Monday, June 14, 2010

You Learn Something New Every Day...

I spent my formative teenage years growing up (do any of us ever really grow up?) in New Dorp, one of the "villages" that make up Staten Island, the Fifth Borough of New York. It's pretty much near the center of the East Shore, and is quite a historic place. Within walking distance (long walking distance), you'll find the Richmondtown Restoration (our version of Colonial Williamsburg -- only older and with original buildings), the old Moravian Church on Todt Hill (where many of the "better" Vanderbilt's, including the Commodore himself, are buried), a couple of historic lighthouses, and an honest-to-goodness Tibetan Museum in the woods.

(Side note: as a teeneager, Vanderbilt's Tomb was a hang-out. We teenaged hooligans would drink beer there, because it was secluded, and the surrounding area had deep woods around it, the better to escape anyone who might have caught us!).

That's just to start things off.

Anyhoo, I've been immersing myself in local history recently, and solved a mystery (to me, anyways) about a rather strange house that I have seen practically every day for 30 years, but never bothered to learn about.

I knew the house was a landmark. That became obvious a very long time ago, because it hasn't been repainted in, oh...say 100 years. It's in good condition, considering it's age, and doesn't appear to have had much outside structural work done to it. In fact, I've seen exterior woodwork of a kind that probably hasn't been common in a couple of centuries on this house. I think it's also had a variety of owners since I've known about it, too (I take it it is a pain in the ass to own a landmark building in New York City, what with all the regulations dedicated to separating you from your money). Occasionally, you see movie trailers out front, and neighborhood rumor was (and still sometimes is) that "someone was making porn in there..." I don't know if this is true, and frankly, I'm not all that concerned to actually find out.

So, I have spent the last 30 years blissfully unaware of what the house was, why it was a landmark, and what goes on there. I was, on occasion, curious, but not overly so. To sate my curiosity would have required effort, and consequently, I made none. But that was then...

I recently, accidentally, found out what that building once was. I was researching the Battle History of Staten Island (being an amateur historian, and all. You'd be surprised how many battles have been fought here...and why!), and always inclined towards military history; in this case, the Revolutionary War battles in and around New York City.

That building, I was surprised to learn, was once the Rose and Crown Tavern, a large, rambling affair, that was both alehouse and hotel...and formerly the headquarters of the British Army in New York during the Occupation. Staten Island, in those days, was Royalist Country, with a smattering of the Old Dutch and Huguenot settlements left behind from the days of Dutch New Amsterdam. The British landed here in force because of the old Dutch fort at the entrance to the Narrows (now called Fort Wadsworth, oldest, continuously-garrisoned military installation in the United States), and because fresh water and timber were available in abundance here.

Admiral Howe (brother of the General of the same name) made his headquarters in the Rose and Crown, and an army of 30,000 Redcoats and Hessians was camped here. It was these troops that overran New York City, and chased Washington and his army out of Long Island (Brooklyn). They then set up permanent camp, and made themselves thoroughly unpopular with the locals (the British deforested the island, not to mention imposed upon the locals for everything from food to draft animals to money. When the War was over, the Loyalists all fled to Canada, but not before the Royal Navy fired one last shot at present-day Fort Wadsworth. That was, I'm told, the very last shot of the Revolutionary War. Sore losers!)

I was astonished (I was also astonished to discover that a company of Canadians fought here -- in Washington's Army -- at the Battle of the Old Conference House. Incidentally, Ben Franklin slept there) . I grew up around the corner from it, and have lived in the general vicinity for 30 years, and never knew -- never even suspected -- just what the historic significance of that building was.. So, I've started to wonder about what else I've missed around here. You'd be surprised what's hidden in this most unassuming of places (my research is opening my eyes all the time), and so I'm going to start searching it out, bit-by-bit, and writing about what I find right here. I'll even post pictures.

This week, I'll be taking a walk to Historic Richmondtown, where the oldest, original building in New York City can be found -- the Voorlezer's House -- school, seat of government, and church, and 350 years old.

I think I'll do one of these trips every week, both for the exercise (Damn, but do I need it!), and for the educational value, and because, dammit, I'm proud of where I live! I think, that in these days of Tea Parties and the disappearing belief in American Exceptionalism , perhaps we'd all do well to learn a thing or two about our local history...before it's gone and forgotten.

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