ASHonline – published by the Sydney Maritime Museum; home of Sydney Heritage Fleet
… reconnecting with the important photo used in the restoration of James Craig
In June 2018, as a guide on the Sydney Heritage Fleet’s tall ship James Craig, I was very fortunate to be able to visit the Alice Austen house and museum on Staten Island in New York. Those familiar with the story of the restoration of the James Craig will be recognise this photograph taken in New York harbour by Alice Austen in about 1891. The ship was then known as the Clan Macleod and at the time was owned by Sir Roderick Cameron who also lived on Staten Island. The Cameron and Austen families knew each other and maybe Sir Roderick had asked Alice to take this photograph that was very important in the restoration of the James Craig from the hulk that had been abandoned in Recherche Bay, Tasmania for some forty years. Who knows!
With family living in Manhattan since 2005, my husband Dines Larsen (also a SHF volunteer) and I have visited New York a number of times since then but until June 2018 had never managed to get to visit the Alice Austen House on Staten Island though it was always on a “wish list”. This time we made it happen and were thrilled with the visit and the connections we made there.
Not only was the waterfront location on Staten Island near the entrance to New York Harbour a very beautiful and peaceful place but also the current management and volunteers were unaware that one of Alice Austen’s photographs was instrumental in the restoration of our tall ship. We were all delighted when we found this special photograph in their display folder of just a few of Alice’s many photos. We were able to forge a new connection by promising to send them brochures, the DVD and Jeff Toghill book on our ship – a new story for them to tell.
The Clan Macleod photograph did not originally come to us from the Alice Austen House, but through another institution. The importance was, however, soon recognised.
The Alice Austen House was originally a one-room Dutch farmhouse built c.1690 known as the “first house on the left in America” due to its site at the entrance to New York Harbour. Alice’s grandfather purchased the house in 1844 and made the additions to the house that can be seen today. The Austen family named the house “Clear Comfort”. It is one of the oldest remaining houses in New York and is described “one of the finest examples of Victorian Gothic architecture”.
View of front of the house facing the harbour –June 2018
View of back of the house – June 2018
Elizabeth Alice Austen (1866-1952), known as Alice Austen, was a photographer who having been given a camera by her uncle Oswald Munn, a Danish sea captain, when she was just 10 years old. She took some 7,000 photos during her life not only of ships but also of street scenes in New York City. She handled the heavy and cumbersome equipment and mastered the chemistry of developing glass plate negatives. She registered 150 of her negatives with the US Library of Congress and published and exhibited many of her photographs. You can see her dark room and her equipment at the house.
Alice moved into the house with her mother when she was a young girl. Her uncle and her grandfather taught her to identify the various ships coming past their house entering the upper New York Harbour through the “Narrows” (now crossed by the 1960s Verrazano Bridge between Staten Island and Brooklyn). Ships passing through the Narrows were Alice’s favourite photographic subject for more than half a century. The Sydney Heritage Fleet is lucky that one of those ships happened to be the Clan Macleod (now our James Craig).
Alice lived in this house until 1945 and for thirty years shared it with her devoted friend Gertrude Tate. Alice’s fortunes changed with the stock market crash of 1929 and she and Gertrude struggled to maintain a precarious household but were forced to sell the home in 1945 when Alice was nearly 80. Gertrude went to live with her family and Alice ended up in a home for the “indigent “ on Staten Island. At the end of her life she received recognition for her work after historian Oliver Jensen with the Staten Island Historical Society discovered her photos, tracked her down and helped to get her into a private nursing home through the sale and licensing of some of her photos. In September 1951, just a few months before her death in June 1952, LIFE Magazine published an article featuring some of her photographs. The Alice Austen House is the only museum in the United States dedicated to a woman photographer.
Alice Austen & Gertrude Tate
Above: One of Alice’s photographs from her front garden. Compare it with the
photograph below that I took from virtually the same spot in front of the house.
Another of my photos shows the current view from the garden of the Alice Austen house looking towards the left across New York Harbour to the Lower Manhattan and New Jersey skylines and in between the entrance to the Hudson River.
Entrance Hallway to Alice Austen House
Inside the Alice Austen House
Old Camera equipment at the Alice Austen House
An old camera and glass plates on display
A panel inside the older section of the house can be opened to reveal the
rough timber from the outside of the Dutch cottage c. 1690 – otherwise known
then as “the first house on the left in America” by the Dutch sailing into the
harbour to New Amsterdam, now of course New York. Alice’s grandfather renovated
the house in the 1840s and made significant additions
Photo on the wall of the Office at Alice Austen House showing photograph of “Clan Macleod” at South Street, Manhattan (1889) taken by Alice Austen – with Australian visitors Jan and Dines Larsen, June 2018.
The address is 2 Hylan Boulevard, Staten Island, NY 10305
The easiest way to go from Manhattan to the Alice Austen House is to catch the free Staten Island ferry in lower Manhattan (take subway No.1 to South Ferry). On Staten Island there is a bus to somewhere near the house but it is probably easiest to catch a taxi from the ferry terminal on Staten Island (about $10 each way).
The map below shows Hylan Boulevard (circled) on Staten Island and gives an indication of the great location of the Alice Austen House at the entrance to New York Harbour. To compare it with a Sydney Harbour location – if at all possible – it would be maybe like Watson’s Bay ! Anyone visiting New York who has a connection with the James Craig should make a pilgrimage to the Alice Austen House if they can … a perfect opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle of Manhattan for an afternoon with a free trip across the harbour on the Staten Island ferry past the Statue of Liberty!