Category Archives: Staten Island History

Forgotten paradise: Welcome to South Beach, Staten Island

South Beach, Staten Island, 1973, photographed by Arthur Tress

As a resort and amusement mecca, the time of Staten Island’s South Beach has come and gone.  The waterfront community south of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge still has a classic old boardwalk, built in 1935 as New Deal project and appropriately called the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Boardwalk.  And there are still recreational facilities for baseball and hockey found just off its old boards.

But priorities have changed here. Similar to the fate of Rockaway Beach, most of the amusements were gone by the 1970s,  Several sections of neighborhoods along the shore were gravely damaged in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy.

Its doubtful this area will ever return to its glory days of the early 20th century when Happyland Amusement Park brought a bit of Coney Island magic to the shore.  Further inland, real estate developers were changing the landscape with planned communities that eventually appealed to New Yorkers of Italian, Irish and Hispanic descent.

Here’s some views of South Beach and adjacent Midland Beach from early in the century and then some drastically different views from the 1970s. Photos are courtesy the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library:

From a 1908 advertisement: “A delightful ferry sail down the bay and trolley ride through Staten Island’s verdant hills will bring you to HAPPYLAND, on South Beach, looking out toward the ocean.  The new combination ticket feature provides, for a quarter, admission to the park, vaudeville, dancing pavilions, Bill’s Ladder, Paris by Night, Foolish House, Georgia Minstrels, Dib Dab Slide, Electric Slide, Hippodrome, Circle Swing, Fat Saidy and the Human Roulette Wheel.”

Brooklyn Daily Eagle ad from 1913 (courtesy the blog wagnerowitz)

Below the beaches in 1973, photographed by Arthur Tress

Camera Ready: The Alice Austen House, a rustic reminder of an uncommon artist and a cottage shrine to a life in pictures

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FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION Until May 21st, you can vote every day in the Partners In Preservation initiative, which will award grant money to certain New York cultural and historical sites among 40 nominees. Having trouble deciding which site to support? I’ll be featuring on a few select sites here on the blog, providing you with a window into their history and hopefully giving you many reasons to visit these places, long after this competition is done. 


Historic Site: The Alice Austen House
On the banks of Staten Island’s eastern shore sits a worn but elegant cottage, where once lived a woman of modern artistic gifts that just a few decades earlier would have been considered magical.

Alice Austen was a photographer of sublime ability, in an era when the artistic potential of photography was still being assessed. She’s the sort of historical figure whose life could easily be overlooked. In fact, it was, for almost half a century. Her existence at times seems sequestered, in a habitat of old wealth, her universe principally residing in a borough that itself sometimes gets unfairly disregarded. In some ways, it’s the Alice Austen House, in Rosebank, Staten Island. that keeps her legacy in the conversation — as a revolutionary artist, an enigmatic social eccentric and a famous New Yorker.

Portions of this curious house — named Clear Comfort, but readily known today as the Alice Austen House, after its most famous resident — can be traced to a modest one-room structure built in the 1690s, when Staten Island (or, as the British preferred to call it, Richmond County) had only about 1,000 residents, mostly Dutch farmers.  From the windows of the original farmhouse, the residents might have seen the British, using Richmond as a base, attacking Washington’s forces on the opposite shore in Brooklyn in August 1776.

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Above: Alice’s photo of her home, 1895

By the early 19th century, the house shared the northeastern shore with a smattering of ferry docks, including one owned by an ambitious young periauger operator named Cornelius Vanderbilt.  As New York grew to become a busy port city and a capital of wealth, some prominent residents flocked to the Staten Island shore for respite. Moguls, businessmen, socialites, even Vice Presidents (Daniel D. Tompkins) built lavish homes a short carriage ride away.

That this shoreside Dutch farmhouse survived to even this point in history– hogging a view of the Narrrows that any mansion builder might envy — is extraordinary. As a later history of Staten Island dramatically put it, “[I]t is a relief to the more conservatively inclined to find in Greater New York a house that still defied the sword of the destroying angel….One of these, which for centuries has defied destruction, is the Austen homestead.”

In 1844, a lower Manhattan dry goods merchant John Haggerty Austen purchased the old Dutch house, dilapidated but still desirable due to its view of a harbor clogged with ships. Austen greatly expanded the property into a Gothic revival summer cottage worthy of an old European fairytale. Soon, several members of the Austen clan lived here year-round. And in 1866 they were joined by Austen’s unmarried daughter and her small infant Alice.

The pair had been abandoned by Alice’s father, a situation one might normally consider dire in the mid-19th century. However the Austen family doted upon the child, and their wealth provided a cushion for the girl to pursue her ever bolder ambitions in comfort.

Above: Alice Austen in a self portrait on the porch of Clear Comfort, 1892 [source]

The first camera came to Clear Comfort in 1876, the present of Alice’s uncle, Oswald Muller, a Danish sea captain who demonstrated the bulky, wooden device in the Austen garden. Alice became immediately fascinated, and, although it was certainly unladylike in the Victorian era for a young woman to hunch in front of a large wooden tripod, her talents soon became evident. Another uncle, a chemistry professor, guided her through the development process, and an upstairs closet was eventually transformed into her own personal darkroom. In this dank, inconspicuous room, Austen patiently developed some of the most beautiful pictures of old New York ever taken.

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Above: Lounging in the woods, 1893


A THOUSAND WORDS
Alice Austen was not a professional photographer. She did not get paid to document the world or to hover over developing chemicals. She took pictures because she loved it.

The photographic process before the 1890s — before the introduction of camera film — was a complex and frustrating production. The pursuit of leisure photography, capturing casual, outdoor scenes using a portable camera, was a relatively recent phenomenon. And a camera was only ‘portable’ in the sense it could be used outside a studio. A wooden-box camera with a tripod and a satchel of delicate lens and exposed plates would have been difficult to transport.

Below: The Staten Island Cricket Club in St. George, in 1893, employing the sort of subject framing that would typify art deco photography a couple decades later.

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Alice’s first images were taken at home, on the grounds of Clear Comfort.  From here she developed the poise, the skill and the guts to take the camera on the road — around Staten Island, along rocky mountainous areas and winding trails. And eventually, to Manhattan itself. What a sight it would have been to behold young Alice Austen on her bike, weaving through the streets of Manhattan with her equipment strapped to the back.

What comes through from her photography is a zest for life rarely documented in images of the era. Due to the conventions of the photographic process, subjects had to stand still or risk being rendered a ghostly blur. Equally important, people rarely knew how to pose. But in the world of Alice Austen, frivolity overrides stiffness. Austen documented her social circle with a provocative candidness, allowing her subjects to goof around, create visual gags, even cross dress.

My favorite of all her images finds Alice herself posing awkwardly with a group of men at a mock tea party. What are they doing? This picture presages a billion future Facebook photographs of people acting in a nonsensical fashion.

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On the streets of New York, Austen found composure and beauty in common situations. More stunningly, she found it among lower class subjects — bike messengers and street urchins, rag pickers and fishmongers. Most likely, she knew ‘proper’ New Yorkers would never have posed so spontaneously for her. Perhaps her choices were informed by contemporary New York photographers of the day, people like Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, who chose the same subjects but for more social reformist purposes.

In 1896, Alice stopped a messenger boy on the street to create a masterpiece of composition and form. She would do the same with policemen, postmen, even street sweepers. (NYPL)

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Her travels took her around New England and even to Europe, but she always returned home to Clear Comfort, and her house and the Narrows framed beautifully in front would remain her most popular subjects.

ALICE AND GERTRUDE
Alice Austen is also an important figure in gay and lesbian history, although she might have recoiled from the word ‘lesbian’, a term which seemed to apply more to the debauched female bohemians of Greenwich Village than an old-money doyenne living in a seaside cottage. In 1899, she met Brooklyn school teacher and dance instructor Gertrude Tate and began a companionship that culminated in 1917 when Gertrude, over objections from her family, moved into Clear Comfort with Alice.

Yes, another female power couple named Alice and Gertrude. Although unlike the Parisian bon vivants of the day, the true relationship led by Austen and Tate continues to remain closed to the world. They were companions for the rest of their lives, even through the troubling trials that would soon befall the residents of Clear Comfort

She had survived this many years quite comfortably on the interest from her grandfather’s wealth. But the Great Depression wiped out most of the family finances. Austen resorted to opening her front yard as a tea room, and when that failed, she mortgaged the house and sold off most of her possessions. Fortunately in 1945 she confided her glass plate negatives to Loring McMillan at the Staten Island Historical Society — although she expected to get them back! (McMillan would later be instrumental in the creation of Historic Richmond Town as a repository of some of the borough’s oldest, most famous structures.)

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Above: For a Life Magazine article in 1951, Austen was reunited with her tattered old home.

Alice Austen has the rare distinction of being rescued herself by a historical preservation society.  Even as situations became so dire for her in 1950 that she moved into the Staten Island Farm Colony, a pauper’s retreat in Sea View, the Staten Island Historical Society began work with a publisher to publish her photos, most seeing light for the first time in decades. From the proceeds she was able to spend her final years in a private nursing home, the subject of magazine articles and belated tributes. She died in on June 2, 1952.

Gertrude outlived her by ten years. Her request to be buried next to Alice was not honored by her family.

PRESERVING THE IMAGE
Alice Austen’s home was rescued by the community in the 1960s, designated a New York City landmark in 1971 and exhaustively renovated in the 1980s. Today it’s one of Staten Island’s most unusual treasures, close to industry and a heavily developed residential area, but serene as though kept under glass.

The house is as reverent to the craft of photography as it was when Alice was alive. On the blustery afternoon I spent at the Alice Austen House, the rooms were buzzing with children arriving for a workship on how to make and use pinhole cameras. Replicas of her equipment are featured in exhibits fashioned from Alice’s old drawing room.

While the home is in remarkable shape for a building over three centuries old, standing on the shores of the Narrows provides a special challenge for preservation, and the grant it has placed with the Partners In Preservation program would help weatherproof the structure, with additional repairs to the chimney and roof.

The Alice Austen House is digitizing many of her 3,500 existing photographs, available on their newly launched website. You can also go there for information on how to visit.

Below: Alice in a self-portrait with her dog Punch, 1893 [source]

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Disclosure: I have partnered up with Partners in Preservation as a blog ambassador to help spread the word and raise awareness of select historical sites throughout the tri-state area. Though I am compensated for my time, I have not been instructed to express any particular point of view. All opinions expressed here are strictly my own. And since writing about New York landmarks is kinda my thing anyway, I’m thrilled to share my love of these places!

Aaron Burr, Staten Island, and the tale of his death mask

Yes, Hamilton fans, we are a proud people, judging from the many notes and supportive comments yesterday left on the Facebook page on the birthday of Alexander Hamilton, tinged with strong anti-Aaron Burr sentiment. But, from our comfortable vantage of the future, have we been too harsh on the killer Vice President?

Sure, he absolutely got away with murder. But it was, after all, a duel, willingly engaged by both participants, however misguided. Murder charges against Burr were eventually dropped, but he obviously avoided New York for many years.

His later misadventures out West — his failed, confusing efforts to infiltrate Spanish territory and allegedly form a new government in 1806 — just slathered on further scorn and distrust for the once respected lawyer. Three years after killing Alexander Hamilton, Burr was brought to federal trial for treason. He was eventually acquitted due to lack of credible evidence, much to Thomas Jefferson‘s chagrin.

After traveling through Europe and eventually going broke, Burr returned to New York and married the alleged ‘black widow’ Eliza Jumel. They divorced just four months later. The Morris-Jumel Mansion, his home during that time, is today less than two miles away from Alexander’s prized Hamilton Grange. They are two of the oldest homes still standing in northern Manhattan. (The Dyckman Farmhouse , in Inwood on 204th Street, is older than Hamilton’s house.)

Aaron Burr died in 1836 in Staten Island at a boardinghouse in the Port Richmond neighborhood, not far from the Bayonne Bridge.  The boardinghouse later became the St. James Hotel, where guests could specifically ask to stay in Burr’s room for an evening. And sleep in the same bed! A sign even hung over the mantel, “Aaron Burr died in this room.”

The former Vice President spent his last, lonely days in this particular room, shying away from curious locals and pouring over old love letters from Eliza. According to a 1895 New York Times article on the subject of his ‘deathbed’, Burr was hounded by pious ministers who wished to save his soul and release him from his crippling depression.

The article also highlights a very bizarre visitor. One guest at the boardinghouse had an unnatural fascination with Burr, but never spoke to him and kept quietly to himself. When the landlady discovered that Burr was died in his room, the stranger suddenly appeared at the door, opened his satchel and removed the materials to make a plaster death mask of the Vice President. I believe this may be the morbid mask in question!

‘Cropsey’: urban legend intersects with unspeakable crime at an abandoned Staten Island children’s institution


Above: Willowbrook State School in central Staten Island. Looks innocent enough….

BOWERY BOYS RECOMMEND is an occasional feature where we find an unusual movie or TV show that — whether by accident or design — uniquely captures an era of New York City as well as any reference or history book. Other entries in this series can be found here.

Mix a dangerous, fenced-in set of crumbling ruins with the imaginations of children, and the result is an urban legend. Throw in a series of real-life events more horrifying than anything a child would ever dare to conjure, and you have ‘Cropsey’.

A chilling glimpse into some horrific Staten Island history, the documentary ‘Cropsey’, which briefly played at IFC Center earlier this month, is now available on Video On Demand on Time-Warner Cable. The film looks at a series of vile murders on Staten Island during the ’70s and ’80s and how they may relate to the closing of a disturbing old medical institution and at least one ghastly crime that may have occurred in its abandoned underground tunnels.

Cranking up the tinkling piano and effective Blair-Witch style photography of rotted buildings and dark forests, directors and Staten Island natives Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman present the murders and the subsequent capture of the suspect Andrew Rand through a veil of collected memory. Cropsey was the name of a generic killer figure — wielding an ax, or a hook hand, take your pick — woven by slumber-party storytellers and recounted to children. A basic urban legend, but rendered all the stranger for the events that actually did occur near the site of the Willowbrook State School, an institution for children with mental retardation in central Staten Island that was closed in 1987 due to wicked abuses to patients.

Below: Andre Rand in custody

Today the ruins of Willowbrook stand as part of the Staten Island Greenbelt, fenced away and inaccessible. Rand was a former Willowbrook employee who lived on the grounds of the institution after it was closed, and was apparently not alone there. In 1987 when a young girl Jennifer Schweiger goes missing, Rand is taken into custody. Then investigators make a grisly discovery on the grounds of Willowbrook, leading to a host of unsolved cases of child abduction.

The film links together these disappearances from several neighborhoods and attempts to place them into the larger context of Staten Island history — the idea of the borough as ‘dumping ground’ for most of its modern existence, and a place developing against the grain from the rest of New York City.

Along the way you get allusions to the Son of Sam murders and Satanic cults, accusations of necrophilia (!), bizarre handwritten letters from Rand to the filmmakers, and dated New York news footage with Ernie Anastos and Geraldo Rivera, all utilized to give you the serious creeps. “For my safety, I will not go on camera,” says a nun interviewed about a crazy Satanic cult. Like other assertions made in the film, the interview has little bearing on the case and is used primarily to concoct a spooky atmosphere.

The film brought back a lot of my own childhood fears; who didn’t grow up with similar ghost stories about an abandoned house in their neighborhood, a building left in ruin ripe for a fiction told by flash light? ‘Cropsey’ recounts true historical events — several disappearances unsolved to this day — with that same sense of chilling seriousness.

Catherine on our Facebook page had this review: “I saw a screening of this film… it’s a great topic that deserved a better treatment. They do a great injustice to the residents of the institution by repeatedly referring to them as mental patients, and do nothing to shed any light of fact on the urban legend. But if it piques anyone’s interest in the topic, then I guess it did a service.”

Look for ‘Cropsey’ on your cable’s Video On Demand listings. Click here for further information or on the official film website. Visit Forgotten New York to take a snow-covered tour of the Farm Colony ruins along side the main building at Willowbrook.