Like many British Loyalists in the years prior to the Revolution, John Watts lost everything except his life. Forced to leave New York, the 131-acre Rose Hill Farm that he established in 1747 was sold off by the Committee of Forfeiture. The land today would stretch from approximately East 21st Street to East 30th Street.
Nicholas Cruger spend 144 pounds in 1786 for a parcel of Watts’ farm. Around four years later a handsome post-and-beam clapboard farmhouse appeared with a prominent Dutch-style hipped roof.
In 1811 the Commissioners’ Plan laid out the street grid of midtown Manhattan. Suddenly 29th Street, on paper, ran next to Cruger’s house. Within a few years the street on the paper plan would become an actual thoroughfare, with the house Nicholas Cruger built sitting oddly sidewise to the street.
By 1830 Joseph Haskett, a saddler, owned the property. As the city moved ever northward, eventually engulfing the wooden home, the character of the building changed. In 1905 three families were living here: a coach driver, Charles Barshfeld, truck driver Harry Jarvis , and Mary Decker, who was a bookbinder.
A mere five years later the population had doubled with six families crowded into the house, including a janitor, an elevated railroad guard and an upholsterer. A junk shop took over the street level around 1912.
The wooden farmhouse sat incongruously among its brick-and-stone urban neighbors until 1979 when Patrick and Linda Lyons purchased it for $80,000. Intent on making the well-worn house a home again, they initiated a 3-year renovation. Sadly, rather than restore the venerable old structure, they gutted it. Everything other than the timbered frame was dismantled and discarded – the clapboard siding, the plaster interior walls, the original six-over-six paned windows.
The reproduction elements, however, are faithful to the original structure.
The unexpected wooden farmhouse at No. 203 East 29th Street has changed hands a few times since its renovation. Because of the 1866 law prohibiting construction of frame structures in Manhattan, there are only a handful of wooden buildings to be found and stumbling upon this one is a true delight.
Photo NYPL Collection