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Dutch New York

The Dutch influence on New York architecture spans

the centuries.
By Anne Walker

The fall of 2009 prompted a flurry of festivity in celebration of New York 400 – the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's discovery of the Hudson River. Though the Dutch only controlled New York for 60 years, the Dutch influence on New York's architectural identity over the past 400 years has been pervasive and far-reaching, regenerating itself over the centuries to suit specific problems and conditions. Early-20th-century architect Aymar Embury II (1880-1966) enthusiastically proclaimed that "there was no architecture so perfectly adapted to American conditions, so plastic in permitting adjustments of exterior plan, and so absolutely suited, aside from any sentimental reason…as is the Dutch Colonial."1 Indeed, over time, the many manifestations of Dutch style in New York – both in the Hudson River Valley and New York City – have revealed its surprising plasticity and adaptability.

Between 1626 – when the Dutch bought the island "Manhattes" from the Native Americans – and 1664, New Amsterdam was organically realized with an irregular street pattern, narrow winding streets and a variety of small two- to three-story urban houses with intricate brick façades and stepped front-facing Dutch gables. Re-creating the settlement patterns and architecture of their homeland, the Dutch settlers applied established Dutch late-medieval architectural forms – especially roofs with terra-cotta tiles, brick street façades, wooden stoops, and leaded-glass casement windows – to their homes. Seventeenth-century houses in Amsterdam had been cellar-less since they were built over canals; their stepped gables that fronted the street enabled the hoisting of goods up to the storage attic and provided easy access to the roof. Rather than the classicizing style of Holland's Golden Age, when architects embraced the Classical canon, the Dutch architecture that served as New York's inspiration was a simple, almost rude vernacular whose essence was twofold: artistic and pedestrian. It combined a deeply rooted thrift and practicality expressed in a language of splendid sculptural form.

Due to devastating fires, architectural fashions and development pressures, extant examples of the original Dutch houses in Manhattan do not exist; however, the settlers in the mid and upper Hudson River Valley were successful in creating a lasting imprint. These charming, organically realized farmhouses often featured brick-sheathed or stone walls, heavy overhanging eaves and shutters and, as each generation in the family rebuilt, they were commonly expanded over time from simple one- or two-room structures. With its steep gable roof, battened shutters and thick brick walls, the fortress-like Fort Crailo (construction possibly began as early as 1642) – the house of Killian Van Rensselaer Jr., a son of a major landowner – in Rensselaer exemplifies the nature of an early Dutch house. As later remarked by architect Marcus Reynolds (1869-1937), a Dutch Revival specialist, the house was curiously planned, possibly for defensive purposes, with rooms connecting to one another through closets. Similarly, the Pieter and Leendert Bronck house, begun in the early 1660s in Coxsackie, had traditional Dutch elements such as casement windows, parapet gables and a steeply pitched roof. The small random ashlar stone structure with two rooms and porthole windows was expanded around 1738 with a new two-and-a-half-story brick house with Dutch end gables.

After the British took control of the colony in 1664, Dutch architecture continued to persevere for 75 years. The De Windt House (1700) in Tappan, for example, displays traditional Dutch elements. The house, which served as George Washington's temporary headquarters during the Revolutionary War, is characterized by a heavy overhang – a method to regulate light and temperature inside – and intricate brickwork (the builder used blackened brick to spell out the year of its construction across the entire front façade). The stone Fort Frey (1739) in Palatine Bridge featured tumbling – a practical and decorative technique of waterproofing the edge of a gable parapet. The contrast of red bricks against the stone house creates an extraordinary triangle pattern.

After 1750, English elements began to creep in, generating a hybrid style. Wealthy colonists began to turn away from the medieval architecture of the Netherlands and imitate elite Europeans, who were building in the fashionable Georgian style – a change further fueled by the popularity of English pattern books that began circulating in the Colonies. At this time, the English gambrel roof, which has come to be so popularly associated with the Dutch-American house, was adapted; houses such as the Cornelius Wynkoop House (1767) in Stone Ridge displayed the melding of the two styles. While the house retains the early Dutch method of overhanging eaves, it was combined with the English style gambrel to create a bell-cast eave form or reverse S-curve silhouette. Similarly, Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson displays a commingling of styles as well as a porch and stoop seemingly from 18th-century Louisiana.

In the 19th century, Dutch culture experienced a renaissance when one of America's first internationally known authors, Washington Irving, revived awareness of America's Dutch origins with his invented folklore of the Hudson Valley. His stories, which reinstated the area's Dutch legacy, fell into the larger cultural and artistic movements of romanticism and nationalism in the early-19th century, when artists, authors and intellectuals worked to resurrect the past and glorify the frontier. To celebrate their roots and mythicize the people who settled in the rugged landscape, Americans sought to prove that the U.S. had an equally important, albeit less ancient, legacy compared to Europe. Accompanying the nation's desire to emphasize its ancestry was a resurrection of Dutch American architecture, a movement that sought to impose qualities of Dutch 16th- and 17th-century urban architecture and the 18th-century Dutch farmhouse into a modern context. Sunnyside (1835), Irving's retreat in Tarrytown, celebrated its Dutch influences quite literally. The small farmhouse, replete with stepped gables and Dutch weathervanes, had been expanded by Irving into his vision of Dutch architectural fantasy.

Irving's folklore popularized Dutch culture and fueled what has been referred to as "Holland Mania" in American society, spanning the years 1880 to 1920. This revitalization corresponded with major changes occurring in the country. With the influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants, apprehensive Americans found solace in what they considered the non-threatening, Protestant Dutch culture of the past. Indeed, the all-male Holland Society, where the men used to wear tulips to dinner, was established in 1885, and the Society of Daughters of Holland Dames was founded in 1895, reflecting this renewed dedication to preserving Dutch heritage. This newfound appreciation manifested itself in Manhattan at the end of the 19th and early-20th centuries. On the Upper West Side between 72nd Street and 86th Street, a 20th-century version of New Amsterdam grew up around the Collegiate Dutch Reformed Church (1892), designed by Robert W. Gibson after the butcher's guildhall (1580) in Haarlem. Here, a host of Beaux-Arts trained architects adapted the style to the modern townhouse, much larger and more imposing than its 17th-century predecessors, and incorporated elements of Dutch urban style. McKim, Mead & White initiated this trend in 1885 with five houses on West End Avenue and 83rd Street built by developer George W. Rogers. Nearby, Frank Miles Day's richly polychromed row houses for developer Richard Platt, which were called "the most successful and picturesque block of houses on the West Side" by Real Estate Record, featured a balance of historical details, picturesque massing, dormers and chimney tops.2 While architect C. P. H. Gilbert (1861-1952) was more recognized for his Fifth Avenue mansions, he too experimented with the style in 1908; his two Dutch-inspired houses in lower Manhattan displayed colorful brickwork and stepped gables.

Outside Manhattan, architects such as Marcus Reynolds, Aymar Embury and Dwight James Baum (1886-1939) embraced the Dutch idiom, each becoming a specialist in his own right. Embury enthusiastically endorsed the style, stating "the style to use is Dutch or nothing.…[it] is sincere, expressive, and vital; strong and pleasing in mass, refined in detail and beautifully fit, in both form and color, to the American landscape."3 His house for Jerome C. Bull (1910) in Tuckahoe manifests the attributes of the Dutch Colonial Revival style that has come to be so popularly associated with small house architecture. Between 1914 and 1939, Riverdale-based Baum, who designed over 140 houses in Fieldston and Riverdale, similarly exploited the qualities of the style. His designs, such as that for Professor N. L. Engelhardt in Fieldston, illustrate its plasticity: overhanging eaves, shutters and gambrel roof commingle with robust Tuscan columns. Although some of his houses, like that for Thomas A. Buckner in Riverdale, may almost seem commonplace now, they represented, at the time, a new and fresh reading of precedent wellsuited to the American landscape. Like the early-20th-century architects working in Manhattan, Marcus Reynolds, a gentleman architect from Albany, evoked the grander and more urbane elements of the style. Lamenting the disappearance of many of Albany's unique early Dutch houses, he maintained that "we must forget the present and the immediate past…we must follow the perspective still farther to the days when Albany was an important trading post."4 Baroque twin scrolled gables, large weathervanes and ornamental brickwork enliven the façades of his brick and stone estate house (1903) for Morgan Jones, a client who desired a house indicative of "the good life."

Yet another chapter in the ongoing dialogue between the Netherlands and New York emerged in the 1920s with the onset of skyscraper architecture. The influence of the Amsterdam School inspired such architects as Ralph Walker (1889-1973) and Ely Jacques Kahn (1884-1972) to produce soaring setback towers with intricate brickwork, exotic ornament, interlocking forms and projecting piers. However, it is in the realm of residential architecture that the Dutch influence has been most resoundingly felt. From the very beginnings of our country to the present day, permutations of Dutch style have shaped and redefined the ever-changing architectural expression of American houses in New York, and beyond.  

 

 

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