Two Historians Walk Into a Bar

Trudging through an early December snow storm in Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago, after a chilly ten-minute walk, Tyler and I finally spotted our destination:  the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery. After visiting friends and colleagues at Colonial Williamsburg, we stopped in D.C. specifically to see the exhibition Murder is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, organized by curator Nora Atkinson.

Screenshot of Renwick Gallery Exhibition Info Page
Screenshot of Renwick Gallery Exhibition Info Page, accessed Dec. 17, 2017

What’s the story?

In the 1940s and 50s, Lee (1878-1962), considered one of the founders of forensic investigation, created these didactic dioramas (with a partner who did a lot of the carpentry) based on real crimes for the purposes of training budding police and crime investigators in Harvard’s now defunct department of Legal Medicine. In 1966, Harvard transferred the nutshells to the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, where they are still in use today for training purposes. These studies are, as Lee put it and as Atkinson explains in this video, about “finding truth in a nutshell.” This is not the first time these dioramas have been on display. See, for example, this 2008 exhibition at the National Library of Medicine, Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body.

Screen shot of nutshell study details from, accessed Dec. 17, 2017
Screen shot of nutshell study details from, accessed Dec. 17, 2017

I like dioramas, I study medical history, and I learned about how New Castle County, DE, police get trained to investigate crime scenes when I participated in their citizen’s police academy a few years ago. I wanted to know more about the history of all this.  But upon feeling the warm air on our faces as we walked up the stairs and edged toward the gallery at left, I stopped. All I could hear was the din of what I presumed to be a group that had rented the galleries for a private event.  Museums make a lot of money from space rentals and I do not begrudge them this income stream. Still, a disappointment. Would we be unable to see the nutshell studies after all?

As my eyes adjusted to the dim gallery lighting, I quickly realized that we did not catch the Renwick at a bad time. We caught the Renwick at a good time. The noise, which sounded like the soundtrack of a popular bar, was, in fact, emanating from the exhibition visitors. Tyler and I observed in awe as one group of strangers exchanged theories and practiced a whole lot of close looking at the supposedly best known nutshell study that depicts an entire home and multiple “unexplained” deaths. The crowd did not clear while we were there, and so we never got to look at this particular nutshell (see below).

A group of strangers at the Renwick Gallery puzzling out one of Lee's forensic "nutshell" studies, Dec. 9, 2017
A group of strangers at the Renwick Gallery puzzling out one of Lee’s forensic “nutshell” studies, Dec. 9, 2017

“This is what museums and public history should be about,” I murmured to Tyler, also a museum person. “But how often do you actually see this happening? Discussion, laughter, awe, wonder, questioning.” Tyler nodded and took a few surreptitious photos and a short video (for teaching purposes!).

This experience increased my expectations for public historians. We need to create similarly thought-provoking  exhibitions and programming, even when we are not beginning with what we might argue to be inherently extraordinary material culture (you know, mummies, diamonds, airplanes, miniature recreations of murder scenes, and the like). Not sometimes. Every time.

This experience also got me to rethink how I talk to my students about museum etiquette. If you had asked me how to behave in a museum prior to going to this exhibition, I would have noted that talking is OK but that it should be kept to a minimum. Indeed, I have instructed my students to behave this way in my “history behind the scenes” course when they are in traditional gallery-style museums. That’s what I learned growing up frequenting museums and historic sites, and I think that is still a widely held expectation among visitors.

But does it always need to be that way?

Of course not, but it took this visit to the Renwick for me to come to that realization. Many of us in the field are rethinking the way we engage with the public in history settings. I could cite a lot of folks here, but I’ll only note Vagnone’s and Ryan’s Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums (2016) even though they use house museums as opposed to traditional galleries as a case study. In short, they argue, we need to make historic house museums “more relatable” (pg 39).

What is our role in facilitating this?

As our experience at the Renwick shows and as Steven Lubar noted in his new book Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present (Harvard, 2017), “Museums are more than just places with things: they are places with things and people, that is, social spaces” (pg. 157). We need to keep this in mind when we curate exhibitions, design public programming, advocate for our field’s relevancy, and instruct our students in museum etiquette. You will know we have been successful if the next time you go to an exhibition or public history event, you, too, think that you have walked into a bar.

For more on the exhibition see, for example this article published by Harvard Medical School.

You can also learn more from this Smithsonian podcast with the curator.

Do you like documentaries? Check out this 2011 film, Of Dolls and Murder, which is about the Nutshells.

If you want to learn more about some contemporaneous dioramas, see the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago.

For those of you interested in the history of forensic science, see the online version of the 2008 U.S. National Library of Medicine Exhibition Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body.

And finally, if you want to know more about the history of “hobbies,” Steven M. Gelber’s 1999 book Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America, is a good place to start.

In Search of Magic

Walking toward the Wagner Free Institute of Science near Temple University in Philadelphia in October, I was a little nervous. My friend Hannah and I thought we were going to go back in time and never return.

Why the concern, you ask?

We attended an annual magic lantern slide salon, of course. You can think of magic lanterns as the pre-cursor to slide carousels, projectors, and perhaps even motion pictures. When they first became popular in the eighteenth century, magic lanterns projected their scenes on glass onto walls or other backgrounds using an artificial light source. In the nineteenth century, as the Brooklyn Museum explained, the slides and the machine provided a way for lots of people to learn from the new photographic medium. (Not all slides are of photographs, though.) Modern machines, like the one we saw at the festival, are electrified. The projector we saw holds two glass slides at a time that are swapped out manually. The Wagner was an exciting place to attend such a salon, as the auditorium dates to 1865 and has hosted many a magic lantern presentation.

I learned a lot from this event. Quite frankly, I thought the presentation would be more transformative (see reference to concern about going back in time). But in fact, the visual experience of seeing the slides merely echoed projector or slide carousel presentations. The images did appear more crisp than what contemporary projectors seem to be capable of reproducing. What I found most interesting was the breadth of lantern slide collections in the region and how underutilized they are as archival sources. There may be good reason for this. If you ever handle these slides, you sense immediately how fragile they are. You drop it, it breaks (speaking from experience at an antique mall last year).

But that did not stop these archivists from institutions as varied as the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and Philadelphia Museum of Art from generously bringing their fragile collections to the Wagner and putting on a show. Some archivists used historic scripts. Others created wholly contemporary interpretations of old slides. Some mixed the two. We learned about how workers at the Stetson hat manufactory, which was based in Philadelphia, made its famous hat. We took a tour through the galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And we all cooed over a basket of baby lions born at the Philadelphia Zoo.

The festival was part of Archives Month Philly. Looking forward to more fun events next year, even if we do not go back in time or confront magic. This was, after all, held at an Institute of Science.

Further Reading and Exploring

One consortium called A Million Pictures is preserving lantern slide heritage in Europe.

The Brooklyn Museum has digitized some of its lantern slides. You can find out more about that collection here.

Mira Lloyd Dock probably taught forestry at Penn State with this lantern slides.

The Brittingham family in Wisconsin recorded and remembered their lives with these gems.


Finding George Washington

George Washington (1732-1799) is famously inscrutable. And yet I found him, hanging on the wall at the Powel House (b. 1765) in Philadelphia. Rather, I found his shadow in the form of a silhouette, pencil lines and all. On the reserve, the silhouette reads, “General Washington, a bad likeness.”

George Washington's Silhouette by Samuel Powel, 1787, In Situ at the Powel House in Philadelphia, PA
George Washington’s Silhouette by Samuel Powel, 1787, In Situ at the Powel House in Philadelphia, PA

This “bad” likeness breathes life into the Powel House’s withdrawing room but also into Washington. Samuel Powel (1738-1793), Philadelphia mayor from 1775-1776 and 1789-1790, made the portrait himself, in 1787. Known as a hollow-cut silhouette, Powel crafted it by tracing Washington’s shadow on a light-colored substrate, cutting away the outline, and backing it with blue paper after socializing over tea with Washington’s brother John (1736-1787) and none other than Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790).

Fun among friends. What’s more personal than that?

My original purpose for visiting the Powel House was to check out an example of a Philadelphia “ballroom” that probably inspired party rooms like the one at my beloved George Read House in New Castle, Delaware. It was great to see this comparable space in person and to get a sense of what Read was likely trying to replicate or imitate in his New Castle Home.

To my delight, I found much more than some nice rooms at the Powel house. I also found George Washington.

Further Reading and Looking

Visit the Powel House, a Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks property. You can see the original Powel House interiors at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Preservationists and antiquarians “saved” them when the Powel House faced demolition in the early twentieth century.

For a technical analysis of historic silhouettes, see Penley Knipe, “Paper Profiles: American Portrait Silhouettes,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation Online, Vol. 41, No. 3, Article 1: 203-223.

For a history of silhouettes made and used among Philadelphia Quakers in the early republic, see Anne Verplank, “The Silhouette and Quaker Identity in Early National Philadelphia,” Winterthur Portfolio 43, 1 (Spring 2009): 41-78.

For a list of portraits of Washington made from life, see “Life Portraits of George Washington,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon,

Mount Vernon recently acquired a silhouette of Washington made in 1791. Read more about that likeness, for which Washington probably did no sit, here.

Check out historian Joseph M. Adelman’s thoughtful essay, “George Washington, Man of Mystery,” for a reflection on Washington’s mythic stature in American life.

Learn about what it takes to choose and be the “official” George Washington in this fascinating documentary, Being George.

I Left My Soul in Antwerp

As Tyler and I made our way inside Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp, Belgium, this past June, we knew that its stature as a UNESCO World Heritage site meant we would, at the very least, feel like we had an afternoon well-spent.

Museum Plantin-Morestus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015
Museum Plantin-Morestus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015

In my experience, the UNESCO people tend to make good choices. Indeed, it’s not every day you get to tour a complex of buildings where craftsmen, thinkers, and family worked and lived from the sixteenth century through the mid-nineteenth century. (According to the UNESCO nomination, there would have been about 140 other individuals and/or businesses in Antwerp’s print trades in the mid-sixteenth century.) Christopher Plantin served as the House’s “master” from 1555-1589, and his son-in-law Jan I Moretus served as master from 1589-1610. See the UNESCO nomination for more on the other Plantin House masters. Shortly after the firm printed its last book in 1866, the site became a museum. Visitors have been enchanted by it ever since, and you don’t have to have completed a PhD exam field in print culture and history of the book to appreciate this museum’s ability to transport visitors to another time and place.

Plantin-Moretus has a lot going for it, including very comprehensive business archives and galleries. (Unfortunately, we were too exhausted by the end of the workshop-house tour to enjoy the galleries properly.) It’s difficult to summarize why I liked the museum so much–why, at the expense of sounding a bit dramatic, I feel like I left my soul there. First, the Museum retains a workshop full of the family’s printing presses (including the two oldest extant in the world), type, and other tools.

Type-making Supplies at Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015
Type-making Supplies at Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015

It also boasts the multi-room library of several generations of humanists (a fancy term for people interested in natural rather than supernatural concerns and whose intellectual interests spanned multiple disciplines).

A Snapshot of the Library at Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015
A Snapshot of the Library at Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015

These material survivals virtually tell the story of the site and the people who lived and worked there themselves. Perhaps I feel so taken with the place because I really felt the presence of the people who had used the objects and spaces there. Sure, the things I want to see more of in house museums and workspace period rooms–like dirt and disorder–weren’t there. But it’s hard not to imagine a journeyman moving about the print shop managing apprentices when just about all the tools he used (including sunlight streaming through the tall windows) are staring you in the face.

The Printing Presses at Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015
The Printing Presses at Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015

The Museum offers a great audio tour too that provides visitors with succinct discussions that enhance rather than detract from the already dense sensory experience. I particularly enjoyed going into some detail about the gilt leather wallpaper (much of it reproduced since gilt leather is difficult to preserve) this prosperous family installed throughout the workshop-house, a luxury that was a speciality of craftsmen in nearby Mechelen. The audio guide really made you take a close look.

And yet the interpretation of only one bedchamber and what seems to be a reproduced kitchen (a room that, according to the guidebook, was a wash house in Plantin’s lifetime) spurred questions about domestic life and work at the site. My curiosity was only heightened when I read in the visitor guide that two of Plantin’s daughters (Margaretha and Martina) married their father’s “most important assistants,” thereby cementing their importance as consorts and also business partners. That says a lot about how permeable the walls and doors here really were.

Perhaps I feel like I left my soul there since past inhabitants most certainly left theirs there too.

Further Reading

If you want to take a circa 1900 virtual tour of Museum Plantin-Moretus, check out this visitor guide on the Internet Archive.

And of course, nothing can compare to visiting the site in person. I recommend it (and Belgium more generally) very highly. Learn more here the Museum Plantin-Moretus website.

I’ve written about workshop period rooms in the past. Check out my blog post about cleaning, inventorying, and cataloguing a duck decoy shop period room at the Upper Bay Museum in North East, Maryland.

#DisabilityStories Abroad

En route to our hotel the first night we spent in Brussels, Belgium, this past June, I stopped dead in my tracks in front of a store window despite the fact that I was more than ready to hit the sack after surviving our marathon day of trans-Atlantic travel and touring. It didn’t take long for Tyler to realize why I was so engrossed. There, in the middle of Brussels, a Bandagiste (or a store that sells orthopedic and related supplies) displayed a mix of historic and contemporary examples of objects that feature (along with their users) prominently in my dissertation. From crutches to wheelchairs, the Bandagiste had it all, beckoning prospective customers (and one historian) in one of the busiest parts of Brussels.

One Portion of Fremineur-Medical's Window Display in Brussels, Belgium (June 2015)
One Portion of Fremineur-Medical’s Window Display in Brussels, Belgium (June 2015)

Tyler and I planned to visit specific sites in Belgium and the UK on our trip, but I hadn’t really picked out any disability-related stuff to see.

It turns out it didn’t matter, because it found me.

On a train from Bruges to Brussels, for instance, I overheard one woman explain to her travel companions that there is a rail worker at one of the stops she frequents who is notorious for grumbling about providing the moveable ramp that links the platform to the train for her wheelchair. She also recounted how a friend’s commute lengthened by a half hour recently because the station he used was no longer accessible. Their anecdotes were endless. And during the remainder of our trip abroad, the insights kept coming.

At the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich, I immersed myself in the material culture of the cult of Britain’s maritime hero Horatio Nelson. I knew a surgeon (turns out to have been Thomas Eshelby, a ship’s surgeon) amputated Nelson’s arm after it was hit at Santa Cruz in 1797, but I was not aware how central the amputation became to Nelson’s identity and everyone else’s idea of him.

Lemuel Francis Abbott, Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, 1758-1805 , Oil on Canvas, 1799, National Maritime Museum Collections.
Lemuel Francis Abbott, Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, 1758-1805 , Oil on Canvas, 1799, National Maritime Museum Collections

The amputated limb became a focal point for many likenesses made of Nelson even after he died from wounds received at the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars in 1805. Check out this late ninteenth-century decanter below, for instance. It was difficult to choose which artifact to include here. Nelson adorned a lot of stuff, suggesting how much people liked having him around. Think George Washington or Abraham Lincoln in the American context.

Decanter  Depicting Horatio Nelson,  Circa 1870, National Maritime Museum Collections
Decanter Depicting Horatio Nelson, Circa 1870, Czech Republic, National Maritime Museum Collections (Walter Collection)

While perusing the Nelson gallery, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Desire Tripp, an eighteenth-century Newport Rhode Island working girl who highlighted her amputated arm on a gravestone it shared with her two babies.

Heck, I made her arm a focal point of my own arm.

Me, My Arm's Arm, and Tyler at Gettysburg, PA (Spring 2015)
Me, My Arm’s Arm, and Tyler at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (Spring 2015)

Getting better acquainted with Nelson suddenly made Desire seem less unusual (but not less unique).

And so in honor of the twentieth anniversary celebration of the Americans With Disabilities Act, here are some of my recent #disabilitystories (the social media “hashtag” for today) from abroad. My encounters with disability history and material culture on our recent trip started with that Bandagiste but did not end with Nelson. More importantly, they won’t end back in the States, either. I can’t wait to dive back into the archives today, on the lookout for hard-to-find but oh-so-fascinating early American #DisabilityStories.

What’s your #DisabilityStory?

Further Reading

Click here to learn more about the National Museum of American History’s (the Smithsonian) initiative to share #DisabilityStories today. Everyone is encouraged to participate.

A related initiative is the ADA Legacy Project. The web site will give you information about all the ADA 25 celebrations that are going on this year.

And if you haven’t seen it already, check out the Smithsonian’s excellent online exhibition (EveryBody) featuring its smashing collection of disability history-related artifacts.

And be sure to navigate over to the fantastic project in Britain called Disability and Industrial Society. I wrote a  blog post for them a few years ago about what I learned from collecting disability history.

To learn more about Desire Tripp and her arm’s grave stone, check out the essay I wrote about it at Common-Place.

On Preserving African American History in the First State

Politely traipsing through privately-owned early nineteenth-century houses in Historic New Castle, Delaware, last May, I enjoyed the opportunity to take a peep as some strangers’ lives (and their glorious views of the Delaware River).

Gardens and Views of the Delaware River from The Strand in New Castle, Delaware
Gardens and Views of the Delaware River from The Strand in New Castle, Delaware, May 2015

In its 91st year, A Day in Old New Castle traditionally supported historic and other non-profit organizations based within the “old” city limits. As the New Castle Historical Society’s New Castle audio tour explains, the National Historic Landmark District, established in 1967 and expanded in 1984, includes buildings associated with land and events surrounding early Dutch and English settlement.

New Castle Delaware Historic District (New Castle, DE, Community History and Archaeology Program)
New Castle Delaware Historic District (New Castle, Delaware, Community History and Archaeology Program)

This vintage Day in Old New Castle ticket in my collection speaks to that European settlement history.

Mid-20th-Century Day in Old New Castle Ticket (Nicole Belolan's Collection)
Mid-20th-Century Day in Old New Castle Ticket (Nicole Belolan’s Collection)

I love New Castle so much I lived there for about two years while I was completing my PhD coursework, and I would consider moving back if the opportunity presented itself. New Castle boasts one of my favorite historic houses, the Read House, which is run by the Delaware Historical Society. The house, which you can tour, is well-documented and preserved. The house’s history is fascinating, but don’t miss the breath-taking view of the Delaware River from the second floor.

George Read II House, New Castle, Delaware (Historic American Building Survey, Library of Congress)
George Read II House, New Castle, Delaware (Historic American Building Survey, Library of Congress)

The “Day in Old New Castle” (DIONC) tour allows visitors to check out the homes and/or gardens a handful of current residents choose to open to the public for a few hours during this annual tradition. For the next few years, DIONC will be particularly critical for introducing Delaware’s new National Park (dedicated in 2013) to the public. The park encompasses the Woodlawn Tract (a patch of undeveloped land open to the public in northern New Castle County preserved by nineteenth-century cotton mill owner William Bancroft), the New Castle Court House (built in the 1730s, making it the oldest extant court house in America, and served as Delaware’s capitol building until the capital moved to Dover), the New Castle Green (the beautiful public space in the heart of Historic New Castle), and the Dover Green (plotted in 1717 and surrounded by historic sites such as the place where DE delegates met to agree to ratify the Constitution in 1787).

The sites that comprise the new National Park and the well-maintained private homes are, without a doubt, historically significant. But like all places, there is a lot more to Old New Castle than buildings associated with founding fathers. Perhaps the one that intrigues me most because it is now condemned and in danger of being demolished is the Mouth Salem Methodist Episcopal Church at 138 E. 4th Street.

Places like this deserve more attention than they get.

I drafted this blog post in May, but this sentiment now seems all the more dire in light of the recent murder of nine congregants at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a crime with which 21-year-old Dylan Roof has been charged.

Mouth Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, New Castle, Delaware (May 2015)
Mount Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, New Castle, Delaware (May 2015)

Built to replace the original 1857 wood frame worship space, this 1878 Gothic Revival structure served as New Castle’s second black church. (Bethany UAME Church had been established first in 1817.) According to a National Register nomination prepared in 1983, the church retains some original furnishings such as carved wooden clergy stalls. The surrounding burying ground at Mount Salem includes several gravestones that commemorate African American soldiers—such as this one for Jerry Myers–who served in the Civil War.

Mouth Salem Methodist Episcopal Church
Jerry Myers gravestone at Mouth Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, New Castle, Delaware (May 2015)

Now, as the notice affixed to the front door suggests, the Church is endangered.

The New Castle City Board of Health condemned the church last February due to “visual verification of mold infestation caused by moisture and flooding in the basement area” and “a strong odor of mildew through the structure,” as the notice states. The notice also explains that there is “probable cause to the believe that the church may be structurally compromised.” The Church’s congregation worships elsewhere.

I don’t know what progress has been made in mitigating or otherwise addressing the Board of Health’s orders. And one can’t help but wonder what will become of the civilians’ and soldiers’ graves here too. Next year’s Day in Old New Castle, then, may include one less building and therefore one less opportunity to learn about African American history in Delaware.

One might conclude African American history sites in Delaware face a bleak future. Yet the Delaware Historical Society recently established the Center for African American Heritage. I hope initiatives like will prevent future deterioration of Delaware sites associated with African American history. So here’s to a bright future for raising public awareness of and appreciation for African American history in the First State.

Further Reading and Exploration

For a comprehensive tour of buildings in Historic New Castle, check out the New Castle Historical Society’s excellent audio walking tour (which includes the Mount Salem Church), available free here. If you can, visit in person to explore this charming city.

You can learn more about New Castle Historic District here.

For a visual overview of New Castle’s history, check out Jim Travers’ New Castle (2005). For a more sustained look at New Castle’s history, see Constance J. Cooper’s 350 Years of New Castle, Delaware: Chapters in a Town’s History (2001).

Historic House-Hunting in New York City

“I don’t like the phrase ‘hidden’ New York,” explained a knowledgable and friendly museum staff member at a New York City house museum two weeks ago when I declared that most people just don’t think to visit house museums in NYC when you have The Met, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Morgan beckoning with their Egyptian mummies, stuffed bisons, and Elizabeth I signatures. I was asking for more house museum recommendations (aside from the guys I’ve visited [and have enjoyed thoroughly] already such as the Tenement Museum and the Merchant’s House Museum). As my jaunt with Tyler through the upper reaches of the island taught us yesterday, she was right. This part of New York isn’t “hidden.” There are plenty of people living and working here. That said, it’s certainly different, and it’s way uptown.

Why bother with this historic house hunt?

First, we found treasures heretofore unknown to us. We started at Alexander Hamilton’s Grange (completed 1802).

Grange 1

Hamilton lived on his 32-acred Harlem estate for two years until that fateful day Aaron Burr fatally wounded Hamilton in a duel. The National Park Service moved the Grange in 2008 to give it the green space and visibility it deserves. I love the juxtaposition of the historic house with the twentieth-century behemoth next to it.


Check out the moving process with this fascinating simulation from the New York Times. The house had been moved previously in the nineteenth century, but in the more recent move, smart people had to slide the home over St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. This house belonged to a founder, and its importance can be claimed easily on that fact alone. But it’s also important because it led us to St. Luke’s, a typical-looking late nineteenth-century Protestant church. I noticed one of those thermomoters posted to show how much money had been raised to repair the roof. It was pathetically low, so I fished out a $5 from my wallet, went inside, walked toward the altar and placed my cash inside a cookie tin perched on a chair. We took a good look around and quickly realized that the roof needs to be fixed but so too does the plaster, the paint, the floors…


The church was filled with locals milling around, preparing for some community event. This one lovely building clearly means something to these people. I hope they reach their fundraising goal.

Next, we ventured even farther uptown (204th St. , to be exact) to the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum.


Built in 1784, it’s one of the oldest standing domestic structures in Manhattan. The interpretation is first-rate, complete with small changes to the self-guided tour depending on the season. The upper level rooms interiors evoke the 1916 interpretation of the eighteenth century (that’s when the museum was established – I hope they keep it this way),  and the lower level rooms evoke a late twentieth- and early twenty-first century interpretation of the late eighteenth century. What I loved best about this site was its Colonial Revival history. It includes a relic room chockfull of items gathered to furnish the kitchen when the house became a museum in 1916 and archaeological relics from the same era.


On the way back to the train, we couldn’t help but gawk at the lively sidewalk flea market (probably not genteel enough for the Upper East Side).


And an amazing general store.


Need a curtain?


Some “fine art”?


Well, whom am I to judge – this store probably makes a killing.

At any rate, we went back down town toward the Grange. This time, we hit up the Morris-Jumel Mansion, built in 1765–yep, before the Revolution. So it’s important because of its age, for sure, and it helps that George Washington slept here. The first floor is quite stunning. In midtown, it’s hard to remember that there are buildings originally constructed to be private homes that boast enough space for a good party.


But again, visiting led us to another heretofor unknown treasure: Sylvan Terrace.


Built in the 1880s, “working class” individuals and families likely lived at the quaint Sylvan Terrace homes back in the day. Perhaps they do today, too, but a little research revealed that renting one of these beauties would set you back several thousand a month, and buying around a million.

We took in the view and headed back toward the car. If we had visited our usual haunts (which we will always love), we would not have seen these different, comparatively secluded yet historic parts of Manhattan. Next time, we’re off to hunt-up some of the historic house museums in Flushing, Queens.

The End of a “Delaware Backstory”

Some time in the 1650s, a Dutch soldier named Peter Alrich was shipwrecked off New York. (At the very least, his luck ran out – I have found conflicting secondary sources). Instead of giving up on starting a new life in the colonies after what was probably a harrowing experience, he stayed in the “New World” and bought some land to farm near present-day Port Penn, Delaware, a town founded in 1763 by David Stewart. Yes, that’s right. Alrich was bopping around Delaware before William Penn (1644-1718), the man from England who acquired present-day Pennsylvania and Delaware from King Charles II.

Port Penn, DE (Google Maps)
Port Penn, DE (Google Maps)

Peter’s grandson built a brick house on the land in 1760. The house, up until recently, was one of a few in Delaware that predated the Revolutionary War. In the nineteenth century, the Alrich family sold that house to the Kux family. In the 1990s, the Kux family sold the house and 340 acres of land to Delaware Wild Lands, Inc. According to the Delaware News Journal, the owners were under the impression that the eighteenth-century home would be preserved.

Kux Alrich House

For a few years, Delaware Wild Lands rented the home to a caretaker. That arrangement ended around the time the septic system failed. Uninterested in restoring the home’s septic system, Delaware Wild Lands applied for a permit to demolish the home from the New Castle County Historic Review Board. I attended the meeting back in August when the Board considered the application. I was there with my partner Tyler to support the preservation of the home along with other historians, archaeologists, and preservationists from the region. It turns out there were plenty of Kux-Alrich advocates in the room.

And why not? We wanted to speak in favor of preserving this home. To me, this seemed to embody a central part of the Delaware Wild Lands’ noble mission to conserve and manage the site’s “biodiversity” and “traditional uses of the land.”

If farming and building a house in 1760 aren’t “traditional uses of the land,” I’m not sure what are.

Despite the outcry, Delaware Wild Lands decided preserving the house was outside its mission (see comments by Executive Director here). So, they offered anyone with the means to take the house and move it elsewhere. (This is one example of what is involved in moving a house.) Unfortunately, no one took them up on the offer. (It is possible to board up historic buildings. See the example of the stone house at Historic Elk Landing.) Happily, at some point in time, it seems that Delaware Wildlands allowed the University of Delaware’s Center for Historic Architecture document the house.

But now, that house is just that – a pile of documents. Some time around May 27, 2014, after the New Castle County review board could no longer sit on the permit request, Delaware Wild Lands razed the 1760 home. That means it was destroyed.

So how do we prevent this from happening again? First, I should note that not all historic places or things can or should be saved. As a cultural heritage professional, I make decisions about what should be discarded as well as preserved on a daily basis. I’ve probably made some decisions future historians will find inane. It’s difficult to determine now what’s worthy of preserving for the future. But in the case of the Kux-Alrich House, no one has persuaded me that the house, its landscape, and all of us would be better off without it. What’s a landscape without its history or a history without its landscape?

This is a view of the Robert Ashton House in Port Penn, Delaware. You can see why Alrich and Delaware Wildlands chose to use this landscape. It's a beauty.
This is a view of the Robert Ashton House (built around 1700) in Port Penn, Delaware. You can see why Ashton, Alrich, and Delaware Wild Lands chose to put their stamps on this landscape. It’s a beauty (HABS).

Let this be a lesson to us that we should remember the interconnectedness of conserving the land and preserving the stuff on it. We can start by doing a better job cultivating environmental and cultural stewards from a young age before we loose more traces of what it meant to be human in Delaware. People shaped what comprises Delaware Wild Lands just as much as they shaped that house. We can learn and benefit from both.

I wish I had learned more about this place before it was destroyed. I will always wonder what it was like to walk into that house and admire the views of the wetlands, the marshes, and the fields. Why did Alrich pick that spot? Why did his grandson stay? What made that house a home and a workspace? What was the house’s relationship to the land around it? Why did one of the last men who lived there love the house and the land so much that he had his ashes spread there?

I don’t know, and I never will.

Further Reading

For more about the history of the Alrich House, see the following articles and blog posts:

For a brief overview of Port Penn and its architectural heritage, see pages 208-210 in W. Barksdale Maynard’s Buildings of Delaware (2008).

For a more in-depth study of Port Penn and its built and environmental heritage, see pages 281-315 in Gabrielle M. Lanier and Bernard L. Herman in Everyday Architecture of the Mid-Atlantic (1997).

If you want more detail on the life of Peter Alrich, see Kate Hutchinson’s The Unbeatable Dutchman (2011).