Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Preservation League of Staten Island and NY City Map

Added a new link on the right for the PRESERVATION LEAGUE OF STATEN ISLAND. I may not agree with all of their goals but I appreciate and support their stand on preserving various individual historic/culturally important buildings.

I'm also belatedly adding the very cool NY City Map page.


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Vanderbilts No More

Over 18 months ago I posted a piece about the defunct Swedish Nursing Home in Sunnyside and the Island's one remaining Vanderbilt family home that was part of that small establishment. Well it's no more. More precisely it's been no more for six months or so. I just missed it. (I apologize for my tardiness but I have no army of county wide informants sending me reports from the front).

I was driving through the back streets of Sunnyside two weeks ago and realized something was significantly different. It took a minute or two to understand the enormity of the change and lost relic.

Last night I tooled around the SI Advance's site and learned about what brought about the mansion's demise. It's not an untypical tale and I understand the neighborhood peoples' decision to not fight the mansions demolition. The Preservation League put up a good fight and lost. It's all understandable and regrettable.

I AM disappointed at the inaction of the Landmarks Commission. They preserve all sorts of rubbish, take whole neighborhoods out from under their owners for the desires of a few fools and yet they express no interest in the last remaining vestige of the Vanderbilts' home on Staten Island. It's so typical of the disdain I always feel coming out of City Hall and its organs towards Staten Island.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Grounds of Snug Harbor

View Larger Map

This is just to give you a sense of where the various lost buildings were once located. It's also interesting to note from the maps that the Snug Harbor property once ran all the way up to Forest Avenue.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Finally, Snug Harbor (my longest post ever)

I've been thinking about Snug Harbor a bunch lately and a recent SI Advance article about artifacts coming home to Staten Island only stoked my brain-fires a little more. I've long had a love-hate relationship with the Harbor but it's really the juggernaut of Island cultural institutions and architectural wonders and at some point I guess I have to write something about the place. Even though the church and hospital are long gone Snug Harbor stands as one of the greatest collections of Greek Revival buildings in the country. There is clearly nothing else like it on Staten Island and I'd doubt anything else in the city really compares.

Randall Memorial Church: Built as a reduced scale replica of St. Paul's Cathedral, disrepair and no money led to its demolition in 1952

While much work still needs to be done to fully restore Snug Harbor's buildings to their original beauty, under the eyes of the most recent director (she was also the director of the SI Botanical Garden located on the Harbor's grounds for almost 2 decades), Fran X.P.Huber, much has been done. Despite the inappropriateness of Huber's Chinese and Tuscan gardens (yes, they are beautiful, no, they are not germane to the history of Snug Harbor or Staten Island. If you haven't realized that by now, that's the sort of thing that fires the engines of my blathering), she has been a generally decent steward of the Robert Randall's bequest in most other regards.

Hospital: The main building was erected in 1850 to cope with a population that was there because of disability. The wings were added in 1879 and 1898. In the "downsizing" of 1950 that saw the destruction of almost a third of the buildings it came down.

When I was little my mother told me stories about the Harbor and the Snuggies. She grew up and lived only two blocks away from the Harbor and spent a fair amount of time running around its grounds as a kid. It was clear that when the remaining residents were bundled off to North Carolina she was saddened. She, like I suspect many others, felt it was simply a ploy by the trustees to get their hands on the Harbor's 83 acres.

Snug Harbor was created out of a desire to provide for the men who'd served the merchant fleet of this nation when they'd fallen on hardtimes. From its beginnings there were issues with the trustees, money and the way the residents were treated. In the last several decades of its operation as a residential facility things got bad with the trustees looking to charge rent and develop off acres of property with stores and high rise apartments. There were court cases and all sorts of charges made.

The buildings had been designated landmarks but the trustees were still able to offer up 65 acres for development. Only aggressive community action was able to stop the construction of 2,800 apartment units and get a cash poor NYC to purchase the rest of the property. Even then, in the darkest days of the City's last great fiscal crisis, it was a not clear Snug Harbor would survive unscathed.

Over the years I watched the Snug Harbor Cultural Center misuse and make all sorts of mistakes with its patrimony. I don't think I stepped onto the grounds of Snug Harbor until I worked there in the mid-nineties. There was just nothing there that was compelling to me.

Well, there actually was, but my friends and I never acted on it. Somebody, somewhere, at sometime, told me and my friends that there tunnels under the grounds of Snug Harbor. They didn't know how to access them but they assured us it was supposed to be easy. You just had to find the right manhole cover and you'd be in. You could traverse the whole grounds of the Harbor never coming above the surface.

We actually planned out what we'd have to take in order to ensure light and not getting lost. Alas, it never went beyond the most basic of prep sessions. To this day I don't know if there actually are or aren't tunnels under the earth of Snug Harbor.

I suspect the board of directors dreamed of being a national arts destination and as such its own gallery shows focused on everything but local artists. The late Art Network came about in direct opposition to the Harbor's almost mandatory cosmopolitanism. Local organizations deemed not cultural enough (ex. the Bridge Club) were forced out even though their rent for fifteen years had helped pay the bills. The idea of Snug Harbor simply being a many faceted cultural draw for Staten Islanders seemed to be too small for the various directors.

Dreams of fixing the theater in the future displaced the need to fix the cottages so they rotted for twenty years. When they were finally fixed it was for much more than it'd have cost in the first place AND the theater remained unusable for several more years.

For most of my life there have been no reasons to go to Snug Harbor. The gallery shows have tended towards unappealing art and you can only go to the John Noble Gallery so many times. The grounds consisted of old roads, overgrown meadows and woods.

Governor's Residence: long gone it stood along Richmond Terrace to at the western corner of the property near the West Gate. Termite damage was enough of an excuse for the trustees to demolish it around 1950.

The West Gate: the governor's mansion is off to the left

In recent years this has changed. The primary draw for me are the grounds and I lay that directly at the feet of Huber. Without her I suspect the gardens and and lawns would not be where they are today which is beautiful. She restored the ponds and added various small gardens throughout the grounds. She has cared for and preserved the stands of trees lining Henderson and Kissel Avenues. I know there are those out there who don't like her, and I don't want to give undue credit to her, but, until she achieved critical mass at the Botanical Garden in the mid-nineties Snug Harbor was mostly know for the Staten Island Children's Museum and lousy catering in the great hall. Now it's actually much more. So, go, check out Snug Harbor. There are various events held on the grounds by outside groups (most recently Trinity Lutheran's first German Maifest), plays in the theaters, art shows (several years ago there was a very cool Arthur Rackham show), and above all, 83 acres of (mostly) beautiful lawns, gardens and building to wander through.

When I was little my dad and I would walk from our house on Cebra Avenue to my grandparent's on Henderson Avenue. We'd walk along Castleton Avenue, down Conyingham and Brentwood and then along Henderson alongside Snug Harbor's fenced in south side. At one point you can look down from streetlevel to a stream that runs from under the road, north towards the Kill Van Kull. There was something mysterious and wild about that running water, coming into the sun from some unknown subterranean place and hemmed in by bending trees as it flowed to the sea. I half expected to see deer drinking along its edges.

My dad and I always stopped for a moment or two, no longer, to look at the stream. Today it's got a seedy look to it. Many of the trees are gone and I know that the tunnel is just a channel for a stream the city built a road over. Still, if I look at it right and let my eyes not see the Harbor's building through the thinned out trees a little hint of the mystery comes back.

View Larger Map

NOTE: I found a chapter from something called "Archaeology and Preservation of Gendered Landscapes" that has great information about Snug Harbor's history and social structures. It also calls out the "director of the Botanical Garden" for seeking to "incorporate more outdoor space into new attractive gardens that
have no connection to the historic landscape". Good food for thought.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Beach Hotels

The pictures I've posted earlier show huge crowds. Obviously, they had to stay somewhere. There were bungalows and campgrounds, but by far, it seems the primary places to stay were hotels. There were lots of them, from a little away from the water in Arrochar all the way south along the beach to New Dorp.

Hotel Lincoln - Midland Beach

I think there are a few of the original buildings remaining in South Beach that have now been converted into apartments. Specifically there is one remaining hotel building today standing alone at the foot of Midland Avenue near the corner of Fr. Capaodano Blvd. It still functions as a hotel but not, I think, as one you might take your family to for a summer excursion to the beach.

View Larger Map

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Summertime And The Beaches Are Open

With the dread of summer upon me (I dislike the heat, the sun, the humididdity and the extra long days) I've decided to venture south of the Staten Island Expressway for a rare excursion. Apparently, there are some people crazy enough to enjoy going to crowded, hot, amusement strewn beaches and boardwalks in the summertime. Well, ....

...once upon a time, long ago in the dim and distant past, South Beach and Midland Beach were glorious havens of escape and adventure.

Gaudily illuminated and painted tents, rides and buildings ran alongside the boardwalk that lined the north eastern shore of Staten Island. From the late nineteenth century through the late nineteen twenties the twin beaches had hotels, summer cottages, campgrounds and theaters and rides. In 1906 Happy Land Amusement Park opened in South Beach.

Midland Beach had its own collection of resorts and like its northern neighbor its own train station.

The Great Depression (no link, you really should know that one) killed the resorts. By the time the tourists dried up in 1939 the abandoned halls, rides and hotels were ready for demolition. The feds bought the property, knocked everything down and eventually building what is now known as the FDR Boardwalk.

Considering the emptiness of the beaches today (one restaurant/catering hall, public toilets and a fishing pier are about it) and the reputation of South Beach and Midland Beach as two run down neighborhoods the above pictures might come as a surprise. To think that Staten Island was ever anyone's idea of a destination is staggering. As much as I love this stupid place it's mostly for nutty, personal reasons. Otherwise this island is simply a place where people live and work.
I know that's absurdly reductionist but I still have a hard time picturing imaging hordes of people coming from anywhere else to spend weeks on Staten Island's shore. The closest comparison is Ocean City, NJ (though clearly people dressed MUCH better back then). Nearness to the rest of the city and the ease of getting here compared to New Jersey makes sense. Still.....