Still regal after all these years
One area of Staten Island that has remained relatively intact even as historical buildings have fallen and whole neighborhoods leveled to make room for “new housing,” is Grymes Hill. Or, to be more specific, Howard Avenue.
This cliffside neighborhood boasts homes from the 1860s through the Roaring ’20s, the ranches of the 1950s and the ubiquitous “mansions” built in the 1990s and beyond.
The amazing thing about Howard Avenue, though, is that it has retained its “sense of place.” Luckly, through the efforts of a group of concerned area residents, one of the premier homes on Grymes Hill is protected from demolition through a New York City Landmarks Preservation designation. The Stirn Mansion is one of the few houses of its kind surviving on Staten Island, and this year, the imposing structure celebrates its 100th birthday.
Grymes Hill originally was part of the 5,100-acre manor granted to Governor Thomas Dongan in 1687 and subsequently passed to his nephews and their heirs. The hill itself was first developed in 1830 by Major George Howard, for whom Howard Avenue is named. Grymes Hill, was named for Madame Suzette Grymes, who arrived here from Louisiana in 1836 and named her large estate “Capo di Monte.” She was the wife of noted New Orleans lawyer John Randolph Grymes, who began buying up land near today’s intersection of Howard Avenue and Grymes Hill Road.
Other early settlers who decided the extraordinary views of the Narrows and New York Harbor were worth the climb up the steep inclines were Jacob H. Vanderbilt in 1847, and Sir Edward Cunard, who named his grand estate “Bellevue.”
Grymes Hill was an established area for the well-heeled by the time Mr. and Mrs. Louis A. Stirn arrived in the neighborhood in 1908. Stirn, a German emigre, was prominent in the silk fabric industry and the owner of several textile mills. His wife, Laura, was the granddaughter of John Roebling, the man responsible for the design and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
The property upon which the Stirns built their mansion was part of a larger group of lots purchased by real estate investor Caleb T. Ward. The land was sold a few more times before the Stirns made their purchase of the lot, which measured 275 feet on Howard Avenue and ran about 600 feet down the hillside.
The Stirn mansion is described as a “neo-Renaissance mansion with Arts and Crafts detailing, and is an excellent example of early 20th-century country house design,” in its New York City Landmarks Preservation designation report.
Louis Stirn was born in 1853 to a prominent Lutheran clergyman and his wife in a suburb of Frankfurt, Germany. At the age of 14, he left Germany for New York, where he found work in the silk industry. Stirn became a partner in a firm that acted as a commission merchant for a German manufacturer of velvets and woolens; he established his own firm in 1894. Initially the firm was an import house dealing in ribbons, silks, velvets and chiffons they distributed to leading retailers like Marshall Field and Co.
STATEN ISLAND ACADEMY
Stirn moved to Staten Island in 1882, marrying Laura Natalie Methfessel six years later. She was the daughter of Professor Anton Gotlieb Methfessel and Laura A. Roebling Methfessel.
The professor was considered one of the most prominent educators on the Island and founded the Methfessel School in 1862. The boys boarding and day school would go on to become the Staten Island Academy.
How fascinating that this one home has connections to the family that built the Brooklyn Bridge and founded the pre-eminent school on Staten Island.
Though the Stirn house was designed in a historical style, it incorporated the latest in mechanical equipment and construction materials, including concrete window surrounds, cast composition column capitals, fireproof terra cotta roof tiles and Portland cement stucco facing materials which were thought to be permanent in color and texture, and therefore, maintenance-free — 100 years before the same claims were made about the “Dryvit” stucco walls of today. (The Stirn House’s stucco is still there 100 years later; the jury is still out on Dryvit.)
LEASED TO WAGNER COLLEGE
The Stirn mansion was leased to Wagner College, for many years and the president of the school allowed to live in the palatial home. In 2000, there was concern among neighbors and preservationists that the mansion was to be sold and demolished to make way for several new homes.
On May 16th of that year a public hearing was held at the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, where testimony was heard and read into the record, all in favor of a designation for the home. The following January the home received a landmark designation, which protected it from alteration or demolition.
The current owner wanted to build homes behind the Stirn mansion, which, unfortunately, would cut off the magnificent views from the palatial home. Permission was granted, and these homes may soon become a reality.
But, at least we still have the Stirn Mansion and can glimpse a lifestyle long gone just by stopping out front to gaze at this beautiful survivor. The lot today measures 275 feet by about 200 feet and is mostly in front of the house.
To look at the mansion today is to understand the meaning of the word “respect.” It was a healthy respect for this incredible home and its history that served as the driving force behind saving it.
Present, Past, Future appears on the last Thursday of the month in Home. Marjorie Decker Johnson assists in researching the history of properties featured in Present, Past, Future, which is a project of the Preservation League of Staten Island.