The beige paint is peeling and the roof is covered with a blue plastic tarp, but the historic Bowne House is set for better days with the announcement on Friday of restoration work to begin next year.
Closed since 2000 for restoration work which eventually proved to be too expensive, the house has been shuttered ever since. A major fundraising drive led by Bowne House Historical Society President Rosemary Vietor has garnered $700,000.
Bowne House Executive Director Donna Cartelli said the project would cost $2.1 million with the additional funding coming from the government.
Also announced on Friday was the creation of a visitors center to be located in the current garage. The building will be expanded to provide staff offices, display space, a lecture area and exhibit space. Vietor said it would be particularly useful for school classes to visit and learn the history of the Bowne House before it actually reopens in 2-1/2 to three years.
Because the interior of the circa 1661 house is small, the visitors center will continue to serve larger groups and can have changing exhibits after the house reopens.
Cost of the visitors center has been estimated at $600,000 and funding has been provided by Borough President Helen Marshall. Work will begin shortly and is expected to be completed next year.
Cartelli noted that the existing garage will be expanded and upgraded, doubling its size. “It will also be a green building, which may make it the only historic green building in the city,” she said.
The house, located at 37-01 Bowne St., was built by farmer John Bowne and expanded through 1695. It is the oldest dwelling in Queens and the second oldest in the city. Part of its uniqueness lies in the fact that nine generations of Bownes occupied the house, keeping the furniture and artifacts intact.
It was purchased by the Bowne House Historical Society in 1947 and was open on a regular basis for tours until 2000.
The fact that the house survived while the rest of Flushing was building high-rise apartment buildings around it is also a testament to the legacy Bowne left. His home is considered the birthplace of religious freedom in the United States.
Although not a Quaker, he allowed members to meet at his home, which was against Gov. Peter Stuyvesant’s ruling. Eventually, Bowne was thrown in jail and later deported to Europe.
Bowne was gone two years, leaving his Quaker wife, Hannah, to run the farm. He went to the Netherlands and fought his case for religious tolerance before the Dutch West India Company and won. He returned to New Amsterdam where Stuyvesant was ordered to allow people of all faiths to worship freely.
Bowne later gave land and helped build the Friends Meeting House, near his home, on Northern Boulevard. It is still in operation.
Dean Failey, a member of the society’s Museum Advisory Committee and senior director of American furniture at Christie’s auction house, spoke about the wealth of history inside the Bowne House. “It’s a precious time capsule and reflects the economic conditions of the times, taste and style.”
He called the Anglo-Dutch architecture the best example of its type in the country. “The survival of the house and (family) ownership provides a rare opportunity to show the remarkable history of a family,” he said.
Failey described Flushing in the early days as a constantly evolving world of opportunity, with 18 foreign languages spoken in New Amsterdam. “Flushing was the perfect place for persecuted people such as the Quakers and the Bownes were in the epicenter,” he added. “What a treasure we have in this house.”
Councilman John Liu, who has helped the Bowne House secure funding, noted that Flushing is not much different than it was in the 17th century as a home for new immigrants.
Vietor also announced a panel discussion sponsored by the society on “The Flushing Remonstrance and John Bowne,” on Sept. 25 at 6 p.m. at the Quaker Meeting House, 137-16 Northern Blvd. The 350-year-old Remonstrance was signed in Flushing and is considered the first document proclaiming religious freedom in the United States. The signers protested Stuyvesant’s ban on Quaker meetings.
Although Bowne was not one of the signers of the Flushing Remonstrance, it was five years later that he was deported and fought for those same religious rights.