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Event, History, Places

Explore Flushing’s Victorian Past

Angelina Sun

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The Voelker Orth Museum

September is a great time to enjoy late summer weather and the bounty of a summer garden. The Voelker Orth Museum welcomes guests to take a step back in time to the days when home gardens and backyard gatherings were a big part of life in Queens. The Museum occupies a Victorian 1890s house, a mere two blocks from the Murray Hill LIRR Station. The property became a NYC Landmark soon after it opened. Today, we invite visitors to tour the house, relax in the backyard garden, or help as volunteers on research, events, gardening, and our grape harvest. And, we do have a number of modern conveniences – like central air-conditioning.

The Museum property was formerly home to three generations of a German immigrant family. Since the 17th century, Flushing has been a good home to immigrant families – all of whose traditions continue to enrich our city. Conrad Voelcker (later spelled Voelker), brought his young family to Flushing in 1899, just a year after Queens had been incorporated into New York City. Many Germans came to New York in the second half of the 19th century. Conrad Voelcker arrived in NYC in the 1880s and, along with his brothers, soon became the publisher of German-language newspapers, sharing news with families and friends from the Rhine region and supporting cultural and athletic events in his new community.

Each generation of the family was philanthropic. Voelcker sent funds to his own hometown and has a street named in his honor there. Conrad’s granddaughter, Elisabetha Orth, made the grand gesture of leaving her home and estate in her Will to establish the Voelker Orth Museum, Bird Sanctuary and Victorian Garden. Staff and volunteers have been organizing and studying the family’s papers, photos, and household items for inclusion in exhibitions over the coming years.

The Voelker Orth Museum

The exterior of the house was restored to its 1890s appearance. The interior includes a number of period rooms with some of the family furnishings. On Tuesday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons, visitors can drop in for a house tour, sit and converse about local history, and share their impressions. There is an accessible entrance to visit the first floor. Upstairs contains a period bedroom with furnishings from the 1920s. The home reflects the tastes and activities of comfortable middle class domestic life in the early years of the 20th century, complete with dishware for entertaining, a baby grand piano, a well-stocked library, a Victrola, and terrariums. On some Sunday afternoons, you can catch a talk or performance in the parlor. During the week, the Museum offers educational workshops for visiting school groups, touching on horticulture and history.

The garden is designed in Victorian fashion with a lawn, kitchen garden, and bountiful array of flowering plants. The plants are hand cultivated, without use of pesticides, selected to attract butterflies, bees, and birds. The Museum also provides bird feeders and fresh water for urban and migrating birds. There is also a koi pond nestled into a corner of the garden.

Oktoberfest at the Voelker Orth Museum

A number of the fall activities at the Museum focus on the Voelker-Orth family’s heritage – and food. Coming from the grape-growing region near the Rhine River, the Voelker family carried that tradition to their new home. In September, the Museum recruits volunteers to help harvest and juice the ripe grapes from the arbor. These are Catawba grapes, often grown in upstate New York, delicious and well suited to our climate. The sweet juice is used in a house punch served at events throughout the year. One of the first opportunities to sample the new grape harvest is the annual Oktoberfest Flushing Style: Sauerkraut & Kimchi (held on September 28th this year). Pickled cabbage, brats, japchae noodles, brew, and music bring together old and new Flushing for a relaxing evening in the garden. It is an evening brimming with Gemüetlichkeit (friendly hospitality)!

Beehive at the Voelker Orth Museum

By September, the bee-keeper has harvested honey from the beehive that is safely tucked alongside the house. Limited supply of honey will be available for sale. The funds help the care of the bees through the year. Late in August, the Museum hosts a Honey Harvest Festival with tastings, art-making, and a demonstration on honey extraction from the wax-sealed honey combs. Not to fret – the bees are busy elsewhere. If you are interested in bee-keeping, there is a Sunday afternoon introductory workshop, Bee Basics – Do you want to be a Bee-keeper? on September 22nd.

Honey Harvest Festival at the Voelker Orth Museum

This fall, there is even food in the arts on exhibit at the Museum. Moments, an exhibition of work by artist Linda Rettich, offers a delectable visual array of beaded culinary delights and sculptural tableaus. You will want to venture out to one of the Murray Hill Korean eateries after gazing at the details of intricately beaded sweets and sushi. The exhibition opens in September and remains on view into December. Come to the opening reception and meet the artist on Sunday, September 8th, 2-4pm.

From fall through summer, there will be workshops, concerts, exhibitions, programs for school groups and more to do at the Voelker Orth Museum. Come visit!

For more information, please visit www.vomuseum.org or call 718-359-6227.

Article written by Deborah Silverfine.

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