Preserving a bigger piece of Staten Island’s past

November 7, 2008 at 7:19 pm Leave a comment

Though visible from both Hylan Boulevard and Abbott Street, the Bredt-McFarlane House stands faded and boarded up inside a small, fenced province of vines.Restoring a dilapidated house on the site of the Alice Austen House and Park will allow the museum to expand its claim to significance within the grand story that architecture tells in the city of New York. It also means more cool stuff can go on there.

The Manhattan advisory firm Beckelman + Capalino is completing a business plan this month that would put the Bredt-McFarlane House – the 19th-century home of the New York Yacht Club – back on the map of the city’s cultural institutions.

Hidden behind the Harbor-side museum named for Alice Austen (1866-1952), the prolific photographer who lived in the house there for most of her life, the adjacent Bredt House is currently easy to miss, despite its size. Though visible from both Hylan Boulevard and Abbott Street, it stands faded and boarded up inside a small, fenced province of vines.

Back in 1867, when the circa-1840 home was sold to an officer to be used as the headquarters of the New York Yacht Club, the Richmond County Gazette praised the sale as “one of great importance to the Island as attracting so many people of wealth and high social position to our shores.”

Three years later, an estimated 50,000 visitors gathered along the shores of Brooklyn and Staten Island as the New York Yacht Club held the first defense of the America’s Cup, and the city’s Magic claimed victory in the regatta against the British challenger, the Cambria.

But like other manses and playgrounds for the rich that defined 19th-century Staten Island, the Bredt House was destined to fall. Abandoned for decades, the Bredt House was last inhabited in the 1970s and ’80s, when it was divided into apartments and rented out to tenants.

“Frankly, if it had burned down, at one time, people would have said, ‘Just as well,’ ” said Carl Rutberg, executive director of the Alice Austen House Museum. “It was only around the 1990s that people started to become really interested in preservation on Staten Island.”

Designated as a landmark in 1969 and acquired by the city Parks Department in 1975, the restoration of the Bredt House has been long in the making.

But having completed a feasibility plan in 2006, Parks has outlined three phases of action: Cleaning and roof repairs that have already been completed; structural repairs expected to begin this spring, and the restoration of heat, windows, porches and doors that might begin around 2010, according to an agency spokeswoman.

“The possibilities, the combinations, are endless,” said Rutberg, who looks forward to the practical applications of acquiring new space. “The result of combining these two landmark houses is far greater than the sum of their individual qualities. The magnificent, six-acre historic site in a park land setting will become a destination that encourages longer stays and extends the visitor’s experience.”

Photography exhibits that rotate on the walls of Austen’s colonial home, known endearingly as Clear Comfort, will likely move to new gallery spaces in the Bredt House, allowing the home to be toured as a historic house.

Quite simply, the Alice Austen house has outgrown its britches.

Its popularity has grown exponentially since it was opened to the public in the mid-1980s. Today, photography classes inside the cottage overlap with tours, exhibits and special events. Its gift shop is confined to a closet. While the recently launched Gray Line bus tour of Staten Island makes the Alice Austen House a regular stop, recently a teacher development program for 35 high-school teachers and a visit from 80 fourth-grade students were turned away, due to lack of space, Rutberg said.

About 26 times a year, the Austen House is rented out for occasions like weddings and retreats that take place in the idyllic setting, but that income stream is seasonal. The Bredt House will offer interior space for in-house and external events to help support the institution’s programs.

While the historic significance of Clear Comfort and the Bredt House is not lost on Rutberg, an instructor and doctoral candidate in American history, his leadership at the institution is focused on the present.

“It’s not a site about the past,” he said. “You get a sense here that you’re part of what’s going on right now. It’s not just a dark house; it’s a site that engages you with the waterfront. We’ll have the old yacht club, and we can tie that to the official launch site we have now for kayaks. We teach children about Alice Austen and they think, ‘Yeah, this old lady, whatever,’ but you put a camera in their hands and it becomes part of their world.”

The North Shore Councilman and congressman-elect Michael McMahon has allocated $1 million for the restoration, which is estimated to cost about $3.3 million.

By Tevah Platt

Staten Island Advance


Entry filed under: Go Coastal, Staten Island. Tags: , , , , .

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