The house that Gomez built
Hudson Valley’s tourist attraction is a gateway to American Jewish history
The Gomez Mill House in Marlboro, N.Y., in the central Hudson Valley, is thought to be the oldest still-standing Jewish residence in the United States.
The house is ensconced in impossibly-lush-for-this-time-of-year-but-then-again-it-hasn’t-stopped-raining-for-dogs’-years green, with the accretions of three and a half centuries of life, the additions made by four other families, as you’ll see after (if you’re lucky enough to have your GPS take you off Route 9W and through the wonderfully named hamlet of Balmville) a drive down a winding road with lovely, graceful, massive Victorian mansions, set in their shaded bright gardens.
Okay. Enough with the local color. What is the Gomez Mill House?
It’s a museum, and it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Sites; it offers a healthy schedule of talks and programs, including one, set for next Sunday, featuring novelist and former New York Times columnist Andree Aelion Brooks, about the Gomez family. (See box.)
It’s also a kind of architectural and cultural onion, or maybe more accurately a tree trunk. The more of it you peel back, the more of it you pare down, the further into its history you go. At each level you (assuming that you’re a trained architectural historian, that is) can read more about the assumptions and finances of each period during which more building was done.
Luis Moses Gomez bought the land that surrounds the house in 1714; he and his sons bought first 1,000 and then another 3,000 acres. Soon they built a one-room house; it’s unlikely, historians say, that Mr. Gomez lived there, although it is likely that at least a few of his four sons did, at least sporadically. After that, the house had many owners, some of them notable.
From 1772 to 1799, it was Wolfert Ecker, who set up a local committee for safety and inspection. That, according to Gomez Mill’s site manager, Richie Rosencrans, was one of the tools that local leaders established, a form of shadow government to keep the society’s basic rules in place once the British began to lose power but before formal local, state, or federal government agencies could take over.
Next — after some gaps — came the Armstrong family, landed gentry who lived in the Gomez Mill House from 1835 to 1904. They were artistic as well as civic-minded; among other art forms, there was at least one Armstrong who specialized in stained glass.
Another gap, and then there was Dard Hunter, whose tenure was short — from 1912 to 1918 — and whose art form seems perhaps a bit niche. He was a “paper craftsman,” according to the Gomez Mill website. And then, from 1918 to 1925, it was owned by Martha Gruening, a lawyer and social activist who was active in the fight for civil rights. There was a bit of full-circle completion to her residency; like the Gomezes, Ms. Gruening and her family were Jewish.
Later, another family lived in the house for some 30 years, bringing up their children there, loving it, tending to it, and eventually giving it to the foundation that now runs it.
Now, though, the foundation focuses on these five families, showing some of how each of them lived, what each added to the house.
At the core of the Gomez Mill House is the room that the Gomez brothers built. It’s simple; it was built into a slight hill, and it offers few comforts. The wooden floor wasn’t original, Mr. Rosencrans said. A later owner put it in. The Gomezes would have walked on limestone, which was far cheaper and easier to install.
So who was Luis Moses Gomez?
He was the son of an influential Spaniard, Isaac Gomez, a wealthy man so well positioned that he advised the King of Spain. So well positioned, in fact, that when the Inquisition, which was busy arresting, torturing and killing conversos — Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity, and then accused of betraying their newfound faith by reverting in secret to their old one — was set to pick him up, the king tipped him off. A cryptic message about rotting onions was enough to send the Gomezes to France.
Luis Moses (or Moises) Gomez was born around 1660, and soon was taken to Bayonne, in France, where he grew up, surrounded by other originally Spanish Jews. (People defined as heretics by the Catholic church were nothing new in Bayonne, which also was the spiritual home of the French Huguenots.) He was educated in London, so when the family moved to the Caribbean — there is firm evidence of Gomez in Jamaica, and he might have lived on other islands as well — he was fluent in Spanish, French, and English.
Jamaica flourished as a commercial center until 1692, when a tremendous earthquake demolished its main city, Port Royal. So in 1700, Luis Moses Gomez and his wife, Esther, moved to the place that was the financial center of the New World. New York. Lower Manhattan, to be precise. Maiden Lane.
Gomez was a trader and an entrepreneur. He built the Mill House as an outpost, a place to stay as he and his sons oversaw the trade in timber and limestone, commodities available in profusion upstate. He did very well for himself.
“He was a powerhouse, even in New York City,” Ms. Brooks said. “He facilitated and expanded trade in the early colonies.
“The colonies really needed business people at that point,” she said. You can see how useful his skills were in the document that hangs on the wall in his section of the Mill House. It is a decree of English denization — a kind of second-rate but still valuable citizenship that granted him much of a citizen’s rights and privileges without having to swear allegiance to the Anglican church. It was written in Latin and signed by the reigning English monarch, Queen Anne.
When the Gomez family began doing business in the central Hudson Valley, there was no Jewish community there. Jews didn’t begin moving in until more than a century later. There is no record of them facing anti-Semitism, Mr. Rosencrans said.
There are Jewish artifacts in the house; books, including a Spanish-language Bible, a rebuttal to an effort by a famous English clergyman to convert the Jews, and an elaborate Chanukiah. The Chanukiah, though, is not from the Gomezes’ time in the house. It is, instead, a piece of art, from somewhere in Europe, made at some unknown time, meant to connect the house to its Jewish past, brought in by later Mill House owner Dard Hunter, who apparently was a bit of a Judeophile.
Ms. Brooks has studied Gomez’s life, and the Jewish life that surrounded him. “There were only a handful of Jews in New York in 1700, and they were very much integrated or assimilated into the culture around them,” she said. “They had gone through generations of assimilation as Catholics. They came back to Judaism when they could.”
Many of those Jews, she said, eventually married into the local aristocracy, which was overwhelmingly Protestant, mostly Dutch. “The sense of being Jewish was only just emerging then,” she added. “Mostly they were white immigrants. They were educated. They were upper class. They were very much part of the Protestant elite.”
But at the same time, that small group of Jews began to establish their own synagogue, Shearith Israel. It started in 1654, meeting in people’s homes. In 1730, the shul built its own building; that building was funded and spearheaded by Luis Moses Gomez. (Today, the synagogue, now called both Shearith Israel and the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, stands on Central Park West.)
If the Jews of early New York were so integrated into the Protestant elite, why build a shul? Because they remembered Spain. “They had come from a culture where Jewish life was falling apart,” Ms. Brooks said, aided as it was by forced conversions and the torture that culminated in autos-de-fe. “This was an opportunity to bolster the sense of Jewish life.” And they took it.
Why isn’t Luis Moses Gomez better known to history? Because Jewish entrepreneurs were underappreciated until a century or two after he died, Ms. Brooks suggests. “We have to look at Jewish history in a new way,” she said. “We have to look at Jews’ achievements — not just the achievements of rabbis and scholars, but of entrepreneurs. And we can’t look at Jews historically just as victims.
“Gomez was very much an achiever, and he was very well integrated into the power structure. He was a sophisticated man. He was an immigrant, but not in the Eastern European sense, or even the German sense. He wasn’t persecuted. He took advantage of opportunities, and he followed them.
“They always say that Jews run away, move to new places, because of persecution. That’s true — but it’s not the only reason why Jews move from place to place.
“Gomez was looking to make a place for himself. He was looking to do well. Everyone knew that New York was booming, and that it was the place to go.”
Ms. Brooks feels strongly that the history of Jewish entrepreneurs should be studied, and their achievements should be honored. She’s the author of a book, “The Woman Who Defied Kings,” about Dona Garcia Nasi, a previously almost unknown Jewish entrepreneur who had not only those two strikes against her but a third as well — she was a woman. “People like her never were considered key to Jewish history,” Ms. Brooks said. But, she continued, “the business element of Jewish history has been very seriously unreported and under-researched. Gomez also fell into that category.
“But remember that since ancient times, it was the business-minded Jews who settled the first Jewish communities on the rim of the Mediterranean, long before the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. It’s overlooked, but the migration of the Jews was heavily dependent on the business community.”
And the development of the central Hudson Valley was dependent on the business community as well. As you drive toward Gomez Mill House, much evidence of both success and failure are visible. There’s a great deal of history in that valley. Much of it centers around the colonial period, and the Revolution, and much of it shows the ups and downs of the Industrial Revolution and the periods of boom and bust that followed.
And some of its history, surprisingly vivid little bits of it, are on display at the Gomez Mill House.
Who: Writer, journalist, former New York Times columnist, and historian Andree Aelion Brooks
What: Will show a short film about Luis Moses Gomez and then discuss it
Where: At the Gomez Mill House, 11 Mill House Road in Marlboro, N.Y.
When: On Sunday, August 5. The film and talk will start at 11, after a bagel breakfast at 10.
How much: It’s free; donations are welcome.
For more information: Call (845) 236-3126 or go to www.gomez.org