The Island In The Bay


In 1929, for example, a young telephone company engineer, Loring McMillen, had already begun to worry about the loss of the Island’s individuality and especially its historic treasures. He had been born there, the son of a schoolteacher, and had grown up digging for its clams and swimming on its beaches. His local patriotism was highly aroused by the news that agents of Henry Ford had already hauled away two truckloads of interesting relics from Island attics to Ford’s museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

His determination to halt further depredations took him all over the Island, and his telephone company colleagues helped him. In their spare time they called on the families in all the old houses, begging objects from the past for the Staten Island Historical Society. In return for pulling her goat out of a well, for example, one lady gave them an old plow and an ice marker, once used to mark blocks of ice in a pond for cutting. Altogether, the Society now has 25,000 items preserved, including Alice Austen’s glass negatives.

The seat of borough government had long since been moved to St. George, and the old capital of Richmondtown was falling into decay when McMillen persuaded the authorities to let the society use two of the old, abandoned buildings for its activities, including its museum. He was made the official, although unpaid, historian of the borough. Once he had studied architectural history, and he began to make drawings of many old houses before they burned or were bulldozed away. Since then, the amateur historians have managed to save several seventeenth-century buildings, includ-

ing the school, or Voorlezer’s House, which has been completely restored. They have begun to raise funds for a complete restoration of Richmondtown, somewhat on the order of Williamsburg, Virginia. It will be the only such major reconstruction in New York City —most of which seems to be intent on destroying all traces of the past as rapidly as possible. The city has given the Richmondtown Restoration two hundred acres of land, and will match dollar for dollar any funds that can be raised. The Island historians would like to preserve, to rebuild, or to move from other parts of the Island some fifty structures, including an old tide mill, a blacksmith’s shop, a store, farmhouses, and the Dutch church that the British partially burned.

If these plans succeed, there will still be a place of refuge on Staten Island. But the rest of the borough, before very long, will look just like any other place. Clear Comfort, Alice Austen’s ancient home, still stands, as of now, overlooking the Narrows, but it is empty and decaying. The beach is littered, the lawn ragged, and the last occupants appear to have gone off in a hurry, leaving a comic book lying on an unmade bed. Miss Austen’s pictures remain, to ask us quietly what we are doing to our country.