Monday, April 29, 2013

An Afternoon at King Manor

After having spent a most enjoyable visit at the Bartow-Pell Mansion in the Bronx, Boy and I decided to fire up the family jalopy again and drive out to the far reaches of Jamaica, Queens, to explore King Manor, another one of New York City's historic house museums.

The approach to King Manor, located in Rufus King Park, Jamaica, Queens

King Manor is named after the Honorable Rufus King (1755-1827), a signer of the U.S. Constitution, a senator from the State of New York, the nation's first Ambassador to Great Britain, a land owner, and a gentleman farmer.  The house sits in Rufus King Park, an eleven-acre public space in what is today a working class residential and commercial stretch in Queens, New York.  The house is about a forty-minute drive from the UES.

Rufus King and his wife, Mary Alsop, purchased an eighteenth-century farmhouse with ninety acres in 1805, and they spent the next twenty years improving and enlarging the house and property, which today is known as King Manor.  The Kings also maintained a townhouse in Manhattan, where they lived during the colder months of the year, when they weren't in residence in Washington, D.C., or London.

An etching of the the Rufus King Manor
Jamaica, New York, ca. 1930
Image courtesy of Keith Sheridan Fine Art

By the time of Rufus King's death in 1827 the house had grown to twenty-nine rooms and sat in an estate of one hundred and twenty-two acres of gardens, fields, orchards, and forest.  Subsequent generations of the King family lived in the Manor until 1888, when the house and much of its contents, along with eleven acres of land, were sold to the city of Jamaica.  The property came under the jurisdiction of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation in 1898.

King Manor in 1950
Image courtesy of N.Y. City Department of Parks & Recreation

Within several years of King Manor being sold, houses and apartment buildings were built around the park's periphery.  Today the surrounding area is a combination of small apartment buildings and two-family houses, and large municipal buildings.  

The view across Jamaica Avenue, looking to the west

The entry to King Manor is from Jamaica Avenue, a busy thoroughfare that follows what had originally been a trail (known as the Yamecah Trail) established by the area's Lenape Native Americans long before Europeans colonized these shores.  The English, who took control of the area from the Dutch in the 1680s, named it Jameco, which was later changed to Jamaica.  There is no link between this part of Queens and the island in the Caribbean of the same name; that they share a name in common is entirely coincidental.

The view across Jamaica Avenue, looking to the east

Today there is little left on Jamaica Avenue from the time when the Kings lived in their house.  In the above photograph one can make out two towers of a brownstone Gothic Revival church standing between two hulking municipal buildings.  According to the young woman who gave us a tour of the house, it was in this church that the King family worshipped.  Well, not really.  Reggie has since learned from one of his perspicacious readers that the Kings worshipped in a different church, Grace Episcopal, that stands nearby.  Nonetheless, the church shown in the photograph is one of the few remainders of buildings that stood when the family was still in residence. 

The view into Rufus King Park from the rear of the house

Rufus King Park, which spreads out around and behind King Manor, is popular with and heavily used by residents of the surrounding area.  There were a lot of people in it the day we visited the house, running around and playing soccer and other ball games.

Architectural rendering of front elevation for the 1984
restoration of King Manor by Gibson Bauer Associates
Image courtesy of King Manor Association

King Manor underwent an extensive and careful restoration in the 1980s, and today the house is well cared for by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, with financial and other support from the worthy non-profit Historic House Trust of New York City.  King Manor is not one of the city's most popular historic house museums, given its location and the relative obscurity today of its once celebrated owners.  We were the only visitors to the house the afternoon we made our journey there.

An early twentieth-century postcard of King Manor.  Its Victorian
buff-and-brown paint scheme survived into the 1950s
Image courtesy of King Manor Association

In researching this post I came across numerous images of King Manor from different eras.

By the 1960s, the era of this postcard, the house was
painted white, with black shutters.  Note foundation plantings
and colorful flowerbeds full of annuals
Image courtesy of King Manor Association

It is interesting to see how the house and landscape evolved over the years, reflecting the changing tastes of the times and advances in historic restoration knowledge.

The house today, as painted in a scheme from the 1980s
restoration.  The foundation plantings are gone.

So, let's go inside and look around, shall we?

The main hall of the house features a handsome
Federal staircase with a mahogany banister

What strikes one when entering King Manor is that it is not a particularly "fine" house with articulated moldings or plasterwork that one would expect to see in a city house of its size.  It is a large country house that has been expanded over the years, and it functioned both as the seat of a family of consequence and as the hub of a large working farm.  The King's townhouse in Manhattan would have been a more refined dwelling, I believe.  King Manor's principal rooms are large and well proportioned, and overall the house is quite pleasant.  Were it not for the urban surroundings it sits in today, one could easily imagine living in it (assuming one had the substantial wherewithal required to do so).

The front parlor contains a marble fire-surround installed by the Kings
and a few pieces of Federal-period furniture

King Manor is only minimally furnished, and many of its secondary rooms have been set up as teaching installations, focusing on Rufus King's political activities.

Rufus King portrait by Gilbert Stuart, ca. 1820
Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

A copy of a portrait of Rufus King by Gilbert Stuart hangs in the house's front parlor.  The original is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.  Here is how the NPG describes the sitter on its website:
"Rufus King was one of the last of the Founding Fathers. A delegate from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress, an active framer of the Constitution, minister to Great Britain, opponent of the War of 1812, senator from New York, and the Federalist Party's last candidate for the presidency (overwhelmingly defeated by James Monroe in 1816), King had a public career that extended through the administrations of the first six presidents of the United States. His portrait was painted in 1819-20, a time when he tried to rouse opposition to the admission of Missouri as a slave state, defending before the Senate 'the natural liberty of man and its incompatibility with slavery in any shape.' John Quincy Adams recorded: 'He spoke with great power, and the great slaveholders . . . gnawed their lips and clenched their fists as they heard him.'"
In other words, Mr. King was a Very Big Deal in his day, and a man who did not shy away from controversy.

Turning back to the house, I rather liked the pretty cream jug and coffee can and saucer seen in the preceding photograph that were sitting on a desk in the front parlor.  Perhaps if I were to actually follow through on my "Coffee Can of the Week" series promise, I might do a post on the coffee can . . .

The house's commodious dining room was remodeled by the Kings to have an oval end, which our young docent said seated musicians for dances at the house.  The doors on either side of the window lead to small closets.

"The Dinner Party" by Henry Sargent, ca. 1821
Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

King Manor's dining room's decoration has been loosely based on the interior depicted in the well-known painting "The Dinner Party" by the artist Henry Sargent.  I know of at least two other Federal-era historic house museums that have also looked to that painting for inspiration for their dining rooms: Homewood House in Baltimore (the subject of an earlier post of mine) and the Harrison Gray Otis House in Boston.

King Manor is notable for its library, shown in the preceding photograph.  At one time it held over 3,500 books, of which approximately 2,000 remain today behind the room's curtained cases.  A book collection of such size in America in the first decades of the nineteenth century would only have been possible for a person of substantial wealth.  To put it in perspective, Thomas Jefferson's library of 6,500 volumes was the largest library in private hands in America when he sold it to the U.S. Government in 1815 for the then staggering sum of $23,900.  It formed the nucleus of what is today the Library of Congress.

The woodwork and walls in King Manor's library were grained when the house was restored in the 1980s to approximate their original decoration.

A late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century
view of the library
Image courtesy of King Manor Association

The photograph of the library in the preceding photograph shows the room as it probably looked in the years leading up to when the Kings sold the house to the city of Jamaica.  I wonder where Rufus King's "favorite arm chair" is today?

The house's "gift shop" in the upstairs hall

Our tour ended in the upstairs hall, which has been somewhat haphazardly set up as a gift shop.  None of the upstairs rooms were open to the public when we visited the house.  We peeked into one or two of them, however, and saw that they were mostly filled with furniture (perhaps including the elusive "favorite arm chair") stored under protective sheets.  Assuming much of the covered furniture was sold to the city of Jamaica by the Kings when they vacated the house, I suspect a subsequent reinterpretation of King Manor's interior may bring some of it back into the rooms, which would have been furnished during the Kings final days with a mix of period furnishings, as seen in the early photograph of the library.

With our tour completed, we bid our guide goodbye and left the house through the door seen under the porch in the preceding photograph.  The dependencies in the rear of the house were once devoted to service activities, notably cooking and laundry.

Architectural rendering of the east elevation for the 1984
restoration by Gibson Bauer Associates
Image courtesy of King Manor Association

In its day, King Manor would have been supported by numerous barns, stables, and outbuildings required to house the horses, carriages and buggies, livestock and farm equipment necessary to manage a large working country estate.  These have long since been torn down.

A view of the rear of the Manor, ca. 1936
Image courtesy of N.Y. City Department of Parks & Recreation

And with that I leave you, Dear Reader, with this charming old photograph of a view of the rear of King Manor.  We enjoyed our visit to the house and appreciate that we are fortunate today that it still stands, a stalwart reminder of the dignity and beauty that the countryside surrounding New York City once possessed.

Reggie's appreciation for King Manor, and the preservation of it and other historic house museums found in the public parks of New York City made possible by the philanthropic Historic House Trust of New York, has motivated him to make a donation to the Trust in support of its worthy and laudable efforts.  Should you be so fortunate to find yourself in New York, Dear Reader, Reggie encourages you to set aside an afternoon to visit one of the city's historic house museums, and to consider leaving a contribution when you do so above and beyond the modest admission price in order to help support their ongoing existence.

King Manor Museum
King Park, Jamaica, New York
(718) 206-0545

New York City Department of Parks & Recreation

The Historic House Trust of New York
830 Fifth Avenue, Room 203
New York, NY 10065
(212) 360-8282


  1. Rufus sounds like such an admirable man. And his taste in flooring wasn't bad either:).

  2. Hello Reggie, Thanks for this introduction to the Rufus King house. I love these more out-of-the-way house museums--you get a closer look, and it's easier to imagine yourself as the occupant of the house when there are no crowds of other people.

  3. I note that the Rufus King dining room is painted in the same brilliant yellow that Thomas Jefferson also favored — and splurged on when decorating Monticello.

    Thanks for the tour!

    1. MDR: Good catch! You are absolutely correct about the vividness of the dining room's yellow. Reggie

  4. That central upstairs window above the front door is certainly curious, with the wide arched pediment. Seeing what I presume is the interior view where you show the Gift Shop, it is not the 3-part window I was guessing. The curved end to the Dining Room is also unexpected - a country version of a very high-style feature. Of course, it is good to see it all in such good condition, regardless of the lack of furnishings.

    1. Dear DTC: Yes, the upstairs window you note is not the palladian window that it appears to be from the oustide. A clever and unusual fooling of the eye. I genuinely liked the house, and was transported during my visit back to what it and the surrounding area must have looked like when it was i its prime. Thanks, Reggie

  5. Thanks for the historical background. Any idea of what $23,900 would be in today's dollars? Thank you.

    1. Hello Mary,
      It is difficult to have any great certainty as to what a dollar in 1815 would be worth in today's currency because much of this nation's economy through the later 19th century was barter based. However, from what research I've been able to do, I believe it would be anywhere between $250 thousand and $360 thousand. Would be interested to learn from any other readers their views. RD

  6. Sorry, but the church you identify is not Grace Episcopal, but some other secularized building. Grace is on the other side of the street. Both buildings can be glimpsed as trains enter the Jamaica station.

    1. Hello Anon,
      Thanks for the clarification. It reinforces one's view that one would be wise not to always take one's docent's commentary in such matters at face value. Lettice and Lovage, perhaps? I will correct the post accordingly. RD


    3. Anon (again) thank you for the photograph of Grace Church. I have now corrected my post. Thanks, Reggie

  7. Hello Reggie,

    What a wonderful tour of this splendid house you've given us, your fortunate readers. Thank you.

    I love the burnt orange color of the coffee can and cream jug, and have admired this Coalport pattern since seeing it featured in one of Geoffrey Godden's porcelain books that are sitting on my groaning bookshelves.

    I've also seen that beautiful Venetian carpet runner too, featured in another historic home. I spotted it on my tour of Mount Vernon last summer, in George and Martha Washington's bedroom.

    The vivid wall paints used in the King Manor really highlight the severity of the simple architecture. I love it and could move right in.

    1. Hello LizaE: I agree with you, one could certainly imagine living in King Manor were it not for the neighborhood in which it is situated. It is a commodious and most pleasing house. Thanks, Reggie

  8. Bravo for mentioning the trust and for your support.

    I was recently reading the memoirs of a former NYC mayor Philip Hone who said in the early part of the 19th c. "Overturn, overturn, overturn! is the maxim of New York. The very bones of our ancestors are not permitted to lie quiet a quarter of a century, and one generation of men seem studious to remove all relics of those who preceded them."

    Unlike the cities of the old world that have preserved so many of their ancient architecture, we have so little of old New York left to us –– it is vital to support these little museums lest they be quietly sold off and plowed under to make way for another dismal block building.

    I had never heard of this place and would love to visit now that it's on my radar -- a lovely day trip.

    1. Hello Deana Sidney, Thank you for your comment and kind words. Touring King Manor and the Pell-Bartow Mansion, as I have done recently, has definitely peaked my interest in the HHT, an organization that I plan to learn more about. Many thanks, Reggie

    2. DS: When visiting King Manor from Manhattan, it is most advantageous to do so in a car. While public transportation is available, it is a rather long journey. Reggie

  9. What a treat to read this informative post about a man and home I knew nothing about! As a child growing on Long Island, I took several school field trips to NY house museums, but never to King Manor. The floors are gorgeous and I love the dining room. That was a sad business, admitting Missouri as a slave state. Good to know that Mr. King tried to put a stop to it.

    1. Thank you Susan Partlan,
      I admit I had never heard of Rufus King before visiting his house, which I had only seen in photographs. It is well worth a trip, I believe, as it is a handsome place, and a romantic one in that it brings to mind a glimpse of what the surrounding once bucolic area was before it became heavily urbanized, as it is today. RD

  10. Wow- I love the bold colors in the manor! Beautiful!


  11. I only just came across your blog after it was mentioned in a recent edition of "Architectural Digest," and was charmed to see this post about King Manor. I grew up in nearby Richmond Hill and somehow the zoning worked out that I was assigned to attend Hillcrest High School, a little over a mile away. I walked to school, initially to save the bus fare, but eventually because I enjoyed the walk, which included going past King Park. I often imagined what it must have been like to live in that house though I never did go inside and am not sure it was even open to the public during the 1970s when I was there. I am glad to hear that the house is being well cared for today and will definitely make a point of visiting next time I am back in New York.


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