Exhibitions: Decorative Arts Galleries and Period Rooms: Jan Martense Schenck House: Changes Over Time

Jan Martense Schenck House, after 1891.
Jan Martense Schenck House, after 1891, with porch and dormers added by about 1825.

During the 275 years that the house stood in its original location, it underwent many changes to accommodate the needs and tastes of new generations. The Museum's curators might have chosen to exhibit and interpret the house to any point in its long history, but for didactic purposes the curators wanted to show an early Dutch colonial house. This necessitated stripping away later additions and changes to rediscover the original two-room structure. The present reconstruction is based on careful analysis of surviving original elements and other surviving Dutch colonial houses. About 1730, when Martin Schenck, Jan's eldest son, owned the house, it underwent several changes to accommodate his growing family. For a long period after about 1730, the two-room core of the house changed very little, and therefore the curators chose this moment in the early eighteenth century in which to interpret the house.

The curators' decision to strip away later additions, such as the kitchen wing and porch, was driven by the desire to add an early Dutch colonial house to the series of existing period rooms, thereby chronologically pushing back the survey of American interiors. Of course, many conjectural decisions were made, such as the precise locations of the exterior doors and the size and locations of the windows. On the interior, the location of the staircase to the loft and the form of the large open hearths and built-in bed box also involved conjecture, but were based on historical precedent.

In the original Museum installation, there were two bed boxes on the exterior wall of the north room. When the house was moved to its present location in 2006, it was decided that if the house did have a bed box that it more logically was on an interior wall next to the hearth as you now see it.

Jan Martense Schenck House, North Room, as installed in 1964.
Jan Martense Schenck House, North Room, as installed in 1964.

None of the original Dutch colonial furniture owned by the Schencks is known to have survived. The curators have assembled the interior-decorating scheme utilizing objects from the collection to typify an interior of a prosperous family of Dutch descent living in colonial English Flatlands. There are, therefore, both Dutch and English objects and furniture.

The curators use many clues to assemble an accurate interior. Wills and inventories of possessions of families of a similar economic level inform us about what might be found in a similar household. Period paintings help answer questions concerning the disposition of furniture about the room, possible color schemes, and the sort of textiles that might have been used. Through paintings, for example, we learn that mid-Eastern carpets were too valuable to place on the floor but rather were displayed on table tops and then in turn covered with white linen cloths during meals.

For many years the house was painted gray. Recent analysis of the exterior paint layers on the original clapboard surviving in the corner at the short end of the building revealed that the house was originally white and then red. Since the interior of the house is interpreted to the first decades of the eighteenth century, we decided that the house might have received its second coat of paint, the red layer, by that time.