historical westchester

Westchester’s history can be traced all the way back to the 16th century, when explorers from Europe and England began scouting the region. The county itself was established in 1683. Needless to say, Westchester is full of historic gems. Here are a few worth discovering for yourself.

Wartburg
1 Wartburg Place, Mt. Vernon, NY; 855.927.8287; Wartburg.org

As the Civil War came to a close. Reverend William Passavant, a Pennsylvanian Minister who was substituting at a Lutheran parish in Buchanan, was struck by the number of homeless children he saw on the streets of New York. He wanted to do something to help them, but the Lutheran church, at that time, lacked a facility to house them.

So he established an orphanage in nearby Mount Vernon, which “was still convenient enough to get to the city, but in 1865, it was absolutely the country, and night and day different from NYC,” says Kathleen Craughwell-Varda, a museum consultant who worked with Wartburg to curate its archives.

A working farm when purchased, Wartburg began as a home for six orphans in 1866. The children were divided into age groups, each with its own building and house parent. Unlike most orphanages, the Wartburg Orphans’ Farm School wasn’t looking to place these children with families. Wartburg was the family.

“Wartburg actually adopted these children into the institution,” says Craughwell-Varda. “They didn’t want the children going to a home. Maybe it wouldn’t work, [and they’d have to come] back to Wartburg.” In fact, a number of children never left Wartburg; they remained and were employed as teachers and house parents.

In the late 1890s, Wartburg’s director Reverend Gottlieb Berkemeier noted that, in the day’s more transient society, older folks were increasingly without a place to go or family to care for them. The Mary Louise Heins building was erected in 1897 to house the aged. Some of the orphans returned years later to live in Wartburg’s senior housing. Today, Wartburg is a full-fledged continuing care community.

Wartburg now has a walking tour of the campus. Visitors, staff, and residents can “stop and read about the history, learn about the different buildings and the events and people [that] had an impact on Wartburg,” Craughwell-Varda says.

 

The Rosen House at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts
Tours and Teas at the Rosen House, Summer Jazz Festival; 149 Girdle Ridge Rd., Katonah, NY; 914.232.1252; Caramoor.org

Walter Rosen was an international banker and avid art collector: his wife Lucie, a musician and socialite. In 1928, they purchased Caramoor estate in Katonah, where they would spend their weekends and summers.

The more than 100-acre estate’s beautiful gardens stole the Rosens’ hearts. They were less thrilled with the arts and crafts house on the property, in disrepair after years of neglect. In its place, they planned to build a grand palazzo modeled after those they so loved in Italy, as well as a farm complex at the other end of the property.

With the 1929 stock market crash. “Walter was worried about the financial situation. Many of their friends had lost everything, so they [didn’t think] it was appropriate to build this ostentatious house,” says Merceds Santos-Miller, director of the Rosen House. Instead, they converted the farm buildings (the Burgundian library was originally the barn for three cows) into their residence, now known as the Rosen House.

“They loved to entertain,” says Santos-Miller. “They used to have lots of parties here at Caramoor, lots of soirées and music.” They filled the house with Walter’s collection: 18th century hand-painted wallpaper from China, a chair from the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, and Pope Urban VIII’s bed.

Following the tragic death of their son in 1944, the Rosens officially declared that, upon their deaths, Caramoor would become a center for music and the arts.

 

The Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow
430 Broadway, Sleepy Hollow, NY; 914-631-4497; Find info on self-guided tours at VisitSleepyHollow.com

Washington Irving used the Old Dutch Church as the setting for his tale, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. That short story, featuring school teacher Ichabod Crane and his tormentor, the headless horseman, “put this church on the map,” says Reverend Jeffrey Gargano, who has served as the church’s pastor since 2009.

Frederick Philipse, a Dutch merchant who immigrated to America and combined his fortune with his first wife – a wealthy widow – had the church built to look almost exactly like the one he’d attended in the Netherlands. While an exact date is unknown, most historians believe it was constructed in 1685. “The reason we think that – is that in the belfry [there] is a bell that was forged in the Netherlands in 1685, and no self-respecting Dutchman would forge a bell if they didn’t have a place to hang it,” says Rev. Gargano.

It’s the oldest surviving church in New York, and the Old Dutch Burial Ground that surrounds it is thought to be even older. The church receives an estimated 20,000 to 35,000 visitors annually, with most attending around Halloween.

With so many historically rich places to visit in Westchester, you can certainly fill some summer days exploring, learning and viewing our county through a different lens.

Tiffany R. Jansen

Tiffany R. Jansen is a Harrison-based freelance writer and journalist. She's written for TheAtlantic.com, Saveur.com, and SELF.com, among others. She loves the Oxford comma and stroopwaffels, though not necessarily in that order.

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