Bedford was founded in 1680 by a group of 22 men from Stamford, Connecicut. The original settlement was considered part of the state of Connecticut until 1700, when the king of England declared it part of New York when resolving a boundary debate. Today, the Town of Bedford is composed of three hamlets—Katonah, named for the Native American chief the land was purchased from; Bedford Hills, known as Bedford Station until 1910; and Bedford Village, the center of the original settlement that was burned by the British during the Revolutionary War and today is home to a number of historically notable sites. Mount Kisco was once a part of Bedford, but became an independent entity in the mid 19th century.
Ask around about Katonah, and you’ll get a variety of responses about how to define the hamlet. Artsy, some might say. Liberal. Close knit. Or a slice of Americana, as Neil Watson, the executive director of the Katonah Museum of Art and a board member of the local chamber of commerce, puts it. He lives in a home that borders the town park and community pool and says that in the summertime, the sounds of swim meets and kids jumping off the diving board transform the atmosphere of his backyard. “You feel in Katonah like there’s a ‘there’ there,” he says. “There’s very much a core, and it does extend out beyond the couple of blocks of downtown.”
One notable feature about the hamlet is its architecture, which is unmistakably Victorian. Bedford town historian John Stockbridge says that the uniform nature of the architecture is one aspect that makes Katonah unique, and it’s for a very interesting reason. In the late 19th century, New York City’s need to increase water access for its residents forced the entire population of Katonah to move slightly south of where they were. Some of the buildings from the old Katonah were hitched to horses and oxen and transplanted in their new location. Then an entire new town of homogenous architectural style sprung up around them. Stockbridge says it’s a distinctively significant example of a classic Victorian town, since all the building occurred at about the same time.
Compared to other art institutions, the Katonah Museum is distinctive because it doesn’t have a permanent collection. This allows the facility to have an ever-changing, evolving list of offerings that don’t necessarily have to be tied to a central theme, says Executive Director Watson. For example, the museum has hosted shows that included such varied subjects as Buddhist art, contemporary puppet theater, and Cuba-inspired book illustrations. The museum was founded 50 years ago by a group of community volunteers and began in a library annex. Today, the Katonah Museum of Art has grown to be a nationally recognized and celebrated small museum that’s housed in a 10,000-square-foot, Edward Larrabee Barnes-designed building.