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Door opens to restored Keeper’s House

By Kris DiLorenzo

Garrett McAllister of Dobbs Ferry, David Baldwin of Kansas, FOCA vice president Robert Kornfield, and composer Paula Matthusen look at two silver medallions, owned by Baldwin, that were minted for the 1842 opening of the aqueduct.


The Keeper’s House along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trailway at Walnut Street is officially open to the public. At an open house celebration on Sunday, June 26, Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct (FOCA) president Mavis Cain told some 60 attendees that "There will always be something going on" at the property, which has been repurposed as a visitors and education center.

Current hours are limited to weekends, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Cain spearheaded FOCA's effort to restore the 1857 house, which was one of six along the aqueduct trail’s northernmost 26 miles. She underscored the importance of the aqueduct as New York City’s first major water supply system, then told the audience about the official opening of the aqueduct on Oct. 14, 1842. “Can you imagine a parade bigger than the Macy’s Day Parade?” she asked.

The speakers also included FOCA's vice president Robert Kornfeld, dressed as original keeper James Bremner. Kornfeld sported a derby, ascot, pinstriped vest, walking stick, watch fob, and a reproduction of the silver medallions made for the 1842 festivities, which FOCA minted in 2002. Kornfeld provided a feel for what Bremner’s life was like during his time as keeper, from the mid-1800s until his death in 1872. He also discussed another aspect of the aqueduct’s significance.

“The history affects such a cross-section of society," he said. "It has to do with immigration, like the different groups that were working on the aqueduct; on the original aqueduct it was largely Irish immigrants. The new Croton Aqueduct was built largely by Italian immigrants, stonemasons, and African-Americans.”

There will be no parades to commemorate the opening of the Keeper’s House, but there will be exhibits. For now the exhibits in the two-story Italianate brick house are mainly two-dimensional. There are photographs of the building before, during and after its restoration, which began in 2013. That process included shoring up the sagging porch and leaking roof, painting the exterior to look as the house had in the 1800s, replacing a banister, and a host of other repairs. Through federal and state grants, as well as funding from corporations, foundations, and the general public, FOCA raised $1.2 million for the restoration of the house since 2002.

On the walls are collages of historic photographs, drawings, and maps, functioning as placeholders until the interactive exhibits are installed in September. An exception is a freestanding optical device based on an 1800s stereoscope, enabling children and adults to view a series of pictures showing a typical day in the life of the original keeper.

Some photos on display show the inside of the 41-mile-long aqueduct tunnel, but the images of people working, such as engineers and surveyors, were taken in the late 1800s, as they constructed the nearby newer aqueduct, triple the size of the original one.

The new aqueduct, which is east of the Saw Mill River, was necessary to serve the city’s growing population. Only the Old Croton Aqueduct, however, has an earthen path atop it for pedestrians and bicyclists.

According to Steven Oakes, historic site manager for New York State Parks, whose office is in the Keeper’s House, the exhibits to be installed in September will include objects used in the construction of the aqueducts, such as two iron gratings from atop the stone ventilator towers along the trail. Also on display will be a Gunter’s chain — a lightweight chain 66 feet wide, used to measure the width of the tunnel. FOCA obtained objects both donated and loaned, including drafting instruments, calipers, dividers, even pencils from the 1840s through the 1880s.

“The printed panels that are up now are trial-balloon versions of what will be here,” Oakes said. Some displays will be interactive. “Whether or not they can be touched influences how the displays are designed and built.” Videos will also be screened, including the BBC’s “Filthy Cities,” FOCA’s own “Celebrate,” and an episode of “Secrets of New York,” from NYC-TV.

A unique program the Keeper’s House has on tap will feature the music of acoustic composer Paula Matthusen, who went inside the aqueduct to record its sounds.

The Keeper’s House will be a hub of activities. Docents will guide visitors through the exhibits. Elsewhere, curious explorers can tour significant parts of the aqueduct. Scheduled for July 9 is a tour of the Ossining Water Treatment Plant; later tours will cover the Ossining Weir, Croton Dam, and the High Bridge in the Bronx (where pipes carried the water across the Harlem River). For more information, visit

“The Keeper’s House certainly is a candidate for various awards,” architect Stephen Tilly of Dobbs Ferry said. “It’s a great example of people coming together for preservation.” His firm, Stephen Tilly, Architect, worked on the house restoration from 2013 until this past March.

Cain and FOCA have a vision for the Keeper’s House that extends beyond Dobbs Ferry; she noted that the house has attracted visitors from Brazil, Poland, Corsica, and Hong Kong. “People all over have heard about the aqueduct,” she said. “The house now belongs not just to the community, but to the world.”

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the Rivertowns Enterprise. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


JULY 1, 2016

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