I made nine trips to Staten Island last summer, visiting hundreds of buildings and parks for inclusion in the upcoming fifth edition of the AIA Guide to New York City (Oxford University Press, 2010). One trip was by ferry (free); the other eight were by car (Verrazano-Narrows Bridge tolls: $88). Staten Island had been a mystery to me before my recent forays. Now I have a better sense of its geography (twice the size of Manhattan), its architecture, and its history.
One unique feature of Staten Island is the undercurrent of rural life peaking through more recent development. If you look hard enough, there are fragments everywhere of an agrarian and seafaring life that now seems distant in the city’s collective memory. But change came relatively recently, its remaining farms and open tracts of land mostly plowed under by the wave of suburban development that followed construction of the Narrows Bridge in 1964. While there are still stretches of virtual wilderness on the island, especially along its southern shore, many historic settlements such as Sandy Ground and Princes Bay have been virtually obliterated over the last 30 years by banal tracts of cookie-cutter housing.
A drive down the old Arthur Kill Road is instructive but disorienting, its hairpin turns unnerving. Twisting and narrow, the road was clearly built for the occasional horse and carriage, not for today’s rush hour SUVs. The Arthur Kill winds its way from the geographical center of the island at Historic Richmond Town past 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century graveyards and roadside taverns in Rossville and Charleston to the remnants of a former factory town called Kreischerville, where some amazing architecture awaits: the Charles Kreischer House, a turreted Stick Style extravaganza (1888), the trim, wood-framed St. Peter’s Lutheran Evangelical Church (1883), and Kreischer’s spare, functional worker’s housing (1890) — all landmarks in a veritable ghost town overtaken by woods populated by deer and feral cats.
The Arthur Kill ends in the far southern corner of the island at Tottenville, a village seemingly suspended in time. Along Main Street are all the sights one would expect to find in small-town America, including a Masonic Lodge and abandoned movie theater, an impressive collection of intact Queen Anne, Stick Style, and Italianate houses, and even one stunning but out-of-place Modernist specimen, the Dr. Henry Litvak House by architect Eugene G. Megnin (1949).
Landmarks on Staten Island are generally not treated very well. One would think that the Manee-Seguine Homestead (1690), an important example of 17th-century roadside architecture (it once functioned as an inn) would be beautifully restored and open to public tours. Instead, it is a ruin, concealed from view in a thicket, slowly decaying and returning to the earth. Historic Richmond Town is a vital collection of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century landmarks (houses, sheds, stores, outhouses, a railroad depot) originally located elsewhere on the island, now protected from demolition or gradual disintegration. Historic Richmondtown feels like a kind of intensive care unit for neglected buildings; an architectural hospital of sorts, where old Federalist and Queen Anne gems are rescued and brought back from the brink.