It's summer, the venerable black locust next door is thick with hanging seed-pods, and the restoration work at 42 Westervelt Avenue proceeds.
At first, following a disastrous fire, with severe consequences for the owners of the house next door, we were glad simply to be rid of the crack house that had always been an eyesore until it became a nuisance and then a menace --- and a presence that defined the block.
Now, as the restoration becomes more and more visible on the exterior, we allow ourselves grander thoughts ––– of clean sidewalks, quiet tenants, routine maintenance performed, not deferred. An attractive streetscape on the opposite side of the street.
In the photos below, restoration carpenters are shown reconstructing the framework for the restored facade of this significantly altered 1872 French Second Empire-style building. The portion being reconstructed was originally an open porch. ###
Last night, an 1872 French Second Empire mini-mansion across the street from our house caught fire, the inevitable conclusion to a decades-long process of disinterest and disinvestment.
42 Westervelt Avenue in St. George was never as grand as the French Second Empire building pictured right, but its proportions suggest it was probably pretty impressive in its day.
Here's an incomplete record of its recent physical deterioration.
Like many larger residential properties in St. George, 42 Westervelt Avenue was chopped up into apartments some time before World War II. Under the right management, with proper maintenance and appropriate improvements, it could have continued to provide solid housing for six families.
But once the building fell into the hands of its current absentee owner, its fate was sealed. He promptly filled the building, and others he owned adjacent to this property, with friends and relatives and for a long time it was rundown but quiet and "respectable."
But that was only a temporary reprieve from this handsome building's continuing downward slide.
When these friends and relatives left, one by one, they were replaced by crack addicts and their friends. In short order, the building became a flop house whose occupants you see on the front stoop in the photo, above, dated 2008.
And so it continued through 2009, when the photo at left was taken, and well into 2010.
Until last night.
I took the photo on the left, below, through glass and a mesh screen, producing an eerie visual that perfectly represents last night's craziness,with hordes of firefighters responding to a four-alarm blaze that not only savaged 'The Crack House.' It also severely damaged the beautifully restored post-Civil War-era rowhouse to the right, separated by only a narrow alley.
I took the photo below, right, from my front porch this morning. I want to try and get the Landmarks Commission involved here, to make sure that whatever happens next, happens in a preservation context.
Just to get this on the record: Two fire marshals were here this morning and described the building as severely damaged but 'structurally sound'---their words. Just in case we need to repeat them for the benefit of those who'd rather raze it and replace it with 20 townhouses, built front to back. Landmarks protection has to mean more than that.
San Franciscans probably know more about North Brooklyn than Staten Islanders know about their own home borough. At least one of the reasons may be a relative lack of popular or scholarly writing on the subject compared to what's available on the other boroughs.
The books devoted to this borough that I've seen most often in Staten Island home libraries are the two-volume Leng and Davis history of 1930, a professional but dated effort; and two volumes by amateur historian Dorothy Valentine Smith, both of 1968. By now, these titles are more parts of history themselves than guides to it, at least where more recent history is concerned.
That's not a situation unique to Staten Island. Many communities have a detached, curiosity-cabinet view of their own histories; or an even drier statistical one. Or else they've ignored their histories outright. Mostly the failure has been to make history relevant by connecting the lives of those who walked these streets, lived in these houses and rode these trains, trolleys and buses with our own lives, here, today.
LETTING THE PICTURES TELL THE STORY
David Goldfarb and Jim Ferreri's new pictorial history, ST. GEORGE--one of eight titles on Staten Island history produced by Arcadia Publishing in its handsomely designed Images of America series––is a worthy attempt to fill in some of the blanks in our knowledge and awareness. It uses historic photographs to make our neighborhood's history more accessible to a wide audience. The caption at the top of this unpostmarked horizontal sepia postcard reads, Borough Hall and Bridge, new approach to St. George. Richmond Borough, N.Y. (D. Icolari postcard collection)
Some of the text has the ring of oft-told legend more than history--such as the (possibly tall) tale of how St. George got its name (see page 36). But there are many surprises as well, such as a sign-of-changing-times photo (see page 109) of a railroad engine sitting on tracks no one expected would be laid directly below the Richmond Terrace mansion that overlooks them.
I didn't know how much I didn't know.
The caption of this card postmarked 'New Brighton, N.Y.' in 1910 reads, Borough Hall, St. George Richmond Borough, N.Y.
(D. Icolari postcard collection)
In their approach to ST. GEORGE, Ferreri, an interior designer who is president of the Preservation League of Staten Island; and David Goldfarb, attorney, community activist and passionate preservationist, have let the pictures tell the story. Following a brief introduction, the authors have included a total of seven sections, each devoted to a particular aspect of the community's history and development, including Early Settlement, Houses of Worship, Resort Development, Planned Suburban Community, Civic Center, Staten Island Ferry and Transportation Hub, and Modern St. George.
\Postmarked 1908, this postcard is captioned, Stuyvesant Place looking North from High [Hyatt?-ed.] Street, St. George, Staten Island (D. Icolari postcard collection)
While the bulk of the text is contained in photo captions, those captions are often quite meaty and informative. Historical background and archival images were provided by the Staten Island Historical Society and the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, with additional images from the Staten Island Advance. A number of the images were contributed by the authors themselves.
Several particularly revealing photos show us how Stuyvesant Place was transformed, perhaps inevitably, given its strategically important location near the ferry, from a rather elegant 19th century suburban residential street to a livelier but less interesting amalgam of shops and large residential and commercial structures. Seeing what we have lost underscores the precarious position of what remains.
This advertising postcard for the Hotel St. George was never sent and has no postmark. To find out more about the hotel, see pages 42,43 and 117 of Jim Ferreri and David Goldfarb's ST. GEORGE. (D. Icolari postcard collection)
A COMPLAINT . . .
One of the things that jumped out at me right away in Goldfarb and Ferreri's terrific new book was their use of the term 'town' to refer to what most people on Staten Island would refer to as a neighborhood or community or section, maybe.
Sure, when I arrived by ferry on these shores in 1977, there were people--usually older natives––who would use the term 'town,' a holdover from the days when Richmond County was a collection of town centers with scant residential development surrounding. That was still somewhat the case as late as 1950.
The handwritten caption of this undated, unpostmarked card reads, New York Public Library, St. George, Staten Island. (D. Icolari postcard collection)
But these days, one hears West Brighton or Oakwood or Willowbrook referred to much less often as towns and much more often as neighborhoods.
The real dividing lines are not rigid 'town' boundaries, anyway--such as those arbitrarily established by the Advance. It's the words people use to refer to the places they live--not the preferences of newspaper editors and real estate developers--that determine those places' names.
. . . AND A SALUTE
I was heartened to see the authors engage the question of who decides what history is and whether that history is frozen or subject to review. That may not be Goldfarb and Ferreri's intent in referring to New Brighton as 'the town that would become St. George.' But that is the effect of those words.
Unpostmarked, undated postcard'scaption reads, Carnegie Library, St. George, Staten Island, N.Y. (D. Icolari postcard collection)
As they imply, place-names are not divinely set in stone; they are human creations, subject to human revision. By acknowledging that process of change, the authors of ST. GEORGE have set forth a view of history as something dynamic and evolutionary that is periodically reconsidered or revised. Just like our understanding of it.
But the question of what neighborhood we live in has been settled for quite some time. In a sense, the publication of David Goldfarb and Jim Ferreri's ST. GEORGE proves it.
_________________________________ ST. GEORGE by David Goldfarb and James G. Ferreri, Images of America Series, 128 pp., softcover. $21.99. Available after April 13 at the Every Thing Goes Book Café, 208 Bay Street, Tompkinsville (718-447-8256) and other bookstores; online; or through Arcadia Publishing, www.arcadiapublishing.com
Still standing on the east side of Central Avenue near Slosson Terrace, St. George, S.I.
THE STUFF KNOCKOFFS ARE MADE FROM
My March 24 photo essay on Queen Anne towers, turrets and finials ("When Queen Anne Was King") included pictures of buildings in a small stretch of Westervelt Avenue between St. Marks Place and its merge into Hamilton Avenue in St. George.
The rooflines pictured in that essay were knockoffs of earlier, larger and more elegant buildings elsewhere in the neighborhood. The partial roofline shown left is taken from one of these. It represents the sort of model journeyman builders were inspired by and whose massing and detailing they copied, albeit in considerably scaled down form, for more modest buildings.
The extraordinary finial-capped inverted cone (is it a dunce's cap? a witch's hat?) on this St. George house is probably the most striking example of Queen Anne eccentricity in the neighborhood. The near circle of tower room windows is partly covered by the overhang in almost a protective gesture--a detail I've seen nowhere else in the neighborhood.
Look at the care lavished upon the finial--the dentilated decoration near the finial base, echoing the much larger circular rim of the tower roof itself. A person could pass it on the street, year after year and never look up and never notice it, but to its designer it was a crowning detail; it had to be done right.
And look again: the use of dentils is repeated in the terra cotta chimney just behind. Possibly nothing more than a felicitous accident, but no less beautiful for that.
A DYNAMIC, EXCITING SPACE FOR THE RIGHT USER
The building is situated across Central Avenue from the site of the new Richmond County Courthouse--a guaranteed revenue generator for any retail or restaurant business that had the vision and the dollars required to locate here. A smart user would capitalize on the building's eccentricity, providing relief from the typical civic center-type structure now about to rise across the street.
Offices would be a predictable and shortsighted use of such a dynamic space; so would restricting it to uses catering mostly or exclusively to lawyers and business types. That sort of strictly-suits concept would have limited appeal to the young, hip community developing nearby. The ideal would be to generate as broad an appeal as possible.
Like so much commercial real estate in St. George, this remarkable but severely deteriorated structure is for sale or lease, as it has been for years, with a parking lot adjacent.