Virtually hidden in the midst of industrial like outskirts, with huge auto-body car shops, wholesale warehouses, concrete factories and graffiti fences of Bushwick Brooklyn, sits one and a half acres of historical farmland. Though the land it stands on is much smaller than it was originally, The Onderdonk House, dates back to the early 1700’s an educational and serene reminder of the country’s influential history. One of the guardians who care for this property is Adam Brown.
Adam and his wife Chelsea have a relatively unique way of life and labor compared to the millions who live amongst them in New York City. Being a drummer in the band Pass Kontrol, Adam gets to live a life as a caretaker-by-day and musician-by-night, utilizing the practice space the band constructed in the attic.
Hoping to retain a bit of privacy, we were only shown the shoe-lined staircase that leads to their actual living quarters, but Adam and his wife were more than hospitable and excited to show us the history of their house, tell us stories, let us also sit in and photograph a practice session with the band. Through summer bonfires, movie nights, shows and more, Adam has brought with him, his artistically inclined friends and attracted the neighborhood by reviving the property. With an experience that is exceptionally like no other he has created a personal oasis within the sea thrashing surroundings of a five borough city.
Where are you from and how long have you been in New York City?
I was born in Evanston, Illinois just north of Chicago. I grew up partly in Illinois and partly in Michigan. I moved to New York in September of 2001 so I have been here a little over 10 years.
Before or after September 11?
Right after, I was actually supposed to fly here on the 12th and I already had an apartment rented and everything. So my flight was cancelled and I ended up hitching a ride and got here to New York on the 17th.
Tell us about the Onderdonk House, what’s the history behind it?
They reckon the house was built in 1709, there is a foundation of the earlier addition that is actually older than this house itself. They think it was built around 1640, so that’s how long people have been living on this land. Also most of the wood in the house has been re-done because it burned down once, so the stone frame is the only original part from 1709 and the rest of it was rebuilt in the 1970’s after the fire. That was when the city was going to tear it down and this group called the Greater Ridgewood Historical Society, came together and raised the money to rebuild it and preserve it. They also own it.
Who are the people in the Historical Society?
It’s mostly people who had grown up around here and have always known the house and are interested in its history and in preserving it.
Can you walk us through the house?
Sure! The main part of the house is somewhat like a museum. Two rooms are period rooms, one is in the 18th century style and one is in the 19th century style. Then there’s the exhibition room that has rotating exhibitions. We have artifacts stored in the archives in the basement and we will put those on display at different times. Then you have the library, we have a Genealogical Society that comes and meets here and they do research on local Genealogy. The grounds are used like an events space. So we have several large events every year that the House hosts. We also rent it out for weddings and parties. We are also starting to do more open events for the community, like movie nights, music and maybe an all-year farmer’s market. That kind of stuff.
Who was Onderdonk?
They were a Dutch family that settled here and it was before the English had taken it over. It was right on the border with an English settlement called Newtown, so the rock out back, the Arbitration Rock, was a divider between these two towns. There was an ongoing land dispute for a while between the English and the Dutch. I don’t know how long the Onderdonks were on the property, but they farmed it for a while and then eventually they moved out to New Jersey. The original farm and land was much bigger. They had this long narrow farm because the taxes were based on your frontage on Flushing Avenue. So if you had a small front of the property, you were taxed less. So Flushing was like the main thoroughfare for farmers to take their stuff to the Newtown Creek, then ship it off to the markets in Williamsburg, Manhattan or wherever.
So tell me about your role here at the Onderdonk House. You are a caretaker by day and musician by night?
That’s about it, yeah. I work here full-time as the caretaker I have maintenance and landscaping duties and then I play in a band. Both my wife and I are signed on to be caretakers. That’s not a paid position; we don’t pay rent, though we do pay a utility fee. The duties for that are to keep the sidewalk clean, to shovel snow in the winter, and take the garbage out – very basic kind of stuff. Then I am hired on top of that, to do the landscaping and maintenance as an independent contractor. On a normal day I will get up and walk the dogs, take care of the chickens and then go to work on a project, either on the grounds or in the house. Obviously in the winter it’s more indoor stuff, which is why now we are doing these renovations. This past spring and summer, I was doing a lot of work in the yard like basic landscaping, planting trees, transplanting stuff, mowing the lawn, pruning and trimming.
Do you feel there is anything that you have uniquely brought to the house since your involvement?
Yeah, I think a lot of the caretakers that the house has had in the past had been interested in just doing the caretaking part and having cheap rent. With Chelsea and I, we are both interested in trying to live as independently as possible and also experience being able to take care of our basic needs in some way. So when we got this job it seemed like the perfect fit for us and that was when we initiated the vegetable garden and the chickens. Those ideas came out of that desire to get experience in that sort of lifestyle.
Beyond that, I had lived in Bushwick for about five years before we moved here and had a lot of friends in Bushwick and our band played with other bands, so I knew a lot of people around here. The house didn’t really have a connection with this new community. I mean, some of the board members knew that there was this big influx of people but I don’t think they had a direct connection with it. We wanted to encourage that, because obviously it’s to everyone’s benefit to have people know about the house, to come and get involved. There are a lot of motivated, creative people in Bushwick who when we do bring them over they get excited and have ideas and want to volunteer or get involved in someway. I feel like I can help the House in bringing more people over.
Can you tell me about the other people who are involved in the house?
My wife Chelsea did the vegetable garden and the chicken coop, then Ritchie who is a board member and also the curator of the archives. He is the head of the archives committee and the buildings and grounds committee. He was a professional opera singer for decades before retiring, I mean he still actually sings professionally but he is down here a lot. Then Linda and Steve Monte, Linda is the president of the board; we work with them a lot on the bigger events. And yeah, we have worked with the whole board and we go to all the board meetings every month.
Tell me about your band Pass Kontrol.
It started about six years ago with Oliver who is the lead singer. We formed a band and started playing and eventually two of our other friends Tony and Mike joined. Now it’s the four of us, and incidentally, Oliver got married here about three years ago. That was how I discovered the house. I was his best man at his wedding and after that Chelsea and I started volunteering at the garden here, which is how we got the job. So there is that connection, too. And recently we have started rehearsing in the attic.
Tell me about the practice space that you set up?
Originally when I moved in, I had a small drum kit, and the Board said it was fine to play music up there. We were still renting our rehearsal space in Williamsburg that we shared with four other bands and we wanted to get out of that space, so we were looking for other spaces and then I was like, “Well, maybe we can swing this.” And I talked to the board and they were fine with it. So we started having full rehearsals up there this past September. With no heating though, it started becoming clear towards the end of October that we were going to be in trouble if we didn’t do something for the approaching winter. So then we built it out and offered to pay a small monthly donation for the extra utilities. And my wife plays bass, she used to be in the band Lady Magma, so she uses it with friends of hers as well.
What about some of the other creative outlets you are involved with; here at the house or otherwise?
Well, with Pass Kontrol we started seeing it as sort of an art collective more than a band. I mean, that can sound a little bit pretentious, but I think that’s a more accurate definition in some ways because we have done projects outside of music. We put on a multimedia musical play at the Bushwick Starr a couple of years ago and got a lot of our friends involved in set-building, costumes and acting. I think all of us like to push ourselves creatively and try to do different stuff besides the music. We like to bring people together and we have always found that shows we have organized usually are the most fun, rather than just going to a venue and playing a 45-minute set and then leaving. It’s more fun if you can have a whole space for a night and make it an event, you know?
Do you feel the house, or maybe more in general Bushwick, has influenced the creativity, being that you live and rehearse here?
Yeah – definitely. I think inevitably wherever you are in your life and wherever you make your art is going to influence that art. We have gone through a lot of different practice spaces and I always feel like there is some element of that space in the music and also more broadly I think very much we are influenced by New York and more specifically, Bushwick and the industrial area over here. I mean I couldn’t describe exactly how it comes out or, you know, it may not be obvious in the lyrics or whatever, but this space for me… Ever since we moved in here I feel really, really good practicing up there. It’s a unique space and it’s totally our own and we built it. It feels really free and just relaxed, it’s nice.
Tell me about how the house is used in the summer and maybe some up-and-coming plans for this summer.
Well The Historical Society has one big event in the summer, which is the Strawberry Festival. Throughout the summer there are a lot of private parties and a few weddings. We have been trying to move it in that direction with more stuff that’s open to the public, so last summer we had the Arbitration Rock Festival, which was like 6 bands and a rock fest of all sorts. Also during Bushwick Open Studios, we had a sculpture park which they are going to do again this year, with Deborah Brown from Storefront Gallery as the curator. We also do Bike-In Movie Nights and we want to do a Flea Market/Farmers’ Market once we get that going.
Any funny stories from your time here?
Well, one of my jobs as a caretaker is to clean the outside sidewalk. I think this is a pretty sketchy block at about 4 in the morning. So I definitely find a lot of strange stuff. The first day I was cleaning up, I found a dead cat and a penis pump – a discarded penis pump, which I only knew what it was because I actually worked at an adult retail store for a little while. Then for a little while, we had people throwing dead chickens in plastic bags onto the property for some reason. I think there might be some sort of like Santeria thing going on around here because other businesses across the street said that they find dead goats and chickens in their dumpster at night. So there are some weird moments definitely.
Do you ever get worried about ghosts here?
My idea of how to approach the idea has always been to just respect the space. It’s a space that’s been used by people for hundreds of years and if there are ghosts, they probably just feel like it is still their space. So generally I don’t worry about ghosts, but I sometimes feel like there is like cold breeze.
Photos: Grace Villamil
Interview: Christopher Ambrose