As is very often the case with historic houses, I was enamored of the Conference House kitchen, which includes the original open hearth stove. I wouldn’t want to have to cook there, especially not in the summer. But it’s neat to look at.
Far, far away, on the southern shore of Staten Island, is an old farmhouse. And I mean, pretty darn old. The Billopp House, better known as Conference House, dates to around 1675. Wyckoff House in Brooklyn and Bowne House in Queens are older. And there are four houses in Staten Island that are older, too. I suppose Staten Islanders don’t tear stuff down as aggressively as they do in other boroughs.
Anyway, Billopp House survives not through an accident of fate or because the Billopps themselves did anything particularly great or notorious. Rather, it survives because of a single afternoon there in 1776. Continue reading “Conference House”
I had completely forgotten about New York’s state fossil, until the Staten Island Museum reminded me. It’s a sea scorpion or eurypterid, which I would absolutely not want to meet on a Jurassic beach.
The Staten Island Museum started as a private pooling of personal natural history collections in 1881, opening to the public in 1908. Currently it claims to be New York’s only truly encyclopedic museum, embracing science, history, and art. And so it does, albeit in small doses of each.
The museum formerly resided in a classical building in St. George, near the Staten Island Ferry, until last year, when it moved to Snug Harbor. It’s a bus or car ride from the ferry terminal, but at least the architecture is still appropriately museum-y.
The giant “Azel F. Merrell” oyster sloop flag hanging in the museum. The city’s oystering history is one of my favorite parts of the New York story.
Most historic buildings in New York are a scattershot, here-and-there thing, involving much travel through the contemporary city to get from one to the next. In terms of quantity in proximity it is impossible to beat Staten Island’s Historic Richmond Town, which boasts over 23 buildings from the 1600s to the 1800s, mostly within walking distance and periodically open to the public. Continue reading “Historic Richmond Town”
This case of Tibetan figurines. The story is a spoiler, so I tell it in the review below.
Oh, this one hurts me a little. I really, really wanted the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art to be a diamond of enlightenment in the heart of Staten Island. An amazing, secret Shangri-La in the midst of Shao-Lin. I really did.
But it’s not to be.
Near the geographic heart of Staten Island, high on a hill, there’s a lighthouse. Climb the road up that hillside. Pass the lighthouse and enter a well-to-do neighborhood of big houses. Eventually, you will reach a large stone wall, festooned on one end with distinctive Tibetan prayer flags. Stairs lead you down to a library, exhibit hall, and a small, steep, garden. Perched on the hill like a miniature Potala Palace, you’ve found the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art Continue reading “Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art”
The views from Fort Wadsworth are really spectacular.
There’s no more scenic vista of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
The Verrazano Narrows divides New York Bay into two bodies of water, the Upper Bay (what everyone usually thinks of as “New York Harbor”) and the Lower Bay, which connects to the Atlantic Ocean. As a narrow body of water, the Narrows has always been strategically vital in defending New York from naval attacks. So it’s not surprising that fortifications exist on both the Brooklyn and Staten Island shores of the narrows.
Its narrowness also makes it a natural place for a bridge, so it’s also not surprising that Robert Moses built one of those there, too.
This project has given me a reason to visit all of the city’s extant historic harbor defense installations. I find them fascinating, particularly how fast-changing military technology rendered them mostly obsolete just a few decades after their completion. Nowadays, of course, we defend our port cities from naval attacks via long range missiles, not cannons and mortars.
Antonio Meucci built a rustic rocking chair from roots and saplings. The description says that he would sit in his garden “embittered by the thought that the glory of his invention had been denied him.” The rocking chair of bitterness, I can get behind that.
Hope and bitterness, triumph and failure, fame and obscurity, a technological and a political revolution, all in one modest house in Staten Island. How can one place epitomize such divergent fates? Such is the story of the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum.
Antonio Meucci comes first. An inventor who dabbled in new-fangled applications of electricity, Meucci moved from Italy to Cuba before settling in Staten Island in 1850. As early as 1849, he started working on something he called the teletrofono, which converted sound waves to electricity, transmitted them over a wire, and re-converted them to sound via a speaker at the other end. Sound familiar?
The house tells the story of a brilliant but naive man, who took his invention (prototypes, models, and all) to a major telegraph company, only to be brushed off. He lacked resources to file a patent on his own. And was incensed when Alexander Graham Bell patented a suspiciously similar invention a few years later. And Bell had worked for that very same telegraph company!
In addition to a video narrative of his story, one room in the museum collects some Meucci-bilia, including a few surviving teletrofono models, his rocking chair, and his death mask.
Belatedly, both the New York City and the U.S. House of Representatives have acknowledged Meucci’s unsung role in the telephone’s invention, though of course neither he nor his heirs ever saw one dime of royalties. The museum houses those proclamations as well.
If Meucci had a better lawyer, more resources, better English language skills, or a less trusting nature, we’d all be talking on celltrofonos today.
Giuseppe Garibaldi was the driving force for Italian independence and unification. Italy hadn’t been a single political unit since the fall of Rome, and by the 1800s various bits were controlled by the Swiss, Austria-Hungary, the Papal States, and Bourbon Spain. But as the tide of nationalism was rising across Europe, a few visionaries (or lunatics, depending) like Garibaldi decided Italy should be a single, independent country, too.
Garibaldi’s story is one of the merits of persistence. He tried a couple of times to march an army across the Italian peninsula, and failed. He fled to exile first in Uruguay (where he again stirred up revolutionary passions among the locals) and then, for a while, in New York. When the local Italian community needed a place for the polarizing, heroic man to lie low, Meucci stepped forward. Garibaldi wanted to be out of the limelight, so the idyllic little house in Staten Island appealed.
Eventually, of course, History called (but not on a teletrofono), and Garibaldi returned to Europe. Where, much to the surprise of nearly everyone, he actually succeeded in creating the Italy we know today.
Garibaldi only lived in the house for a couple of years, but two rooms of the museum cover that time. One presents a collection of Garibaldi artifacts — weapons, uniforms, an imposing bronze bust, and some charming maps that detail his travels in loops of yarn. The other, upstairs, re-creates Garibaldi’s bedroom.
Should You Visit the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum?
After Garibaldi’s death in 1882, the house got a plaque recognizing his stay. When Meucci died, New York’s Italian community took over. In the early 1900s, they erected an ersatz Palladian temple of wood and plaster over and around the house.
Maintaining that proved difficult. They removed the monumental shell in the 1950s to create the modest museum and cultural center that exists to the present day. Operated by the Sons of Italy, the museum has periodically formulated plans to expand.
That might help. Garibaldi was l’eroe dei due mondi, (hero of two worlds–Italy and Uruguay, that is). However, I’m not sure everyone needs to make a pilgrimage to his brief home on Staten Island. It’s interesting, but haphazard. Like many small museums, the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum’s very limited space and resources hamper its ability to tell its dual stories.
An introductory video covers Meucci, with appropriate levels of bitterness and righteous anger. And my guide through the museum was both knowledgeable and enthusiastic. However, a clutter of folding tables and chairs in the way of the displays detracted. They serve the museum’s other role as classroom for Italian language, culture, and opera.
If you’re a fan of history, Italy, or underdog inventors, you’ll enjoy visiting the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum. And if you are trekking to the terrific Alice Austen House, this is an easy walk away.
There’s so much I liked about Alice Austen’s story and her home. However, I was blown away by Clear Comfort’s spectacular, panoramic views of the harbor. I’d go back there just to sit on the lawn and watch the ships go by.
Touring Alice Austen’s house in Staten Island, my guide quipped that if Alice Austen were alive today, she’d be one of those people who lines up for the new iPhone each time one comes out. I say she’d also most likely be an Instagram star.
That her life stretched from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th, most of it spent in a lovely house on the shores of Staten Island, makes her even more fascinating.
The largest Fresnel lens in the U.S. was installed at Makapu’u Point Lighthouse on Oahu in Hawai’i in 1909. It was made in France and was featured at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
The National Lighthouse Museum is a museum in its infancy. Located a short stroll from the ferry terminal in St. George, Staten Island, the museum describes the history, technology, and design of lighthouses. Continue reading “National Lighthouse Museum”
The building’s stained glass is a treasure of nautical and celestial themes.
The Newhouse Center is a challenge to review. Like its neighbor the Noble Maritime Collection, its name creates a very wrong impression. You think gallery, permanent collection, and with a name like Newhouse, it’s probably good stuff. No, wrong, and not quite.
John Noble made his art in a houseboat studio that he cobbled together, Frankenstein’s Monster-like, out of sundry boat bits and bobs over years. The Collection acquired his studio, restored it beautifully, and moved the whole thing into a room in the building, where you can peek inside.
This museum suffers from a misleading name. I walked into the Noble Maritime Collection expecting a dark basement full of dusty old nautical stuff, with a stuffy aristocratic bent. Instead, the collection occupies three light-filled, airy, beautifully restored floors of Building D at Sailors’ Snug Harbor.
It covers four main topics:
The life and art of John Noble, for whom the collection is named and who primarily made prints and drawings that captured the life of the harbor.
The founding and establishment of Snug Harbor in the early 19th century
The lives of sailors who retired to Snug Harbor
Robbins Reef Light, and Kate Walker, the remarkable woman who served as lighthousekeeper for over thirty years.