Catch the view from a historic cottage to learn about Alice Austen, New York City’s revolutionary artist, whose photography is iconic in the LGBT community.
Clear Comfort was originally built in the 1690s and greatly expanded to a Gothic-revival summer cottage a century later, complete with Alice Austen’s personal darkroom. Leading a life considered unladylike in the Victorian era, she was one of the earliest practitioners of cycling and advocated women riding bicycles— to the extent of helping create a manual for female riders with her friend, Violet Ward. Austen paved a path very few had the luxury of travelling: master tennis player, landscape designer, Staten Island Garden Club founder and the first woman in Staten Island to own a vehicle, drive it, and fix it on her own.
As one of the world’s earliest and most prolific female photographers, Austen would strap the 50 pound equipment to her back and zip around New York City on her bike capturing scenes of immigrants and the working class, offering an unusually intimate peek into the era. She also documented her friends with candidness, allowing them to goof off, embrace, and cross dress. Hosting costume theme parties and “slumber parties,” Austen and her circle would pose in bathing suits, tuxedos, and smoke cigarettes in undergarments... with hair down... in a church..., going against every Victorian social norm, frame after frame.
In 1899, Austen met Brooklyn school teacher and dance instructor, Gertrude Tate. What began as companionship culminated in 1917 with Gertrude moving into Clear Comfort against her family’s wishes. They remained there for over thirty years, living independently wealthy from her family estate until the market crash of 1929. Believing it would soon pass, the couple vacationed in Europe returning to a New York still in crisis. After mortgaging the house, the couple ran a tearoom, rented out beds, taught ballroom dance classes, and sold family heirlooms before losing the house and leaving their life on the Narrows behind.
After a small stay in a tiny apartment, Tate’s family took her back but refused Austen, who ended up in the Staten Island Farm Colony. Eventually, the Staten Island Historical Society began work with a publisher to publish her more than 8,000 photos, most seeing light for the first time. The proceeding exhibition and sale of the prints allowed Austen to spend her final years in a private nursing home, the subject of magazine articles and belated tributes. She died in 1952. Tate outlived her by ten years, but her request to be buried next together was not honored by her family.
Today, their home is one of Staten Island’s most unusual treasures. The seaside cottage once again buzzes with visitors enjoying photography workshops and current photographic exhibitions, Austen’s permanent collection, original equipment, and a still-working darkroom. They host a slew of events at the house including: educational programs, biking, public arts programs, book signings, and an annual Pug Fun Day.
Included as a NYC LGBT Historic Site, Clear Comfort was awarded a grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities to build upon the museum, giving more attention to the historic relationship of Austen and Tate. Hosting the Staten Island Coming Out Day picnic on their grounds, the Alice Austen House marches alongside Staten Island Pride and is currently collaborating with NYC Pride on the WorldPride 2019 and Stonewall50 programs.
Clear Comfort is located two miles south of the Staten Island Ferry terminal and one mile north of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. The grounds are open every day until dusk. For more information visit aliceausten.org or the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project.
Main image courtesy Floto + Warner