Nestled in the New Brighton neighborhood of Staten Island are a small number of quaint, Victorian cottages, vestiges of one of America’s earliest suburban developments. Eleven of the original houses still stand. One beautiful Saturday in September I did a walking tour with Victorian Society in America and got to see these beautiful houses in person. I even got to tour three of them!
The tour began in Christ Church, a 1906 stone beauty with many stained glass windows, five of which are by Tiffany.
Here, our tour guide, Staten Island historian Barnett Shepherd, gave a brief PowerPoint lecture on the history of New Brighton.
This early suburban community gradually came into being over the course of the nineteenth century. It was named after the English seaside resort and conceived as a fashionable summer retreat by speculative builder Thomas E. Davis. He envisioned a community modeled off the designs of American landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing, famous for his text The Architecture of Country Houses.
Davis presented his plan to the trustees of the New Brighton Association in 1836, but the panic of 1837 slowed development. By the 1840s a number of fashionable hotels sprung up and New Brighton became a popular summer destination. Barnett Shepherd compared it to Newport of the twentieth century, which seems an appropriate analogy. In the mid-nineteenth-century, New York’s well-to-do retreated to New Brighton for bathing, boating, fishing, and other sports. The Pavilion Hotel also provided entertainment in the form of balls, concerts, and lectures.
Beginning in the 1850s development expanded thanks to New York City merchant Charles K. Hamilton (1815-1891). He and his wife purchased thirty two acres in 1851 and 1852 and constructed at least four cottages – the mid nineteenth century term for a country/suburban house of 10-14 rooms. This was a communal development that shared a central stable as well as common quarters for each family’s set of servants. Initially called Brighton Park, this little development would later be referred to as Hamilton Park.
After this little introduction, we had some time to gawk at the Tiffany windows and the church’s other beautiful features before embarking on our neighborhood stroll.
For our first stop we admired this Greek Revival beauty:
Among the first of the Hamilton Park houses and dubbed Hamilton Park Cottage, this Italianate style cottage dates to around 1864.
This cottage looks like it’s seen better days, but still charming:
The next surviving example is the Pritchard House, dating to around 1853. I have a soft spot for yellow houses and this house was one of my favorites. We got to tour the ground floor and basement, drooling over the crown molding, fireplaces, and other details.
Another lovingly restored and maintained Hamilton Park property we got to tour:
The adjacent properties are the work of another developer: Boston-based printer/lithographer William S. Pendleton (1795-1879) who moved to New York around 1845 and began developing the land west of Hamilton Park. By 1860 he constructed seven houses.
This villa dates to around 1860 and features a high tower:
I have saved the best for last: check out this Gothic Revival wonder!
The Landmarks Preservation record sums this beauty up perfectly:
“One would sooner expect to read a description of such a house in an historical novel, rather than come upon such an actual structure still standing within the confines of New York City.”
Constructed around 1855, one of its many notable features is the vertical siding, all the more drawing the eye heavenward. I hate to tease about the interior since I couldn’t take any photos – but, wow! The owner’s passion for restoring his home to its former glory is evident throughout with period decor and furnishings. The entire space was museum quality to the point that it was like stepping back in time.
Judging by what remains of these elite suburban communities, it is not surprising to learn that Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame praised New Brighton’s quality of planning in 1871. If you’re in the mood for a stroll through time, by all means, venture to New Brighton.
Note: The blog Forgotten New York did a post on New Brighton here and features some properties not included on my own excursion.