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The King House & Farm

Explore the History of the King Family House & Farm

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Created in 1984 by Gibson Bauer Associates for Museum restoration.

Rufus King Ownership

(1805 - 1827)
This is an excerpt from the King Park Cultural Landscape Inventory, prepared by John Evans in 2002.

In 1803, Rufus King returned from England after having spent seven years as the US Ambassador there. While in England, he had spent time living in both the city and the country, and he desired similar accommodations upon his return to the United States. Through his agent, Nicholas Low, and his personal experiences in the area, King eventually decided upon Jamaica as the location of his country estate.

When Rufus King took possession of King Manor in late November 1805, both the house and the landscape were unremarkable. In selecting the property, the practical advantages of a country estate – health benefits, open space, access to church and schools, and an escape from the political climate of the city – influenced King’s purchase more than aesthetic considerations. [17]  Evidence of this attitude can be seen in King’s own description of the house and property after the purchase:

"It is about 12 miles from town at Jamaica, L.I. The house is not fashionable, but convenient, the outhouse good, and the grounds consisting of about 50 acres, sufficient to give me pasture for my Cows and hay for my Horses."  [18]

According to King’s son Charles, the landscape at King Manor in 1805 was by no means distinguished. He describes a dead-level property, with very little vegetation, and hardly any trees. The house was free-standing, accessible by a straight gravel path to the door, with a narrow carriage path running alongside the main walkway. Nothing obstructed the view of the house from the road, with only a white picket fence separating the property from the main highway. The house and the landscape were quite commonplace; as Charles states, they were “after the uniform pattern, then almost universal in the region.” [19]

However, under Rufus King’s ownership, King Manor would develop into a complex and intriguing landscape. In fact, he may have even begun to occupy and improve the property even before its purchase in 1805. King certainly would have been aware of the property much earlier, since the previous owner, Christopher Smith, owed a mortgage on the estate to King’s father-in-law, John Alsop. Alsop died intestate in 1794, and King managed his estate and debts. [20]  This would have included the mortgage on the Jamaica farm.

Additionally, research has discovered a letter from Rufus King to Christopher Gore addressed from Jamaica, almost one month before King’s actual purchase of the land. King describes waiting for a yellow fever epidemic to pass before returning to the city; these epidemics were one of the reasons for his initial decision to purchase a country home. [21]  This is further evidence of the possibility that King had begun using King Manor as a country residence before he actually moved his family there in 1806.

Regardless of the exact time frame, it is clear that King’s first improvements occurred very early and were quite significant. He altered the approach to the house, eliminating the straight pathways and constructing a broad, circular walk. He then planted a belt of trees and shrubs along the Jamaica Road, shielding the house. [22]  In the summer of 1806, a cistern was constructed and a pump installed. [23]  In the fall of 1807, King constructed a new fence on the property, built with hundreds of posts and planks and finished with white paint. [24]

King made two major additions to the house itself, enlarging it to its current size. In 1806, the first addition, a kitchen, was constructed. This kitchen was built from King’s own lumber and finished with shingles purchased from a neighbor. [25]  By 1810, he had also enlarged the dining room and altered the bedrooms above. [26]  This represents the final major addition to the house.

Under King’s ownership, King Manor functioned as a working farm, serving as a laboratory for his agricultural experimentation and as a source of commercial profit. King wrote and received hundreds of letters discussing the state of his crops, his fields, and his agricultural methods. His account book records large numerous references to the sale of crops, including wheat, barley, potatoes, corn, strawberries, apples, peaches, and more. He employed farm workers throughout the year, and took a close interest in the everyday operation of King Manor. By the fall of 1807, King had hired a full-time gardener for the farm at Jamaica, and he had a fenced-in garden on his land. [27]  He also raised livestock, including dairy cows, horses, hogs, and sheep. While it appears that King was an agricultural innovator, experimenting with new farming methods and technologies, King Manor was in many respects a typical 19th-century Queens County farmstead.

However, King’s property was unique in that it was a very early example of English Picturesque landscape design in the United States. At the time Rufus King purchased the property, he had already spent seven years living in England, and evidence indicates that the landscape he created at King Manor was influenced in many ways influenced by the Picturesque movement. Most prominently, the semi-circular drive and the cluster of trees described by Charles King are evocative of the English Picturesque style. [28]

Throughout King’s ownership of the property, a dichotomy existed between his desire to create a picturesque landscape and the needs of a working farm. It seems, looking at King’s correspondence and descriptions of the property, that the two were viewed as separate pursuits. Nearly all references to decorative planting and trees are focused in the area of King’s house, while agricultural matters are addressed without concern for appearances. There is even some evidence of specific efforts to divide the house from the surrounding fields, such as this excerpt from a letter written to King by his son John in 1818:

"The thorn plants reached Jamaica yesterday in excellent condition and were this day set out by William and [?] 5 inches apart along the Line previously prepared for them, reserving a sufficient passageway to the wheat field."

It is probable that the hedge of thorns would have been interposed between the grounds of King’s house and the fields beyond. The description of a specific line laid out in advance also gives some insight into the planning of the landscape. King Manor remained a working farm throughout Rufus King’s ownership of the property.

Although he spent much of his time in Washington – having been elected as United States Senator in 1813 and again in 1820 – he maintained a steady correspondence with his son John, who lived in Jamaica and looked after King Manor in his absence. Several farm workers – including farm managers and gardeners – also resided on the property throughout this period. When both Rufus King and John A. King left for London in 1825, John’s brother Charles – who lived in New York City – checked in on the Jamaica property several times. Through his sons and his farm laborers, Rufus King was involved in the every-day operation of King Manor, even in his numerous absences.

Rufus King owned and continued to oversee King Manor until his death on April 29, 1827. His estate was divided among three of his sons: John Alsop, Charles, and James. King Manor was given to John, who shared his father’s love of the country. [29]  An 1842 map of the property shows the land owned by John; this most likely represents the size of the estate throughout Rufus King’s ownership. There is no evidence that John added to the property between 1827 and 1842.

17. Charles King in Homes of American Statesmen : Anecdotal, Personal and Descriptive Sketches by Various Writers, (New York : G.P. Putnam and Co., 1854) 358.
18. Rufus King to John A. King and Charles King, November 24, 1805, Rufus King Papers, New-York Historical Society
19. Charles King in Homes of American Statesmen : Anecdotal, Personal and Descriptive Sketches by Various Writers, (New York : G.P. Putnam and Co., 1854), p.358
20. Robert Ernst, Rufus King : American Federalist (University of North Carolina Press, 1968), p.203
21. Rufus King to Christopher Gore, October 28, 1805, Rufus King Papers
22. Charles King in Homes, p.359
23. Rufus King, July 23, 1806 and August 5, 1806 entries in Account Book 1806-1825, Volume 100 in Rufus King Papers
24. Rufus King, August 12, 1807 and September, 1807 entries in Account Book
25. James Mackrell to Rufus King, December 30, 1805, Rufus King Papers; George Codwise to Rufus King, January 7, 1806, Rufus King Papers; Rufus King, November 3, 1806 entry in Account Book
26. Ernst, Rufus King, p.293
27. Rufus King, November 18, 1807, January 9, 1807, and June 20, 1807 entries in Account Book
28. Charles King in Homes, p.358

King Family Occupation

(1827 - 1897)

This is an excerpt from the King Park Cultural Landscape Inventory, prepared by John Evans in 2002.

Village of Jamaica1842_MartinBJohnson_BrooklynHistoricalSociety_scaled

John A. King took possession of his father’s estate as a fully working farm, complete with laborers and, most likely, an established market. He had owned his own farm in Jamaica near to King Manor, and it is unclear exactly when John began living at King Manor. There is evidence that he sold his own estate before accompanying his father to England in 1825, indicating that upon their return both he and Rufus King lived at King Manor. [30] However, an 1842 map of the property (pictured) shows a parcel to the west, also on Jamaica Avenue, as belonging to John A. King, along with King Manor. While no house is shown on this property, and it could have actually been part Rufus King’s estate, it also may have been John King’s farm. In either case, John was almost certainly living at King Manor very soon after his father’s death.

King Manor continued to operate as a working farm for some time, even as the increasingly-urbanized town of Jamaica began to close in around it. Like his father, John A. King studied agriculture as a science. [31] He was the founder and president of the New York State Agricultural Society, and he used his political influence – in both the State Legislature and eventually as Governor of New York – to further the cause of New York State farmers. [32]

It was under John A. King’s heirs that King Manor transformed from a working farm to a residential estate. When John A. King died in 1867, King Manor was left to his wife, Mary Ray King. She lived on the property until her death in 1870. [33] The estate then passed to their daughter, Cornelia King, who lived there until her death in 1896. Soon after, the 11.5 acres of land now comprising King Park were purchased by the Village of Jamaica from the estate of John A. King for $50,000. [34]

30. Rufus King to John Adams, May 1, 1825, Rufus King Papers
31. Unnamed author, article in Long Island Democrat, June 9, 1867, as quoted by Edward Hale Brush in Rufus King and His Times, p.134
32. Edward Hale Brush, Rufus King and His Times (New York : N.L. Brown, 1926), p.129-132
33. Brush, Rufus King, p.136
34. Register’s Office, Queens County, Jamaica, New York, Deed Book 1155, p.269