There were once many stately mansions in New York City. Over the years, progress and a population explosion caused many of these grand houses to be turned into apartment houses or demolished — but sprinkled throughout the concrete jungle, there are some historical gems.
Manhattan Historical Homes
This house museum is where the 26th president lived for the first 14 years of his life. Located at 28 East 20th St., it features period furniture provided by Roosevelt family members and it even has the exact replica of the family’s wallpaper. This museum is free and provides guided tours every 30 minutes.
This is a must see. This museum is the only 19th century family home still intact and open to the public. Owned by the same family for over 100 years it never befell the fate of most older homes in the city. When the last of the family died in the 1930s, a distant relative who inherited the property was gracious enough to turn it into a museum without disturbing its contents. Sadly, none of the family member’s papers survived or were made public. Located in lower Manhattan at 29 East 4th St., tours are conducted daily but you can also do a self-guided tour. I recommend you take the tour as their guides are fantastic.
This is a chance to see how the other half lived during the turn of the century. While this is not technically a “house museum,” it is one of the most interesting museums in the city. Located at 97 Orchard St. on the Lower East Side, it tells the story of the American immigrant experience at the turn of the 20th century. It has many tour options and several are designed for children of varying ages. It presents history in a tactile and social way that kids can really relate to.
Located in Harlem at 65 Jumel Terrace (at 160th St.), this is one of the most historically significant houses in the city. Built in 1765, it was taken over by George Washington and the Continental Army and used as a headquarters during the Battle of Harlem Heights.
Historical Homes in Brooklyn
This historic house is located at 452 Flatbush Ave. inside one of Brooklyn’s largest park, Prospect Park. Built in 1783, when Brooklyn was mainly farmland, it is one of the oldest houses in the city. It is a museum of family life and its interiors reflect what life in the 1820’s would have been like for an average successful farm family. It offers many programs that children will enjoy like hands-on American crafts, gardening and even donut making in addition to seasonal events and festivals. Prospect Park also has a number of activities for families to enjoy including a carousel, zoo and Audubon center as well as playgrounds and soon a newly renovated year-round ice rink.
Historical Bronx Homes
The Bronx gets a bad rap for being run down and unsafe but there are actually some very nice residential areas with recreational and historical sites.
Nestled in the heart of the Bronx this cottage was the last home in the young life of the famous American poet. Set on a small park on the Grand Concourse Road, Poe thought the bucolic setting (yes, hard to believe now) would help his wife who had tuberculosis. He lived there with his wife and mother-in-law in only five rooms for just over a year before she died. The house is a good example of a working class home (but higher standard of living than the tenement). Poe died in 1849 but thankfully The Shakespearean Society purchased the home in 1913 and saved this piece of history from what surely would have been demolition.
Located at Broadway and 246th Street, this house was once part of a working grain plantation but was also commandeered during the Revolutionary War by Lafayette, Rochambeau and Washington. It was occupied by the Van Courtlandt family (slaves and all) until 1889 when they sold it to the City of New York to be turned into a park.
If you are strapped for cash, admission is free on Wednesdays. I always like to pay — I feel like these historic homes are an important part of our social history and they do not get the funding that museums like the MET and MOMA get.
TIP: All these museums are accessible by subway or bus. See MTA Trip Planner for directions.