A colonial-era house made out of local stones and homemade mortar might be an anomaly in the Bronx, but this very house lies in its Norwood neighborhood. The Valentine-Varian house, built in 1758, is the second-oldest house in the Bronx and a beautiful example of a pre-Revolutionary War farmhouse. Currently the site of the Museum of Bronx History, the story behind the Valentine-Varian House can be traced back to a time when New York was called New Amsterdam.
The acreage upon which the house stands was owned by the Dutch Reformed Church, who called the land the Manor of Fordham. The land was later sold when the Church encountered financial difficulties brought on by lawsuits and a depletion of timber resources. Developers turned the real estate into plots for farming, and Isaac Valentine, a wealthy blacksmith, purchased the property for £934. The house most likely started out as a one-room edifice with structures added over time. Isaac moved in with his wife and their five children were born in the house.
Isaac strategically located his house on Boston Post Road, which today is Van Cortlandt Avenue East. Boston Post Road at the time was heavily used as a transportation artery for mail and farmers bringing cattle and produce into Manhattan. Isaac had access to travelers who would relay news, and he was able to expand his blacksmithing business in a rural area.
During the Revolutionary War, the farm was often the site of military skirmishes. Forced to choose between fleeing the area or remaining on the property, which was later occupied by British forces, the Valentines opted to stay and defend their property from plunder and destruction; leaving would have most certainly guaranteed financial ruin. After the War ended, Isaac continued to have a hard time paying his debts in a depressed economy. Sadly, his land was put up for auction. No buyers surfaced until Isaac Varian paid £1,550 for its 500 acres of land, including the farmhouse.
The building of the New York and Harlem Railroads greatly increased the number of residents in the area. Part of the original estate was developed into the Jerome Park Racetrack; the property north of the farm became Woodlawn Cemetery. The City of New York also purchased some land to create the Williamsbridge Reservoir Oval. The rest of the property remained in the Varian family until 1905, when it was sold to Alfred E. Hanson for $260,000. Hanson, in turn, sold the property to Mosholu Parkway Realty Company, who was interested in developing the property into individual home lots. The Valentine-Varian House was in danger.
Recognizing the importance of historic preservation, a man named William Frank Beller purchased the farmhouse in 1905 for $4,000. Beller died in 1936 and left the estate to his son, William. During a number of legal disputes between Beller, real estate developers, and the Daughters of the American Revolution, who were interested in its maintenance as a historic landmark, the house remained empty and was frequently vandalized. After matters were resolved, the Valentine-Varian House was moved to its present location on July 1st, 1965. William Beller filmed the moving and a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of the Bronx Historical Society followed in 1968.
The house is built in the Georgian Vernacular style and comprises two rooms, both with fireplaces, and separated by a central hallway that provided relief during humid summers. The exterior’s stones are originally from fields surrounding the house. The wood-plank floors were cut from oak and pine trees on the site and the nails were hand-forged, possibly by Isaac Valentine himself. Structures were also in place for livestock and crop storage. Fields were designated for grazing cattle and crops such as corn and tobacco. The farmhouse was situated on a gently sloping hill by the side of a curving road that led travelers from Boston to New York.
The Valentine-Varian House is a unique structure that has weathered many changes through the history of the Bronx from an agrarian land to a heavily urbanized borough. Visitors to this site will be delighted by the charm and simplicity of a homestead that started its life in an age that would be unrecognizable to most Bronx residents today.