- Historic Sites
Williamsburg On The Subway
In the most self-consuming of cities, an impressive and little-known architectural legacy remains to show us how New Yorkers have lived and prospered since the days when the population stood at around one thousand
May/June 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 3
First settled in the 1690s, Richmondtown includes the finest set of Dutch-American vernacular buildings and the oldest elementary schoolhouse in the country.
Stirrings of revival began in the 1930s, when the Staten Island Historical Society acquired and began restoring the Voorlezer’s House, a structure dating from 1695 just down the road from the old courthouse; it had been used by the Reformed Dutch church as a school and church (voorlezer is Dutch for lay minister and teacher) and is the oldest known elementary-school building in the United States. Soon the idea of a restored village took hold. More buildings were acquired, and the City of New York helped by purchasing the land. Today the thirty-acre complex—operated by the historical society with help from New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs—contains twenty-six historic structures, about half of them moved from elsewhere on Staten Island when the society learned they were in danger of being lost. Most were built between 1750 and 1850, and currently a dozen or so are open to the public; the rest are being restored as funds permit. In many of the buildings crafts are demonstrated. There is a well-stocked one-room general store that ceased operation in 1915 but looks today as if it could reopen on a moment’s notice; most of its contents were donated by local history buffs. The old courthouse serves as a visitors’ center, while the county clerk’s building has been made over into a museum of the island’s history.
In due course the society hopes to detour traffic around the complex to heighten the sense of the quiet past, and to add more buildings on an even larger site. But even as it stands, the restoration is a considerable achievement.
Staten Island’s Alice Austen House, though delightful for its own sake, occupies a special place among New York’s great historic properties in that it commemorates, and is imbued with the spirit of, a woman who devoted her life to taking photographs in which she chronicled, with rare skill and perception, the world around her that she knew best. And what gives her story special poignancy is that both her house and her astonishing collection of some three thousand photographs just barely missed being lost entirely to posterity.
Born in 1866, Alice Austen was only a few months old when she and her mother (her father had left them) came to live at Clear Comfort, her grandfather’s pleasant house on Staten Island’s shore. The house dated from the 1690s, but her grandfather, who had bought it in 1844, had added onto the small frame structure and given it a charming Gothic Revival look with steeply peaked dormer windows and gingerbread trim. When Alice was ten, her uncle, a ship’s captain, gave her a camera, and soon she had learned not only how to use it but how to develop its awkward glass negatives and make expert prints from them. She began by photographing the house, her family, and close friends, then over the years branched out to record the tennis parties and picnics of the island’s stylish younger set, important ships coming through the Narrows past the house, everyday life on Staten Island, and all manner of New York City street scenes, from immigrants arriving at the docks to fishmongers, street sweepers, and children hawking newspapers. She never considered herself a professional, but her pioneering work ranks with the best.
She never married and, because she was well off, never had to support herself. She never thought to sell her pictures. When the stock market crash came in 1929—she was sixty-three—her money vanished. She and a friend tried to generate some income by operating a tearoom at the house, but it hardly covered their expenses. She mortgaged the house but was unable to make the payments, and the bank foreclosed. In 1945 the house’s contents were sold, and Alice moved to a poorhouse. Only by chance did an official of the Staten Island Historical Society learn about the sale at the last moment and gather up several boxes of her glass negatives for safekeeping. The boxes went to the society’s storerooms.
In 1950 a researcher looking for pictures to illustrate a history of American women heard about the collection and came to the society to inquire. She was overwhelmed by what she saw. The upshot was that Life—at the urging of a future founder of American Heritage, Oliver Jensen, rushed to publish Alice’s work, and other sales followed. By this time the photographer was in her eighties and very feeble, but her admirers—suddenly there were a great many of them—used the income to move her to a proper nursing home, where she died in 1952.