The City of New Rochelle, the last home of Thomas Paine, is beginning to undergo something of an economic renaissance. A number of the City’s tremendous historical resources however, remain neglected.
The Thomas Paine Museum on North Avenue — once the centerpiece of an international effort to recognize and promote the importance of Thomas Paine – has been vacant for years and is headed for sale and destruction.
Today, many scholars consider Thomas Paine to be one of the most important figures in American history and internationally important as a theoretician of democracy. Born poor in England in 1737, Paine read widely (thanks to public libraries) and attended public lectures in London. In 1774, penniless and unemployed at the age of 37, he went to see Benjamin Franklin, the representative in London for several American colonies. He sought to inquire about the possibilities for him in the English Colonies.
Franklin was sympathetic. He wrote a letter of introduction to his son-n-law in Philadelphia where Paine obtained a position on a local newspaper. His crisp writing style brought some success and he became a keen observer of the debates in the Continental Congress over whether the Colonies should have the right to be represented in the English Parliament. Having the perspective of an impoverished Englishman recently arrived in America, Paine developed distinct views on this subject which were different from those of most colonists at the time.
In Common Sense he argued that Americans should not seek to have the rights of Englishman, but should become a separate nation free and independent of Britain, ruled by a democratic government. Within six months Common Sense sold about 150,000 copies. Independence from England, which had barely been mentioned before its publication, became a more popular view. Almost overnight, Paine became a key leader of the budding American Revolution. When the Patriot army was on its last legs outside Trenton, Washington called on Paine to write to his dispirited troops. In Crisis, he exhorted them to carry on and is remembered today for writing: “these are the times that try men’s souls.” It’s been said he was an important source of morale at the Battle of Trenton.
For his services, in 1784 New York State awarded Paine a 300-acre farm seized from a Loyalist in New Rochelle. He stayed there only briefly before returning to England, where he was indicted for sedition. Barely escaping arrest in England, Paine went to Revolutionary France where he published Rights of Man. He was now given a heroes’ welcome. Several cities vied to have him represent them and he became a leader of a moderate faction in the French Assembly.
During the Reign of Terror he proposed to spare the life of King Louis XVI and was arrested for treason and sentenced to death. He hoped Gouverneur Morris, George Washington’s Ambassador to France, would convince the French to free him as an American citizen. Morris however, said he was not an American citizen because was born in England and voted in the French Assembly. Just as he was about to be executed, Thomas Jefferson’s newly appointed Ambassador James Monroe obtained his release. It’s said Napoleon Bonaparte carried Rights of Man with him everywhere, but Paine was vilified for his attacks on organized religion in Age of Reason, which he wrote in jail in France.
In 1801, Paine returned to the United States and to the farm in New Rochelle. The village was largely controlled by Federalists who challenged his right to vote in local elections on the grounds he was not a citizen, citing Gouverneur Morris’s argument. Paine protested unsuccessfully to the Westchester courts and complained to Jefferson and Governor George Clinton to no avail. (The final court decision was ultimately reversed in 1945.) Afterward Paine’s health failed, he rented his farm and moved to Greenwich Village where he died in 1809.
Although he had hoped to be buried in a Quaker cemetery, this was refused over religious objections and he was buried on the farm in New Rochelle. It’s said just ten people (and no significant political leaders) attended his funeral. The New York Post eulogized him by saying he “had done some good, and much harm.” Believing the United States did not appreciate Paine, Englishman William Cobbett dug up his bones in 1818 and took them to England.
After his death Paine was largely forgotten, but recognition of his importance would grow over the next 200 years. As one of his biographers said, “although we know not where his bones rest, his principles rest not.” As interest in democratic government spread internationally in the nineteenth century, increasingly Paine’s works were looked upon as seminal. In addition to his advocacy of democracy over monarchy he strongly opposed slavery and advocated for the rights of women, making him a thinker ahead of his time.
Memory of Paine in New Rochelle
In 1839 what is believed to be the first monument to Paine was erected on New Rochelle’s North Avenue (it was renovated last year with a grant from the Pomeroy foundation). In 1884, the writer, abolitionist, and confidant to Abraham Lincoln Dr. Moncure Conway wrote the first full-length biography of Paine and helped establish the Thomas Paine Historical Association to promote the memory of Paine and his work (now one of the oldest historical societies in the country). Since then, Thomas Paine societies have formed in cities throughout the United States and Europe. In 1909, citizens of New Rochelle rehabilitated the Paine farm house and built a park around it (most of the old farm has now been developed as residences). The following year, the building was opened as a historic house museum by the Huguenot and New Rochelle Historical Association.
Ultimately the relatively small space of the building was deemed too small to accommodate its many visitors. In 1925, the Thomas Paine Association undertook to construct a building adjacent to accommodate the increasing visitors, to house exhibits of Paine memorabilia, and provide lecture space. The effort attracted Paine enthusiasts from around the nation, including Thomas Edison. Edison and his father had admired Paine’s ideas. Thomas Edison turned the first spade of earth for the Thomas Paine Museum in 1926.
As democracies eclipsed monarchies throughout the world in the 20th century, Paine’s reputation continued to grow. In 1942, during a low point of the Second World War, Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a notable “fireside chat” radio speech which called on Americans to remember Paine’s inspiring role before the Battle of Trenton. The following year a wing was added to the Thomas Paine Museum to house the Hufeland Memorial Library. For many years every fourth grader in the New Rochelle visited the Paine house (now called the Thomas Paine Cottage) and the Museum. Signs entering town once proclaimed “New Rochelle – Home of Thomas Paine.”
In 2009, Thomas Paine societies across the country gathered at the Cottage and Museum to mark the 200th anniversary of Paine’s death, but cracks were already forming. The Museum no longer enjoyed the community support it once had and the building was falling into disrepair. Conflicting aims of the Paine house and museum’s limited stakeholders fostered internal conflicts. In order to raise funds to maintain the Museum’s aging structure, some sought to sell parts of it’s collection. Others hoped to move the collections from New Rochelle, to a better supported institution. In a compromise it was agreed to move some of the collections to a newly established Thomas Paine Institute at Iona College.
Although the Thomas Paine Cottage remains in operation, a few years ago the Thomas Paine Museum closed altogether and now stands vacant. The Museum’s demise represents an abandonment by the community of New Rochelle of a major historical resource. It’s a failure of citizens and their elected government – a franchise Paine himself helped create, but to which he was denied.
There is perhaps some hope. Three of the seven incumbent members of the New Rochelle City Council will be retiring on January 1st. They will be replaced by three women previously unaffiliated with City government. Now is the time to for concerned members of the public in New Rochelle and throughout New York State to make their concerns known.
As Paine said in Common Sense, it is “time to begin anew.” It is common sense that there be a new approach with respect to the Paine Museum that is in accordance with the City’s history, and the memory of Thomas Paine.
Illustration: portrait of Thomas Paine by Laurent Dabos for the purpose of engraving.
Jonathan Arnow says
Where is/are the Historic Comission (s) , if they even exist? Are there even Federal Funds that could be allocated to preserve this building?..My God… Do not the local school systems see the value of this man’s works towards creating the country we enjoy and live in today ,the historic nature of what he wrote or has the search for ‘correctness’ that seems to have permeated our society today gotten a hold of even Thomas Paine.? …This cottage should be and should have been listed as a National Heritage Foundation Site , if it hasn’t been done so already and fully funded … ….Anything dealing with our Early Colonial Heritage has lost it’s value in today’s society….. and isn’t deemed that important anymore…What a shame…if this story is true…Where are the local colleges , like Iona , Concordia, College of New Rochelle…etc…. schools…where are the kids, where are the history professors.. ?
Jonathan, as the blog post indicates, Iona College has been very involved with the establishment of the Thomas Paine Institute on its campus. Significant work has been done to preserve and promote many artifacts and first hand writings, etc. You possibly have not been up on the news but the College of New Rochelle has closed and therefore would not be in a position to support any initiative.
Manny and Sandra Ocasio says
Is this fake news? New Rochelle has lost its mind if it really plans on destroying this historical landmark. Who is running this town anyway? I recall visiting with my daughter during her elementary school years. Noam Branson was there with his kids! What’s up Mr Bramson? Where does our mayor stand on this issue. To remove it would be shameful in the least.
Concerned Former Rochelleian says
Very sad, I recall school trips and reports on Thomas Paine. This place needs to be saved.
Hopefully intetest will be renewed. As a child we all visited the cottage but couldn’t appreciate the greatness of this progressive historian until much later. I also have to comment that it’s more than a bit disconcerting that there are no less than THREE typos in this article. Especially considering his writing skills! Where is the proof reader???
John Warren says
The proof reader is poorly paid. Feel free to send your corrections to firstname.lastname@example.org.
T. Payneston, New Rochelle NY says
The Thomas Paine Cottage Museum, where local school groups use to visit, is still in operation and does have local, state, federal landmark status but no guaranteed government funding. Unfortunately, not one local New Rochelle school has visited the cottage in many years; budget restraints were their answer as to why. Iona College tries to help with some sponsorship. As another mentioned, CNR closed last year. The NYS transportation grant program, Connect Kids to Parks, will only give grant money to NYS owned historic sites. The Cottage is privately owned by the NR Historical Association, a 501c3 nonprofit. NO ONE, federal, state, city of New Rochelle supports them financially. It is all funded by membership & fund raising efforts. Strange that our tax dollars cannot go to locally operated historic sites. But that’s another article that needs to be written and state and local officials that need to change that.
On the local level, NR’s Commissioner of Development broke his promise to have a Preservation Plan in place by the end of 2019. A plan the city had budgeted for in 2019. This economic renaissance New Rochelle is experiencing is in many cases at the cost of historic preservation. Progress and new modern buildings should stand beside historic preservation, not in front of it! Can we not learn from European countries that honor their past? Pelor Tavern that hosted General Lafayette on August 20, 1824 can be found where in NR? Nowhere, it is gone.
The Thomas Paine Museum is a separately owned building from the Paine Cottage Museum and does not have historic status. The Association that owns it can no longer afford to maintain it so it will most likely be sold off to a developer. It stands in a very wealthy neighborhood with multi million dollar homes. If sold, most likely the new owners will not have preservation on their minds. This building does need to be saved but very few are willing to stand up for it. New Rochellians confuse the two structures all the time while others are sure that the City maintains and funds both.
If anyone out there does care about local historical buildings, contact your local historical association to see how you can help. If you’d like to help preserve the Thomas Paine Cottage Museum contact them at Contactus@thomaspainecottage.org or send a donation online http://www.DiscoverNewRochelleHistory.org. They can also put you in touch with others trying to save the Paine Museum from being torn down.
If you’re a parent, find out if your schools are visiting local historic sites not just the big draw Museums. Learning local history builds community involvement in our youth and a sense of pride in their hometown. Your PTA should have information as well.
Thanks to Mr. Kaplan for bringing this to the attention of the public, now let’s do something about helping both the Museum building, the Paine Cottage and all local historically significant buildings and areas!
Let us never forget what NYC did to the original Penn Station.
Mike hunt says
Maybe New Rochelle should reconsider the value of this site. I heard commissioner Luis Aragon has a developer interested in putting a 75 story mixed use tower there. Gotta love New Rochelle
James S. Kaplan says
I fully agree with Mr. Payneston and the other commenters that City of New Rochelle (and Westchester County and New York State) should take immediate steps to prevent the destruction of the Thomas Paine Museum. In my view it should be reopened and hopefully restored to its former glory with a combination of public and private funds. Renovation of this and other historic buildings should further the City’s economic development by promoting both tourism and education and should enhance the attractiveness of other residential and commercial projects that are undertaken by private real estate developers. Unfortunately as Mr. Payneston points out, the Thomas Paine Museum building, owned by the Thomas Paine Historical Association is sometimes confused with the Thomas Paine Cottage next door, which in recent years has been under the separate ownership of the Huguenot Historical Association, and for some years in the past the two organizations have been at war with one another. The Thomas Paine Museum building with the Thomas Paine Cottage should be part of one unified complex devoted to Paine as apparently was intended when it was constructed in 1925 and run by one organization be it private or public, but certainly with a heavy contribution of public funds.
It is amazing that the New Rochelle Mayor and City Council which meet at City Hall on North Avenue less than a mile from the location of the Thomas Paine Museum has been completely oblivious to this imminent threat to one of the City’s greatest historical resources.In fact response to this article, I received an email (for some reason not posted in the Public Comments), from a Mike Hunt alleging that New Rochelle development Commission Louis Aragon is in discussions with a real estate developer who proposes to tear down the Museum building and erect a 75 story building on the site.
Now is time for all concerned citizens in New Rochelle and throughout New York State and the rest of the county to rise to the defense of this important historical monument and the memory of this most important historical figure. Please respond as some have to this blog and also the Thomas Paine Cottage.com, as well as to New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson and the New Rochelle City Council, particularly newly-elected New Rochelle City Councilwoman Sarah Kaye (in whose district the Thomas Paine Museum is located) You could also contact Westchester County Legislator Terry Clement.
As a lawyer who has lived In New Rochelle for 36 years, but who works in the City where I am the President of the Lower Manhattan Historical Association, I have seen the great importance of marking and preserving historical sites and personally am a veteran of a number of fights to do so. The New York City landmarks commission, which was formed as a result of the destruction in 1963 of Penn Station to which Mr.
Payneston refers has been a major force in preserving the City’s heritage and demonstrating how historical preservation furthers the City’s economic and real estate development. Every day that I go through Grand Central Terminal, I see a plaque to the late Jacqueline Kennedy (an early leader in the effort to save Grand Central from destruction by developers) in which she is quoted as saying if we do not preserve our monuments today so that our children know our City’s history, how will they have the strength to defend our City in the future.
Fred Spinowitz says
Although the Thomas Paine Museum building is now vacant, it has a history that can still be relevant and exciting IF the New Rochelle citizens and its elected officials value it before it is too late to save it. The building is almost 100 years old and has the stature on North Ave that has many locals and visitors curious. The beautiful building should be restored and the documents now housed at Iona should be returned. The proximity to the small cottage has unlimited value for education and Paine Pride.
Local schools should be required to visit the few sites that establish a rich history that helped shape our nation. Shame on us if we do not preserve this treasure. Visiting documents at Iona will feel cold and detached compared to visiting the small cottage and then sitting in the reception room of the elegant meeting room of the Paine Museum. The museum can also be used as a inspiration for annual contests in Poetry and Art to remind us of colonial life. Ongoing music programs could be enjoyed at the prestigious building. USE IT – Don’t loose it!
James S. Kaplan says
New Rochelle City Council Woman Sarah Kaye made a motion at a recent Council meeting to have the Thomas Paine Museum considered for landmark status. A hearing was held before the New Rochelle City Landmarks review committee last night (February 12) which can be accessed on line. The Committee based on the recommendation of the City historian Barbara Davis voted to recommend local landmark status to the full City Council despite opposition from representatives of the Thomas Paine National Historical Society (the owner of the property). Even if Landmark status is granted that will not open the Museum without significant financial support from some source.
While I heartily endorse you comment that the Museum should be preserved and reopened, The fight to save the Thomas Paine Museum continues. I encourage you to attend the next City Council meeting on March 10 where this subject will presumably be discussed. You might also look at Landmarks Committee hearing which can be accessed at the New Rochelle Government website.
James S. Kaplan
Jeffrey D Block says
Mr Kaplan Who is the contact at the Museum Association regarding its sale?