Friday, November 26, 2010

Historic Richmond Town / Conference House

Christopher House c. 1720, part of Historic Richmond Town

Historic Richmond Town ………………….….….1.5 hr
Conference House …………………………….… 1.25 hr

Historic Richmond Town ………………….….…. $5
Conference House …………………………….… $3
I’ve a confession to make.  Before I moved here, I thought New York City and Manhattan were the same thing.  Sure I’d heard of Brooklyn and the Bronx from TV and movies, but I didn’t realize that they were all part of the same city.  So, for all readers unfamiliar with the area, New York City is divided into 5 different parts called “boroughs”: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx and Staten Island.  Each of the boroughs is huge, ranging in population from 0.5 million to 2.5 million, and each has its own distinct personality and characteristics.  In any other part of the world they’d be cities in their own right. 

Ranking the boroughs can be controversial around here, but most people (who are not in Brooklyn) agree on the best and the worst.  Manhattan is generally considered the greatest borough.  It’s home to NYC’s most famous industries (banking, Broadway theater and the NY Stock Exchange), its wealthiest residents (Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Roosevelts, etc), and a majestic skyline recognizable around the world.  Not surprisingly, it also has the most museums (110).  The least is Staten Island, known for the Staten Island ferry, the world’s largest landfill and not much else.

Map of Staten Island; from Historic Richmond Town
Despite Staten Island’s under appreciated status, it has its share of museums: 11 by our count, which puts it on our list for a visit.  However, Staten Island is the furthest borough from our home; it takes 3 hours and about $20 in tolls for us to get there.  To save us driving time, Paul and I booked a bed and breakfast and planned a 3-day weekend to see all 11 museums in one trip.  To us this sounded like a romantic weekend adventure, but we were widely ridiculed by the locals.  Around here, saying you’re going on a weekend trip to Staten Island seems to be roughly the equivalent of saying you’re vacationing in South Central Los Angeles.  Most New Yorkers don’t have much affection for Staten Island and seem to think it contains only polluted landfill and crumbling suburban sprawl.  One local called it “New Jersey without the charm.”

Paul and I saw the landfill (it’s closed, but hard to miss) and suburban sprawl on our trip, but we also visited some fun museums, walked in lovely parks and ate at great restaurants, including one of NYC’s best pizza parlors (Deninos).  Despite all the warnings and odd looks from our friends, we ended up having a great time and it was a remarkably inexpensive vacation (particularly by NYC standards).  Regrettably, on our last day Paul was called back for a work-related emergency, but we did see 8 of Staten Island’s 11 museums.  We’re looking forward to our return trip (and another visit to Denino’s, yum).

Staten Island's 3rd County Courthouse (1837) part of Historic Richmond Town
Staten Island has had an active historical society since 1856, and their activities have preserved a number of older buildings through several construction booms.  Thus, it’s not surprising that the largest museum on Staten Island is a collection of historic buildings: Historic Richmond Town.  Richmond Town was a small town in the center of the island, originally settled by the Dutch in the 1600’s.  After passing into British hands, Richmond Town became the county seat, with the island’s first courthouse and jail.  The town withered after the court moved to St. George, but much of it was preserved as a historic village in the 1950’s.  After the Veranzono Bridge opened in 1964, linking Staten Island to the rest of NYC, a huge construction boom changed the face of the island, and many historic homes facing demolition were moved to this site.  Now, Historic Richmond Town is a “living history village and museum complex,” occupying almost 50 acres and containing 30 historical buildings from all over the island.

Staten Island Historical Museum
This sounds like a bigger deal than it is.  In reality, only a few buildings are restored, and visitors are only allowed into those that are on the guided tour or occupied by a docent that day.  Paul and I saw only 5 buildings during our visit.  We started in the Staten Island Historical Museum, housed in the former County Clerk's Office and exhibiting a nice collection of artifacts from Staten Island’s historical industries (fishing and textiles), housewares and folk art.  The tour started there and moved to the oldest house in the complex; Voorlezer's House c.1695.  The house was built by the Dutch Reformed Congregation and served as a church, school, and residence for the Voorlezer (lay minister and teacher).  It’s the oldest schoolhouse in the nation, and a national landmark. 

Voorlezer House c 1695, part of Historic Richmond Town
The tour guide painted an interesting picture of the Spartan life of the first settlers, particularly of the minister/teacher, whose tiny 2 room residence was also the church, school and meeting house (and we think current NY apartments are small and lack privacy).  Apparently, it was a mark of great prosperity for a town to be able to house a minister, even under these poor conditions, but they couldn't afford him for long and he left in 1701.  Next door was the Boehm House (c.1750), which was not fully restored but the exposed timbers and plaster were used as an exhibit on early building techniques.  We also saw Staten Island’s third courthouse.  (The first burned down; the second was destroyed by the British army.) 

Staten Island Historical Museum
All in all, while Paul and I enjoyed the glimpse into the lives of the area’s early settlers, we were a bit disappointed in Historic Richmond Town.  We expected more demonstrations, stories and interaction in a “living history” museum, and overall the museum seemed a bit unkempt and under funded.  However, Paul admired their dedication in saving so many pieces of Staten Island’s history with little to no budget.  Also, we should note that the museum does have demonstrations and events on its calendar, so perhaps it would be better to come on a day when something is scheduled. 

Conference House c 1680
We visited another historical Staten Island house today.  Called the Conference House, it’s was built c. 1680 by Captain Christopher Billopp, the Collector of Customs for Delaware.  The house was home to a loyalist family and served as a headquarters for the British Army during the Revolutionary War, but it is best known for being the site of a famous peace conference.  On September 11, 1776, the newly formed Continental Congress sent John Adams, Edward Rutledge, and Benjamin Franklin to met with the King’s representative and commander of the British forces, Lord Richard Howe, at this home in an attempt to stop hostilities at the beginning of the American Revolutionary War.

Beach at the Conference House
The conference was a failure of course; the British would not consider independence and the congressional representatives had been authorized only to negotiate independence.  Thus, war was decided to be inevitable.  Four days later the British occupied New York City and the city would remain in British hands for most the War.  Every year on September 11th, the Conference House holds a popular reenactment of the conference, complete with boats, period costumes and an ersatz Ben Franklin.

In summary, the Conference House is beautifully restored and has a well researched and detailed tour, but I thought the best part of the museum was the surrounding park.  It has 267 acres of coastal forest and seashore overlooking a picturesque bay, with broad well maintained walking paths.  Paul and I walked down the beach a ways to see the “South Pole,” a large red pole marking the southern tip of New York State.  We were both highly amused and thought that only in New York would they think to celebrate something so innocuous.

"South Pole," at the southern most point of New York State
Images in this post, from the top: Christopher House c.1720, at Historic Richmond town, relocated from Willowbrook.  This fieldstone farmhouse was the home of Joseph Christopher, a member of the Richmond County Committee of Safety prior to the Revolution.  Map of Staten Island from the Staten Island Historical Museum, at Historic Richmond Town. The 3rd County Courthouse c. 1837, at Historic Richmond Town. Preceded by two smaller courthouses, this Greek Revival structure was Staten Island's first monumental county building. It served as the Richmond County Courthouse until 1919.  Rocking Horse from the children's toys exhibit at the Staten Island Historical Museum, at Historic Richmond Town.  Voorlezer's House c.1695, at Historic Richmond Town.  This structure was built by the Dutch Reformed Congregation and served as a church, school, and residence for the Voorlezer (lay minister and teacher) until 1701.  It was used as a private home and store until 1936.  This building is a National Historic Landmark.  Painted Wooden Statue of a Saint, Staten Island Historical Museum, at Historic Richmond Town.  The Conference House (formerly known at the Billopp House),  a two-story, rubble stone masonry building constructed circa 1680 by Captain Christopher Billopp.  Beach in front of the Conference House.  The South Pole, placed at the southern most tip of New York State.