Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site in Yonkers, New York
When New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation allocated Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site capital funding ($20 million) for the renovation of its buildings, grounds, and a new permanent exhibition, the goal was to secure the structure and reinterpret the Manor's history to help visitors better understand the complex relationships that took place at the Manor from its construction during the Dutch Colonial period to the American Revolution, and beyond.
The Philipse Manor Hall project is part of New York States’ Our Whole History initiative that seeks to bring equal presence to all of the peoples involved in building New York. Built in the 1750s, Philipse Manor Hall was the property of four generations of the Philipse family, one of the wealthiest families in colonial New York. While past exhibitions and lectures documented the role that African and Indigenous peoples contributed to New York State history, the new permanent exhibition and the Virtual Wing website connect the Philipse family history at this site to the worldwide events that resonated at the confluence of cultures in Colonial New York, Westchester County, and at the Philipse Manor - Munsee Lunaape, European, and African.
“The Our Whole History initiative was part of the State of the State Program in 2021,” said Lavada Nahon, Interpreter of African American History for the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and project lead. “I’ve been involved with the Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site Project from the beginning… from the conception of the new museum interior, the storyline, exhibitions, to the finished product.”
The Manor reopened in November 2022, and the number of visitors is expected to double from 15,000 to 30,000 by the end of 2023.
Interpreter of African American History for the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and project lead Lavada Nahon with New York State Governor Kathy Hochul during the site’s reopening on November 16, 2022
Access and a More Inclusive Visitor Experience
Renovation work included electrical upgrades, restoration of the interior plaster, woodwork, and floors, exterior masonry, wood shingle replacement, and major landscape improvements. In addition to the historic preservation work, the building and grounds were also updated to improve accessibility including a two-story addition at the rear of the building for new restrooms and an elevator. Exhibitions were designed to meet the needs of multilingual speakers, people who are hard of hearing, people with low vision, and visitors with wheelchairs and walkers.
“One of the major goals of this project was to make it fully ADA accessible,” said Nahon. “Yes, there are the traditional words on the walls, but you can also hear languages, smell, touch, feel… we’re inviting people to touch things. If we don’t want people to touch something it’s behind a case, but there aren’t many things behind cases.” Nahon was inspired by visits to other museums across the state. “Being in a state with some of the world’s premier museums I wanted to see what we could do at Philipse Manor. I looked at other museum websites, at their virtual tools, and exhibitions.”
The new exhibitions tell the story of the Philipse family, the Indigenous people from whom the Philipse lands come from and with whom the family did business, and enslaved Africans from whose work and trade the Philipse family prospered during the pre-Revolutionary War era. These expanded permanent exhibitions tell the full story of a multicultural and international environment of the colonial period and share this complex history with visitors.
A look at the new permanent exhibition with interactive panels
QR codes and augmented reality are incorporated throughout the exhibition. “We want people to use their phones and experience this history differently. My goal for this site was not to invent anything new, but to bring the State up to common and current practices.” “There was no part of the site that was not touched. It was a digital dead zone in the middle of a major urban center.” The QR codes on exhibition panels give greater context, linking back to the museum’s Virtual Wing. “The exhibition is information dense,” said Nahon. “Which means it is open for people to return to again and again. Information is shared through multiple learning levels and styles, from traditional exhibition panels to AR experiences. We want people to visit with the openness to learn.”
From the initial renovation plans for the physical building, Nahon pitched the creation of a virtual wing as a place for additional content. “It’s a wing of the museum, an extension of it.” The website is devoted to additional historic and interpretive content including a 360-degree interactive virtual tour and material that links to the QR codes within the exhibition, blog, and educational resources.
“We have a website via the State like all other state historic sites, but this site is specifically for additional content,” said Nahon. “Its purpose is to support additional research because even as we were doing research for this site and its re-interpretation, Nick Dembowski [Executive Director at the Van Cortlandt House] was researching the Kingsbridge area and found sixteen more people enslaved by the Philipse family. Although it was too late in the development of the physical exhibition to include this new information on the panels, having the virtual wing allowed us an important place to include it.”
Historians have identified at least 115 named individuals who were enslaved by the Philipse family at their properties in Manhattan and Westchester. The Virtual Wing lists them all and recognizes that some will forever remain unnamed, but should not be forgotten. “One of the advantages of the Virtual Wing is that we can stay on the cutting edge of research and share it with the public. We can’t afford to print wall panels fast enough.” Research on New Netherland-has increased over the last few years providing much needed insight into primary documents. The Virtual Wing includes this ongoing research as well as documentation from Philips family members’ wills, probate inventories, and censuses. “It’s necessary for us to have a way to continue sharing new discoveries and to foster people’s research, and curiosity.” said Nahon. “If we were in the South, we’d be 5 to 10 books away from these primary documents. But for us, we are still heavily in the document phase.”
Homepage of Philipse Manor State Historic Site’s Virtual Wing at www.philipsemanorhall.com
An Accelerated Timeline
The original timeline for this project was 12 months; it was completed in 18. “Usually, a project of this scope is 3 to 5 years,” said Nahon. “We communicated on a constant basis across the entire team, capital and exhibit. Philipse Manor Hall is a very significant historic structure. Accommodating the exhibit vision and having it all go well meant that it was a complete team effort. The project included Erin Moroney, the Architectural Conservator; Patricia Kirshner, as the Capital Project manager; Saratoga Associates, the architects; and many other subcontractors, as well as the IT department, legal, contracts, etc.”
Inside Philipse Manor before and after renovations with the new permanent exhibition.
Lavada Nahon led the exhibits section and guided a large team that involved NYS Parks Division of Historic Preservation’s staff members, including Senior Curator Amanda Massie, Interpretive Programs Coordinator Kjirsten Gustavson, Historic Preservation Program Analysts Cordell Reaves and Mary Patton, and Director of Collections Travis Bowman; Parks regional staff members, including Regional Director Linda Cooper and the Regional Capital Team of Garrett Jobson, Kurt Kress, Patrick Kozakiewicz, Tom Murray, Daniel Lewis, and Alton Malcom; Philipse Manor Hall site staff members Charles Casimiro, Steve Oaks, and Michael Lord; Director of the Division for Historic Preservation Daniel McEneny; andSpecial Assistant Chloe Hanna. At the end of November 2022, the Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site Team was awarded a Special Service Award from New York State Parks, which recognizes extraordinary achievement and continuous outstanding service or acts of valor by Park staff.
“Erin [Moroney] and I met every morning to touch base before we jumped into our separate parts. What helped me a lot is that I came from having experience managing large projects. One of the things that I am always grateful for is that my baseline is theater. In theater you learn to work as a team and with a deadline because curtains are going to rise whether you’re ready or not and that means you have to be solution-driven. There were two cases that were going to be installed in two closets,” said Nahon. “But there were large electrical panels in both closets. We’d previously gotten clearance from our code person that it was okay, but then he retired and someone new came in and said we couldn’t install the cases as planned. That was it, the answer was no. I had to stop, take a breath, and look around at the space and figure out my options. How were we going to be flexible? So we just moved it; it was already on casters, so we moved it. It wasn’t the original design, but we needed a solution. Sometimes you have to compromise.”
The team also included a five-person advisory team; an exhibition development team from Amaze Design; digital components by Trivium Interactive; and fabrication by Split Rock Studios.
One of the main challenges that Nahon and her team faced centered on the lack of understanding of New Netherland/New York’s colonial history and the lack of knowledge about the Philipse family’s history across multiple generations, among the local community. “The narrative that had been shared at the site and adapted by many in Yonkers did not jibe with the truth,” said Nahon. “The fear was that bringing a more accurate story forward meant that we would vilify the family that is considered the founders of Yonkers.”
That concern is making it difficult to correct historic narratives across the country. “If we are not glorifying someone, then we are automatically vilifying them is a very prevalent fear being pushed. But we want to reexamine the choices people made and who did and did not benefit from them. To reexamine ‘truths’ and bring forward not just the shiny good bits. We are a country grappling with the fact that our nation is built on stolen lands and slavery. This information is challenging and being shared when other social challenges are being managed, so it makes for a difficult journey for many.”
This also meant that the design team needed to learn more about New Netherland/New York’s colonial history. The design team is based in Boston and had just completed a project for the Concord Museum. “They joined the Philipse Manor project and thought that it was the same colonial history that was happening in Massachusetts, but we’re not Massachusetts. We were colonized by the Dutch, not the British, and the Dutch operated very differently, and had a lasting impact. So, we had to help them understand the Dutch system first. We were fortunate that Michael Lord, a long respected Philipse scholar from the Upper Mill property was available. He is now the site manager.”
There are two major statewide projects for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation: the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution and the Commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Gradual Emancipation Act, which was the second piece of abolition legislation passed in New York in 1817. This act built upon the 1799 Gradual Manumission legislation by declaring that any African American born before July 4, 1799 would be freed on July 4, 1827. However, the first legislation stated that those born after July 4, 1799 would not be freed until the age of twenty-one years for both women and twenty-eight for men or July 4, 1827. Many enslaved would remain in bondage, reclassified as indentured servants until the 1840s. The commemoration exhibits will seek to clarify the mystifying process of granting freedom throughout the colonial period, culminating in statewide commemoration, hosted by individual historic venues of all kinds where people were enslaved.
“My overarching plan is to clear up this history surrounding freeing someone who had been enslaved,” said Nahon. Many New Netherland historians and scholars support the notion that those enslaved in New Netherland were treated like indentured servants. “But they weren’t. They were being owned by a people from a culture that did not previously have slaves. To create a new area of legislation within the Dutch legal system, they took the closest thing they had and started adapting laws and regulations based on indentured servitude, and that was their starting point. That doesn't mean that those enslaved were treated like indentured servants. This is where the Dutch laws and regulations around slavery began. This is where I want to start.”
Although still being drafted, planning is centered on creating a multi-level experience geared to helping people understand what it took to free an enslaved person, ending with commemoration ceremonies across the State on July 5, 2027. “There was a major movement within the Black community to not celebrate on July 4, 1827 for fear of reprisals. July 5th was purposefully selected. It will discuss what the Act did and did not do as well as honor those held in bondage and bring awareness to their contribution and sacrifices. Nahon’s plan is to track these changes across the different historic sites beginning with Crailo State Historic Site, one of the earliest houses in the Dutch period. “I do hope all colonial sites and historic societies will begin making their own plans, while I craft them for the state. This is an important anniversary, that goes hand in hand with Rev War 250, and the years following it in our state’s history. I am hoping the entire colonial historic community supports it.
“This is the time to honor the people who were manumitted and who were held in bondage. It’s also the time to help the public understand that a lot of what we are dealing with now as a nation started with the first people enslaved and when they were freed. Would they or would they not become full active citizens and Americans? Are their descendants now?”
Learn more about Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site and explore the museum’s Virtual Wing: https://www.philipsemanorhall.com/