Alice Austen House, Staten Island

When I first read that there was an Austen House Museum on Staten Island, I mistakenly thought that it had something to do with a Victorian period British novelist. Both the novelist and this house’s namesake came from the upper class. Both Jane Austen and Alice Austen were fiercely independent women. Neither had ever married. The comparison ends there.

But what concerns me for the purpose of this blog is the landscape around Alice Austen’s House.

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There is a brook flowing on the south side of the house, emerging from the grass and descending down to the Narrows, the strait connecting New York Bay to the ocean.

Where it is

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Looking at the 1907 Elisha E. Robinson atlas of Staten Island, we see the Elizabeth Austen property circled. The avenue passing by the house was later renamed Hylan Boulevard, stitching together 13.5 miles of once separate streets between Alice Austen House and Conference House Park on the opposite side of Staten Island. On the map above, the one-block Bay Street is today Edgewater Street, which follows the water’s edge to the Clifton station.The spit of land along Bay Street is a parklet called Buono Beach.

The Brook in Detail

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 Like the home’s now-famous resident, the brook is independent. It has no tributaries and it does not flow into any other streams. It empties directly into the ocean’s water. When I first encountered it, I thought that it was either the result of a leak or runoff, but as I walked around the lawn, I did not see any pipes. The ground was moist and in a small clearing in the grass, water was seeping out of the soil. It appeared to be a natural spring. But for all I know, this could be the result of a leaking sump.

The flagpole in the distance follows the NYC Parks standard with the U. S. flag on top, followed by the POW/MIA flag, and on the crossbeam’s, the city’s flag and the Parks Department flag. Every city park that is larger than a Greenstreet or traffic median has the standard flagpole.

The shoreline across the Narrows is Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, birthplace of Forgotten-NY founder Kevin Walsh. In that neighborhood, I documented that borough’s only privately owned waterway, Visitation Academy Pond.

A winter scene

Winters in New York are not as snowy as they were in Austen’s days, and many birds opt not to fly south. For an urban photographer, winter is often better for taking photos are there is less vegetation obscuring the skyline and views of buildings. Below is a photo tweeted a while ago by the Alice Austen Museum.

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Built in 1690 as a Dutch farmhouse, it expanded over the centuries under the name Clear Comfort. In 1844 it was purchased by John Haggerty Austen, Alice Austen’s grandfather. Alice moved there as a young girl in the late 1860s with her mother, Alice Cornell Austen, after the two were abandoned by Alice’s father.  In 1917, Alice’s likely lover, Gertrude Tate moved in, and the two lived here together until financial problems forced them to move in 1945. The home nearly was demolished in the 1960s in favor of high-rise apartments were it not for local residents who fought to have it preserved, restored, and reopened as a museum.

On the Beach

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The beach at Clear Comfort is narrow with a riprap shoreline designed to hold back the waves and prevent the lawn from eroding. Swimming here is prohibited and the current in the Narrows moves fast and the channel is deep, resembling an underwater canyon. Buono Beach is named after local resident Matthew “Giggy” Buono (1942-1968), who was killed in combat in the Vietnam War.

Million Dollar View

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Looking north, one can see the downtowns of Jersey City, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. Hard to imagine such a relaxed small-town scene across the harbor from these downtowns. A short walk from the Austen House’s unnamed brook is another hidden waterway, Clifton Lake, a privately owned pond inside the former Shore Acres estate.

Meet the Author:

I will be speaking on September 15 at 6 p. m. at Steinway Library on the subject of hidden waterways in western Queens. Books will be on sale as part of the presentation. The address is 21-45 31 Street in Astoria, Queens.

Alice Austen House:

The museum is open to the public from 11 am to 5 pm, Tuesday through Sunday, March through December. For more information, visit AliceAusten.org

Books on Alice:

From this historic house overlooking the Narrows, photographer Alice Austen documented life on Staten Island in the late 19th century. Prior to Austen, the island was the setting of many paintings and drawings, documented in a book by Barnett Shepherd.

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