Published: June 1, 2004
To be sold at Publick Vendue, at Ten o’Clock on Thursday Morning, the 19th Instant, at the House of the late Adolph Philipse, Esq; deceased, on the Manour of Philipsburgh; Four Negro Men, viz. a Miller, a Boat-Man, and two Farmers; three Negro Women; six Negro boys, and two Girls; Houshold [sic] Goods, and all the Stock, consisting of 40 odd Head of Cattle, 26 Horses, a number of Sheep and Hogs, and all the Utensils belonging to the Said Manour. -New-York Gazette, April 9, 1750.
Conducted onsite in 1750, the Adolph Philipse auction was like many a modern-day estate sale in its arrangement and execution. Advertised in the New-York Gazette, it attracted bidders, many known to the family, who jovially greeted one another, helping themselves to biscuits and tea, chocolate and rum as they previewed the assortment. They moved from room to room, here admiring silver tankards, cane chairs and a tea table, there appraising pewter plates, glass tumblers and a backgammon table.
Fineries aside, the Philipse sale was an atrocity, unimaginable today. Included on the inventory, drawn up by Philipse’s nephew Joseph Reade, were the names of 23 enslaved Africans, including a girl, 3-year-old Betty, barely out of diapers.
The story of this community, hidden in plain view from decades of visitors to the 1680 Manor House and its surrounding outbuildings, is a saga that Historic Hudson Valley is telling for the first time in its ambitious reinterpretation and reinstallation of Philipsburg Manor. First opened to the public in 1943 and reinterpreted once before in 1969, the museum provides a fascinating look at changing cultural perspectives and evolving curatorial practices.
“Philipse’s death was a time of terrible uncertainty at Upper Mills. The people living here were to be split apart,” says Kathleen Eagen Johnson, curator of Historic Hudson Valley, which administers six properties, among them Washington Irving’s home Sunnyside and the Rockefeller manse Kykuit.
Johnson has grown to know the Philipse family well since coming to Historic Hudson Valley fresh out of Winterthur’s graduate program in early American culture in 1978. Joining a team of experts in exposing the dirty secret of Northern slavery in the colonial era and setting the record straight on the crucial contributions of the dispossessed has been the most important project of her career, she says.
Active in politics as well as commerce, Frederick Philipse (1626-1702) and his son Adolph (1665-1750) operated an empire stretching from Albany to New York to Madagascar, trading furs, whale oil, tobacco, sugar cane, painted cottons, spices and human cargo. Hugely wealthy for their time, they owned homes and warehouses in Manhattan and Westchester County. Over the past two and half centuries, the Philipses’ 52,000-acre estate has gone from wilderness to farmland to suburbia.
The Manor House at Philipsburg has changed as well. The Beekmans, who lived there in the early Nineteenth Century, added a wing to what would become tourist lodgings and, later, the home of Broadway star Elsie Janis in the early Twentieth Century. Convinced that the property should be preserved for the public, John D. Rockefeller, Jr, in 1940 backed the purchase of the four-story, hipped-roof dwelling that perches picturesquely near a working mill. Reached by a wooden foot bridge spanning a pond and cascading falls, the Manor House and its surrounding outbuildings – several reconstructed; one, an Eighteenth Century new-world Dutch barn that was moved from Guilderland Center outside Albany in 1982 – today attract 50,000 visitors a year.
From the beginning, Philipsburg’s interpretation has been informed by archival and archaeological evidence. Now in the collection of the New York Public Library, Philipse’s inventory is considered the “keystone” document, a complete account of the contents of the Manhattan and Upper Mills properties if not an actual snapshot of each room. Augmenting the inventory are Philipse family papers, including 59 receipts, letters, bonds, leases, legal documents, rent rolls, maps, deeds and wills.
Archaeological digs conducted at the manor, grist mill, wharves, outbuildings and dam between 1940 and 45 and 1956 and 61 recovered thousands of artifacts, probably more than at any other colonial site in New York. From the earliest Chinese porcelain found in the state to delftware, stoneware and glass, the artifacts attest to the worldliness of the Philipse clan.
Visitors to Philipse Castle Restoration, as the museum was called in the 1940s, were treated to a fanciful walk through time. The tour began in the Seventeenth Century, in a series of exaggeratedly Dutch rooms unduly influenced by recreations such as Openluchtmuseum in the Netherlands, considered the world’s first Old Sturbridge Village. It ended in a Victorian-era room, complete with Wooten desk and gas chandeliers that had been moved from the Rockefeller home in Cleveland. To further entice tourists, a windmill was placed in the parking lot and the mill was positioned so that motorists along Route 9 could see the wheel turning as they whizzed by. Wooden shoes and Dutch hats were not far behind.
“By the late 1950s, the Rockefellers knew from their work at Colonial Williamsburg that Philipsburg had to be re-restored,” says Johnson. Sleepy Hollow Restorations, as it had been renamed in 1951, closed in 1959. The Beekman wing, Rockefeller room and windmill were removed. The collections were culled. The mill was rebuilt. After in-depth research, staff agreed that the interpretation should be limited to the years 1680 to 1750.
When the Manor House reopened in 1969, it was luxuriously furnished in elite Knickerbocker good taste, even though Philipse had rarely used the house. Over the years, the institution assembled fine collections of Dutch copper, brass and delft, along with English delft, and William and Mary and Queen Anne furniture. While it had long been known that enslaved Africans lived at the site, it was not until the 1980s that the public demanded, or was even ready, to hear their story.
Waddell W. Stillman, Historic Hudson Valley’s president, was determined to tell the truth about the past, even at the risk of risk of alienating traditional constituencies. Directed by Margaret L. Vetare, the Philipsburg Manor Reinterpretation Project got underway in the mid-1990s. A law passed by the state of New York requiring public schools to teach about crimes against humanity spurred Historic Hudson Valley to develop school programming addressing the subject of slavery. In 1998, the institution received a planning grant, followed by a sizable implementation grant in 2000, from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“It’s amazing that many people still don’t really know that there was slavery in the North. To take the interpretation beyond that simple fact and begin to paint a portrait of the contributions, accomplishments and the ways in which North America’s economic success was built on slave labor and the skills of African people in the colonies has been enormously rewarding,” says Vetare.
The Historic Hudson Valley team involved a number of experts, both inside the museum and out. Assistant project director Michael Lord, who came to Philipsburg from Colonial Williamsburg, conducted much of the research with Vetare and Johnson, wrote scripts and trained guides. Interns from the Bard Graduate Center helped in a variety of ways. An African American Advisory Board reviewed programs and written materials, vetted language and got the word out to the black community.
Months spent reading letters, diaries, law cases and slave ads fleshed out lives long ago forgotten. Tales like that of Nicholas Cartagena, a captive who worked as a translator aboard a Madagascar-bound ship, and Jack, a runaway slave bound for the Gulf of Persia via Rhode Island, have been woven into the new narrative. In a series of tightly scripted vignettes, costumed guides use a variety of performance-based interpretative techniques to focus guests’ attentions on the events of 1750, when a community 70 years in the making was disrupted by Philipse’s death.
“The lives of poor blacks were not rich with goods, so we had to stitch the story together in different ways,” says Johnson. The reinterpretation has meant removing half of the artifacts on view, a not altogether popular decision. Interpreters now use a combination of objects and descriptive language to evoke nonmaterial cultural expressions, such as storytelling, religion, music, cuisine, medicine and healing.
Half the rooms of the Manor House are still furnished exclusively with antiques. In other rooms, reproductions are used to simulate the original appearance of the interiors, to portray the quantity and variety of goods imported by Philipse, and to make those objects more immediate to guests, who are encouraged to look, listen – and touch.
The Upper Kitchen is still a place where early artifacts are displayed in a richly atmospheric setting worthy of Vermeer. Against whitewashed walls, pewter plates in graduated sizes fill a pewter cupboard; stoneware and redware line open shelves; and a sawbuck table supports a Bellarmine jug.
“We tried to subvert this from a traditional colonial kitchen to a place where we can talk about the worldwide trade connections and the slave labor that allowed the Dutch to have luxury foodstuffs,” says Johnson, who acquired three rare Chinese chocolate cups and saucers from Yarmouth, Maine, dealers Arlene Palmer and William Schwind to complete the display. The cups, which duplicate examples listed on Philipse’s inventory, were salvaged from the Dutch ship Geldermasen, sunk in 1752.
“We wanted to give the real feeling of the rooms that we filled with reproduction objects – how raw, how bright, how heavy,” says the curator, who worked with a coterie of well-known craftsmen – including ceramist Michelle Erickson, basketmaker Jonathan Kline, broom maker David Proulx and furniture makers Rob Tarule and John Baron – to create exacting replicas ranging from cream pots and milk pans to a massive gumwood kas.
“Some slaves could read, so we have a little almanac. Here, as well as in our Slave Garden, we talk about African approaches to healing and medicine. From a European maker, we commissioned a fiddle of the sort that a slave might have played,” says the curator. A bed rug, a copy of a documentary example at Winterthur, is known to have been one of the few comforts supplied to Venture, an elderly African ultimately placed in adult care.
After Adolph’s death, some of the enslaved stayed with the Philipse family until the Revolution, when the family’s properties were confiscated because of their Loyalist stance. Two small children listed on the 1750 inventory turn up in early Nineteenth Century records as wards of the state, having been abandoned by subsequent owners.
Our evolving contract with the cultural institutions that serve us is well illustrated by the Philipsburg Manor Reinterpretation Project, which is already being hailed by the National Endowment for the Humanities and others as a model for historic house museums.
“We’ve moved away from ‘It’s Chippendale. It’s New York. It’s 1760,'” says Johnson. “Though we identify objects and talk about how people used them, it’s themes we focus on. We want people to get excited about the larger issues here – slavery, commerce and cultural pluralism.”
She adds, “The people made us do it.”
Open daily, except Tuesday, Philipsburg Manor is on Route 9 in the village of Sleepy Hollow. For information, 914-631-8200 or
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