18 August 2015

NYC #30: Alice Austen House, Staten Island

Clear Comfort – at the junction of Hylan Boulevard and Edgewater Street about two miles south of the Staten Island ferry terminal – was the home of the photographer Alice Austen (1866–1952). This house dates from 1690, when it was merely a one-room farmhouse. Alice Austen's grandfather bought the property in 1844, and in the second half of the 1860s Alice Cornell Austen – Alice Austen's mother – moved in here with her daughter after being abandoned by her husband.

Alice Austen's uncle was Oswald Müller, a Danish sea captain who introduced Alice to photography when she was ten, and she quickly developed a strong interest in the relatively new art: she never had any interest in making a living from the photos as she came from a very comfortable background. Alice never married and her lifelong companion Gertrude Tate moved into Clear Comfort with her in 1917, although her inheritance from her grandfather was becoming severely reduced and in 1929 the Wall Street crash dealt a heavy financial blow. The couple opened a tea room on the lawn in an attempt to survive, but the property eventually had to be abandoned in 1945: the separation of the women from each other was a great pain. Alice Austen has become something of a gay icon as well as recognised as an important photographer.

Photo of Alice Austen attributed to Oswald Müller, 1883.

The Parlor. The elements here have been restored in the spirit of the 1890s.

A view of the original construction of the house.
Mrs Cocroft did domestic work in the Austen house, and Austen shows her here with her ten children.
'Katie with Chico and Punch on porch steps' (detail), 1885. Katie was an Irish maid living at Cold Comfort. Punch was the family dog.
The dining room.
An view of outside, with Lower Manhattan in the background.
This was Alice Austen's bedroom.
A sideroom with several albums of Austen's photos.
Austen's dark room on the upper floor.
Photo taken of Alice Austen's revisit to Clear Comfort for the last time in 1951, before her death the following year. Life photographer Alfred Eisenstadt took it.
And Austen took her final photo, of Eisenstadt, on the lawn at Clear Comfort.
MARCH 17, 1866
JUNE 9, 1952'
Alice Austen was buried in Moravian Cemetery, New Dorp, Staten Island. It was the wish of Austen and Gertrude Tate to be buried together, but then of what importance are the last wishes of the dead to those who carry on living? Shamefully, their families objected to their wishes, and they were buried in separate cemeteries.

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