History of Lefferts Historic House
Lefferts Historic House is an 18th-century farmhouse that features a working garden, historic artifacts, period rooms and exhibits. The museum focuses on the lives of the people that lived and worked on the land, including the Lenape, Dutch settlers and enslaved Africans. Through hands-on experiences, cultural performances and imaginative play, visitors learn about the rich history of Brooklyn and also gather to celebrate the diversity of our community today.
Prospect Park Alliance and the Historic House Trust of New York City jointly operate and preserve this important piece of New York City’s past. One of only a few remaining farmhouses from the Village of Flatbush, and a New York City Landmark, Lefferts Historic House provides the public with a connection to Brooklyn’s rural past.
Beginning with Lefferts family member Pieterse van Hagewout, five generations resided in the Lefferts home and farm. One can trace the Lefferts’ wealth to the labor of enslaved African people and servants that enabled the family to live a comfortable and profitable existence in the town of Flatbush. Enslaved Africans worked the lands that comprised the Lefferts family farm to produce staple crops starting in the late 1600s.
The original home burned down in August 1776 when American riflemen used it as a shield from the approaching British Army. The experiences of the Dutch, enslaved Africans and Lenape before and during the war are recounted in The Social History of Flatbush, a book written by Gertrude Lefferts Vanderbilt. This book includes stories of an enslaved African woman named Dian, who devised and executed plans to protect the family’s resources against attack from the British soldiers. The family also was protected by a Native American named Betty, the wife of the Sachem (leader) of the Lenape, who warned them of the approach of fighting armies.
Due to the hardships of war, Lefferts Historic House was not rebuilt until the war ended in 1783. Skilled and unskilled hired laborers and enslaved Africans constructed the house using timbers and nails salvaged from the original structure, as well as other homes destroyed during the war. Although subsequent generations made many changes and additions to the house, the original floor plan and timber frame remain unaltered.
Although it is not known for certain how many enslaved Africans lived at Lefferts Historic House, the 1800 census showed twelve enslaved African residents in the household. This is a high number for a single family farm. By some estimates, one third of the people living in what is now Brooklyn in the early 19th century were enslaved.
In 1824, the Lefferts family began to free enslaved Africans, and after the abolition of slavery in New York State in 1827, most of the Lefferts farmland was rented to tenant farmers who grew vegetables for the New York City market. Tenants continued to cultivate the land until the Lefferts family sold it to developers at the end of the 1800s. Originally located four blocks south of its current location in Prospect Park at 563 Flatbush Avenue near Maple Street, the house was moved to the park after its presentation to the City in 1917.
Prospect Park Alliance is restoring Lefferts Historic House through $2.5 million in funding from former Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and the Brooklyn Delegation of the New York City Council. The restoration will enable the Alliance to replace the roof, restore the exterior of the building, and repair paths and drainage surrounding the house. In conjunction with the restoration, the Alliance will re-envision the programming and mission of the museum, rethinking the purpose of a historic house museum, and how it can shed light on the experiences of our ancestors, but also serve as a community hub and a space for dialogue in today’s Brooklyn.
Learn more about Brooklyn’s anti-slavery movement from the end of the American Revolution to the early days of Reconstruction via the Center for Brooklyn History’s online exhibition, In Pursuit of Freedom.