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Bowne House Preservation Project is Underway

Bowne House Restoration Update - July 30, 2013

First, some exciting news: Queens Borough President Helen M. Marshall has allocated an additional $500,000 in funding for interior finishes for the Bowne House. This allocation will allow us to make needed repairs to the interior and is in addition to funding already in place for exterior work.

Bowne House Preservation outside houseThe preservation project at the Bowne House is underway. Exterior doors, windows, and shutters have been removed to an offsite workshop for preservation. Excavation work is underway along the north, west and south sides of the house to allow inspection of the foundation. Structural stabilization will be done as needed.

Some interesting discoveries have been made which help to unravel the alterations history of the house. Nine generations of family occupied Bowne House, and many of these made adjustments to enlarge its size, update it in keeping with changing tastes and styles, and add modern conveniences such as gas, electricity and plumbing. The last major structural alterations by the family appear to have been made around 1845, when the Parsons family occupied the house.

Bowne House Preservation inside houseDocumentation for alterations has been made easier by the extensive records kept by the family, starting with John Bowne's meticulous records of construction as well as of local history and family life of the 17th century. This custom was observed by later generations, resulting in a rich database of material covering over 200 years of social history. Many of these documents remain with the museum. They form a unique collection of materials from the 17th through the early 20th centuries.

Recent investigations have uncovered brick flooring dating from the time when an area on the north side near the kitchen was used as an open porch; this area was later enclosed and the brick flooring was covered up. Additionally, the addition of a laundry, circa 1815, to the east of the 1795 kitchen, resulted in the closure of an old cistern. The cistern, located under the wood floor of the laundry, was the repository for household refuse. Recent archaeological explorations of this area by the firm of Chrysalis, Inc., have uncovered a rich variety of objects dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries. These objects help tell the story of the many occupants of Bowne House. Archaeological materials will be preserved as a collection to be displayed at the museum. Objects from previous digs on the site have been the subject of several exhibits on the history of Queens.

Bowne House Preservation inside houseIn order to determine finishes appropriate for Bowne House, a paint analysis was performed. This required inspection of various layers of paint remaining on the exterior of a number of sections of the house. The earliest remaining paint layers seem to be from the 1840's. In accordance with these findings, which are consistent with the dates of the last major alterations to the exterior appearance of the house, a final selection of colors will be made. These choices will also be consistent with the period of interpretation for the museum. Interior paint analysis was done some years ago by the Bowne House Historical Society; interior finishes here will be also consistent with the period of interpretation.Bowne House Preservation outside house scafolding

As work progresses, we will continue to post regular updates and photos on the preservation project.

June 26, 2013

Bowne House is one of the most significant national, state, and New York City landmark. An outstanding example of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century Anglo-Dutch architecture, the house has helped relay the story of John Bowne and the Bowne and Parsons families to the residents of Flushing and Queens and to visitors from across the globe. In addition the architectural heritage and social history, the house possesses a remarkable collection of thousands of artifacts and a storied landscape tradition dating back to the Parsons' renowned nursery.

Bowne House Groundbreaking Ceremony, June 2013.jpgFor seven years, I have served on the Bowne House Historical Society Advisory Board and then the Board of Trustees as member, vice-president, and now president. I consider a true honor and privilege. Today marks the culmination of years of planning and fundraising to develop the approach and secure the resources to restore the house and ensure its survival for generations to come.

Many people made today possible. On behalf of the Bowne House Historical Society Board of Trustees, I would like to thank the many individual and other donors who have contributed to the restoration project. Especially, I would like to thank:

Queens Borough President Helen Marshall
New York City Comptroller John Liu
New York City Councilman Peter Koo
New York State Senator Frank Padavan

I would also like to recognize and honor Rosemary Vietor, long-term member, past president, and current vice-president of the Bowne House Historical Society. Rosemary's dedication and termination are inspiring.

(June, 2013)

We are pleased to announce that our long-awaited preservation work is underway. This phase is an exterior project and will include removal, repair and replacement as needed of siding; removal and repair of windows, shutters and doors, replacement of the cedar roof, and some structural stabilization as needed. We expect that this phase of the work will take approximately 14 months.

Preservation work began April 1. The firm of AAH Construction is performing much of the work; sub contractors are being retained for specialized work as needed. These include the firm of James Hicks, who is preserving the windows, doors and shutters. A paint specialist will be consulted to examine the many layers of paint on the exterior of the house. Fortunately, an extensive paint analysis for the interior was done for the Bowne House Historical Society (the Society) in the early 1990's, so we have an idea of the decorative history of the interior.

The discovery of an old cistern in the laundry room, located off the kitchen on the eastern end of the house led to a consultation with a professional archaeologist. Chrysalis, Archaeological Consultants was very excited about this find. The cistern has been covered by floorboards; it probably pre-dates the construction of the laundry, which is no later than 1815, perhaps late 18th century. It had likely been located outside and was enclosed at a later date. Cisterns, once common, were a source of fresh water, and are now rare in Queens.

Bowne House Artifacts bottleThe cistern proved to be a repository of a large number of varied, interesting artifacts in very good condition. The items removed include, china of various periods, bottles, animal bones, spectacles, a pocket watch, charcoal, pipes and other items. This may be one of the top finds in a historic house in the city, and a major one in Queens.

These artifacts remain the property of the Society and will join other artifacts found at the site in prior explorations. Together they form an important collection which tells the story of centuries of occupancy of the site and teach us a lot about early life in western Long island.

A discovery of timber with bark attached will require additional dendrochronology work. The presence of bark allows more precise dating of wood. While this wood was located in the newer laundry area, so much of the materials were recycled that it is possible this wood came from an earlier area of the house.

Consultants for the Society working with NYC Parks on the project include the firm of Jan Hird Pokorny Associates and Robert Sillman Associates, structural engineers.

Bowne House Canton PlateAt this time, much of the exterior cladding has been removed and the original timber framing may be seen. It is very exciting to see this original framing, much of it dating from the mid 17th century. We already know a lot about the construction of the house; extensive work, including dendrochronological studies, was done for the Historic Structures Report of 2006. Additional studies were done in 2007 by Rudy Christian of Christian & Son, Inc. Mr. Christian prepared an extensive report on the existing conditions of the structural framework.

Mr. Christian describes the structure as "an extremely rare example of timber frame construction in that it contains the work of four centuries of tradesmen." He states that "although structures of this kind are relatively common in the Old World, they are nearly unknown in the New World and as such are an invaluable part of American history".

The original one room circa 1660 structure was a type of "H bent" framing typical for Dutch timber framers. It incorporated a heavy "anchor beam" in each bent with two posts joined in the "wall plates". Christian states that the entire frame appears to be cut from locally harvested white oak timbers. The markings of Roman numerals may be seen on rafters; the use of Roman numerals is not uncommon, but as used in the Bowne House are an indication that the timber framer was trained in Europe or in the European tradition.

A major addition to the Bowne House was built circa 1669. The quality of timber used in this addition was of significantly lower quality that that used in the ca. 1660 room, indicating a drop in the availability of better quality trees as early growth forests were depleted. Carpenters marks in this area show that the timber framer was probably second generation and trained in the New World.

Later modifications to the house as the family expanded included the kitchen, which may be circa 1795, and the laundry, circa 1795-1815.

Unfortunately, an infestation of termites in 1936 caused major damage to many areas of the house. These conditions necessitated major alterations in the basement and some poorly done repairs were made. These conditions will be addressed during the preservation work now underway.

As the work progresses, we will provide updates on the web site and in our newsletter. We expect that there will be additional interesting discoveries and we will keep you informed of these finds.

We are very grateful to our elected officials for helping to make this preservation project a reality. We would particularly like to acknowledge the contributions of Queens Borough President Helen M. Marshall, Comptroller John Liu, former NYS Assemblyman Barry Grodenchik, former NYS Assemblywoman Ellen Young, and former NYS Senator Frank Padavan.

(May 2, 2013)

We are pleased to announce that our long awaited preservation project is now underway. This phase, the exterior restoration of the 1661 house, is under the supervision of architects Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, and Steven Foxworth, Project Manager at NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. The firm of AAH Construction, Inc. is performing the preservation work, assisted by a team of professionals with expertise in sub-sets of restoration techniques. The process will be guided by the Historic Structures Report (HSR), a comprehensive study of the structure, its construction, the social history of the area and the family, and existing conditions. The HSR was prepared for the Society by Hartgen Associates, Albany, NY in 2007; it incorporates information from many sources, including the Bowne House archives and family correspondence dating from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

This phase, the preservation of the exterior, will include the following steps:

  1. Structural analysis of the building and its foundation by engineers to determine where stabilization is needed.
  2. Strengthening of timber framing and replacement of wood compromised by insect infestation, age and rot.
  3. Removal and replacement of the existing cedar roof, circa 1980’s, with new cedar roof shakes appropriate in appearance and style with the period of the house.
  4. Removal of siding, assessment of its condition and replacement of shingles as needed, preserving as many original shingles as possible. The result will be siding appropriate to the house and consistent with the HSR.
  5. Removal and restoration of windows, preserving as many original features as possible.
  6. Shutters will also removed to be restored offsite. Existing hardware (shutter dogs) will be repaired and reinstalled, with new hardware fabricated as needed to match the existing materials.
  7. The columns supporting porches have been removed and will be replaced with new columns; the benches on the front porch familiar from images of the house have also been removed for restoration. At the same time, similar benches which were located on a north facing porch have been located and will be restored.
  8. Finally, appropriate finishes will be applied to the exterior siding, doors, windows and woodwork.

This phase, the exterior preservation of the house, is expected to take approximately 14 months.

We have already made some exciting discoveries. For example, original weatherboard (clapboard) was visible under the shingles in one wall of the house. Virtually the entire footprint of Bowne House dates from the 17th century, with the exception of the laundry area located to the east of the kitchen. The laundry was constructed sometime between 1795 and 1815. Weatherboard may have been the original siding, prior to installation of shingles. All images of Bowne House, however, depict shingles.

Weatherboard or clapboard is also visible in the laundry area, where it may be seen on the original outer wall of the kitchen, now forming the western wall of the laundry. The laundry also contains a large cistern.

Removal of an area of shingles next to the front door revealed very old and large 32” shingles under a layer of more recent shingles. At that location, timber faming original to the 17th century may be seen. The wood timbers were sealed with cobbing, probably a mixture of clay, sand and animal hair.

We do know that Bowne House was constructed with timber most likely felled on-site. John Bowne’s brother-in-law, John Feake, Hannah’s brother, worked to help build the house. Bowne House was most definitely in existence in 1661, a date that has been confirmed by dendrochonology studies. Additions and modifications were made in 1669, 1676 and again in 1684 and in the 1690’s as the Bowne family expanded and prospered financially. These and later additions followed the fashion of the time; parlor addition, second story, kitchen wing, center hall and stairway. All show the evolution of Bowne House during its period of occupancy by the Bowne and Parsons families. Changes were made to the interior as well, with fine paneling installed in the parlor circa 1750 and other upgrades and modernizations as the house changed hands within the family and new generations made adjustments to suit their needs.

We will be watching for features which may add to the body of knowledge about Bowne House and its occupants. We are one of the very few surviving structures from the 17th century, and we may be the only one currently undergoing preservation work, certainly in the metropolitan area. As such, this is a unique opportunity for historians.

One feature we will be on the lookout for is timber retaining its original bark covering. While our dendrochronology has confirmed the 1661 date, the timbers sampled lacked bark; the presence of bark enables the dendrochronologist to fine-tune the age of the timber; this may allow us to confirm an earlier date of construction.

We will look forward to new findings and will post these on our website. Please check for updates on the progress of the preservation work.