For centuries, New York City’s one common trait through that time has been its constant change. In 1839, the mayor at the time, Philip Hone, wrote “The spirit of pulling down and building up. New York is rebuilt about once in 10 years”. That being noted, it is surprising that the city manages to have a significant number of structures that date as far back to the 17th Century, back when the colony was still New Netherland. Some of the city’s oldest structures are in Brooklyn and Staten Island. These are the four that are located in Staten Island!
Billiou-Stillwell-Perine House - 1662
Staten Island’s oldest home was originally built by Pierre Billiou, a Huguenot who arrived from France in 1661. He founded Oude Dorp, referred to as Old Town today. That same year, he received a land grant on Staten Island, building the original stone section of the house in 1662. His daughter, Martha, inherited the property and resided there with her husband Thomas Stillwell. Billiou's son-in-law, Stillwell, enlarged the house in 1680. In 1758, the home was acquired by Edward Perine, whose family owned it until 1913.
There were three more additions in the 18th and 19th Century that brought the house to its current size. The home has a shingled, sloping roof and a Dutch jambless fireplace, which is tall and has a large stone hearth. There is a secret chamber that opens to a room that features a ceiling with exceptionally large beams.
The Billiou-Stillwell-Perine House is located at 1476 Richmond Road. On January 1st, 1976, the house was added to the National Register of Historic Places and then acquired by the Staten Island Historical Society in 1992. Owned by Historic Richmondtown, the house is occasionally open to the public on a limited schedule or by appointment.
Britton Cottage - 1670
Historic Richmondtown has the greatest collection of colonial buildings, with splendid examples of 17th through 19th Century houses. Many of the structures were moved to the site to escape demolition, including the Britton Cottage.
Formerly known as the Cubberly House, the home originally stood in New Dorp, at the intersection of New Dorp Lane and Cedar Grove Avenue, in the New Dorp Beach section. (It was moved to its current location in 1967). The home was built by Obadiah Holmes, a town clerk and justice of the peace. The oldest sections of the cottage date back to 1670, with additions in the mid-18th century.
The Bitton Cottage was constructed of stone and timber frame components, a hybrid fieldstone and wood structure. It is suspected that the small, earliest section of the house may have once also served the court and governmental functions. Nathaniel Britton acquired the house in 1695. Isaac Cubberly bought the house in 1761, and the house remained in his family for 86 years. Then, Dr. Nathaniel Lord Britton, a botanist and the creator of the New York Botanical Garden, became the owner of the house in the 19th Century, deeding the house to the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences in 1915.
Conference House - 1680
The Raritan Indians settled in the southern part of Staten Island, nearby the Raritan Bay, that was named after them. Evidence of their stay is found at the bluff that overlooks Raritan Bay, Burial Ridge, which is the largest pre-European burial ground in New York City.
In 1676, Christopher Billop, a captain of the Royal Navy, was granted 932 acres of the land. He built a two-story fieldstone house, which was named Bentley Manor, after a ship he commanded. The home was later inherited to his great-grandson, who bore the same name. The great-grandson served as Colonel of the Staten Island Militia during the Revolutionary War and used the house as a British Barracks for his Loyalist soldiers.
On September 11th, 1776, a peace conference was held at Bentley Manor. On that day, Benjamin Franklin, Edward Rutledge, and John Adams led a delegation to discuss peace with Lord Richard Howe, Admiral of the British Fleet. That is when Britain first revoked the Declaration of Independence. Ten days after the conference, George Washington’s troops were being chased out of Manhattan, remaining British headquarters throughout the war that lasted seven more years after that date. Due to Christopher Billop being a Loyalist during the War, his land was confiscated and sold in pieces.
Conference House Park is 286-acres located at the southernmost point of Staten Island, in Tottenville. The Indian burial ground is located in the park as well as the Bentley Manor, which still remains intact and has been renamed as the Conference House.
Alice Austen House - 1690
The Alice Austen House, also known as Clear Comfort, is located at 2 Hylan Blvd in Rosebank. The home was originally built in the 1690s as a one-room Dutch Colonial house on the shore of the New York Harbor, near the Narrows. The occupants were brothers, Jacob Johnson and Lambert Johnson.
The Johnson brothers purchased the 120-acre land from George brown in 1698. It is rumored that Jacob’s mother-in-law was Winifred King Benham, who was tried for witchcraft in Wallingford, Connecticut. Some believed she may have been a resident of the house after her acquittal and virtual banishment, leading to the stories of it the house being somewhat haunted.
In the 1800s, the house was remodeled and expanded several times, one being by John Haggerty Austen; he purchased the home, renamed it and remodeled it in 1844. The home later became his granddaughter’s, Alice Austen, who was a photographer for most her lifetime.
The home is now a museum and a member of the Historic House Trust. The house is administered by the “Friends of Alice Austen” volunteer group. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and became a New York City Landmark in 1971. It was purchased by New York City in 1975 and opened to the public. In 1993, it became a National Historic Landmark and in 2002, became a Historic Artist Home and Studio. Today, the Alice Austen house host many school programs, including photography summer camps and day trips for classes of all age groups.