By Bill Parry
When history buffs discuss the oldest houses in the borough, the John Browne House in Flushing, Onendonk House in Maspeth and the King Mansion in Jamaica are usually at the top of the list. Lent-Riker-Smith Homestead in East Elmhurst, built in 1656, the oldest inhabited private dwelling in the entire city, tends to be shrouded in mystery.
That’s beginning to change with every guided tour given by Marion Duckworth-Smith, the home’s owner.
“I used to show the home every now and then, but when my husband Michael died four years ago, I stopped,” she said. “But now the roof needs repair and I thought it was time to be enterprising.” Duckworth-Smith added that at age 74 she would like to be able to pay contractors to do much of the work she had done herself for over 30 years.
For a $25 admission fee, visitors get to see her charming eight-room Dutch Colonial hidden behind an ivy-covered white picket fence at 78-03 19th Road. They also get to stroll through a wonderful acre of gardens that lead to a private cemetery where many of the original settlers, the Riker family, are buried.
When Michael invited Marion to see his cemetery on their second date in 1979, she knew that the homestead had been waiting for her. Publisher Michael Smith bought the abandoned property and all its contents in 1975, but used it for storage, preferring to live in a Manhattan apartment. It became a target for vandals and neighborhood kids, who considered it a haunted house. Duckworth-Smith said, “The house itself was dark, cold, cluttered and sagging; it seemed shrouded in mystery and ready to cry.”
After they married in 1983, she knew they would live there, but first she had to spend six months cleaning it up enough to make their home there. Duckworth-Smith spent the next quarter of a century bringing the entire property to it current incarnation with the help of a caretaker and several contractors.
“I started in the attic that was chock-full of artifacts that I’ve incorporated into the house’s decor,” she said. “Behind layers of paint and sheet rock was the original home. We even found the original door frame and under gold carpeting in the living room were the original pine floor boards. There was also a secret tunnel you could use as an escape from Indian attacks, but that was cemented in during the ‘40s. There are still chains in the basement where they kept their slaves.”
With the house restored, Duckworth-Smith and a few handymen created the garden complete with a life-size ginger bread house a gazebo. In 2004, she put her talents as a professional photographer to work creating a book about the garden’s transformation called “The Romantic Garden” that she still sells and autographs for her visitors.
Eva Cusack, a resident of the neighboring Garden Bay Manor, got a copy at the end of her tour Saturday.
“I’ve lived here for 13 years and always wanted to come and see what’s behind the walls,” she said. “I was very excited to walk into this house. You get the feel of the way people used to live.”
Robert Luebeki brought his wife and daughter with him to see the “haunted house” of his childhood.
“I knew a bunch of kids who used to sneak in here, but I was too afraid to jump over that fence,” he said. “As kids we used to bring a ouija board here, but I never stayed long enough to see what it said. It was too spooky.”
Luebeki took particular interest in the private graveyard with 135 headstones, including a descendant of the original settler who died at Valley Forge as a Captain in the Continental Army.
“To have this piece of history right here in the neighborhood is fascinating,” Luebeki said.
At the conclusion of Saturday’s tour, several of the 15 visitors stayed to hear more of Duckworth-Smith’s stories.
“It’s restored me giving these tours,” she said. “It does my heart good to know how much people love coming here and hearing the stories about this place that has been a child’s dream come true.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (718) 260–4538.