Greenpoint’s Last Colonial Building: The Duryea House
The Duryea House, a 240-year-old Greenpoint landmark, was sadly destroyed in the days before New York awakened to its own history. The original colonial structure stood on the banks of Newtown Creek until 1921, before it was demolished, an unpardonable offense to local history. No building in local history survived for as long as this piece of early colonial history.
The farmhouse at 418 Meeker Ave was built about 1681; the lower part was constructed of stone with defensive features that allowed the residents to shoot at their Native American enemies who were still a feared presence locally at the time of its construction.
Humphrey Clay, for whom some believe our Clay street is named, operated a ferry across Newtown Creek near the building as early as 1670 and Clay probably erected the Duryea house. In later times a primitive bridge crossed the creek and after 1812, the Newtown and Bushwick Road Company, which was incorporated in 1814, built a bridge on piles. In 1836 the Newtown Road Company Bridge and Turnpike Company was incorporated and built a toll upon stone piers and constructed a shell road through Bushwick. This road was once known as the North Road, but now is Meeker Avenue. The charge to cross the bridge was a penny, hence it was dubbed “The Penny Bridge.”
Its front door, facing the Penny Bridge had apparently always been there, but in the early days, the house had no stoop. The residents, fearing native attack, came up to the front door via a ladder that could be pulled up in case of attack. After the threat of attack subsided, a stoop was added. The house, which was designed more for protection than for comfort, had a frontage of about 40 feet and a depth of 28 feet; the rafters were of live oak timber hewn with an axe. The floor consisted of 24-inch wide boards. The shingles also were of live oak. Pegs of the same wood and some handmade iron nails were used in building the house. The outer walls were 40 inches thick and the windowsills were in later times used by the tenants in place of tables and desks. There were half doors front and back that could prevent farm animals from entering the abode.
The ground floor was divided by a thick wall into two equal parts, another defensive feature. The front part consisted of one large room. Three portholes for shotguns and cannon penetrated the outer wall. They were V-shaped thus enabling the occupants to aim straight ahead as well as right and left. If the front wall had been knocked down, the inner wall, almost as thick as the outer one, would still have supported the house and the occupants could have retreated to the other half of the ground floor. Here the same number of portholes in the inner wall would have enabled them to fire guns in defense of the house. In the rear, a central stairway led to the upper floor and a room on either side. The southeast room was the ammunition magazine. The upper floor consisted of a hall and four rooms, two on either side of the hall, a staircase led to the attic where there was a narrow hall and four rooms, two on either side. In one of these rooms there was a ghastly feature, an iron ring fastened into the wall to which unruly slaves and other prisoners were chained. The house’s original inhabitants were slaveholders and slavery lasted locally until 1827. Joost Durie acquired the property in 1749 and it remained in the Duryea family until 1828, but people still called it the Duryea house long after the family left.
The street trolley which crossed the Penny Bridge, visible in the background.
At the turn of the 20th century, local houses were often renovated by companies who turned around and rented them to their employees. One of those companies was America’s largest firm, Standard Oil of New York, which had a huge presence locally. Standard renovated the property circa 1910, renting it to the great-grandfather of local author Peter McHale, who was a Boilermaker for Standard Oil. While researching his novel Greenpoint Doughboy, McHale found an article about the house and his great-grandparents in a 1901 New York Herald article. McHale’s novel tells the tale of how his great-granduncle who lived in the house volunteered to fight in France and was killed in World War I. The dead soldier’s body was brought back from France and interred in Calvary cemetery in sight of the old Dutch farmhouse.
The original bridge across the creek burned in an oil refinery fire and was replaced by the steel Meeker Avenue Bridge. The house, which was located right at the base of the original Meeker Avenue Bridge, at some point became known as the “Pivot House” because the person who lived in the house must have had the job of “pivoting” the bridge to allow boat traffic to pass. The original Meeker Bridge pivoted at the center and was positioned parallel to the creek when boat traffic passed through. Handlers on either embankment had to pull ropes to get the bridge into position.
The Duryea House amazingly survived until 1921, but its condition had become worse as time wore on. To make it inhabitable again would have caused an expenditure of $1500, a huge sum at the time and the owners sadly decided to tear it down. Few people at the time had much of a sense of local history and the ancient house was sadly demolished. Now We only have a photograph of the ancient building to imagine what life was like for the first Greenpointers centuries ago.