Alice Austen House On Staten Island NY




Director Of Operations Discusses History & Perspective Of Unique Woman On Staten Island At Turn Of 20th Century

The essence of life in turn of the century New York is always one of lore. But perspectives resound from all over. Just across the harbor on Staten Island with a full view of the Verrazano Bridge and Manhattan sits the historical landmark of the Alice Austen House, lost in time yet so current in texture. Shiloh Aderhold Holley, Director of Public Engagement & Operations, sat down with The Buzz on its shores during an exploration trip of the borough for the TravMedia IMM Marketplace to discuss identity, the progress of history and the art of photography.

The Buzz: Historically Alice Austen was a very unique figure, specifically in her relationship to New York City, considering what she covered and all that. Where does her story begin?

Shiloh Aderhold Holley:  Alice Austen was one of American's first female photographers, most active in the 1880s and 1890s. She really started taking photographs of her family and friends and her intimate circle of female companions. And then later, in the 1890s, she started venturing out into the streets of Manhattan, documenting immigrant street life, workers, and also some quarantine stations.

The Buzz: What made her so interested in these aspects, from your perspective-- I mean there were some quarantine islands right around where we are sitting, which I never knew existed, even after living here, but she helped document that.

SAH: Right. The location of her childhood home, known as Clear Comfort, is very significant. It's right on the narrows of New York Harbor, and the family was really engaged in what was happening right outside their front [door] step. The immigrants who were coming into the country were passing by [right in] front, and I think that's really what got her interested in documenting that and seeing a world beyond Staten Island.

The Buzz: Can you speak on the background of the family and the unconventional structure of her mom being a single mother in that time period, but also that of her unconventional relationships at the time…it really creates a very vivid portrait of the island too, in many ways.

SAH: We presently say that Alice Austen is she's so relevant to today and her story matters to so many people. We have the LGBT component. We also have this unconventional family structure, which we talk a lot about with our school programs. We have a very ambitious woman who was defying social conventions at the time, going into Manhattan by herself with 50 pounds of photography equipment and really traveling alone. So there's a lot that's relevant to people today.

The Buzz: Now…looking at the house itself, you know you cannot get a space like this anywhere in the five Burroughs where you have this view, but it's still residential and it's still been protected. Can you talk about sort of the process, because it could not have been easy.

SAH: So the house dates back to 1690 as a one room Dutch farmhouse, and then different families would move in. They would buy more acreage, use it for farming…animal husbandry. And then Staten Island became a lot more suburban in the 1840's and 1850's when the Austen family purchased the property. They renovated it and turned it into a summer home, and then would later move here permanently. And this is where young Alice Austen started living and really becoming engaged with the house and her grandparents. Then, unfortunately, after the older generations of the family moved in, or passed on, Alice lost most of the family money in the stock market crash in 1929. And at that time, it was just her and [her companion] Gertrude living at the home alone. And for the first time, they were really forced to make ends meet. They took out a mortgage on the home to travel Europe and when they returned, they couldn't afford the mortgage payment. They really had to make income for the first time in their life. So they operated a tea room here on the front lawn.

The Buzz: Again…best view of Manhattan you could ask for.

SAH: Yeah. Gertrude was a kindergarten teacher and a dance teacher, so she picked that up again in her later years. They were eventually evicted in 1945 and the home was in a state of disrepair. It went through some other private owners. And then, eventually, a bank purchased the property and then later a development company. But a group of community members here on Staten Island and also photographers and architects working in Manhattan realized that this was a treasure that needed to be saved. So they worked to landmark the house. And a few years later, New York City gave about a million dollars of city capital money to restore the home and turn it into a museum.

The Buzz: Now it’s a national historic landmark. But what's the process here to get that? Is it specific to New York State?

SAH: [In NY] we have varying levels of landmark status. We have two designations from the National Park Service.  And then we're also a member of a network of historic artist homes and studios.

The Buzz: Photography was such a key aspect of Alice’s life and she was able to capture this, but also the people. And could you talk about her photography from that point of view? Being the director of operations, you have to capture that and bring that to the forefront.

SAH: Right. So not only was she interested in documenting the grounds here, but also the people who were enjoying the house, like her friends. And her photography is very personal, especially in her early life. She was documenting her circle of friends, her family, and how the photographs were distributed was actually very interesting because she was creating them for private distribution. So she would frequently give photo albums as gifts. So these photographs weren't really meant to be seen until later in her life. When a book of her photographs ended up at the [local] historical society, they were kind of rediscovered and, for the first time, really publicly acknowledged.

The Buzz: That’s interesting because the irony now is that her house is a museum for her photography.

SAH: So, today, the museum's mission is to celebrate Alice Austen's life and legacy, so we present her work and tell her life story. And our mission statement includes the phrase: “explore personal identity”. So we really present programming and exhibitions where people are really able to come in and investigate history, but also create personal connections for themselves.

The house itself has such an identity with the Dutch elements of it - including that dark room upstairs.

Yeah, that's one of our special locations on our tour. It's probably one of the more intimate spaces in the house because it really gives you an insight to Alice Austen's process. She was working there at a time before there was running water in the house, so she had to go outside to the hand pump to rinse her photographs. So it really gives you an insight to her personal process of being a photographer.

Tim Wassberg

A graduate of New York University's Tisch School Of The Arts with degrees in Film/TV Production & Film Criticism, Tim has written for magazines such as Moviemaker, Moving Pictures, Conde Nast Traveler UK and Casino Player. He enjoys traveling and distinct craft beers among other things.

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