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Quarantined in a museum
Antonio Cruz with his wife, Mary Janet Cruz, and their sons, Scott and Joseph, in the staff kitchen below their apartment at the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum in the Bronx on May 25, 2020. The resident caretakers of some of New York’s cherished landmarks may have the city’s strangest work-from-home assignment. Stefano Ukmar/The New York Times.

by Stefanos Chen

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Antonio Cruz, like so many New Yorkers in this pandemic, is stuck at home. Except in his case, home is a 28,000-square-foot, Greek-Revival mansion in a forest in the Bronx.

And he lives there rent free.

Cruz, 49, is the steward of Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum in the northeast corner of the borough, through a city program called the Historic House Trust, a partnership of the Department of Parks and Recreation and several nonprofit groups. He is one of just 22 resident caretakers living free of charge to protect and maintain some of the city’s oldest and most cherished properties, all of which are now closed to the public because of the coronavirus.

“It’s like a vacation,” at least compared to life before the virus, Cruz said on a recent, spotty phone call — the landline in the 1840s home was on the fritz, and cell service can be unreliable on the roughly 2,700-acre grounds of Pelham Bay Park, the largest in New York City.

He and the other caretakers around the city may have the strangest work-from-home assignment in the city, since the lockdown began in March. Scattered across the five boroughs — some deep in the wilderness, others hidden in plain sight — they are adjusting to life without busloads of school children, or exuberant tour guides, or much social interaction at all. They are the sentries of sprawling manors and tiny cottages once buzzing with staff and visitors. The city used to come to their front door every morning; now they wait at home for its return.

And with museums not expected to reopen until the fourth and final phase of the city’s plan, the caretakers are settling in for what could be months of limbo.

“I often feel they are the unsung heroes in the stories of our houses,” said John Krawchuk, the executive director of the Historic House Trust, a preservation program established in 1989 that includes Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s residence, and the onetime cottage of Edgar Allan Poe in the Bronx. He oversees 23 historic sites, all but one of which have live-in caretakers who ensure the houses are never empty and keep things running smoothly.

The positions are unpaid, but many caretakers work part-time as museum guides or groundskeepers, or do any number of side jobs to help cover their other expenses. Roy Fox, a former radio broadcaster, is the program’s longest tenured steward, with 30 years of service.

“I am an 80-year-old who’s never worked a legitimate day in his life, and now it’s a matter of building on that record,” he quipped from his home office, on the third floor of the King Manor Museum in Jamaica, Queens.

The 18th-century, Federalist-style farmhouse was once the home of the New York state Sen. Rufus King, a framer and signer of the constitution who opposed slavery. Fox has spent the better part of three decades burnishing the King legacy through dramatic readings of King’s work and guided tours of the 29-room mansion.

That came to an abrupt stop in early March, when the museum, set in the middle of the 11-acre Rufus King Park, was closed to the public and its small staff was sent home. But Fox’s watch continues: The house has been occupied every day since he moved in on Labor Day weekend in 1989, he said. (When he travels, he gets someone to cover for him — and he said he has visited nearly every baseball park in the country, including the minor leagues.)

He lives in a spacious two-bedroom apartment upstairs, converted from servant quarters, overlooking trees planted by King himself. He loves public radio and is an avid reader, with over 4,000 books in his apartment, many on American and British history. He hasn’t owned a television since 1982 or a car since 1972.

He can, of course, leave the house for errands or walks during quarantine, though he has mostly restricted his trips to the grocery. The surrounding park remains open, but he misses the joy of interacting with visitors.

In a callback to its history, King Manor was built partly as an escape from the urban epidemics of the 18th century, said David J. Gary, a Rufus King scholar and a former docent at the museum. (He and Fox are good friends and Gary was the caretaker at another Queens estate, before moving to Philadelphia.)

“If you had the bucks, Jamaica was the Hamptons of its time,” said Gary, referring to the current surge of affluent New Yorkers fleeing for the countryside.

As for the current resident, “I don’t have concerns about Roy Fox being lonely at all,” he said. “He’s the kind of guy who would ride a train to Schenectady just to give himself time to read. He’s going to be A-OK.”

Others are getting in some quality time with family. Cruz, the steward of Bartow-Pell Manor in the Bronx, is seeing more of his wife, Mary Janet Cruz, and their sons, Scott, 21, and Joseph, 17, who are home from school. The couple, originally from Peru, moved into the 28,000-square-foot mansion in 1999, and raised both of their sons in a two-bedroom caretaker apartment on the second floor of the estate.

It was a hard adjustment. “After my first two nights alone, I said, ‘I want to quit,’” Cruz recalls telling his wife, who moved in a week later. At the time, the house had neither a television nor a radio, but it scarcely mattered because the thick woods around the house cut off reception. And the banging of the radiator at night sounded like stomping footsteps. “I was a little scared,” he admits, but his wife, who grew up on rural farms in Peru, told him to tough it out.

The home could feel isolating even before the pandemic. The nearest neighbor is a gas station, about 30 minutes away at a brisk jog. The couple’s children attended school on nearby City Island — a 10-minute drive, but nearly an hour hike through the park.

And the work can be taxing. Antonio Cruz does the cleaning, event setup, and security for the property, while also working as a cook at the nearby Leewood Golf Club, which is now closed. Mary Janet Cruz works as a housekeeper for nearby homes. Sometimes the security system alarm will go off two or three times a week, because of strong winds or perhaps trespassers, and he’ll stumble into the night with a flashlight in hand, unsure what he’ll find. Once, a man broke in to use the bathroom in the attached orangerie.

“His presence there is vital,” said Alison McKay, the executive director of the museum, which opened to the public in 1946 and received about 20,000 visitors last year. “He’s the boots on the ground to make sure the house is secure.”

Cruz is also the resident animal whisperer. He and his family rescued two stray cats, Oreo and Zelia, and they have a French bulldog named Dexter. In the surrounding “forever wild” zone, a park term for protected habitats, there are turkeys, deer, chipmunks and raccoons. “Those are my babies,” Cruz said.

It has been an unusual place to raise a family. In middle school, their son Scott had a field trip to his own home. “The funny thing is, I knew everyone who worked here, so as soon as one of the tour guides came on the bus they recognized me.” His classmates were amazed. But playing in the landmark rooms of the mansion was forbidden, so when friends did visit, they mostly played epic games of “manhunt” on the surrounding nine acres of landscaped gardens.

More than a few instances have led the family to believe they’re not alone in the house. Cruz says he’s often felt the presence of others in the home, and credits the supernatural for saving his wife’s new Honda Civic. Around 2005, Cruz heard a frightened scream around 2 a.m. from the end of the long driveway. The next morning, it was clear that someone tried to jimmy the window of the car, but left in a hurry. They believe a benevolent spirit, perhaps a past resident, was watching out for the caretaker.

But now there is concern that much of what makes these places special, the staff and the educational programming, could be at risk, because of virus-related budget cuts. The caretaker positions are safe, because they are unpaid, but many rely on paid work through the museums.

“Basically 100% of our time is working from home and applying for funding,” said Branka Duknic, the executive director of the Queens Historical Society. The group is headquartered in the Kingsland Homestead in Flushing, Queens, a 1780s Colonial-style home built by a prominent Quaker family. Some staff have already been furloughed.

Jeran Halfpap, 28, is the resident caretaker at Kingsland Homestead, tucked away near a quiet cul-de-sac a few minutes away from bustling Main Street. He and his husband, Sebastian, a writer, live on the top floor of the roughly 6,020-square-foot home, and have seen next to no one since the museum closed in March. The virus also paused construction on a much needed roof replacement.

Before the lockdown, “you wake up, and you go downstairs, and your co-workers are there,” Halfpap said, but for an introvert such as himself, it’s been an easy transition. He has kept busy with three part-time jobs, including work as an educator for this and another nearby house museum and handyman work for a third home.

Halfpap got the unpaid caretaker position just over a year ago, through a referral from another historic house museum employee. (The jobs are quietly advertised and often go to people already connected to historic preservation.) Since the lockdown, he has hosted virtual lectures on topics like the history of the Underground Railroad in Queens and local Native American archaeology. He also created a 360-degree virtual tour of the Kingsland Homestead, including a peek at a new exhibit on Jay Jaxon, a prominent African American fashion designer from Jamaica, Queens.

But there are still plenty of listless hours. He and his husband have had marathon gaming sessions playing “Animal Crossing” on the Nintendo Switch, and Halfpap is finishing up editing his fantasy adventure novel.

How and when the historic house museums emerge from the pandemic is unclear, but there are pressing reasons to reopen. Many of the homes are in largely immigrant, lower- and middle-income neighborhoods, and provide programming for children and seniors. Kingsland, for instance, is offering virtual workshops on pre-Colonial Queens history, with Spanish and Mandarin translations available, as well as art classes where seniors paint scenes from their past.

There is also reason to be hopeful. These homes have survived epidemics, wars and economic depressions, Duknic points out. And the Kingsland Homestead has actually been moved twice from its original location about a mile away, to thwart redevelopment plans and potential demolition.

This, too, shall pass, she said, because, what plague can match the bane of gentrification?

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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