During the late-seventeenth century and early-eighteenth century, a single-room, half-timbered Dutch Colonial home was built at 2 Hylan Boulevard. From its construction up until 1775, many additions were made to the house. Between the years of 1725 and 1750, a second room was added to the house. During the years between 1750 and 1775, another addition was made to the house, giving it an L-shape.
On maps from the early 1800s, various structures were shown as being on the property. In 1844, John Haggerty Austen purchased the home. Many repairs and renovations were made to the house, including the demolition of the structures not attached to the house. The years between 1844 and 1878 saw the addition of another room, a porch, and a projecting bay window. The renovations made to the house transformed it into a Gothic Revival-style summer home. John Austen’s wife, consequentially named it Clear Comfort.
In 1852, John Austen moved his family to the home as a permanent residence. In 1866, Austen’s daughter, Alice, had given birth to Elizabeth Alice Munn. Shortly after, following the abandonment of the father, Edward Stopford Munn, Alice Austen and her daughter moved into Clear Comfort, which had been occupied by Alice Austen’s parents, John Haggerty Austen and Elizabeth Alice Townsend and her siblings, Peter Austen; Mary Austen; and Mary Austen’s husband, Oswald Muller. Due to her father’s abandonment, Elizabeth Munn referred to herself as Elizabeth Alice Austen throughout her life. However, she is often simply referred to as Alice Austen.
By 1876, Alice Austen’s uncle Oswald, a ship captain, brought home a dry-plate camera, which he allowed the ten-year-old to use while he was away. Austen’s uncle Peter, a chemistry professor, had shown her how to chemically develop her photographs. By the age of eighteen, Alice Austen had mastered the art of the camera and her uncles had transformed a closet in the house into a darkroom for her to develop the plates. Austen’s photography was very unique for her timeand she had become a very influential photographer. During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Alice Austen produced over 8,000 photographs.
In 1929, the stock market had crashed and the money Austen had inherited from her grandfather was not enough. She began to sell her possessions and wound up mortgaging her house. When she lost the house in 1945 and was forced to move, she had called a friend from the Staten Island Historical Society so that her photographs were in good hands. In 1950, Austen declared herself a pauper and was admitted to the New York City Farm Colony, a poorhouse that was once on the grounds of the current Seaview Hospital.
During that same year, Picture Press, who was doing a project on the history of American women, was sending out letters to historical societies asking for interesting images on the subject. The Historical Society had received one of these letters and invited them to look at the photos developed by Alice Austen. Soon, many of Austen’s photos were published, raising over four-thousand dollars and allowing her to move into a private nursing home. On October 9, 1951, Austen was taken to an exhibition to celebrate Alice Austen Day, where hundreds of people came to view her photographs.
After her death in 1952 and years of neglect, Clear Comfort was in bad shape and at the risk of being converted into apartment buildings. By the 1960s, a group of people raised enough funds to prevent this from happening. In 1970, the house was added to the National Register of Historic Places; in 1971, it was designated as a New York City Landmark. Four years later, the City of New York purchased the Clear Comfort home. By 1984, restoration of the house began—using Alice Austen’s photographs of the house’s interior and exterior.
Following its restoration, the house opened to the public as a museum dedicated to Alice Austen. Aside from January, February and major holidays, the house is open to the public throughout the year. The hours of the house’s operation are from Thursday through Sunday, from 12p-5p, while the grounds are open every day until nighttime. These hours, however, are unnecessary when there are events going on at the house, which occur at least twice a month. These events include fundraisers, chances to see parts of the house that are not normally open to the public, and many events geared toward children and people of any age.
If you plan on taking public transportation to the Alice Austen House, the s51 bus will take you straight to Hylan Boulevard from the St. George Ferry Terminal, where you need only to walk to the end of the street to reach the house. If you are driving from the St. George Ferry Terminal, you can take Bay Street, which is the same street the s51 travels along. While there is no fee to enter, a donation of $2.00 is suggested, to help support the museum.