1695 THROUGH 1869
One of New York City’s best-kept secrets is the existence on Staten Island of an expertly restored collection of fine old houses, government buildings, stores, and other structures that offers a revealing glimpse of life in a small community more than a century and a half ago. The group, known as the Richmondtown Restoration, comprises the largest collection of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century structures in New York City and the finest display of Dutch-American vernacular buildings in the country.
A crossroads village in mid-island first settled in the 1690s by Dutch, English, and French farmers, Richmondtown (originally called Cocclestown) became the seat of Richmond County—Staten Island’s official designation—in 1728. By 1850 it was a thriving governmental center, with an impressive Greek Revival courthouse (1837) and a handsome brick county clerk’s office (1848). But the town’s primacy did not last. When a new railroad line bypassed it, Richmondtown began a slow decline, and shortly after the 1898 annexation of Staten Island by New York City—part of the creation of Greater New York—the county seat was moved to St. George, on the island’s north shore. By 1920 most of the government buildings had been abandoned; the town’s Dutch Reformed church had been closed and its building was moved away to be used as a carriage garage. Richmondtown became just another quiet residential community.
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.