Flatbush’s Most Fabulous Stone House | House Profiles | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
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Flatbush’s Most Fabulous Stone House 

Wunderbar Vernacular, Backyard Bantams

Eddie Cattuzo and Robert Sweeney with the bantams in front of the 1751 Benjamin Ten Broek House - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah DeGraffenreid
  • Eddie Cattuzo and Robert Sweeney with the bantams in front of the 1751 Benjamin Ten Broek House

Estate manager, show chicken breeder, and architectural historian Robert Sweeney used to pass by what is today known as the Benjamin Ten Broek house, dated from 1751, when he was a schoolboy in Kingston. At the time, the property, on a flat plain on the east side of the river road in an area known as Flatbush, was somewhat dilapidated; it had also been altered to fit the needs of a modern middle-class family. Eventually Sweeney graduated from Bard College, made his way in the world, met his partner Eddie Cattuzzo, a California native who's a genius at home organization and decoration, and they became a couple in search of a real estate fixer-upper. "Eddie and I are always happiest when we have a project," says Sweeney.

About 11 years ago, as Sweeney drove along Route 32 just east of the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, he noticed a drift of unplowed snow in the driveway of the old stone house he had so long admired. He made a few inquiries, then an unsolicited offer, and eventually bought it from an estate for about $200,000. Since then, Cattuzzo and Sweeney have invested "countless hours" plus another $150,000 in the property. They've restored and renewed the historic home with meticulous care, transforming the drafty and somewhat hodgepodge old pile into a welcoming showplace of colonial architecture and living social history.

"There was plywood and carpet everywhere," sighs Cattuzo. "An entrance had been bricked up. We wanted to get rid of all of that, but also to make it livable for us, without having anything look terribly anachronistic, at least not downstairs."

So there's no television in the main living area, the oldest part of the house. A small refrigerator in the kitchen is faced with cabinetry; there's a larger one hidden away in the basement. Cattuzzo has meticulously organized the downstairs into an amazing storage space, necessary for the amount of entertaining and seasonal decorating the couple does, but also a reflection on the classic problem associated with living in antique houses. None were built originally with closets.

Cattuzzo and Sweeney also added a couple of period-looking outbuildings, one of which is used as a chicken coop for their prize flock of about 50 Nankin Bantam chickens. The Nankin Bantam is a friendly, solid-colored bird weighing about 23 ounces when mature; they live for about 10 years. Thought to be one of the oldest true bantam (meaning diminutive) breeds—a 17th-century European import from the Chinese city of Nanjing—Nankin Bantams are classified as critically endangered by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Ever the protector of the attractively ancient, Sweeney's active with the US breed club, established in 2006. "They're good mothers, often go broody, and the eggs are very small and creamy white," says Sweeney. "We don't eat the birds, but we certainly enjoy the eggs."

The Holland Society and Airbnb

Sweeney and Cattuzzo's other outbuilding serves as the office for the Society for the Preservation of Hudson Valley Vernacular Architecture, a nonprofit with a mandate to document and preserve the Hudson Valley's regional architectural heritage. Sweeney's the president.

Buying the Benjamin Ten Broek House came with an opportunity—or perhaps a pleasant obligation—to network with New York's oldest families and camp followers. A rare survivor of the 1777 burning of Kingston, it's a cousin of Kingston's Senate House, which was built for the patriarch of the Ten Broek clan.

Soon after buying the house, Sweeney and Cattuzo hosted a fundraiser for the Holland Society of New York, an upper-crust organization established in 1885; members must trace their ancestry directly to a male resident of New Netherland on or before 1675. The society publishes a quarterly historical magazine, organizes trips and parties, and has branches in places like Jupiter, Florida. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was an enthusiastic member, and even wrote the foreword to Dutch Houses in the Hudson Valley before 1776, written by Helen Reynolds, first published in 1929 and still the definitive treatise on the subject. In the book, the Benjamin Ten Broek house is both described and illustrated, forever registering its pedigree.

"Of course, we open up our home to everything historical in Ulster County," says Sweeney. "But so many people were interested in seeing our place that eventually we decided to turn the downstairs bedroom into a bed-and-breakfast—we list it on Airbnb," says Sweeney. "It stays rented; Eddie takes care of that side of things for us, and I might add that it's a wonderful system. Airbnb makes it so easy to market your place, book, and keep track of everything for taxes."

It's Really Not the Tenant House

"This house is often erroneously called 'The Tenant House,' because people thought it was built by Benjamin Ten Broeck Sr. for his farmer," says Sweeney. "Benjamin Jr. did not take up residence here until 1803. It was actually built by the Velde, or Felton, family; there are still Feltons living in the area. And the Veldes were Palatine—i.e. German, not Dutch," says Sweeney.

The house today stands in three sections on the ground floor, all built within a 20-year span. Above that, the garret—originally used to store grain—is now a comfortable suite consisting of a master bedroom, master bath, and walk-in closet. There's also a period box bed—a cubbyhole for a mattress built into a wall. Because Sweeney did not want to damage fine old floor timbers, extra effort was taken with the plumbing modernization; to that end, the shower stall is raised six inches off the floor.

We Celebrate Our Anniversary on Mother's Day

May is a special month for the couple, who went out on their first date 15 years ago on Mother's Day: They always celebrate their anniversary on that Sunday.

"Some people think it's strange that we don't stick to a certain calendar date. But it's our tradition," says Sweeney. "And speaking of tradition, the fruit that our relationship bears is nurturing these things that might otherwise be lost—this house and our chickens. Because we aren't busy raising children, perhaps we do have more time and money to devote to these marginalized causes."

Sweeney is an elder in the Reformed Church of America. "My mission, and the church's, is to welcome people. Likewise, in this house, we have a great space to share, and that is our gift. The core of this house is an attitude of hospitality," says Sweeney.

Cattuzzo adds that while it's all well and good to open one's home to environmental and historical preservation fundraisers, the tradition of Dutch hospitality in the colonial era was actually a matter of life or death.

"Back then, when a traveler showed up, you either let him in to get warm and share some food, or sent him back out to the cold and the wilderness, where he might die."

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly asserted that the Holland Society owned the Half Moon, a full-scale replica of the ship in which Henry Hudson discovered and explored the Hudson River for the Dutch in 1609. The ship is privately owned and operated under the New Netherlands Museum organization which has offices in Albany. The ship itself is the museum and when in port sets up with period appropriate artifacts and instruments and offers tours to groups and individuals. She is manned almost completely by volunteers.

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