklyn Eagle Aug 21, 1887
Time & Date Stamp:  

 

   
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