On the northeast shore of Staten Island, NY at 2 Hylan Boulevard, stands a small house with a large, sweeping lawn, and an even larger history. It is tidy-looking and well-maintained, while an equally old and historic structure next door falls into disrepair, and modern high-rise apartment towers soar in the distance. The largely Italian neighborhood of Rosebank, just southeast of Stapleton, extends inland on one side of the property on which it sits, while the sea laps nearby at the other.
The elaborate white-painted, clapboarded Victorian cottage now known as the Alice Austen House was originally built around 1710, in the Dutch style. It was at one time the childhood home of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and was bought in 1844 by Alice Austen’s grandfather, John Haggerty Austen, who remodeled into a summer cottage, and later made it the family’s year-round residence. It was given the name of “Clear Comfort” by Austen’s family. Alice loved the gingerbread-decorated house and continued to live there in adulthood.
The house that one sees today is actually divided into two sets of living quarters: one is entered through the front door and consists of the Victorian-style rooms seen on tours of the house, and the other is a smaller set of rooms with its own back entrance, which used to be a humbler home for Alice’s aunt and uncle, but is now used as the caretaker’s apartment. (Caretakers of Alice Austen House get an enviable benefit: free rent!)
As Alice’s financial fortunes declined (she actually ended up spending her old age at the Farm Colony, a former institution for the indigent which existed to get poor people off the street and to take advantage of their labor), so did the condition of the house. After Alice died, for a long time, there was neither money nor “political will” to do anything to or for the house. A group called “Friends of Alice Austen House” formed in the 1960s in order to lobby for the preservation of the house and grounds, which they felt were in danger of being replaced by modern apartment buildings (some of which can be seen across the way from the beach near Alice Austen House).
While its future hung in the balance for years, the house eventually entered such a decrepit state that at one point, someone living there in the 1970s reported that there was a mushroom growing out of the wall in the kitchen. (My mother had clipped the article about that from the Staten Island Advance and put it on her kitchen wall because she found it such a funny notion.) Serious restoration work on the house was started in 1984, and finished in 1985.
Because of its historic significance, the Alice Austen House was included in the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, was designated a New York City Landmark in 1971, and a National Historic Landmark in 1993.
Working from Alice’s photographs of the interior of the house as it appeared during the prime of her life and photographic career, historians have restored the floor plan as closely as possible and have furnished the parlor and some other rooms in the high Victorian style of overstuffed chairs and patterned carpets. The gift shop sells books reproductions of Victorian books and souvenirs, and contains coffee-table books which reproduce Alice Austen’s photographs. Part of the house which is not open to the public has been made into a two-bedroom apartment for a caretaker, who lives there rent free in exchange for daily upkeep and for insurance reasons. Public events are held on the grounds, including a yearly antique fair. As a gesture to Alice Austen’s talents; too little, too late, for fame and fortune come to many good artists only after they have died; the stretch of Hylan Blvd. in the immediate vicinity of the house was renamed Alice Austen Way in 1998.
As documented in the film “Alice’s World”, shown to visitors by museum guides; even though Alice Austen was a highly prolific documentary and social photographer, recognition of her work and an increased demand for her pictures only came during her old age and bankruptcy, and much of the recognition she is accorded today came only after her death.
Though she took a number of documentary photos of individuals in all walks of life, many of her photographs, however, were of a more personal and familiar nature: the Victorian snapshots of friends at picnics or in poses, were documentary pictures of what she called “the larky life”; the good-time snapshots of an upper-middle class social circle on vacations and attending parties. The life and work of Alice Austen has attracted a great deal of public attention in the past few decades; however, in recent years, Alice’s work in photography has sometimes taken second place to speculations that she had been a lesbian. These speculations are chiefly based on the fact that throughout her life, Alice remained unmarried; a choice many career women throughout history have had to make as a matter of pragmatism rather than desire; and that she was frequently a hostess of and participant in hen parties, which were photographed by herself and others. To say that a woman is a lesbian based upon these public records is to draw conclusions about her private life from circumstantial evidence. Thus, it is possible, but not provable. Alice Austen took photos of her friends pretending to be intoxicated on tea. From looking at the photos, one might conclude they were drinking whiskey; from other accounts, they told of putting on an act for the camera.
The park area surrounding the house is open to the public and includes part of the shoreline, which is noted as a fishing spot for flounder, weakfish, porgies, and bluefish. The shoreline area is unofficially called “Penny Beach” by the locals, and was officially designated Buono Beach by New York City which named this beach area after Matthew Buono, a Vietnam War hero, born in Staten Island.
Address: 2 Hylan Blvd, adjacent to Bay Street. Tel. (718) 816-4506.
Getting there by public transportation:
From the Staten Island Ferry Terminal; take the S51 bus to Bay Street and Hylan Blvd; or take the SIRT to Clifton Station and walk down Bay Street or Edgewater Place past Virginia and Clifton Avenues, keeping the water on your left…you can see Alice Austen Park in the distance.
Suggested admission donation $2.
Museum hours: Thurs-Sun; noon-5pm. Grounds are open till dusk. Museum closed January and February and all major holidays.