Will The Bowne House Become
|The Bowne house, the birthplace of
religious freedom in America, is now, through age and neglect, closer than ever to
Tribune Photos By Jeremy Olshan
By JEREMY OLSHAN
In 17th century Queens, real estate was easier to come by than real
Having carefully surveyed the topography and the geology of the
land, in 1661 a Flushing man chose the site on which he would later lay the foundation for
the Bill of Rights. He also built a house.
Over 300 years later, the freedom is taken for granted, and the man
is nearly forgotten.
What survives is the Bowne House, the oldest standing structure in
Queens. But in the eyes of many local historians, the wooden house that once symbolized
the triumphant struggle for religious freedom, now symbolizes the thankless struggle of
John Bownes battle with Peter Stuyvesant for the rights of
following generations to worship as they pleased is an important chapter in our
nations history. Bowne defied Stuyvesants edict prohibiting any religious
observances other than those sanctioned by the Dutch Reformed Church. Two Quakers
preaching in the street were arrested and exiled to Rhode Island, according to one
historical account. Other Quakers were arrested on similar charges.
Bowne, though not a Quaker, allowed a group of Quakers to worship in
his house in support of the Flushing Remonstrance, a document signed in 1657 by the people
of Flushing recognizing peoples rights to freedom of religion.
As a result, he was arrested and deported.
Fortunately, the Dutch government was sympathetic to his cause and
upheld the Flushing Remonstrance. It is, to this day, considered the precursor to
Americas Declaration of Independence.
The Bowne House, the site of historic events that helped spur
religious freedom in America, has seen better days.
After John, nine subsequent generations of Bownes lived at the
house. Stocked with original furnishings, the house provides a tour through the Bowne
familys presence in Queens - and on its streets. As you walk from room to room, you
can see how the house took shape and changed over the years. In some ways more welcoming
than an ordinary museum, the house seems to invite the visitor to sit down for a colonial
But what remains a vibrant presence in our history books, is barely
even a footnote in the collective consciousness of the community.
Some historians fear that the boroughs most important historic
site, a "shrine to religious freedom in America," has lost its relevance to the
Much of the blame is placed on the management of the house, the
Bowne House Historical Society. Last year, the boards inability to raise the
necessary funds to maintain and promote the house, as well as their inability to agree on
the financial direction which to take the landmark site, prompted Borough Pres. Claire
Shulman to intervene.
Four board members resigned, and the conflicts were said to have
been resolved. But for Queens historian Jeffrey Kroessler the problems facing the house
come less out of mismanagement of finances than they do from mismanagement of philosophy.
"In 1957, hundreds of people came to the Bowne House from all
over the country to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Flushing Remonstrance,"
said Kroessler. "Now it is hardly ever open."
Currently the house is open for two hours, three days a week,
offering guided tours which concentrate more on everyday life in the 17th century than on
the dramatic events which unfolded in the 17th century living room.
"For too long the focus has been on quaint old colonial New
York, instead of the much greater message that this house has to symbolize," said
Kroessler. "The integrity of the collection of artifacts may have been compromised,
but none of that matters unless we connect it to the story of religious freedom."
The Bowne House, perhaps the most important stop along the
"Flushing Freedom Mile," is in much poorer condition than its counterparts. Jo
Ann Jones, who was in large part responsible for transforming the dilapidated Flushing
Town Hall into the neighborhoods premiere cultural and community meeting place, says
that proper management makes all of the difference.
"The Bowne House needs better leadership," she said.
"In order to be successful, there has to be a concerted effort on the part of the
director and the board."
In a borough of "best kept secrets" the members of the
Bowne House Board invoke the phrase like a mantra. And while secrecy maintains the
houses integrity and protects the house from commercial ventures, it can potentially
become the downfall of historic preservation. According to Queens historian Dan Donahue,
this is the principal problem facing all historic preservation.
"Any non-profit organization has to determine what makes it
relevant," said Donahue. "Without making it relevant to the modern day, they are
in danger of losing their constituency. [The current tour of the Bowne House] is like
visiting Gettysburg and not learning about the battle."
Donahue contends that there are many private organizations that
would be interested in investing in a shrine to religious freedom. "Perhaps Quaker
Oats would be interested in supporting the Bowne House," joked Donahue.
Byron Saunders, executive director of the Queens Historical Society,
contends that one shouldnt be too quick to laugh at suggestions like the
"Quaker Oats Bowne House."
|From The Flushing Remonstrance
"And because our Savior saith it is impossible but that
offenses will come, but woe unto him by which they cometh, our desire is not to offend one
of his little ones in whatsoever form, name or title ...."
From "The Epic of New York City," by Edward Robb Ellis.
"The intentions of the board have been honorable and
good," said Saunders. "But that doesnt always translate into fiscal
responsibility. We live in New York City, the money capital of our country. It is
inconceivable to consider that we cannot find enough capital to preserve a city, state,
and federal historic landmark."
At the moment, the Bowne House Historical Society depends primarily
on its own funding. A request was made to the state government in 1996 for $100,000, but
it was turned down.
"We did not have the ability to do the necessary lobbying, and
we do not have the time to do the necessary grant writing," said a spokesperson for
At the end of last year, the board made a second request to the
state, and is currently awaiting a response.
Saunders, describing the board as a "social tea group,"
believes that they will need professional guidance if they are going to succeed. But it is
the communitys responsibility to make sure that it does not come to that.
"When it comes to non-profits, people do not think of buy-outs
or hostile takeovers," said Saunders. "But this may be just what needs to
One problem is that, unlike Flushing Town Hall, the Bowne
Houses preservation cannot be subsidized by exhibitions and jazz concerts. What all
of the historians agreed upon was that the Bowne House needs to be maintained as a museum
of religious freedom.
While this is a much more abstract concept to display than artifacts
from the 17th century are, historians believe that with some creative planning the house
could become a national attraction.
They also agree that without this creative planning and fundraising
"Queens crown jewel," as one historian described the Bowne House, is in
danger of being lost.