|Should you go?|
|Time spent||62 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||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.
That house, called “Clear Comfort” by the Austen family, isn’t the biggest, most historically important, oldest (though parts of it come close), or most melancholy house museum in New York City. But it vies with the Louis Armstrong House for the title of most charming.
About Alice Austen
Elizabeth Alice Austen was born in 1866. Her mom’s father had bought Clear Comfort in the 1840s, and when young Alice’s own dad abandoned her and her mom when she was 11, she moved into the house.
Alice was a precocious photographer — an uncle bought her her first camera when she was just 10. As an adult, she was a pioneering street photographer, at a time when that was challenging to say the least. My guide described her piling 50 pounds of equipment on her bicycle and riding off into the streets of Staten Island and Manhattan, seeking people that interested her, and convincing them to pose.
Alice wasn’t totally an unknown, secret artist like the great Vivian Maier. She registered some of her pictures with the Library of Congress, published a book of her street photos, exhibited in the 1901 Pan-Pacific Exposition, and had work printed in magazines like Harper’s Weekly. So at least to some extent she wanted to share her work, although she never seems to have tried to earn a living from it.
She slipped quietly into both poverty (after the 1929 stock market crash) and obscurity, moving into the Staten Island Poor Farm when she lost the house in the 1940s. She might be totally forgotten today, except that a historian discovered a box of her glass negatives — literally tripped over them, as our guide told the story — at the Richmond Historical Society.
Through the attention her work gained, Alice spent her final years in relative comfort, although not at Clear Comfort. A community group rallied to preserve the house from destruction in the 1960s. They raised enough money for a thorough, loving restoration in the 1980s, when it opened as a museum.
The House and the Location
I found the house charming. The oldest parts of it date to the end of the 1600s, though it has evolved substantially over the centuries. Two stories, all shingles and Victorian gingerbread decorations, with morning glories creeping up the piazza’s columns, the museum curators have re-created the formal parlor and the dining room based on Alice’s photos of them.
- The museum uses two other rooms, Alice’s ground-floor bedroom and the middle parlor — for exhibits of contemporary photography (currently, inevitably, an examination of gentrification in Staten Island by Garett Smit).
- And the north porch, enclosed as a study, contains binders showcasing Alice’s work, organized by topic. Well worth some time paging through.
- Upstairs, visitors can see Alice’s cramped darkroom, though other second-floor rooms are now offices.
In addition to being adorable the house occupies a simply fantastic location, a bit of green on the Staten Island shore with sweeping views of the Upper Bay, Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn, and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. The small but lush property boasts old trees, a nice garden, and picnic benches. If you visit, I’d highly recommend bringing lunch and savoring the vistas. When I went, the museum was setting up to host a wedding on the lawn, and really, what a lovely spot for that.
A Selfie Pioneer
Of course, the house makes ample use of Alice’s photographs. My guide described her as mainly a street photographer, and I agree those form her best work. But she also photographed the changing city, took some impressive pictures of yachts and yachting, and documented the quarantine process for immigrants arriving in New York.
Most importantly to me, she took tons of pictures of her family and friends — ritzy high class Staten Islanders at play — and herself, too. Alice was a selfie pioneer, rigging up a remote button so she could join her pals in her pictures.
These selfies really bring Alice Austen to life for me — haunting the house in the best possible way. She comes across as a happy, fashionable, tech-savvy, sociable, curious, fun person.
Alice had a close companion named Gertrude Tate, who lived with her at Clear Comfort for decades. In keeping with the times, they weren’t exactly out and proud. But Alice did take some rather Sapphic pictures (tasteful — ladies in Victorian dress embracing and such). The contemporary gay community has embraced her as a pioneer, but I’m not sure how she would’ve felt about that.
She doesn’t seem to have participated in the women’s rights movement (at least, the museum doesn’t mention she was a suffragette). By extension, I’m not sure how she would’ve felt about gay rights, had they been around in her day. I think Alice just did her own thing (and luckily had the means to afford to do her own thing for most of her life) and didn’t give a fig what society thought about it.
You Should Visit the Alice Austen House Museum
The Alice Austen House makes me almost — almost — wish I lived on the North Shore of Staten Island, just so I could visit it often. A fascinating person, compelling art, charming house, and outstanding location combine to more than justify a special trip to see it.
If you are interested in photography, trailblazing women, or just neat people, you will enjoy a visit. And if you happen to be planning a fancy party in Staten Island someday, do consider the Alice Austen House as a venue.
|Address||2 Hylan Boulevard, Staten Island|
|Cost||General Admission: $3 (Suggested donation)|
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