It is her magnum opus and for one day this week, Marion Duckworth Smith is opening her 1654 landmark home in Jackson Heights to the community.
Located at 78 03 19th Road, the Lent Homestead is believed to be the oldest dwelling in the city still used as a private residence. Proceeds from the open house tour will go to the Queens Historical Society.
A professional photographer and author, Smith and her husband, Michael, a publisher, have restored the home and grounds over the last 26 years. “This is my body of work,” she said, pointing to the house from the gazebo the couple had built for their 10th wedding anniversary in 1993. “This is my crowning glory.”
Admitting she’s a romantic, Smith relates the story of how she fell in love with the house, which sounds more like a Stephen King novel than a romance page turner. As she relates the story, her first encounter with the then neglected house was on the second date with her future husband in 1979. He asked if she wanted to see his cemetery.
Intrigued, she visited the property that Michael Smith had bought in 1975 and it was love at first sight. The cemetery—located at the site—is the last resting place for 132 members of the Riker family.
Her future husband had been a tenant in the house in 1966 and eventually bought it. But at the time of their courtship, Smith did not live there and the house was virtually abandoned.
“It was considered a haunted house in the neighborhood and had been vandalized,” Marion Smith said. “I walked into the hallway and instantly knew this house needed my care and it needed to be restored in our lifetime.”
For three years before they wed, the couple worked on the house. They uncovered the original doorway trim in the oldest part of the house and remnants of a 1950s fire that damaged the kitchen and the original dining room.
Marion Smith decided to leave the charred beams in the dining room but found that the original floor had been replaced with inappropriate oak strips. The couple was able to locate pine boards from an old barn in upstate New York, which were relocated to the damaged room.
“It looks so much like the other wide planked flooring in the hall and parlor,” she said, noting that she found the pristine but dirty original parlor floor by removing wall to wall gold shag carpeting.
The parlor, library and upstairs rooms were added between 1729 and 1810. Smith said one of her best days was uncovering the woodwork on the staircase. It had been painted black.
The house was built by Abraham Lent, grandson of Abraham Riker. The Riker family had obtained a land grant of 120 acres from New Netherlands Governor Peter Stuyvesant. The property originally extended to LaGuardia Airport and included 12 farmhouses. The family used nearby Rikers Island as farmland.
The Lent Homestead tour will be held on Sunday, Sept. 17 at 3 p.m. Tickets are available at the door for $20. For information, call the Queens Historical Society at (718) 939 0647, ext. 17. Smith will also autograph her book, “The Romantic Garden,” on sale during the open house.