Dutch Barn Preservation Society

Dedicated to the Study and Preservation
of New World Dutch Barns

NEWSLETTER FALL 2003, Vol. 16, Issue 2


Presentation by Shirley W Dunn; Conference on New York State History, Bard College, June 6r 2003.

The purpose of this paper is to give a voice to an architectural form which some readers may not know about. This form, one of the very first farm buildings built by early Dutch settlers in present New York, has disappeared, but it has had a striking influence. We must set the scene: When you think of a Dutch-style house, you have in mind steep-sloped Dutch roofs, originally developed to support thatch or tiles in the Netherlands. With a few adjustments, these proved practical in areas of Dutch settlement where heavy snows were common, such as the Hudson Valley and Long Island. [Figure 1: Bronck House] An example is the Pieter Bronck House of Coxsackie, probably built in 1663.

Figure #1. The stone house erected about 1663 by Pieter Bronck at the present Coxsackie is now a museum supported by the Greene County Historical Society. Photo by Robert Andersen.

The Bronck House seems to be the oldest nearly intact house in the Dutch style remaining in New York State. It undoubtedly survived because it was built of stone, rather than wood. My guess is the stone was chosen for safety, in consideration of Peter Stuyvesant's war against the Esopus Indians, a war being waged only a few miles away near present-day Kingston. The Bronck House is wider than deep, which makes it doubly special. The original front door was in front, in the location of the present right front window, shown in the picture. As evidence of the doorway, besides obvious changes in the brickwork, there is the trap door to the cellar, with a stair below it, which remains in the floor in front of where the door was located, to the present time.

Special barns that we associate with Dutch framing styles also were built in the seventeenth century - and some from the eighteenth century, erected by Dutch descendents, still survive. They all seem to have the same underlying framing pattern, which is surprising, because barns in the Netherlands exhibited great variety. These special "Dutch" barns of the Hudson Valley and Long Island and New Jersey were practical for storing and threshing wheat, at one time the major crop of upstate New York. As a result, we often say that this barn was a wheat barn, but it was used for other kinds of grain in the Netherlands. [Figure 2: Van Bergen Dutch Barn] A photograph presents the exterior of the ancient Marte Gerritsen Van Bergen barn in Leeds. In 1928 it was still in good condition. This barn is believed to be the one built by the year 1680, when it was mentioned in a contract.(1) An interior view of the Van Bergen Barn [figure 3: interior framing] shows the anchor beam braces with lightly curved soffits (undersides), typical of early Dutch construction. The large horizontal anchor beams of this barn were about twenty inches deep. On the saplings overhead hay and grain was stored. The Van Bergen barn survived until a few decades ago, but by the 1970s its roof was off and after that the building tumbled down. It is now gone, the site bull-dozed.

Figure #2. The Van Bergen Dutch barn at present Leeds, New York, as it appeared in 1980. Photo courtesy Dorothy Scanlon.

The interior of the Van Bergen barn of c. 1680 shows curved soffits on the anchorbeam braces.

Despite a popular impression, the steep-roofed houses and the Dutch barns were not the only important forms established here by the Dutch. To understand this perhaps surprising statement we can go back to the beginning of Dutch farm settlement in the Hudson Valley in the seventeenth century. Much of what we know about the farms comes from the many letters of Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, a Dutch merchant who established Rensselaerswyck in the area of present Albany and Rensselaer counties.

The first upstate farm was established in 1631 by agents of Van Rensselaer on fertile Castle Island, now the location of the Port of Albany. There one large farmhouse was built in 1631 for Kiliaen Van Rensselaer's first upstate farm family and a few farm helpers. This farmhouse was described by Van Rensselaer as "a convenient dwelling, the side and gable built up with brick, the dwelling [as] long and wide as required."(2) He also wrote in a letter about this building, "The house was furnished with all kinds of implements and necessaries for the animals and the comfort and support of the people and what further was needful."(3) Surprise! The structure contained not only living quarters for the farm family and the farm help but for animals in their stalls, as well as storage and work areas, (More than thirty years later, this large frame and brick farmhouse on Castle Island was washed away in the flood of 1666.) Having the house and barn under one roof occasioned no special comment in the 1600s because such buildings were common in northern Europe and, in fact, are still erected, especially in the Netherlands. Such a farmhouse, with its hay barracks and even a nice Dutch wagon with outsize back wheels, was drawn on a land survey in the Netherlands about 1600.(4) [Figure 4: survey] A closer view of a Dutch barrack shows how a farmer stowed a similar wagon in one.[Figure 5: Hay barrack]

Figure #4. A Netherlands farmhouse with attached barn, with its accompanying hay barracks and a wagon, was drawn on a Dutch land survey about 1600. From Van vlechtwerk tot baksteen, by J.J. Voskuil, Stichting Historisch Boerderij-Onderzoek, Arnhem, 1979. Used with permission.





Figure #5. A Dutch hay barrack, also called a "Haystack." From J. Ie Francq van Berkhey, Natuurlijke History van Holland, VoI.IX, part 1 (Leiden, 1810).

Diagonally across the Hudson River from present Albany, the second Van Rensselaer farm was established that same summer of 1631 near a pine grove in an area called the Greenbush, meaning the pine woods. The location is now within the City of Rensselaer. In 1631, Roelof Jansen from the coast of Sweden became the first farmer at the Greenbush farm. Roelof Jansen came to the area in 1630 after a stop in the Netherlands. With him were his wife, and the now famous Anneke Jans, and their three daughters. A son known as Jan Roelofsen, was born after Roelof and Annetje arrived. Aiding Roelof Jansen and his family with the farm work were two farm helpers, Claes Claesen and Jacob Goyversen, both from Fleckero, Norway, who came over in 1630 with Jansen.(5)

One large rectangular house for all these people and for their livestock, grain storage, and work space was erected. It was, apparently, similar to its mate built on Castle Island. The Greenbush farmer began with four horses. Cows for his farm were detained down river, but a few arrived the next year. Other buildings on the farm included a Dutch-style hay barrack of four poles, fifty feet high, a barn or shed, and a sheepcote.

This brand new Greenbush farmhouse accidentally burned in 1632, but a replacement was built as quickly as possible. Fortunately, Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, writing from the Netherlands, described this new building: He said the people ". . . built again another brick house, 80 feet long, the threshing floor 25 feet wide and the beams 12 feet high, up to the ceiling."(6) The description states that the replacement building was similar to the previous one at Greenbush, and suggests it also was like the one built on Castle Island across the river in 1631, which had the sides and gable end built up with brick. The building was to be as long as needed. As the Dutch foot was shorter than today's measure, the actual length of the Greenbush building was about 72.5 feet and the threshing floor just short of 23 feet across.

A few other farmhouses of this European type were erected in the present Albany area within a few years. A small one burned down on an east side farm south of Greenbush in 1640. Although the farmer was not injured, the horses (mares, actually) in this building were killed with the loss of their expected foals.(7) On the other side of the river, archeological evidence of a building over one hundred feet long, thought to be the one described in a 1643 letter by Arent Van Curler, was unearthed about 1974 by archeologist Paul Huey and others at the farm called the Flatts, north of Albany. Van Curler's letter included valuable details about arrangements: his farm hands were to sleep in an attic room over the family's living quarters, while the foreman would have his bunk in the barn section.(8)

Figure #6. Detail from the Manatus Map of c. 1639 (copied in the 1660s), shows the two farms of Wolfert Gerritsen in present Brooklyn. Harrisse collection, Maps, Library of Congress.

Figure #7. A seventeenth century barn in the Netherlands, in the Gooi region, suggests the likely appearance of the farmhouses built by Kiliaen Van Rensselaer at Creenbush and on Castle Island. Detail from an engraving, "Tobias and the Angel," by Abraham Bloemaert, 1620.

In addition, there are reports of similar buildings from the first farms at Manhattan, where some of the men employed by Kiliaen Van Rensselaer worked in 1630 before they came upriver. In particular, Wolfert Gerritsen was in charge of assembling livestock at Manhattan and shipping it up to the Fort Orange area for the new Van Rensselaer farms. Two farms, each with a rectangular long farmhouse as well as a hay barrack, were identified on a 1639 map of Manatus (Manhattan) and environs as those of Wolfert Gerritsen. [Figure 6: Manatus Map]

Fortunately, similar farmhouses were occasionally depicted in the Netherlands. [Figure 7: Detail from Tobias and the Angel] A Dutch artist, Abraham Bloemaert, in 1620 sketched a 'farmhouse from the region called the Gooi or Gooiland.(9) The long building fits the description of those planned for Greenbush and Castle Island. Bloemaert has been criticized for making fun of the farms by making them look run-down. Nevertheless, his picture is invaluable. The stepped gable he showed was made of brick, as were the walls and chimney of the living section on the left-hand side of the picture. The resemblance to the farm houses built by Van Rensselaer's orders is clear. Van Rensselaer had noted that the gable end of his farmhouse on the Island was to be made of brick. In the picture, the roof of the living part was covered with tiles, while the attached barn section on the other end had wood siding, with a thatched roof. Looming behind the living section was a hay barrack - this one with a gable roof high in the air.

Clues to the interior arrangement of the farmhouse include the front chimney serving the fireplace in the residence, which, in the Dutch style, would not have a built-in oven. Rather, an extra chimney at the center of the building served a separate oven for baking. Documents suggest the farmhouse at Creenbush also had such a special baking oven. In the early 1640s, Willem Juriaensz, a baker, was paid for baking on the farm at Creenbush and for going around to bake at Van Rensselaer's other farms. Willem Juriaensz also visited and baked at the farm of Arent Van Curler, with its long farmhouse on the Flatts, mentioned above.(10)

The reference to brick in construction changes common notions of architectural history. Father Isaac Jogues had said of a visit to Fort Orange in 1643 that the houses were "merely of boards and thatched. As yet there is no mason work except the chimneys."(11) His description is widely quoted as a snapshot of the wooden housing of the period. However, Jogues, rescued from the Mohawks, was hiding within Fort Orange. He did not notice that the large farmhouses in the distance at Creenbush and Castle Island were constructed in part with bricks. The bricks, sent by Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, were probably the small yellow ones found on very early sites in the Albany area.

Van Rensselaer, who contracted with Dutch farmers to go overseas to the Hudson Valley to work on his farms, never let go of the land, as we all understand, and he definitely pinched pennies. Always concerned about costs in his overseas colony, Van Rensselaer wanted an economical solution to housing his tenant farmers, their families and their help, as well as the valuable farm animals. These animals he supplied for the farm and from them he shared the increase. It is not surprising that he selected a building well-known to him to meet these requirements. Scholars have wondered where this particular farmhouse type, built on Kiliaen van Rensselaer's orders, might have originated?

A land speculator, Kiliaen van Rensselaer had invested in farmland in the Gooi, the Dutch region of sandy soils where rye and oats were cultivated. Interestingly, the poor soil there was not suitable for wheat.

Figure 8- 10. Drawings by Jaap Schipper, a contemporary Netherlands restoration architect, shows the appearance of a Gooi "Ionghouse" of the seventeenth century. The interior layout includes a bakeoven at the partition. Another sketch shows the framing, which Dutch Barns followed for two centuries. The brick living section with standing gable was roofed with tile, while the barn at rear was thatched.

This is the same region where Abraham Bloemaert sketched a typical farmhouse, noted above. The special farmhouses built there combined the tenant's home with stables, threshing floor, and overhead crop storage under one roof. These rectangular Gooi farm buildings were called longhouses. I believe these familiar and practical structures of the Gooi were the ones Van Rensselaer copied in the Hudson Valley. Such inclusive structures would be an efficient and economical solution for new farms anywhere.

Restoration architect and historian Jaap Schipper of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, prepared a few sketches for me of a farmhouse of the Gooi type, [Figures 8, 9, 10: Schipper drawings]. The typical Gooi farmhouses known to Schipper echo the early 1600s drawing by Abraham Bloemaert amazingly well, both inside and out. The brick living section with its parapet gable front was roofed with tile while the barn at the rear was thatched. (Brick was practical and fire-safe, but it also was used for show.) Schipper, moreover, shows the interior plan. A bake oven is located at the partition, just as it was in Bloemaert's sketch. However, in Schipper's drawing, the main chimney happens to be at the back of the living section, where there was a wall. The circle indicates the threshing floor. The family home is at the left front, and boxes around the walls depict built-in bedsteads. The workers probably slept above in the loft room over the family dwelling.

One detail of Schipper's drawing shows a cross-section of the framing of the barn. The crop was placed on saplings just as it was in later Dutch barns in America, as you saw in the Van Bergen barn. The anchorbeams were supported, not by the outside walls, but by posts on each side of the threshing floor, also as it was done in American Dutch barns. Note that a raised section of the roof on the side accommodated the height of the wagon door. Most importantly, outsi.de aisles for stalls flanked the threshing floor on both sides. These aisles are specifically mentioned in early Albany barn contracts. The roofs of some early barns, including possibly the Van Bergen Bergen barn which you saw, may have had a roof slope of two different pitches, with a "break" over the aisles. The Bloemaert sketch hints at a curve or change in the slope of the roof, but it may merely reflect the sagging of the rafters.

NEWSLETTER FALL 2003, Vol. 16, Issue 2, part two

The Dutch Barn Preservation Society

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