Friday, November 27, 2009

The Block

This amazing project is something I happened across while doing my usual Staten Island research. He had a few now/then shots of SI posted and tooling around the rest of the site I found "The Block". It's a beautifully rendered and animated history of the buildings along a Manhattan block from 1795 to 1991.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Big Houses on the Hills

Until about 1986, the property across the street from my family's home on Cebra Avenue was a high, tree covered hill with an old foundation and driveway hidden away in the overgrowth. Throughout my childhood ramblings across the wooded spaces of Staten Island I came across several old foundations. One was in the woods near my grandma's house on Henderson Avenue and another was several blocks from my Cebra home on Austin Place.
Going through the old survey maps on the NYPL's site I've discovered the names of the owners of these and similar houses and in some cases the names of the homes themselves. It's a great find and a fascinating look at Staten Island's old, wealthy past.

Cebra Avenue and Ward Avenue - Someone named Chester E. Clark owned the house across from mine and called it Hill Top. This map is from about 1917. By the time my family moved to Cebra in 1969 the house was long gone. Today all that remains is the man's name split into the names of two inconsequential little streets and about one hundred shoddy attached houses.

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Highview Avenue and East Buchanan Street - Taking a walk with the luminous Mrs. V. one day up Highview we spotted the foundation remnants shielded from the casual passerby by the trees covering the now houseless lot. Once a man named Thomas Bushell owned it. Now it's nothing.

Henderson Avenue and Bard Avenue - This house was two up from my grandma's house. I remember coming across the ruins and my grandfather telling me it was from a house that'd burned down some years ago. Today I can't tell who owned it and if it even had a name.

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Austin Place and Ward Avenue - This house stood on what had become a large wooded lot we hung out in all the time by time I was twelve years old. The Fredericks house was still standing, occupied by a scary old lady supposedly related to my friend Bruce N., until only a few years ago. It was finally torn down and the lot was covered with ugly attached houses and a series of plug ugly "mini mansions".

When I hung out there and played manhunt and other games, the basement of the Lederle house was still there sunk beneath the earth and covered with the old flooring. There was hole, probably from a stair case, you could climb down into. Rising up over the place the tennis courts had been once been was a great dark stone wall. The first time I saw it it was like finding a lost ruin from Middle Earth. The Austin woods were by far the most interesting "natural" place we ever found when we were kids.

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When I come across these lost houses and family names I think about how they got this way: torn down, forgotten and built over. Do these families exist anymore? Obviously they had money, but if they still exist, do they still have it? Did all these houses burn down while occupied or where they abandoned and succumbed to fire from lighting or arson? Where they simply torn down and the land sold off?
It's a sad thing to see a home that's become abandoned and forgotten. I wonder what happened there. How many games of catch were played on the lawns and hands of euchre in the drawing room? Did servants live on the grounds and were they well treated? What happened to the businesses the owners ran to make their money? I don't know and I doubt anyone else cares anymore.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Hills Around My House - Jones Woods and Nearby

These two maps show the area around where I live these days at Franklin and Prospect Avenues. These maps, which I've never looked at too closely before, are eye openers. Apparently, the hill looming over Brighton Avenue, containing what's called Jones Woods, is called that because it once was the grounds of the estate of one Shipley T. Jones. So far, all I've found out about him is his gardener wrote an article on dahlia raising and he attended a fundraiser for the old Staten Island Hospital. Again, the lost history of the island is lurking everywhere.

The Cedars - Clearly, this estate was huge. It ran from Prospect to Brighton and from roughly Sumner to Harvard. Most of the property remains unbuilt on to this day and serves as a track for intrepid dirtbikers.

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S.R.Smith Infirmary - The core of the old Staten Island Hospital.

I've written and posted photos of this now crumbling place several times. It still holds a place in my heart and its current state and presumed future brings at least a nominal tear to my eye. The folks at the Kingston Lounge have a nice photo collection of the present state of the Infirmary's interior.

Richmond Rail Road & Light Co. Car House - Jersey Street and Victory Blvd. I'd always heard that the NYC Sanitation Garage had been some sort of machine shop in the past. Well, the map lets us know it was a garage for rail cars (presumably trolleys). You can even see the tracks running north up Jersey Street and west up Castleton Avenue.

From this overhead shot you can sort of see the footprint of the original building that's been added to over the decades by Sanitation.

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Borden's Condensed Milk Co. - Once upon a time, when Jersey Street was a flourishing commercial and industrial avenue, Elsie the Cow held sway over a factory turning out condensed milk for all the households. Now, sadly, both Borden's and the factory are no more. Elsie still lingers on but in a severely limited state.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Vertical Staten Island

Stairs on Benziger Avenue in New Brighton

I happened across a beautiful collection of North Shore hills and staircases at something called Walking Is Transportation
. Check out some beautiful pictures of some of the most out-of-time locations on the North Shore. And also see what can be accomplished when you get off your fat rumpus and actually venture forth and take pictures with a camera instead of just snatching stuff off the web and Google.

Victory Blvd. stairs entrance

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Here's my own sad little contribution to the catalog of North Shore staircases. These stairs climb up the back of the hill Tompkins Circle sits on up to said street.

Tompkins Circle entrance

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Forest Avenue in Ole Tymes and Now

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Running parallel to Castleton Avenue for much of its generally east-west run, Forest Avenue is tied with Victory Blvd as the North Shore's most important commercial avenue. Starting at the crest of Victory Blvd.'s first great hill, Forest Ave. starts alongside Silver Lake Park and Golf Course. It then cuts its way through the southern portion of West New Brighton. The stretch between Oakwood and Bement used to be called Peter Pan Alley because it was lined with Irish bars; the denizens were green and never grew up.
West New Brighton runs roughly from Hart Blvd to Jewett Avenue. From Jewett to Richmond Avenue Forest cuts Port Richmond off from Westerleigh and Willowbrook. At Richmond Avenue it separates Elm Park and Mariner's Harbor to its north from Graniteville before coming to an end in the marshlands of Bloomfield.

The first lovely house was located on the north east corner of Oxford Place and Forest. Today it's a series of relatively unpleasant townhouses thrown up in the 90s. The second house is still standing on a beautiful block between Oxford and Duer Lane opposite Silver Lake Park.

Silver Lake - Oxford and Forest

Silver Lake - Forest and Duer - This house was owned by Louis A. Dreyfus, a noted chewing gum magnate and Staten Island civic activist. He and his wife donated the land for Hero Park and supported numerous churches, schools and charities. IS 49 in Stapleton is named for his wife, Bertha.

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Today the intersection of Forest and Bard is a major commercial area with a Keyfood, drycleaners, a Starbucks and a CVS. Once upon a time it was a fairly sleepy (and dusty apparently) crossroads.

West N. Brighton - north side of intersection looking east along Forest Avenue

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I had to blow up the bus just because I thinks its pretty nifty looking.

On the south side of the intersection is Our Savior Lutheran Church. I've mentioned in an earlier post how it was once the church in the basement. Well, here's proof.

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West N. Brighton - Forest and Clove Road - This beautiful estate was owned by the Brooks family (who I have no idea who they were) and was called, imaginatively, Brooklawn) Today it's all gone and been replaced with the northern stretch of Clove Lake Park.

Graniteville - Richmond Avenue between Forest Avenue and Monsey Place - Today Monsey doesn't even intersect with Richmond and there's a filthy gas station and convenience store on the spot. Good going, people.

Graniteville - PS 22 - Forest and Columbus Street (well, today, Columbus doesn't even exist and a new extension to the school's been built across its roadbed) - This picture from the early 30's shows the "new" extension built to the original school on the picture's left. Today another extension has been attached to this extension.

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Thursday, November 05, 2009

Castleton Avenue in Olden Tymes

Castleton Avenue is one of the major thoroughfares of the North Shore. It stars in New Brighton near the south terminus of Jersey Street, rises up into Silver Lake, winding its way past the old Staten Island Hospital and into West New Brighton and past the old St. Vincent's Hospital (now, boringly, called Richmond University Medical Center). It continues through West New Brighton passing the Civil Court House, Calvary Presbyterian, Sacred Heat R.C. Church, the West Brighton Projects and on towards Port Richmond. It finally ends, after having run past the Castleton Bus Depot and crossed the crumbling commercial center at Port Richmond Avenue, at Nicholas Avenue near Port Richmond High School.

southside of Castleton between Pelton and Oakland - This first building was once the West New Brighton sub-branch for the New York Public Library. For as long as I can remember it's been a junk shop.

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southwest corner of Castleton and North Burgher - Today the West Brighton Branch of the New York Public Library sits here in its stately Carnegie building.

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You can see the original steeple of Sacred Heart that was lost to fire many decades ago.

southwest corner of Castleton and Caroline - Half the building was occupied by a James Butler Store. Apparently that was a successful chain of stores at some time in the past. Twenty years ago the building was used by a local civil rights organization called "Heritage House". Until fairly recently you could still see their signs on the place. Back then I worked at NYS Parks, Recreation and Historical Preservation. The group was getting state dollars to turn the building into a state of the art community center. I don't remember the specifics but there were problems with the group's handling of the renovation of the building and in the end the project fell apart. Now I think it's got the dreaded X for condemned on it.

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northwest corner of Castleton and Port Richmond Avenues - once in the dim, and distant past, Port Richmond was a major commercial center. Even in the days of my youth it was a beacon for North Shore consumers. There was a Woolworths and several other similar five & dimes. There were restaurants, clothing stores, photographers, and all other manner of shopping destinations. Then the Forest Avenue Shoppers Town came into being in the late 60's followed by the Staten Island Mall in 1975. Within a few years the stores began losing customers in droves and closing up shop. There was an effort at a commercial revival in the 80's with an emphasis on furniture stores but this was enough.

With the arrival of large numbers of Mexican laborers in the 90's (to do work that Staten Islanders might have to pay someone else a decent wage to or, heaven forbid, do themselves) the neighborhood became a very different place. Now, many of the old, vacant stores have been replaced with restaurants and discount stores selling Mexican products. Unfortunately this new Port Richmond remains as bedraggled and rundown as it did when the old businesses first closed up shop in the 70's.

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