|Should you go?
|Best thing I saw or learned
|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.
After the Battle of Brooklyn (also known as the Battle of Long Island), as both sides–but especially the Americans — were licking their wounds, a peace conference was called. Lord Admiral Richard Howe for the British and Ben Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge for the colonists met there over a meal to discuss whether peace was possible.
As history shows us, it wasn’t. Perhaps they should’ve sent Hamilton.
In any case, the peace conference is a sufficiently important footnote to history that the house stands to this day in its original spot, now a park with a little beach and pretty views of Raritan Bay.
The House and Park
Conference House’s public spaces include the ground floor, part of an upstairs floor, and the basement kitchen. The house remained in use long after the conference that made it famous, which means almost nothing from that era is there today. I might’ve decorated the place to evoke the day of the conference. Instead, it’s just typical colonial or early American furniture. Not bad, but nothing to write home about.
Conference House Park is nice, with a small stone visitor center, a new picnic pavilion under construction, and several other historic houses, not open to the public. It commands sweeping views of the bay as well as the towns of Perth Amboy and South Amboy. These are places I only know from New Jersey Transit announcements (“…making stops at Newark Penn Station, Elizabeth, Ralway, yadda yadda, Perth Amboy…”). I liked walking along the beach on a gray, misty day and imagining the bay full of the British fleet.
An Unreliable Narrator
So much of the experience of historic houses comes down to the knowledge, expertise, and storytelling of the staff. Our guide was a gregarious older gent, who clearly had his patter down, well-worn phrases honed to the point of shininess. “I call that one the Kardashian cradle, because it’s all decorated.” While I think it’s great that he helps out at Conference House, I’m not sure he did the house justice. I didn’t get a lot about the Billopps, who owned the house, nor about life on the southern shore of Staten Island 250 years ago.
And the house lacks an app or signage, which could help. You’re dependent on the competency and interestingness of whoever happens to be on duty.
I did learn that as loyalists, the Billopps lost the house after American independence. It passed into the hands of Samuel Ward in 1780, and from the Wards to a series of tenant farmers. The house went downhill, and even served as a rat poison factory in the 1920s, before the Conference House Association formed in 1927 to restore the place.
Should You Visit Conference House?
If you live in Staten Island, or say one of the Amboys then sure, you should visit Conference House.
Although Conference House is very old, I don’t recommend it for casual visitors. If you’re just a casual fan of history or old places, there are plenty more conveniently situated in New York City. It doesn’t help that although Tottenville seems charming, it has little else to recommend a visit. It’s a very long way to travel to tour a house that is interesting, but not that interesting. Historic Richmond Town offers far more, including a house that’s even older than Conference House. And it’s not quite as far.
Historic house fans will find it appealing, as one of the few old houses in the city whose surroundings still strongly evoke what it must’ve looked like almost 350 years ago.
And American Revolution buffs will definitely want to visit and see where it almost maybe stopped. Strange to think, if the peace conference had succeeded, we’d all be speaking English today.
|298 Satterlee Street, Tottenville, Staten Island
|General Admission: $4