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.
They also formed the Friends of Alice Austen House, which is dedicated to supporting and improving Clear Comfort. At the Friends urging, the city, which now owns both the house and the land, spent more than a million dollars in the mid-1980s on a full-scale restoration. The house and grounds are now a museum, which offers changing exhibitions of Alice Austen’s voluminous work. The photographs and the house together can be captivating. The director, Mitchell Grubler, remarks, “I don’t know what it is—the small rooms, the memory of Alice maybe—but people tell me that right after they come in the front door, they feel a sense of history, of a time in the past. They also begin to see why the name Clear Comfort is so appropriate.”
Further restoration is needed, but the restorers have a valuable ally—the photographer herself. When expert craftpersons from the Historic House Restoration Crew set to replicating intricate lost scrollwork that had adorned the living-room mantel, they had only to enlarge some of Alice’s photographs from the 1890s. The pictures showed them exactly what to do.