Big Old Houses: A Voyage to Staten Island

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When’s the last time you went to Staten Island? Not recently, I’ll bet. Back in 1894, island residents voted 5 to 1 to consolidate with New York City. That was then. A century later, in a non-binding referendum on seceding from the City, they went 2 to 1 the other way. Clearly there’s been displeasure brewing in the so-called “forgotten borough.” The post-1964, post-Verrazano Bridge overlay of intense urbanization — well, really suburbanization — has obscured a lot of old Staten Island’s history and charm.

Admittedly, not many New Yorkers, including many who live on the island itself, have much idea of what that heritage was. Beleaguered fragments endure, however. Today’s post is a case in point, the Seguine — pronounced “suh-GUYNE” — Mansion, built in 1838 on a rise above Prince’s Bay. The image above shows the columned porch facing the water; the image below faces north onto the street. For those whose S.I. geography is hazy, Prince’s Bay is located about three-quarters of the way to the island’s southern tip.

When I was a little boy, I hated when grownups didn’t tell me the truth. Attention parents: kids always know when you’re lying, even when you think they’re “too young to understand.” These days I make a point to be truthful when I photograph old houses. Most images you’ll see of the Seguine house pretend it’s way out in the country. It ain’t.

It is, however, on a country-sized parcel that covers about 27 acres, which is remarkable in a neighborhood whose common lot size is measured in feet.

Since 1981, the house has been occupied by a native Staten Islander named George Burke. Here is George’s dog, Rusty, in mild intimidation mode.

No one uses the front door anymore, which wouldn’t be the case if I lived here. The door and porch are typical of rural Greek Revival houses. The original clapboards were either pulled off or are hiding under the (probably asbestos) shingles. The shutters have all been nailed open, their missing hinges and hooks unnoticed by most.

The imposing south facade surveys the glittering waters of Prince’s Bay in the distance. The famous Hudson River School painter Jasper Cropsey (1823-1900), born on a Staten Island farm in nearby Rossville, is suspected of having designed the house for owner Joseph H. Seguine. If true, he was a mighty talented 15-year-old. Cropsey was trained as an architect, knew the Seguine family, and opened his own architectural office at the tender age of 20. But designing this one at age 15? Not impossible, I suppose, but not very plausible.

Joseph Seguine was a prosperous provincial with interests in everything from oystering to candlemaking, railroads to farming, banking to freight forwarding. Notwithstanding all of that, his house, while a charming antique, is not particularly sophisticated in either design or detailing. I still don’t see him inviting a precocious teenager to do the design work, but … maybe I’m wrong.

Seguine’s grandfather bought the land in 1786 and his descendants clung to it for two centuries, while a thousand original acres shrunk to a handful surrounding the house.

We’ve circled back to the front now. That nubby wing on the western facade used to be twice as big. Half of it had collapsed when George Burke came along and shortened it to its present size. I wonder if perhaps this wing is all that remains of a smaller, more humble original dwelling on the site. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time an extremely modest farmhouse had a grand new wing — essentially an entirely new house — appended to it.

Time to go inside. The Greek Revival door, sheltered by a porch, flanked with pilasters, ornamented by rectangular sidelights and a transom is, but for the aluminum storm door, unchanged since 1838.

In the image below the front door is behind me and the door in the distance opens onto the columned porch. The Seguine family didn’t live here during their last years of ownership, entrusting the house instead to a totally untrustworthy caretaker. By the time George arrived, the walls were paintless, the roof was a sieve, the ceilings lay in pieces on the floors and the afore-mentioned summer kitchen was partly on the ground. The last of the Seguines, a nonagenarian named Elizabeth Seguine Aug, practically begged Burke, a former president of the Staten Island Historical Society, to buy the place. In 1981 she made him an offer he couldn’t refuse and, notwithstanding its distressed condition, he accepted.

Let’s go out on the porch with George and Rusty and admire the view — not quite what it was, but still good.

A prudent move; make friends with Rusty.

When we return inside, we’ll be looking the other direction down the center hall towards the original front door.

Traditional double parlors flank the center hall on the east side of the house. Mr. Burke is an assiduous collector of ornate furniture, pictures and bibelots. The rooms that contain these things, however, have neither columned screens nor elaborate cornice moldings, mahogany pocket doors nor carved fireplace mantels. These interiors are the work of country carpenters, far removed in practice and spirit from the glories of Washington Square or St. Mark’s Place. By the way, the man in the painting over the second fireplace is Joseph H. Seguine.

In addition to furniture, George has added a few architectural embellishments.

The dining room is in the northwest corner of the house. Other than the door surrounds (without the overdoors) and parts of the fireplace mantel, I don’t think much of this is original to the house.

Beyond the door to the left of the dining room fireplace is a back stair. The millwook in the image below — excluding the cornice molding — gives a good idea of the original interior finish.

The silver plated doorknobs were an upscale touch.

Back in the hall, I passed a new powder room, before stopping at the entrance of George’s favorite room.

Here is the man at home in his mansion, warmed by a roaring fire (no fuel oil, thanks to Hurricane Sandy), sipping hot rum and cider. By now you see that George is a man who never met a surface he didn’t want to decorate. Several years of professional training at the University of London aided him in the Seguine project, but the real measure of his contribution is not furniture or wallpaper, but the preservation of an historic building which, but for him, wouldn’t be standing today.

I’ve seen this same staircase in old houses from Maine to Maryland.

The door at the north end of the hall leads into what was originally the only full bath in the house. To me, the tiles, the tub and the sink look circa 1920.

Before visiting the bedrooms, let’s detour onto the gallery overlooking Prince’s Bay.

There are four second floor bedrooms, one on each corner of the house. This is the master in the southwest corner.

Across the hall is bedroom #2 in the southeast corner.

Bedroom #3 in the northeast corner is pink …

… and Bedroom #4, which is above the dining room, has dark brown faux wood papering picked out in gold.

Outside the brown room is the back stair, at the top of which is an apartment (not on my tour), and at the bottom a basement kitchen (a new creation of George’s).

In 1989, eight years after buying, stabilizing and redecorating (or starting to redecorate) the Seguine Mansion, George transferred ownership to the Historic House Trust of New York City. This estimable not-for-profit organization, in tandem with the city’s Parks Department, provides needed support for worthy old houses within the five boroughs. Last May, “Big Old Houses” visited another excellent HHT property, the Bartow-Pell Mansion in the Bronx. George, now in his eighties, donated the house in exchange for a life tenancy, which has made living here a lot easier. The income from the Seguine Equestrian Center, which stables some twenty horses a stone’s throw from the mansion, helps.

Besides horses and Rusty, there are peacocks too.

Not many of us are able to pursue a much loved hobby and give back to the community at the same time. Hats off to you, George.

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