Friends Meeting House Judged Historic
by Karen Strutin
The Amawalk Friends Meeting House and its Revolutionary War Cemetery, both in Yorktown Heights, were named as historic sites by Westchester County Executive Andrew O'Rourke last week.
They constitute one listing of 10 sites added to the newly developed Westchester County Inventory of Historic Places.
The inventory is "simply a way of spreading the information and sharing the significance" of sites in Westchester, said Karen Kennedy, the county's historic planner.
"If people are aware of the importance of the properties and the buildings, they are less likely to treat them inappropriately," she said.
Properties already listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places will automatically be added to the Westchester County Inventory, explained a pamphlet from the count historian. There are approximately 101 sites in Westchester, some including several buildings, already on these other inventories, said Kennedy, but the Westchester inventory will focus on aspects of historical sites that are specific to this county.
One criteria specific to this register is that a site may be considered if it is "representative of social and ethnic groups that have settled in the county."
"Our criteria are designed specifically to acknowledge county requirements," Kennedy said.
A building must be at least 50 years old to be nominated for the inventory. Other criteria include that a site be associated with lives or events significant to the history of Westchester, or embody a specific time period, or possess high artistic value, or yield information about Westchester's history or prehistory.
Although Amawalk is not the only Friends Meeting House in the county, it is the only one that has not undergone extensive alteration.
Members of the meeting house are applying to get the building on state and federal registers. Then, they would receive matching funds for the money they raise. They need money to rehabilitate the building.
"The windows could use recaulking," said Isa North, the building's unofficial historian.
"Quakers are shy about money," said North. Fundraising, she said, is conducted by "hoping that the members will feel moved to donate money."
Sites added to the county inventory do not receive money, and the owners are not subject to any restrictions.
A certificate was presented by the county to Liza Moon, a member of the meeting house.
Built in 1831, the building is the third on that site, off Quaker Church Road, and still has members who attend the regular meeting, held every Sunday at 10:30 a.m.
Members are involved in helping the homeless and in peacekeeping activities, said Ward Harrington, the meeting house's treasurer.
"There's a new life and activity in the meeting," he said.
The first building was constructed in 1773, and the second in 1786. Records are unclear about how the first building was destroyed, but indicate the second was burned December 14, 1830.
All the buildings were about the same size, 30 feet by 40 feet. A porch was attached about 1860. The building is still heated with a wood-burning stove, and has an outdoor privy.
The religion underwent a split in 1828, separating the dogmatic, orthodox faction from the Hickites, who adhered to the original, more liberal form of worship, explained North.
In 1830, the Orthodox Quakers built the Yorktown Meeting House, which is now the Calgary Bible Church, while Amawalk remained Hickite.
The center of the Quaker belief is, "There is a Christ in every person," said North. She described their meetings as silent, with attenders only occasionally speaking or murmuring.
Membership probably reached its peak around 1828, with more than 60 Friends packing the meeting house. There were 460 Friends in northern Westchester at that point, according to North's research. Popularity stayed high until the turn of the century, when it dwindled to between 11 and 16 members. In the 1940s and 1950s, meetings only took place during summer, and in the 1960s there were no meetings at all.
During the revived interest of the 1970s, a First Day (Sunday) school was added to the original building.
The First Day School is still used for religious instruction and gatherings, but less frequently than in the past, North said.
Now there are 18 registered members, plus a handful of regular attenders, she said.
Quakers, who do not believe in warfare, were criticized for refusing to be involved in the Revolutionary War, said Ward Harrington, the house's treasurer. But they were well-known enough at that point that soldiers often let Quakers pass unharmed through battle zones.
There are Revolutionary graves in the burial ground, but probably the most famous person interred there is Robert Capa, a photographer during World War II and the Korean conflict. Although he was not a Quaker, it was requested that he be buried there.
Since tombstones are considered ostentatious by the Quakers, they often face uphill or are absent altogether from a grave.
Neither Harrington nor North have been able to substantiate the rumor that the building was used as a stopover for the Underground Railroad.
Applications for the Westchester inventory are considered in the order they come in, explained Kennedy. She said they had received about 25 applications, but there has not been time to review all of them yet.
"The more applications we receive, the better the program will work," she said.
The sites are reviewed by the 15-member Historic Preservation Advisory Committee, an offshoot of the Committee on the Inventory.
According to Kennedy, only one site reviewed did not qualify: the Battle of White Plains Monument in Scarsdale. The site of the battle would be a significant listing, she said, but not a monument commemorating a battle.
Source: North County News, Vol. 10 No. 51, August 10 - August 16, 1988, "Friends Meeting House Judged Historic," by Karen Strutin, p. 18
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