Photo courtesy Alice Austen House by Floto + Warner, Clear Comfort, 2015, © Floto + Warner
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Clear Comfort is a charming 1840’s Carpenter Gothic cottage in Rosebank, on Staten Island. Perched on a sloping lawn overlooking the Verrazano Narrows, the house has a panoramic view of the entrance to the Upper Bay of New York’s harbor. The upper portion of the ancient Dutch doors perfectly frames passing ships moving through the Narrows. For over seventy years this small house was home to the pioneering woman photographer, Miss Alice Austen and the dramatic tale of her life there inextricably bound to this unique place. Her story and this house are souvenirs of a lost time when photography was a thrilling new toy and ladies of leisure played the new game of lawn tennis on golden summer afternoons.
Clear Comfort started life as a humble one-room stone farmhouse early in the eighteenth century, some say as early as 1690. Over the years Dutch farmers added more rooms, an entry hall and that delightful Dutch door. The crumbling old farmhouse was purchased by John Haggerty Austen, a well-to-do New York City merchant, as a summer house in the picturesque suburban village of Rosebank. He made major changes, adding Carpenter Gothic dormers and bargeboards, diamond-paned windows and a long deep porch across the front of the cottage, later covered with vines in summer, much to the Victorian taste. The acre of grounds surrounding the house was carefully landscaped and the grounds appear today much as they did 150 years ago. However, the Alice Austen House itself has been subject to wind, rain, snow, ice, and tens and tens of thousands of visitors since the opening of the museum in 1985. A Partners in Preservation grant would enable the museum to remove these marks of wear and tear. The museum also intens to replace the roof’s decorative woodwork, repair the shutters and the chimney, replace the rotten wood, build a new handicap access door, and repaint the house.
New York City in the 1850’s, with regular outbreaks of contagious disease, could be a dangerous place to raise a family and when the Austens lost two infant sons to cholera in 1852 they moved the family to the safety of Staten Island and bucolic Clear Comfort. The house would remain in the family for over 100 years. The family’s eldest daughter married just after the Civil War and settled with her new husband in Rosebank at Woodbine Cottage. Soon a child was on the way and the new husband was out the door, never to be heard from again. Pregnant, and now without either a husband or an income, the daughter moved home and soon Alice was born. She grew up at Clear Comfort as the only child in a household of six adults, not counting the three servants, and was often the much-loved center of attention.
By the 1870’s Alice’s Aunt Mary had married Oswald Muller, a Danish sea captain who sailed the great China Clippers around the horn to Canton. The Mullers always returned with exotic gifts for the family and in 1876, when Alice was ten, Captain Muller returned with a British manufactured view camera. He demonstrated the large wood and metal device, with its glass plate negatives, on the lawn and little Alice was his willing assistant. When it came time to again sail off to China, uncle Oswald gave Alice permission to use this fascinating device in his absence. Her uncle Peter was a newly-minted professor of chemistry at Rutgers and during his visits home he helped his enthusiastic niece learn how to work with the chemicals necessary to develop the glass plate negatives and make paper prints. Eventually Oswald and Peter built a small darkroom in an upstairs storage room that Alice could use as her skill as a photographer grew. There was no running water in the house, so Alice rinsed her prints in the outdoor water pump, even in winter.
By her eighteenth birthday Alice was an accomplished photographer with high standards — her earliest surviving photographs come from this time. Over the next twenty years she lugged her heavy and awkward equipment over the unpaved roads of Staten Island documenting the life of leisure in the fashionable summer colony. As a young woman with many lively friends and considerable athletic ability, she photographed tennis games and cyclists along with girls dressed in men’s clothing and two giggling girlfriends actually smoking cigarettes.
As the years passed she began taking her camera to the city and her pictures documented street life in the New York of the turn of the century — newsies and hack drivers, policemen and the newly arrived immigrants of the Lower East Side were her subjects. Alice traveled abroad and always brought along a steamer trunk full of photographic equipment and returned with dozens of glass plate negatives. Many years later several pages of these photos were published in Holiday Magazine.
By 1917 her family was gone and she invited her old Brooklyn friend, Gertrude Tate to move into Clear Comfort. They remained companions for the rest of their lives and comfortably lived off the income from her grandfather’s inheritance. Everything changed in 1929 when the Wall Street crash wiped out her investments. At 63, having never worked, Alice now had to live by her wits. The two women tried setting up a tea shop in the house, but with little success, and Alice began selling the family silver, paintings and furniture to pay the fuel bills. She then mortgaged the property, more than once, but finally lost the title in 1945. As she was forced to move from her home, she sold what remained inside to a junk dealer for $600. Before his truck arrived she asked Loring McMillen from the Staten Island Historical Society to help her sort through things. He found her hoard of thousands of glass plate negatives and hauled them away to storage in the basement of the old courthouse in Richmondtown. Alice moved to a tiny apartment, but eventually to a nursing home. In 1950, when she could no longer afford the home, she declared herself a pauper and was admitted to the poor house, known as the Staten Island Farm Colony. In that same year a publisher working on a history of American women project sent out a letter to various historical societies and archives looking for images related to American women. The Staten Island Historical Society invited the publisher’s representative to look through the boxes of Alice’s uncatalogued negatives. Oliver Jensen, the publisher, included several of Alice’s pictures in the book and he also wrote an eight-page piece in Life Magazine about Alice and her pictures. Alice’s share of the proceeds was enough to move her out of the poor house and back into a nursing home.
In the fall of 1951 Alice was the guest of honor at the Richmondtown museum for the opening of an exhibit of her photographs and the occasion was dubbed “Alice Austen Day.” In an interview she was quoted, “I am happy that what was once so much pleasure for me turns out now to be a pleasure for other people.”
Miss Alice Austen of Clear Comfort died peacefully in her sleep in June of 1952.