If you're driving down Broadway in Lawrence, Long Island, New York, it's easy to miss Rock Hall Museum, but you'd be passing up one of Nassau County's hidden treasures. Set back from the busy street, the imposing Georgian style home was built in 1767 and has now restored to its former glory and is proudly listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition, the attraction is absolutely free.
Rock Hall Museum - Nassau's Hidden Treasure
Built for the family of Josiah Martin, the mansion and surrounding grounds were later the home of the Hewlett family and subsequently became a museum for all to enjoy for free.
On a quiet afternoon, I took a tour of the house, with a running commentary given by Matthew Blum, a museum assistant who conveyed a wealth of interesting details about the families that lived in this magnificent home, and the furnishings and decorations that adorn its interior.
I learned that Rock Hall's original owner, Josiah Martin, was born in Antigua, in the Caribbean, where his father was a successful sugar plantation owner. When Josiah was just a child, his father was murdered by slaves when the elder Mr. Martin tried to coerce them into working on Christmas Day. Josiah's mother succeeded in escaping from the plantation with her son and other children.
As an adult, Josiah Martin inherited his father's plantation. When he was married and a father himself, he moved his family to New York, and settled in the area to avoid the smallpox epidemics that plagued New York at the time. Yet it was close enough to Martin's merchant in the city so that business matters regarding the plantation could be attended to.
Rock Hall Museum - Family Parlor
Several generations of Martins were born and raised in this lovely white house with two floors, and many esteemed guests were invited to share in the dinners and parties held here. Built in 1767, Rock Hall was a fine country estate that showed Martin as the prosperous gentleman that he was.
With two floors and high ceilings -- a feature considered an extravagance at a time when heating was extremely costly -- the Georgian Colonial style house was all about symmetry. A central door and hallway were flanked by a number of rooms on each side. Large windows let in sunlight and the house was originally located on 600 acres. (The museum currently sits on three acres.)
The mansion was situated just a half-mile from the water to take advantage of cooling breezes in the summer. (Reynolds Channel is now one mile away because of subsequent dredging.)
The photo above shows the family parlor. Josiah Martin's favorite granddaughter, Mary Elizabeth, was a child when John Singleton Copley was hired to paint her portrait. Copley was renowned as one of the best portrait artists of his time. A large photo of the original portrait hangs above the fireplace. (The actual painting was sold and is now on exhibit at the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.)
Rock Hall Museum - Guest Parlor
A country gentleman was also a great host. Josiah Martin, the original owner of Rock Hall in present-day Lawrence, NY, hosted fine dinners with entertainment for his guests.
This guest parlor was the site of happy times for the Martins and their invited friends and family. In this room, music would be played for gatherings large and small, while a fire blazed in the parlor's hearth. A variety of instruments would be available for musical entertainment. The harp in the room is the original one owned by the Martin family.
Rock Hall Museum - Mirror
Some of the furniture in the former Rock Hall estate is original, while other pieces are reproductions or period pieces to show off the restored mansion as it looked at its peak.
Large windows illuminated the house during the day. Mirrors adorned many of the walls to reflect outdoor light during the early hours.
Rock Hall Museum - Bedroom
Upstairs, ample bedrooms filled Rock Hall. Today, period pieces such as this ornate bed give the visitor an idea of what its 18th century inhabitants slept in. There were fireplaces in each room to keep everyone warm at night, and in the summer, a cool sea breeze wafted through the house.
Rock Hall Museum - Antique Toys
Several generations of the Martin family, and later, the Hewlett family, grew up in Rock Hall. Today, the restored house is a museum where period furnishings and objects like these antique toys keep alive the spirit of its time.
Rock Hall Museum - Food Storage Area
When Rock Hall was built in the late 1700s, food was stored in the cellar. In today's Rock Hall Museum, an exhibit shows how meat and vegetables would be kept in the spacious cellar. This "staging kitchen" was the place where the Martin family's resident slaves -- and later, the Hewlett family's servants -- would garnish food that had been cooked in the main outdoor kitchen.
The cool temperature of the extensive cellar also served as an area to store olive oil and more.
Rock Hall Museum - Excavation Exhibit
Also in the cellar at Rock Hall Museum, visitors can view an exhibit of the archaeological work done by Hofstra University's excavations of the far west yard of the estate. The dig revealed objects including a creamware pitcher rim and bowl body, glass bottle, cast iron Dutch oven base and more.
Rock Hall Museum - Garden
Outside Rock Hall Museum, there's a tranquil garden where tall trees, a children's garden, verdant bushes and colorful flowers bloom. Take some time to walk around the property and try to imagine the laughter of children and the busy preparation of meals in a kitchen that once stood on the property.
Rock Hall Museum Grounds
After your free guided tour of Rock Hall, take some time to stroll around the grounds. There are some tables outside where you can sit in the open air and enjoy a picnic lunch, surrounded by greenery and the shade of majestic trees.
Rock Hall Museum is located at 199 Broadway, Lawrence, NY (next to Lawrence Middle School.) The phone number is (516)239-1157. The museum is open from Wednesday through Saturday form 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. It is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Admission and guided tours are free.