The Oldest House in New York City: Meet the Wyckoff House (1652)

Most 21st-century Brooklyn public elementary schoolers have taken or will take a field trip to the Wyckoff House, a modest wooden cabin surrounded by tire shops and fast food outlets.

The oldest building in NYC by a longshot, it was also the first structure in the five boroughs to achieve historic landmark status.

Primary sources place the original occupants, Pieter Claesen Wyckoff and his wife, Grietje Van Ness-Wyckoff, in the original part of the house around 1652. A single room with a packed earth floor, unglazed windows, a large open hearth, and doors at either end, it would have been pretty tight quarters for a family of 13, as host Thijs Roes of the history series New Netherland Now notes, during his above tour of the premises.

Two parlors were added in the 18th-century, and three bedrooms in the early 19th. Typical Dutch Colonial features include an H frame structure, shingled walls, split Dutch doors, and deep, flared “spring” eaves.

Its survival is a miracle in a metropolis known for its constant flux.

In the early 20th-century, descendants of Pieter and Grietje partnered with community activists to save the home from demolition, eventually donating it to the New York City Parks Department.

A late 70s fire (possibly not the first) necessitated major renovations. (And last year, flooding from Hurricane Ida clobbered its HVAC and electrical system, putting a temporary kibosh on public visits to the interior.)

Back in 2015, Roes’ companion, architectural historian Heleen Westerhuijs, was invited to inspect the attic, where she discovered impressive original beams alongside 20th-century reinforcements.

While the directors of the homestead actively recognize the community that now surrounds it with events like an upcoming celebration of Haitian culture and Vodou, and hands on activities include urban farming and composting, the original settlers of New Netherland (aka New Amsterdam, aka New York City) remain a major focus.

Any American or Canadian with the surname Wyckoff (or one of its more than 50 variants) can and should consider it their ancestral home, as they are almost certainly descended from Pieter and Grietje. While many thousands now bear the name, Pieter was the first. Volunteer genealogist Lynn Wyckoff explains:

After the English assumed control of New Netherland, residents practicing patronymics (a naming system that utilized one’s father’s name in place of a surname) were required to adopt, or freeze, surnames that could be passed down each generation. Pieter Claesen chose the name Wykhof, which most of his descendants have spelled Wyckoff. Despite many unfounded claims over the years regarding both Pieter’s ancestry and choice of surname, there is no record of Pieter’s parentage; but there is substantial evidence that he chose the name Wykhof in recognition of a farm by the same name outside of Marienhafe, Germany where his family were likely tenants.

A handful of Wyckoff family members left comments on the New Netherland Now video, including Donald, who wrote of his visit:

It was an odd  feeling to touch the hand-hewn surface of a supporting beam cut and installed by my ancestor, hundreds of years ago.  Since I am a Wyckoff, I was allowed to see some of the “off tour” bits of the house.  I live over 3k miles away, so my feet will probably never touch the ground there again.  But I’m glad NY and a lot of wonderful people have maintained my ancestral home so well and for so many years.  Hopefully it has many hundreds of years of life remaining so that people can recall a time when Flatbush was more of a farm than a city.

If you are a Wyckoff (or one of its variants), you’re invited to keep the Wyckoff Association’s family tree up to date by sending word of births, deaths, marriages, and any pertinent genealogical details such as education, military service, profession, places of residence and the like.

Explore a collection of educational activities, lessons, and color pages related to the Wyckoff House here.

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Ayun Halliday is the author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Her family’s trips to the Wyckoff House were included in the latest, NYC museum-themed issue of her zine, the East Village Inky. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How the Byzantine Empire Rose, Fell, and Created the Glorious Hagia Sophia: A History in Ten Animated Minutes

If you only know one fact about the Roman Empire, it’s that it declined and fell. If you know another, it’s that the Roman Empire gave way to the Europe we know today — in the fullness of time, at least. A good deal of history lies between our twenty-first century and the fall of Rome, which in any case wouldn’t have seemed like such a decisive break when it happened. “Most history books will tell you that the Roman Empire fell in the fifth century CE,” says the narrator of the animated TED-Ed lesson above. “This would’ve come as a great surprise to the millions of people who lived in the Roman Empire up through the Middle Ages.”

This medieval Roman Empire, better known as the Byzantine Empire, began in the year 330. “That’s when Constantine, the first Christian emperor, moved the capital of the Roman Empire to a new city called Constantinople, which he founded on the site of the ancient Greek city Byzantium.” Not only did Constantinople survive the barbarian invasions of the Empire’s western provinces, it remained the seat of power for eleven centuries.

It thus remained a preserve of Roman civilization, astonishing visitors with its art, architecture, dress, law, and intellectual enterprises. Alas, many of those glories perished in the early thirteenth century, when the city was torched by the disgruntled army of deposed ruler Alexios Angelos.

Among the surviving structures was the jewel in Constantinople’s crown Hagia Sophia, about which you can learn more about it in the Ted-ED lesson just above. The long continuity of the holy building’s location belies its own troubled history: first built in the fourth century, it was destroyed in a riot not long thereafter, then rebuilt in 415 and destroyed again when more riots broke out in 532. But just five years later, it was replaced by the Hagia Sophia we know today, which has since been a Byzantine Christian cathedral, a Latin Catholic cathedral, a mosque, a museum (at the behest of secular reformer Mustafa Kemal Atatürk), and most recently a mosque again. The Byzantine Empire may be long gone, but the end of the story told by Hagia Sophia is nowhere in sight.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

How Much Would It Cost to Build the Colosseum Today?

Last year we told you about the plan to install a retractable floor in the Colosseum, thus restoring a feature it boasted in its ancient glory days. Though the state pledged €10 million, the budget of an ambitious renovation will surely come to many times that — but still, we may imagine, only a fraction of the money it took to build the Colosseum in the first place. In fact we have to imagine it, since we have no records of what that icon of Rome actually cost. In the video above, history Youtuber Garrett Ryan, creator of the channel Told in Stone, does so by not just marshaling all his knowledge of the ancient world but also crowdsourcing others’ knowledge of modern construction techniques and expenses.

First, Ryan must reckon the cost of the Colosseum in sestertii, the “big brass coins” common in Rome of the first century AD. “At the time the Colosseum was built,” he says, “one sestertius could buy two loaves of bread, four cups of cheap wine, or a single cup of good wine.”

The average unskilled laborer could expect to earn around four sestertii per day, and this project needed thousands of such laborers to excavate its foundation trench alone. Then came the laying of the foundation itself, followed by the building of the superstructure, which remains formidable even in the ruined state we know today. Its materials included 100,000 cubic meters of travertine — “roughly one-fiftieth, incidentally, of all travertine ever quarried by the Romans.”

A good deal of travertine also went into the Getty Center, perhaps the closest thing to a Colosseum-scale construction project in modern-day America. The Getty’s total cost came to $733 million, a price tag befitting the wealth synonymous with its name. But it still came cheaper than the Colosseum by Ryan’s estimate, or at least by most of the estimates at which he arrives. Consulting with several of his viewers experienced in architecture and construction, he calculates that building an exact replica of the Colosseum in today’s United States — taking into account the much greater efficiency of current tools, as well as the much greater cost of labor — roughly equivalent to $150,000,000 to more than $1 billion. That amount of money obviously exists in our world; whether we possess the necessary ambition is less clear. Then again, ancient Rome didn’t have Lego.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

An Architect Breaks Down the Design Details of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel features many notable players: Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, and presiding above all, Ralph Fiennes as celebrated concierge Monsieur Gustave H. But it is Gustave’s domain, the titular alpine health resort, that figures most prominently in the film, transcending place, time, and political regime. Such an establishment could only exist within Anderson’s cinematic imagination, which dictates the manner in which he introduces it to his viewers. “It’s obviously a model,” says architect Michael Wyetzner in the video above. “It’s fake” — an adjective that, when applied to a Wes Anderson production, can only be a compliment.

Wyetzner surely means it that way, given how much interest he shows through the video in the details of the Grand Budapest Hotel as constructed and revealed, one set at a time, by Anderson and his collaborators. Envisioned as a kind of “French chateau growing out of the mountain,” the building incorporates a mansard roof, a “rusticated base” with the look of an ancient aqueduct, and Art Nouveau canopies of the kind still seen at the entrances of the Paris Métro.

Wyetzner explains the overall image as “one of those sanatoriums you would see in the mountains of Europe up until the nineteen-thirties” but designed by the Secessionists, who intended to “unify architecture, painting, and the decorative arts.”

The atrium, the circular reception desk, the elaborately mullioned windows, the palette of pinks and reds: these features underscore the titular grandeur of the titular hotel. (They also, like the symmetry of so much of its construction, remind us whose movie we’re watching.) But before long, everything changes: the hotel finds itself in the Soviet nineteen-sixties, topped with antennae, paint burnt orange and avocado green, outfitted with plastic laminate and illuminated ceilings. “Soviet architecture has this reputation for being very drab, and very sad, almost,” says Wyetzner, and the “updated” Grand Budapest Hotel reflects this. But the Soviets were also “one of the originators of modernism,” a movement whose stern optimism comes through in the film’s set designs — as, faintly but persistently, does the fin de siècle elegance of the ever-more-distant past.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

A Whirlwind Architectural Tour of the New York Public Library–“Hidden Details” and All

The New York Public Library opened in 1911, an age of magnificence in American city-building. Eighteen years before that, writes architect-historian Witold Rybczynski, “Chicago’s Columbian Exposition provided a real and well-publicized demonstration of how the unruly American downtown could be tamed though a partnership of classical architecture, urban landscaping, and heroic public art.” Modeled after Europe’s urban civilization, the “White City” built on the ground of the Columbian Exposition inspired a generation of American architects and planners including John Nolen, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and John Carrère, co-designer of the New York Public Library.

Carrère appears in the Architectural Digest tour video of the NYPL building above — or at least his bust does, prominently placed as it is on the landing of one of the grand staircases leading up from the main entrance. The staircases are marble, as is much of else; when the NYPL opened after nine years of construction, so the tour’s narration informs us, it did so as the largest marble-clad structure in the country.

On the soundtrack we have not just one guide, but three: NYPL visitor volunteer program manager Keith Glutting, design historian Judith Gura, and architectural historian Paul Ranogajec. Together they tell the story of this venerable American building, and also point out the “hidden details” that a visitor might not otherwise notice.

Take the terrace on which the whole building stands, a feature of the European villa and palace tradition. Or the murals depicting the history of the written word from Moses’ stone tablets on down. Or the pneumatic tubes, artifacts of the analog information-technology system in use before the NYPL computerized in the nineteen-seventies. Or the rendering of the world in the library’s formidable map room that mistakenly depicts California as an island (not that every New Yorker would disagree). The video also includes other, even lesser-seen wonders both old and new, from a 1455 Gutenberg Bible — the first in the New World — to the automated trolley system that brings books out of the stacks. But it is the building itself that inspires wonder, its extravagant solidity and detail that hark back to a time of consensus, however brief, that nothing was too good for ordinary people.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Frank Lloyd Wright: America’s Greatest Architect? –A Free Streaming Documentary

From Timeline comes a free streaming documentary called Frank Lloyd Wright: America’s Greatest Architect?: 

Frank Lloyd Wright is America’s greatest ever architect. But few people know about the Welsh roots that shaped his life and world-famous buildings. Now, leading Welsh architect Jonathan Adams sets off across America to explore Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpieces for himself. Along the way, he uncovers the tempestuous life story of the man behind them, and the secrets of his radical Welsh background . In a career spanning seven decades, Frank Lloyd Wright built over 500 buildings, and changed the face of modern architecture.

Frank Lloyd Wright: America’s Greatest Architect? will be added to our list of Free Documentaries, a subset of our collection 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.

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“I pray that to their share of noble fortunes [Zeus] send no Nemesis of jealous will, but in prosperity and free from ills, exalt them and their city.” Pindar, Olympian Ode 8

Why are humans awestruck by natural disaster? Or — more to the point — why are we dumbfounded when disasters destroy cities? We should hardly be surprised at this point when nature does what it invariably does: tectonic plates shift, volcanoes erupt, hurricanes and typhoons sweep the coasts…. These things have always happened on Earth, with or without our help, and for many millions of years before anything like us showed up.

Like the mythical Narcissus, we can only see ourselves and assume everything that happens must be for us. After the Great Lisbon Earthquake in Portugal in 1755, “Lisbon’s devout Catholic population saw the ruined city as divine punishment,” writes Laura Trethewey.

“The Protestant countries of Europe also saw the destruction as punishment, but for backward Catholic behavior.” Meanwhile, philosophers like Voltaire, who wrote Candide to satirize responses to the quake, saw the catastrophe as more evidence that a creator, if such a being had ever cared, cared no more.

In Greek and Roman mythology, the gods never stop meddling, punishing, rewarding, etc. Narcissus is tempted to gaze at himself by Nemesis, the goddess who meets hubris with swift retribution. While generally invoked as a leveler of individuals who overstep, she also levels cities, as fifth century BC Greek poet Pindar suggests when he begs Zeus to spare the island city of Aegina from her wrath. Perhaps, then, it was Nemesis, winged vengeance herself, that the citizens of Pompeii believed bore down upon them, as molten lava, smoke, and ash.

From its earliest status as a Roman-allied city (then Roman colony), Pompeii grew into a very wealthy area, its surrounding lands rich with villas and farms, its city center anchored by its Amphitheater, Odeon, Forum Baths and temples, its running water arriving from the Serino Aqueduct. Maybe they had it too good? Maybe their extravagant good fortune caused too much jealously in the neighbors? Maybe the gods demanded balance. It’s very human to think so — to ascribe divine will, in the lack of explanation, for why something so filled with teeming life should be destroyed for no reason at all.

It must have been the gods, who looked down on Pompeii’s wealth and grew jealous themselves. In these 3D animated videos, see why ancient Pompeiians would have been proud of their city, recreated here in part by Sweden’s Lund University and Storied Past Productions. “While in Pompeii few could reach the elite,” notes the latter in their description of the video above, “many tried to recreate ‘the good life’ in their own ways…. From grand urban villas, to small private homes, to smaller apartments.” In these walkthroughs, you can “see all the different things ‘home’ could mean in ancient Pompeii.” You might also, if you aren’t careful, find yourself getting a little envious of these doomed ancient urbanites.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Story of Googie Architecture, the Iconic Architectural Style of Los Angeles

When I lived in Los Angeles, I enjoyed no breakfast spot more than Pann’s. The place had it all: not just signature plates ranging from biscuits and gravy to chicken and waffles, but tropical landscaping, stone walls, a slanted roof, banquettes in burgundy and counter seats in cream, and as the pièce de résistance, a neon sign that lit up one letter at a time. Built in 1958, Pann’s stands today as quite possibly the most immaculate surviving example of Googie, a mid-twentieth-century aesthetic that takes its name from another Los Angeles coffee shop opened nearly a decade earlier. Though designed by no less serious a modern architect than Frank Lloyd Wright protégé John Lautner, Googie’s gave rise to perhaps the least serious of all architectural movements.

“It’s a style built on exaggeration; on dramatic angles; on plastic and steel and neon and wide-eyed technological optimism,” writes Matt Novak at Smithsonian magazine. “It draws inspiration from Space Age ideals and rocketship dreams. We find Googie at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the Space Needle in Seattle, the mid-century design of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, in Arthur Radebaugh‘s postwar illustrations, and in countless coffee shops and motels across the U.S.”

But the acknowledged cradle of Googie is Los Angeles, whose explosive development alongside that of mid-twentieth-century American “car culture” encouraged the ultra-commercial architectural experimentation whose first priority was to catch the eye of the motorist — and ideally, the hungry motorist.

You can hear the history of Googie told in the Cheddar Explain video “How Los Angeles Got Its Iconic Architecture Style,” which adapts Novak’s Smithsonian piece. In “Googie Architecture: From Diners to Donuts,” photographer Ahok Sinha goes into more detail about how the style turned “architecture into a form of advertising.” Like all the most effective advertising, Googie drew from the zeitgeist, incorporating the striking shapes and advanced materials connected in the public mind with notions of speed and technology embodied not just by automobiles but even more so by rockets. For Googie was the architecture of the Space Race: it’s no accident that the creators of The Jetsons, which aired in 1962 and 1963, rendered all the show’s settings in the same style.

It could fairly be said that no one architect invented Googie, that it emerged almost spontaneously as a product of American popular culture. But “for some reason, we got stuck with the name,” says architect Victor Newlove, of Armet Davis Newlove and Associates, in the interview clip above. For good reason, perhaps: to that firm’s credit are several locations of the diner chains Bob’s Big Boy (where for years David Lynch’s took his daily milkshake) and Norms, both of which are still in business in Los Angeles today. Its architects Eldon Davis and Helen Liu Fong also designed Pann’s, which for many Googie enthusiasts remains an unsurpassable achievement — and one whose competition, since the moon landing and the end it put to not just the Space Race but the sensibility it inspired, has been dwindling one demolition at a time.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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