Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Vechte-Cortelyou House, aka “Old Stone House”
Address: 336 3rd Street, inside J.J. Byrne/ Washington Park
Cross Streets: 4th and 5th Avenues
Neighborhood: Park Slope/Gowanus border
Year Built: Original house built 1699, this house re-created in 1934, with some original materials
Architectural Style: Dutch stone farmhouse
Architect: Built by Claus Arentson Vechte
Landmarked: No, but part of the Historic House Trust, of the NYC Parks Department
The story: Some of the stones in this old house have been witness to some of the most important moments in Brooklyn history. The story of this house, and its survival and return is also pretty impressive. But first, you have to imagine what this area looked like in 1699, when a Dutch farmer named Claus Arentson Vechte decided that this land could support him and his family. It had a stream running nearby, the Gowanus Creek, where he could harvest oysters, the land was fertile riverbed, and supported his crops which he could ferry down the creek to the Gowanus Bay, and then on to Manhattan. He built a strong farmhouse of stone and brick, which was of good size, and provided shelter and protection. The land near the Gowanus was swampy and low lying, and probably reminded him of Holland. It was a good place to be.
Claus’ grandson, Nicholas Vechte was living in the house in 1776, when America declared its independence from Britain. That year, the British marched through Brooklyn, looking to stop George Washington’s army before it could get on its feet, and the first great battle of the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Brooklyn was about to take place. Much of the action took place right in front of this house. The American General Stirling, for whom Sterling Place is named, found himself surrounded as he and his men fought the British near what would become Prospect Park. The British had fooled both him and Washington, outflanked the fledgling army, and were pounding them hard with British soldiers and Hessian mercenaries.
Stirling managed to flee to the Gowanus, near the Vechte house, where the British had established their line, and fierce fighting took place in front of the house. Stirling had gotten most of his men across the water, but a contingent of Maryland troops, known now as the Maryland 400, stayed behind to cover the escape. Hundreds of men died in the back and forth battle in front of the house, and in the nearby marshes, but in the end, most of the Continental Army was able to escape across the river to safety, but only a handful of the Maryland troops survived. George Washington, watching the battle from a redoubt on the site of Atlantic Avenue, was said to have uttered the words, “What brave men I must this day lose!” Washington was able to retreat across the bay to New Jersey, and the war, which could have ended right there, went on for many years afterward.
The British occupied Brooklyn and Manhattan during the entire duration of the war, but Nicholas Vechte moved back into his house during the occupation. He died in 1779, leaving the house to his grandson, Nicholas Cowenhoven. Twenty years later, Cowenhoven sold the house to Jacque Cortelyou, who bought it as a wedding present for his son, Peter. Peter’s son, Jacque inherited the house in 1815. In 1857, Jacque sold the house to Edwin Litchfield, the railroad and land developer who owned most of the land that is now Park Slope and Prospect Park. Litchfield’s caretaker now lived and worked out of the house, which was along the carriage route the great man took from his home, Litchfield Villa, down to his holdings along the bay.
Litchfield and his heirs began selling off their land for the development of Park Slope and Gowanus, and by the end of the 19th century; the Vechte house was in the middle of a park called Washington Pond, where ice skating events were held in the winter. The house was at the edge of the park, and can be seen in contemporary drawings of the day. In 1883, the pond and surrounding park became the new home of one of Brooklyn’s new professional baseball teams, the Brooklyn Bridegrooms. This team would one day change their name to the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers, and the rest is baseball legend. The World Series in 1889 and 1890 were played here in Washington Park. A wall from the original stadium still exists, worked into the wall of a factory building.
Brooklyn is a lot of things, but preserver of history, without legal persuasion, it is not. This extremely historic house caught fire in 1897, and the remains of the house, along with the Washington Park ball field was graded with tons of earth. The house was buried along with everything else. The Brooklyn Edison Company almost built a power plant on the site, but the public balked, all of a sudden remembering the men and events that took place there during the Revolution. The Eagle said, “The bones of some of the best men of Maryland lie under the ground at 3d St. and 5th aver—men who saved a nation—but no shaft rises, no green park is there. Instead there is an unsightly lot…”
The city finally decided to make the site a real park once again, and dig up the Old Stone House. Half of it was now below street level, buried when 4th Avenue was graded up at the turn of the century. The remains were excavated in 1933 and the house was rebuilt in 1934 from these remains, but was moved to a slightly different location. Since there were many drawings, paintings and photographs remaining of this house, they were able to recreate it faithfully. More reconstruction and renovation would take place in the 1970s and 1990s.
Today, the Vechte-Cortelyou house is known as the Old Stone House, and is one of the city’s Historic House Trust properties, managed by the Parks Department. I is used now as an interactive interpretive center, and teaches children, as well as adults, the history of the house, the Battle of Brooklyn, as well as other activities and entertainments. Please see their website for more information. GMAP
(Photograph:dmadeo on Wikimedia)