Photo: David La Spina
honors the everyday. This living history museum, tucked near in central Staten Island, re-creates life as lived by ordinary people in the 19th century—if not accurate to the last tiny detail then certainly, as one of the tradespeople says, “in the spirit of.”
Many of the buildings have been on this plot for centuries; those that haven’t are historic structures moved from elsewhere on Staten Island. And some of those tradespeople have been here for decades, passing on their craft to apprentices or other family members. The real-life cast reads a little like that of a 19th-century small-town novel: the printer is married to the tinsmith, who learned her craft from the village founder’s son and whose father is the carpenter.
The houses are humble. The reenactors don’t dazzle with pyrotechnics. It feels very atypical of New York City. But a visit here will give you an appreciation of simplicity, respect for those who honor that and an understanding of what it is to make, in the words of carpenter Norm Pederson, “a virtue of necessity.”
If you’re looking to take public transit and you’re not already on Staten Island, a ferry will most likely be involved. From Manhattan, take the to St. George Ferry Terminal and catch the S74 bus to Richmond Road. You can also cross the Verrazzano Bridge from Brooklyn on the S93 and switch to the S74 at Narrows Road/Richmond Road.
Though Richmond Town focuses mainly on 19th-century life, its history goes back much further. The oldest buildings—including one that was first built back in the 1600s—are on the north side of Richmond Road. Things progress through the ages to include a few 20th-century architectural examples, such as the brick (built in 1909) and cupola-topped PS 28.
Public School 28. Photo: Jen Davis
There’s everything you’d expect to see in a village from nearly any era: a courthouse, a church and that public school, for a start. But it’s in the spaces overseen by costumed historians where the “living” aspect kicks in. You can wander around the shops of the , and ; you can also duck into a whose shelves are lined with products from the 1890s—the height of its success, when it was run by sisters Josephine, Mary and Sarah Black. And you can meet with, learn from and even take home work by the who craft their wares in these places. Amanda Schroeder, apprentice tinsmith, notes that each manned building is like an individual museum but also a shop—so the pieces created are frequently for sale.
General Store. Photo: Jen Davis
(From left) Edwards Barton House; Print Shop. Photos: David La Spina
Pederson says of his trade, “We’re not trying to do it better. We don’t make things look old. [What I do] is not trying to be beautiful or sophisticated, but mostly functional. If you’re going to make a box, make a good box.” Seems like sound advice.
Carpenter Shop. Photo: Jen Davis
All the artisans use only the tools that were available at around the time each shop attempts to recreate, and some of the tools date from well before that. After all, this was the boondocks in the mid-1800s—an area largely untouched by the Revolutionary War and not a part of New York City until 1898—so the latest stuff hadn’t made it from Manhattan. As Pederson says, the tapered square drill bit he uses is just the same as what was used by the Romans back in the second century.
As the site lives on, the work is far from done. “We’ve got 60,000 individual artifacts that need to be cataloged and made accessible,” says Sarah Hermann, who creates digital content for Historic Richmond Town and was formerly a material culture interpreter there. In addition, they keep discovering new information that contextualizes the buildings.
Carpenter Shop. Photo: David La Spina
Using of the wood used in its planks and columns, it was discovered that the Voorlezer House (long thought to be the oldest interpretive space on-site) is actually . And the 200-year-old Guyon Store is in the midst of a restoration process, spurred by its .
You’re free to wander around on your own, but a takes place once a day on weekdays and twice a day on weekends. Special events occur all year-round, including the Richmond County Fair and regular Tavern Terrace concerts. The holidays are always a good time to visit as well; there are lots of themed celebrations, including for Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Check out of some of the highlights.
From left, photo by David La Spina. Right photo by Jen Davis
The , the first floor of which was constructed in 1848, puts on rotating exhibits in addition to showing off various artifacts from Staten Island’s past; a room in the visitors center has a display of documents and photographs.
Historical Museum. Photo: Jen Davis
If you’ve got kids in tow, it may be hard to resist the lure of , a Staten Island institution that sits in a diner car on-site. Over in the visitors center, this confectionery is good for a few sugary throwbacks such as taffy and hard candy.
Egger's Ice Cream Parlor. Photo: Jen Davis
The first Richmond County Fair in Historic Richmond Town took place in 1979, though that was a reboot of a Staten Island fair that dates back to 1895. Its initial iteration lasted until 1926 and involved some creative acts that might not pass the safety censors these days. In that same devil-may-care spirit, bed racing (one person on a wheeled bed, two people pushing) was introduced in 1981—though no longer takes place.
The driving force behind Historic Richmond Town’s creation was Loring McMillen, a native Staten Islander who was one of the original members of the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The 1920-style diner car that houses Egger’s was used as a setting for the TV series Boardwalk Empire.