Vannie museum makeover balances history, trees, change


Visitors to the Van Cortlandt House Museum have something to get excited about. And in fact, it’s already underway.

Friends of Van Cortlandt Park and the museum recently finalized a landscape plan for the historic 18th-century house at the 1,100-acre park. Uziel Crescenzi — who in 2018 interned at the Vannie nonprofit while pursuing a master’s in landscape architecture at City College — created the plan’s designs and presentation, according to Friends executive director Christina Taylor.

Meanwhile, Taylor and museum director Laura Carpenter coordinated the effort, which they tout as a comprehensive plan to restore landscaping around the museum to reflect the appearance of the grounds between when it opened to the public in 1897, through the advent of World War I. The plan drew inspiration from a Colonial Revival-style garden that had been established at the Van Cortlandt House by 1903, as well as from previous early-period landscape installations.

Part of the impetus was “selfish” on the Friends’ part, Taylor admits, given they’ve some interest in sprucing up the museum and surrounding grounds.

“We use that space for a lot of our fundraisers and events, so we wanted to make it look as nice as it could,” Taylor said. That’s partly what drove her to ask Carpenter whether she — and the National Association of Colonial Dames in the State of New York, which has managed preservation of the Van Cortlandt House since 1897 — would be game for such a project.

The answer was an enthusiastic yes.

“It seemed like a win-win for both of our organizations,” Carpenter said.

Part of the reason was not just its comprehensive scope, but also reviving that authentic blast-from-the-past look and feel of the venerated institution — with a few caveats.

Work — including tree replanting, laying down river rock among garden beds, and removing unkempt shrubbery blocking views of the house — already has commenced, Taylor said. Other aspects of the plan, meanwhile, remain unfinished or require additional funding — like repairing the ailing wrought iron fence surrounding the museum, which could carry a price tag upward of $1 million.

Still others, including planting an herb garden, have to wait until winter thaws and spring brings friendlier temperatures for seeds to flourish.

Vannie’s Friends received funding from the Paul and Klara Porzelt Foundation for the landscaping scheme to the tune of $20,000 last spring, Taylor said.

It’s not the first time the foundation has thrown cash at Friends. Past projects include a Grand Central stone restoration project in partnership with the Municipal Art Society. That entailed cleaning and restoring a row of 13 deteriorating, graffiti-marred 10-foot-tall pillars that’d been placed along the Putnam railroad tracks in 1903, exposed to the elements to test which type of stone would work best on the façade of Grand Central Terminal.

“They fund a very specific time period, so there’s only limited projects within Van Cortlandt Park that would fall under that,” Taylor said. Fortunately, the museum fit the bill, having opened around the American Renaissance period.

To be sure, while those couple decades the plan seeks to recapture — from around the turn of the 19th century to the start of World War I — might appear to be somewhat arbitrary, it actually isn’t, Carpenter said. And not just because they fall within the parameters of the period the Porzelt foundation is keen on bankrolling. It also reflected the first couple decades Van Cortlandt’s home was open to the public as a museum.

“When Van Cortlandt Park went from being the Van Cortlandt family’s plantation and farm to public land and a public park, there were a lot of changes to the landscape during that process,” Carpenter said.

Lost were a barn, other farm buildings, some of the roads and pathways through the park that had been established over the years, Carpenter said. Even by around 1910, the park’s mill buildings had been struck by lightning and burned to the ground.

While Taylor and Carpenter didn’t have building a new barn in mind, other notable changes included the addition of now-crumbling red brick stairs leading down to what was once a gorgeous garden below the house, Carpenter said. Those — along with the element-battered wrought iron gate — date back around a century or more.

Yet, while they’re not original to the early period when the Van Cortlandt family lived in the house, Friends as well as the Dames had no desire to demolish them, as it would’ve destroyed a beautiful sight upon approaching the museum.

Instead, they’re looking to spruce up both bricks and gate.

Given myriad changes already afoot, coming up with a feasible landscaping plan required a bit of flexibility.

“While we could’ve gone back and very strictly interpreted the historic landscape of the grounds as they were when the Van Cortlandt family first lived in this house, it didn’t make any sense because there were so many changes that had been made,” Carpenter said. “We also just don’t know exactly what the landscape looked like for sure,” because of all those changes.

Although coming up with a finalized plan may have taken a little longer than Taylor and Carpenter expected — especially with the effort to save as many trees as possible — they’re happy with how it turned out.

“We’ve gotten to a very good plan,” Carpenter said. “Some things might happen immediately. Some have been done. Some are pushed off to the future, depending on funding. But we think it’s a pretty well-balanced plan — and achievable.”