1675 - 1775

Two Dutch Houses: Meet the Schencks

Brooklyn Museum

Jan Martense Schenck House

Jan Martense Schenck House at the Brooklyn Museum

The Jan Martense Schenck House represents the oldest architecture in the Museum's period room collection. It is also the most complex of the period rooms in terms of reconstruction and interpretation.

Jan Martense Schenck House, 1891 (photograph by the Reverend William Edward Schenck)

The house is a simple two-room structure with a central chimney. Its framework is composed of a dozen heavy so-called H-bents, visible on the interior of the house, that resemble goal posts with diagonal braces. This is an ancient northern European method of construction that contrasts with the boxlike house frames that evolved in England. The house had a high-pitched roof that created a large loft for storage. The roof was covered with shingles, and the exterior walls were clad with horizontal wood clapboard siding. A section of the clapboard has been removed at one corner to expose a reconstruction of the brick nogging used as insulation. The interior walls were stuccoed between the upright supports of the H-bents.

Jan Martense Schenck House, circa 1900, with kitchen wing added in the 1790s

A kitchen was added at a right angle to the house probably in the late 1790s. In the early nineteenth century a porch with four columns was also added. Finally, sometime about 1900, dormer windows were installed above the porch. The interior of the house was also changed. The large central chimney was removed, probably about the same time as the kitchen wing was added and new chimneys and fireplaces were built on the outer walls. Old photographs of the interior of the house on site in Flatlands show it with early twentieth-century wallpapers and an assortment of nineteenth-century furniture, all of which was discarded when the house came to the Museum.

     Jan Martense Schenck House, after 1891, with porch and dormers added by about 1825

Changes Over Time

During the 275 years that the house stood in its original location, it underwent many changes to accommodate the needs and tastes of new generations. The Museum's curators might have chosen to exhibit and interpret the house to any point in its long history, but for didactic purposes the curators wanted to show an early Dutch colonial house. This necessitated stripping away later additions and changes to rediscover the original two-room structure. The present reconstruction is based on careful analysis of surviving original elements and other surviving Dutch colonial houses. About 1730, when Martin Schenck, Jan's eldest son, owned the house, it underwent several changes to accommodate his growing family. For a long period after about 1730, the two-room core of the house changed very little, and therefore the curators chose this moment in the early eighteenth century in which to interpret the house.

The curators' decision to strip away later additions, such as the kitchen wing and porch, was driven by the desire to add an early Dutch colonial house to the series of existing period rooms, thereby chronologically pushing back the survey of American interiors. Of course, many conjectural decisions were made, such as the precise locations of the exterior doors and the size and locations of the windows. On the interior, the location of the staircase to the loft and the form of the large open hearths and built-in bed box also involved conjecture, but were based on historical precedent.

In the original Museum installation, there were two bed boxes on the exterior wall of the north room. When the house was moved to its present location in 2006, it was decided that if the house did have a bed box that it more logically was on an interior wall next to the hearth as you now see it.

Jan Martense Schenck House, North Room, as installed in 1964

None of the original Dutch colonial furniture owned by the Schencks is known to have survived. The curators have assembled the interior-decorating scheme utilizing objects from the collection to typify an interior of a prosperous family of Dutch descent living in colonial English Flatlands. There are, therefore, both Dutch and English objects and furniture.

The curators use many clues to assemble an accurate interior. Wills and inventories of possessions of families of a similar economic level inform us about what might be found in a similar household. Period paintings help answer questions concerning the disposition of furniture about the room, possible color schemes, and the sort of textiles that might have been used. Through paintings, for example, we learn that mid-Eastern carpets were too valuable to place on the floor but rather were displayed on table tops and then in turn covered with white linen cloths during meals.

For many years the house was painted gray. Recent analysis of the exterior paint layers on the original clapboard surviving in the corner at the short end of the building revealed that the house was originally white and then red. Since the interior of the house is interpreted to the first decades of the eighteenth century, we decided that the house might have received its second coat of paint, the red layer, by that time.

Family History

According to Schenck family tradition, Jan Martense Schenck, the man who built this house, arrived in New Netherland in 1650. He is first documented in Flatlands in 1660. On December 29, 1675, he purchased the land on which he built the house, along with a half interest in a nearby gristmill. The house was probably in place by 1675.

The Schenck family owned the house for three generations, finally selling it in 1784. Beginning in the 1920s, as real-estate development increased, a number of preservation plans that might have maintained the house on site were put forward but were never realized. Finally in 1952, the Brooklyn Museum made a commitment to save the house, dismantled it, and stored it for about ten years until plans to install it in the Museum were finalized. The house was opened to the public in 1964.

Nicholas Schenck House

Nicholas Schenck House

This house was built by Nicholas Schenck (1732–1810) in what is now the Canarsie section of Brooklyn about 1775. It was a one-and-one half story farmhouse with a gambrel roof typical of houses built in America in areas settled by the Dutch. The house was heavily remodeled in the early nineteenth century and is therefore installed here as it might have looked about 1830 when Nicholas Schenck, Jr. (1765–1836) lived in it with his family. The house of Nicholas Schenck, Senior’s grandfather, Jan Martense Schenck, is also on display in the Museum. Together, these two houses suggest the way one Dutch American family might have lived in Brooklyn over a period of 150 years.

When the Museum acquired the Nicholas Schenck House in 1929, the house was in a state of disrepair. For years it had been used as a concession stand in Canarsie Park. When attempts to preserve it on site failed, the entire house was given to the Museum.

In previous installations, the house was exhibited as an eighteenth-century house even though many features, including the windows, the staircases, and the molding around the fireplaces, dated from the early nineteenth century. Only the beamed ceiling and the paneled walls surrounding the fireplaces in the parlor and dining room reflected the house’s eighteenth-century origin.

In the current installation, these eighteenth-century features have been retained as they were when the house was remodeled, but early nineteenth century modifications are shown as well. For instance, the large fireplaces, considered inefficient by 1830, have been closed up and replaced as sources of heat by cast-iron stoves.

The color of the woodwork is based on fragments of paint found under the fireplace mantel and accurately reproduces the original color. It is unlikely that the ceilings were painted white in the early nineteenth century. But it was impossible, unfortunately, to strip off their many layers of old paint.

The furnishings of the house, like its architecture, are a mixture of both eighteenth- and nineteenth-century styles and traditions. Family heirlooms such as a high chest and a kas (a large wardrobe based on Dutch models) are mixed with more up-to-date items. This installation therefore represents the way in which a house and its contents slowly grow to change over several generations. No single style predominates; the old coexists with the new.

The Schenck Houses in Brooklyn

Nicholas Schenck House at Canarsie Landing

Dutch efforts to establish the colony of New Netherland brought significant population change to the area we today call Brooklyn. When the Dutch arrived in the early 1600s, the area was inhabited by the Canarsie, one of thirteen Algonquin tribes. The Canarsie had resided here for thousands of years and called the area where Jan Martense Schenck settled Keskateuw.

Between the 1630s and the1680s, conflict and disease decimated the local Canarsie population, and after trading their land to the Dutch, only a few remained. By the time Jan Martense Schenck built his house, the area that is now Brooklyn was populated mostly by Europeans, the majority of whom were Dutch, with significant numbers of English and smaller numbers of people of other European backgrounds, including Italians. The Dutch had also begun importing enslaved Africans to New Netherland in the 1620s, and by 1698 approximately fifteen percent of the population of what is now Brooklyn was of African descent, nearly all of them enslaved.

Jan Martense Schenck House in Mill Basin
Credits: Story

Curator of Decorative Arts — Barry R. Harwood
Associate Editor — Anya Szykitka
Editorial Assistant — Cindy Choung

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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