For Stewards of Historic Homes, No Salary but Unbeatable Rent
By SARAH MASLIN NIR
Chelsea Vigue, a caretaker, closes the gate at the Vander Ende-Onderdonk House in Queens.
It has been nearly a quarter-century since Roy Fox had a regular salary. He is not a lottery winner or the recipient of some grand family fortune. He is, in short, the type of person who long ago would have been priced out by New York’s ever-climbing housing market.
But for more than two decades, Mr. Fox, a retired radio host who earns a modest pension, has been enviably situated in an airy abode with park views, burnished wood floors and historic detailing. In fact, he is the sole resident of a 29-room mansion in Jamaica, Queens, constructed before the Declaration of Independence was written — a pre-prewar, so to speak.
If paying scandalously low rent for one of the city’s 39,000 remaining rent-controlled apartments is viewed as the holy grail of New York real estate, that is only because so few are aware of the existence of an even more elusive and lustrous prize.
Mr. Fox, 72, is one of only 19 people lucky enough to seize the role of resident caretaker of a city-owned historic home, a job that comes with no salary but a perk so seemingly lavish that many are loath to admit it to their friends: they not only live in some of the city’s most splendid manors, but they also do so completely rent-free.
In a centuries-old farmhouse in Queens, Steve Eftimiades has been known to serve guests colonial fare at candlelit banquets. At the Van Cortlandt House, Laura Carpenter lets her dachshunds run amok in her backyard, the more than 1,000-acre park of the same name. And when the lights in the storybook cottage in a South Bronx playground go on at night, it is not the ghost of its most famous tenant, Edgar Allan Poe — the new caretaker is probably just home for the evening.
The little-known program under the auspices of the Historic House Trust, administered by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in partnership with private organizations that care for the properties, was established to ensure that someone was around to protect these buildings from vandalism, fire and frost.
Even though the applications are available online and anyone can apply, many of the positions go to those with connections to the world of historical preservation. Still, there is remarkably little competition for the slots and no requirement to reapply, so those who are handed the keys to these mansions often keep them for decades. The city even pays the utilities.
But Franklin Vagnone, the executive director of the trust, said the chief attraction of the houses was the opportunity to interact with the history of the people who had lived there. “The houses provide a kind of physical manifestation for that legacy,” he said.
However implausible it may seem to the millions of New Yorkers who sign away a decent portion of their livelihoods to their landlords each month, the residents say they are motivated more by the connection to an earlier era than the real estate deal of a lifetime. They note that their lives are not particularly glamorous.
The home can be something of a gilded cage. Most of the residents live in repurposed servants’ quarters, a setting they describe as fitting. They mow, shovel snow and shoo out the occasional wall-gnawing varmint. They must watch their charge most nights or pay a house-sitter out of pocket. And they must be careful not to damage the building or, in the cases where the house is also a museum, its contents.
“Do you throw dinner parties where you faff about as the lady of the manor? No,” said Ms. Carpenter, who has lived for 18 years in the Dutch-Georgian plantation house in Van Cortlandt Park, where she also draws a salary as museum director. There is, she explained, “a very strict line of demarcation between your personal space and museum space.”
There are other drawbacks: the ancient plumbing and heating systems, troops of touring schoolchildren, the occasional prankster ringing the doorbell in the wee hours of the night. And when living in a creaky old mansion, it helps not to have a skittish disposition.
“You have to be not scared about being alone at night,” said Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner, who helped found the house trust in 1989. Some of the mansions have unsavory legends. “You can’t be scared of ghosts.”
Still, in a city where cantankerous neighbors and brick-wall views are tolerated for even the tiniest sliver of real estate pie, Mr. Fox’s sunny two-bedroom apartment in the sloped eaves of King Manor Museum, in the heart of an 11.5-acre park, makes servants’ quarters seem a pretty good deal.
The palatial home was the yeoman farmhouse of Rufus King, an early abolitionist and framer of the Constitution. Like many caretakers, Mr. Fox, with his exuberant beard and made-for-radio timbre, has taken an active role in the house. Visiting schoolchildren are treated to his hearty re-enactments of the original resident’s antislavery speeches.
Others caretakers give tours, teach classes and raise chickens in their patches of yard that, while now sandwiched between high rises, were once farmland.
“If you would take into consideration the time I spend, and count what I’m doing not only for the house but for the legacy of Rufus King, I’m being shortchanged,” Mr. Fox said.
“And,” he added, “I’m happy to be shortchanged.”
Not everyone aspires to such quarters. One prominent historic house, Gracie Mansion, has been without its traditional resident for a decade now. Unlike previous mayors, Michael R. Bloomberg opted to remain in his expansive Upper East Side home, rather than live in the mayoral residence. He recently told reporters that he hoped his successor would leave the mansion reserved for public events.
Given their advanced age, not all houses are in the same pristine condition. From the street, the roughly 300-year-old Hendrick I. Lott House in Marine Park, Brooklyn, sparkles with new whitewash, its shutters cheerfully thrown back. Inside, where restoration work is still pending, it could be a Wes Craven film set.
But Kristy Di Cario, 48, the occupant, said she did not mind the stained wallpaper peeling off in strips or the skeletons of ancient furniture that linger in the parlors. “I’m very hardy,” she said. “I took it as an adventure.”
There are also a number of privately controlled historic homes that have similar arrangements. Some have less restrictive rules. At the Vander Ende-Onderdonk House, in Ridgewood, Queens, Adam R. Brown, 33, the caretaker along with his wife, Chelsea Vigue, 29, said he was encouraged to keep it lively. His rock band, Pass Kontrol, uses the attic of the stone farmhouse for jam sessions.
Many of the mansions are an anachronism in a landscape of apartment buildings and whizzing cars. Twenty-first century concessions, like television, can be hard to come by. Ms. Carpenter was reprimanded when she installed a satellite dish on the Van Cortlandt House.
But 18th-century living has grown on her. Four years ago, she tattooed a colonial-era engraving on her arm, and took up historical re-enacting. She hand-sews her corseted gowns in her apartment in the mansion’s servants’ quarters.
She met her fiancÚ, the occupant of a historical home in Philadelphia, at an Revolutionary War re-enactors ball, drawn in by, among other things, the historical accuracy of his Continental Army staff sergeant’s uniform.