“Want to come see my cemetery?”
That was all the invitation Marion Duckworth Smith needed to accompany her date to his historic home in East Elmsworth, Queens, New York, near LaGuardia airport in the fall of 1979. The fact that the house dates back to times before airplanes, heck before the United States was even a country, had something to do with Marion throwing caution to the wind and accompanying her date Micheal to tour his old house and cemetery in the backyard.
As a kindred spirit of Marion, I too would have shoved aside all thoughts that I might be dating a serial killer and hopped in his car and said “let’s go see your house!” After having visited the house (and the attached cemetery), my first words would be: “Let’s get married!”
You see this isn’t just any old house. The Lent-Riker Homestead dates back to 1654. Yes, you read that right. Not only does the house pre-date the Revolutionary War, it goes back to the time before the New England witch trials, just after the time of the Pilgrims! Back when what we now know as New York City was freshly settled by Dutch farmers who named the settlement “New Amsterdam”.
Historians have verified that the house was built between 1654-1656 by a Dutchman named Abraham Riker (also known as Abraham Rycken Van Lent). The dining room and the kitchen are the original part of the building. The second story and additional rooms are “newer” – they were added in the year 1729.
And here’s the kicker: the owner claims that the house is the “oldest inhabited private dwelling in the city” and, in fact, the country. Now I have not done the research to verify this statement so if anyone can confirm this claim (or debunk it) I’d love to hear from you!
After Micheal Smith wooed Marion Duckworth with his home and love, she became his wife in 1983 and moved into the Lent-Riker Homestead. It had been in the same family for centuries – the Rikers (namesake for the infamous Rikers Island) and the Lents owned it until it was rented to Mr. Smith in 1966.
After the last of the Rikers passed away, Michael Smith was able to purchase the home from the estate. Once Marion entered the pictured, she set about restoring the home and making it hers. Luckily she had an understanding husband who let her take charge.
Have a look inside…
I read about this home in a fabulous article on Curbed New York and was thrilled to pieces for Marion and what she had done with the house. Then I read the comments. (The comment section is always a boon for humanity). Lots of folks had plenty of criticism about the way the home was decorated and how the exterior was not true to the age of the home.
Usually, I side with the purists when it comes to old house restoration, but their harsh comments really upset me. I LOVE the way Marion Duckworth Smith has decorated and maintained her home and garden (and cemetery).
In fact, if she were to want to pass the house on to hands who would keep things exactly as she had them – I’d volunteer wholeheartedly for the job! It’s so dang quirky and amusing and creepy and sweet all at the same time. I am absolutely smitten.
I too would have fallen head over heals in love with the home, and by extension, the guy who came with it.
Marion, now 75, has decorated the house with the most adorable and breath-taking finds. She is a collector of “everything” but is partial to creepy vintage dolls and puppets.
Sure there are lots of antiques, some even appropriate the the era of the home, but it is the kitschy sense of decor that sets this house apart from others of its age.
Part museum, part fun house, this is one house I would go out of my way to be able to poke around inside.
The exterior is equally as fun. Covered in ivy – oh look – there’s a tree on the roof!
That is, in fact, a tree growing out of the roof. Just part of the unorthodox charm of the place.
Marion has transformed the backyard over the years into a English garden-like sanctuary.
There is even a cute little gingerbread shed that Marion had built for her gardener.
The cemetery (off to one side of the 1 acre lot) has its own intrigue.
[Fun fact: cemeteries and graveyards are 2 different things. A graveyard refers to a burial ground which adjoins a church. A cemetery is is a plot that could be anywhere and is not associated with a church.] The Lent-Riker cemetery contains 132 marked graves, many dating back to the 1700’s.
As was customary back then, the family cemetery was plotted out back of the Dutch homestead.
By the grace of God, the graves remain all these centuries later, even though there is a large commercial building right on the other side of that fence.
Kudos to the Smiths for being such wonderful long-time caretakers of this precious and precarious piece of history. Surrounded by busy highways, parking lots and industrial buildings, the Lent-Riker Homestead is truly one of those homestead holdouts that has only withstood the forces of “progress” due to a couple of history loving citizens.
Sadly, Michael Smith passed away in 2010 but Marion has been contentedly keeping house by herself for the past five years and has no plans to leave any time soon. She gives occasional tours to help off-set the cost of keeping the house going and she is seeking non-profit status for the historically designated home.
If, 10-20 years from now, Ms. Duckworth Smith decides it is time for her to leave this home, House Crazy Sarah would be delighted to step in and become the new eccentric lady of the house.
Marion – call me!
Oh, and as for Mr. Smith…. he is buried in the backyard.