|Should you go?|
|Time spent||130 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||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.
A Little Staten Island History
Visiting Historic Richmond Town answered a question I never really thought to ask: Why is Staten Island Richmond County? Up until it became part of Greater New York in 1898, Staten Island’s administrative center was in Richmond, a community located literally at the crossroads of the main thoroughfares across what was at that time a very rural island. As the county seat, it included a very handsome Greek Revival courthouse that dispensed justice in Staten Island from 1837 up until the early 20th century.
Following the creation of modern New York, the borough’s administrative center migrated to St. George, convenient to the ferry and therefore Manhattan. By around 1919-1920, Richmond became something of a ghost town. I suspect it would probably have been torn down for redevelopment, except that someone realized that its collection of buildings was unique.
Staten Island created an open air museum, preserving them and adding to the collection. Over time, several other historic buildings have been moved to Historic Richmond Town to complement the ones that are there naturally.
Historic Richmond Town’s oldest building is the Britton Cottage, circa 1670 (relocated from New Dorp). That’s in the same temporal ballpark as the Wyckoff House in Brooklyn. The total building collection encompasses houses, a school, a pub/restaurant, various shops, and even a couple of outhouses (not functioning). While they’ve all had work done and evolved over time, only a couple are modern reconstructions.
Touring Richmond Town
Visitors can walk around Richmond Town on their own. However, guided tours are the only way to get inside the old buildings. On a random weekday afternoon I was the sole guest on a tour led by an older gentleman dressed in what I’d say was semi-historical garb. He showed me the interiors of 3 places:
- The Voorlezer’s House (1695), which served as a school
- The Guyon Store/Tavern (c. 1819)
- The Guyon-Lake-Tyson House (c. 1740)
I’ve discovered I like visiting historic taverns even more than historic houses. Something about the evolution of social, public spaces is really interesting to me. The Guyon Tavern joins Fraunces Tavern, the Schneider’s German Lager Beer Saloon (at the Tenement Museum), and the Mount Vernon Hotel in my roster.
The Staten Island Historical Museum
The grounds also include a museum-within-the-museum: the Historical Museum in the 1848 Richmond County Clerk’s and Surrogate’s Office. It offers a comprehensive overview of Staten Island history.
The museum covers settlement, industries, including farming, oystering, maritime commerce and shipbuilding. I learned about Staten Island’s proud basket weaving heritage. There’s a good section on Staten Island’s breweries, too.
All in all I found it one of the best of the borough history museums. It’s not too large, but boasts a good mix of artifacts in an interesting historic space.
Ghost Town Under Construction
I visited Historic Richmond Town on a bad day: all of the streets were being torn up, making it hard to get around. My guide said that the place is currently engaged in a $22 million project to re-create its appearance as of the 1860s. That’s very exciting, but like all renovations, painful when the process is actually going on.
And on a late fall weekday, the place at its quietest. I had a vision of a Colonial-Williamsburg-lite, with lots of people in period costume going about their historically accurate days: dying of dysentery, accusing one another of witchcraft, etc. Not so much — it very much felt like a ghost town, not a town.
Should You Visit Historic Richmond Town?
Heavy duty construction and general emptiness notwithstanding, I throroughly enjoyed Historic Richmond Town. There’s no place remotely like it in New York City. For the price of admission, you can’t top the value. A tour is absolutely a necessity, as it’s the only way you’ll get to see any of the interiors.
If you like history in general, and historic houses in particular, you should definitely plan a trip to central Staten Island. It’s an extremely efficient way to see a variety of vernacular residential and commercial architecture spanning two centuries, and learn the story of New York’s most overlooked borough to boot.
In another nod to anachronism, Historic Richmond Town has a Ladies Auxiliary, which runs a cafe in the Bennett House (circa 1839). I just had a cup of coffee there, so I can’t vouch for the food. I can say the coffee tasted like it, too, dated to the mid-19th century. But the ladies were very nice, and it’s the only place around to get a refreshment.
Finally, although I don’t recommend it as a standalone, the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art, surely one of the most random museums in the city, is about 15 minutes walk from Richmond Town. Following your historic NY fix, an exotic Tibetan side trip comes with little extra effort.
|Address||441 Clarke Avenue, Staten Island (head to the courthouse to check in and get oriented)|
|Cost||General Admission: $8|
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