Thursday, January 6, 2011

Staten Island Museum / Noble Maritime Collection

Soul of Sails, by John A. Noble
Sunday 8/15 and Monday 8/16 
Staten Island Museum …………………………. 0.5 hr
Noble Maritime Collection …………………….. 0.75 hr
Snug Harbor Botanical Gardens ......................  1 hr

Staten Island Museum …………………………. $2
Noble Maritime Collection ……………….……. $6
Snug Harbor Botanical Gardens ..................... Free

Paul’s favorite thing about our visit to Staten Island was its retro feel.  Unlike Manhattan and much of Brooklyn, Staten Island remains un-gentrified and has a rough around the edges “old-school” New York look, but without the crime rates of Queens or the Bronx.  Movies like the Godfather and Goodfellas have filmed on the island looking to capture the rough streets of New York in the 50’s and 60’s.  There are no skyscrapers here, no designer boutiques, and Staten Island’s version of haute cuisine is Enoteca Maria, a restaurant where a rotating roster of Italian grandmothers cook old world comfort food (sounds like a brilliant idea for a restaurant to us). 

Staten Island Museum
The Staten Island Museum is a good example of the island’s retro attitude.  Every borough of NYC has an eponymous museum.  In Manhattan, the Metropolitan Museum of Art reins supreme with its massive 2 million piece collection that includes world famous holdings of old master paintings and ancient artifacts, such as an entire Egyptian temple rebuilt brick by brick in the museum courtyard.  The Brooklyn Museum comes in a close second with 1.5 million works, including a well-regarded modern art collection, a large Egyptian section and several complete houses built into its decorative arts section. 

Perhaps knowing that there is no beating these guys, the Staten Island Museum does its own thing.  It models itself as a “general interest” museum, with diverse exhibits on biology, geology, art, culture and history.  This is an old fashioned model for a museum, and the only one left of this type in NYC, but the Staten Island Museum pulls it off with style and ended up being fun, educational and kind of cool. 

Lenape carving
Part of the fun of this museum is that it focuses exclusively on its home borough, Staten Island.  Instead of temples from Egypt, the Staten Island Museum exhibits the stone carvings of the Lenape, the Paleo-Indians who lived on the island more than 10,000 years ago.  Instead of sculptures from Greece, the Staten Island Museum has a large taxidermy bird collection collected from the island.  Instead of paintings by Michelangelo, the Staten Island Museum exhibits Staten Island artists. 

Portrait of Otto Wigand, by Adeline Albright Wigand
While we were there, the museum had a large exhibit called "Beauty Rediscovered" on Staten Island painters Adeline Albright Wigand and Otto Charles Wigand, married artists from the late19th – early 20th century.  The two studied the classical painting in New York and Paris, but lived and worked on Staten Island from 1916 until their deaths in 1944.  The Wigands were well regarded in their day, but they did not embrace the modern art movements that took hold in their time and their notoriety faded.  The paintings in the exhibit were lovely and well executed, with colorful images of children, people and landscapes.  The couple often chose subjects they loved, such as their family, their home and each other, and the warmth showed in their art.  Both Paul and I enjoyed the look at these forgotten but lovely paintings.
Polly, by Adeline Albright Wigand

Butterfly from the Staten Island Museum
Fluroescent minerals from the Staten Island Museum
Our favorite section of the museum was the natural history room.  We had fun examining the jars of pickled amphibians and the large collection of taxidermy animals.  It brought back fond memories of school trips from our childhood.  My favorite section was the bug wall.  The museum has a half a million preserved insects, and we spent several minutes examining the multitudes in the beetle and butterfly cases.  Another great section was a collection of naturally fluorescent rocks.  It was childish fun to switch the lights off and watch the rocks glow.  Paul loved the microscopic mineral exhibit, complete with an actual microscope.  The minerals were collected by a single person, and Paul felt like he was sharing his secret miniature world.

Nobel Maritime Collection
As fun as the Staten Island Museum was, our favorite museum on Staten Island was the Noble Maritime Collection, within a large museum complex called the Snug Harbor Cultural Center.  Snug Harbor was once a retirement home for sailors.  After being abandoned and falling into neglect for years, this lovely collection of Greek Revival and Beaux Arts buildings was reclaimed by hardworking Staten Islanders and has been gradually remade into a community center and botanical gardens.  Much of the site is still being developed, but it's affiliated with the Smithsonian and has a lot of promise.

Neptune Fountain at Snug Harbor
Snug Harbor is a large complex, occupying 83 acres on the awesomely named Kill van Kull (the waterway that separates Staten Island from New Jersey).  Several different types of gardens are scattered throughout the grounds.  Some are still being landscaped or are in the early planting stages, but several gardens are complete enough to make pleasant walks.  We enjoyed the Tuscan garden, the elaborate Chinese scholar's garden, with a quiet pond and shaped trees, and the recently planted “Garden of Healing” with fountains and a stream
Chinese Scholar's Garden at Snug Harbor

Currently there are 3 museums in Snug Harbor: the Staten Island Children’s Museum, the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art (closed today for an exhibit change), and the Noble Maritime Collection.  The Noble Collection is housed in a former hospital of Snug Harbor, and the museum preserves a few remnants of the building’s past, such as a small dormitory room and an old fashioned wheel chair.  The museum also has a small maritime section, taken up by an exhibit on tugboats, with lots of boat models and movies on how tugboats work.  However, the main focus of the museum is the work of artist John A. Noble (1913 - 1983)

Dying in the English Kills, by John A. Noble
Noble was born in Paris and grew up in a family of artists, but at a young age he became obsessed with the sea and started to work as a seaman in the New York harbor at the age of 15.  In 1928, while towing a schooner down the Kill van Kull, he caught sight of the old Port Johnston coal docks.  The sight changed his life.  At the time, the "Age of the Sail" was ending, and sailing vessels were being rapidly replaced by steam powered metal ships.  Port Johnston was the final resting place of the now obsolete wooden sailing vessels in the NY harbor, and was once one of the largest ship graveyards in the world

John A. Noble's houseboat studio
In 1941, Noble built a studio in the floating graveyard out of pieces salvaged from moldering ships and began to draw and paint the ships around him.  He eventually became successful enough to work full time as an artist, documenting the final chapter of the Age of the Sail.  The museum preserves his houseboat/studio and a replica of his parent’s studio in Paris, and exhibits a large number of his paintings in the long hallways of the former dormitory.  These are haunting, often romantic, remembrances of sailing, depicting not just the ships, but also the industries, people and viewpoints of the era

Ship's wheel at the Noble Maritime Collection
For Paul, the most impressive thing about the Noble Collection was an exhibit on the "Noble Crew," a small group of local volunteers who donated a million dollars worth of labor and materials to the restoration of the building, transforming it from an abandoned shell with collapsing walls and exposed wiring to an immaculate museum.  We have seen this huge outpouring of volunteer effort in other maritime museums around NYC, and it clearly demonstrates the connection and love New Yorkers have to their storied seafaring past.  Paul thinks that these labors of love are often more beautiful than the artwork in the museum.

Snug Harbor Botanical Gardens
In summary, the Staten Island Museum and the Noble Maritime Collection were our favorite museums on Staten Island.  The Staten Museum exclusively shows art and artifacts from Staten Island, doing what the borough museums were designed to do in the first place: celebrate their home borough.  It has the retro design of a general interest museum and manages to be both fun and educational.  The Noble Maritime Museum exhibits beautiful maritime paintings surrounded by the lovely Snug Harbor Botanical Gardens.

Ship lanterns at the Noble Maritime Collection
If you’re in Manhattan and want to see some great parts of Staten Island, these museums are easily accessible and make a fun day trip.  We recommend taking the free Staten Island Ferry from Battery Park.  The ferry leaves every half hour and is a well-known tourist favorite with an excellent view of the Statue of Liberty and the harbor.  Instead of getting back on the ferry with the rest of the crowds, walk a block to the Staten Island Museum.  After that, return to the ferry terminal and maybe pause for lunch at the excellent Gourmet Dog across the street from the terminal (try the Popeye Dog, with chicken sausage, spinach and mozzarella).  Then hop on the S40 bus from the ferry terminal to Snug Harbor.  It’s a short trip on the bus, and it drops you at the front gate of Snug Harbor.  Alternately, you can walk along the waterfront- its a scenic 40 minutes.  For dinner, return to the ferry terminal for a meal cooked by your favorite Italian grandmother at the fabulous Enoteca Maria, one block from the terminal.  On the return ferry trip, enjoy the site of the sun setting behind Manhattan, and the lights of the city sparkling in the harbor.

We were recently asked about our favorite restaurants on Staten Island, so we offer this list:

524 Port Richmond Ave
You won’t find goat cheese on Denino’s menu, and the décor consists largely of the residue of 50 years of cigarettes (now banned) and an old PacMan machine, but you will find fantastic old school New York pie, unchanged since Carlo Denino opened the place in 1951.  The place is a legend among the connoisseurs of New York pizza.  (Yes, there are such people.)

27 Hyatt St. (One block from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal)
This restaurant has no head chef and no set menu.  Instead, a rotating roster of Italian grandmothers make fabulous old world Italian comfort food in one of the more unique restaurants in NYC.  They also have an amazing wine list.

40 Richmond Ter. (Across the street from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal)
Excellent hot dogs adorned by any topping(s) you can picture on a hot dog, plus a few you can’t.  Also has great fries.

817 Castleton Ave
Extensive menu of delicious German fare and a great selection of German beers on tap.  Its not expensive, but go with a big appetite because portions are huge.  Full of friendly locals.

90-92 Taylor Street
It’s not technically a restaurant, but we had breakfast here. This is where we stayed on our visit to Staten Island and we found it to be an inexpensive bed and breakfast with immaculate, spacious rooms and a friendly proprietress, in a quiet but centrally located neighborhood.  We’d definitely recommend it for any stay in Staten Island.  This Bed and Breakfast is also popular with the budget conscious NYC tourist, as you can use the free ferry to visit Manhattan on a daily basis, but not pay Manhattan hotel and parking prices (which are highway robbery).

Moon and Venus, 5am, by Otto Charles Wigand
Images in this post, from the top: Soul of Sails, by John A. Noble 1968, oil on canvas; entrance to the Staten Island Museum; stone head found in Concord, Staten Island in 1884; Portrait of Otto Wigand, by Adeline Albright Wigand 1895, oil on board; Polly, by Adeline Albright Wigand, 1915-1920, oil on board; examples from the insect and fluorescent mineral collections at the Staten Island Museum; Neptune Fountain, a replica of an 1892 fountain made by John W. Fiske Iron Works, recast in 1994 by the Modern Art Foundry in Queens; Chinese Scholar's Garden at Snug Harbor; Dying in the English Kills, by John A. Noble 1965, oil on canvas; John A. Noble's houseboat studio; ship's wheel at the Noble Maritime Collection; the Snug Harbor Botanical Gardens; Moon and Venus, 5am, by Otto Charles Wigand 1930, oil on canvas.


  1. What is it about sailing ships? The English poet John Masefield wrote in 1902, "They are my country's line, her great art done/By strong brains laboring on the thought unwon./They mark our passage as a race of men--/Earth will not see such ships as those again." Patrick O'Brian (the film Master and Commander was based on his novel The Other Side of the World)shows the reader no mercy in his use of 18th century sailing terms, yet readers eat up his books. - Mike

  2. I've never been to Staten Island and didn't realize there was so much to see and do! I would have loved to look at Wigands' paintings, so soft and ethereal. I also enjoyed reading about the Scholar's Gardens. How peaceful! That was a brilliant idea - staying at a Stanton Island hotel and using the free ferry to visit NYC. Think of all the money a tourist could save, and still be close enough to see and enjoy it all! Your restaurant reviews make me want to go try them out! Lynn

  3. New York Museum lovers should check out It's got maps, photos, videos, articles, and info on just about every Museum in New York. It's a great resource.

  4. John A. Noble, not Nobel. His website is here:

    The SI ferryboat named after him is awesome, too. Runs on weekends and at night, loaded with pictures.

  5. We've fixed the spelling of Noble- thanks for pointing that out.