Sublime “Downtown Doors” Series Photo-Documents Staten Island Trees & Homes from 1940 to Today

This towering black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) in Staten Island’s West New Brighton neighborhood (at left, in 1940; at right, in 2020) really caught my attention this season. Although black tupelo generally occupies wet woods habitats, it can thrive under a variety of soil conditions. I’m gratified to see this eastern U.S. native tree species being planted more in cities. The fall color is spectacular. —John Kilcullen

One of my favorite urban forestry-related Instagram accounts belongs to John Kilcullen, an ISA Certified Arborist and Municipal Specialist and Director of NYC Parks-managed Conference House Park in Tottenville, Staten Island. In his free time, John prolifically and affectionately photographs the landscapes and architectural gems of the New York City borough of Staten Island, including its doors (hence the major theme of his Instagram, “Downtown Doors.”) This artistic focus of John’s will come as no surprise given that he is also the President of the Preservation League of Staten Island.

In the waterfront community of Midland Beach (formerly known as Woodland Beach) on the east-central coast of Staten Island, you can find this pin oak (Quercus palustris) standing tall and proud. A tree species that is native to wet growing conditions, this specimen has thrived and survived the many obstacles a shorefront environment can present: hurricanes, flooding, salt spray, and sandy, nutrient-poor soil. This octogenarian shelters a circa-1930s bungalow constructed in the shoreline resort community of Midland Beach. At the turn of the 20th century, the east and south shores of Staten Island had many summer communities. Woodland Beach and its immediate neighbor Midland Beach were a true study in contrast: Midland Beach had its casinos with its day-tripper “glitz and glamor” while Woodland Beach billed itself as a family beachfront retreat. In the late 1940s, the community began to change from a summer to a year-round population. In 1940, the house was occupied, and then owned, by Irish immigrant Patrick J. Rigney and his wife Elizabeth along with their three children (Elizabeth and her three year old daughter, Elizabeth, are believed to be shown in the 1940 photo.) —John Kilcullen

One sub-series within “Downtown Doors” is a phenomenal suite of posts that juxtapose pictures of homes—and the trees in front of them—from 1940 and from today. The historical images are tax photos from the NYC Records & Information Services Historical Records Department; they meet John at his nexus of interests perfectly, providing architectural documentation as well as evidence of trees that were small in the 1940s but that now are, in many cases, mature focal points of their own.

Here’s a wonderful combination: a sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) and a northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) sheltering the Neville-Tysen House in Staten Island’s New Brighton. This circa-1770 pre-Revolutionary manor house overlooking the Kill Van Kull and New York Harbor was constructed by Captain John Neville, a retired Naval officer. The house was later occupied by Richmond County Judge Jacob Tysen and his family. At one point in its long history the house served as a tavern called The Old Stone Jug, a favorite watering hole of the retired sailors at nearby Sailors Snug Harbor, located on the north shore of Staten Island, near the ferry. At the time of this building’s construction, the waterways of New York and New Jersey were abuzz with sailing and cargo ships coming and going to the many ports lining the respective shorelines. This working waterfront continues today, albeit at less intensity. The notable feature of the house is its construction of red quarried sandstone blocks, once whitewashed but now exposed, revealing the stone’s beautiful colors. —John Kilcullen

John says, “I’ve always been into trees and as an adult, I became an old house junkie as well. But it wasn’t until more recently, upon studying the vintage house photos, that I began to notice the many octogenarian trees still standing. It began a fun—one could say obsessive—quest to make connections between the photos and the specimen trees in the Staten Island landscape. As an arborist, I’m amazed and surprised at the size and growth I’m observing—i.e., sometimes they are significantly bigger or smaller than I would expect for eighty-year-old trees. In addition to seeking out the oaks, maples and other tree species more typically expected to be long-lived, I’ve been seeking out ornamental octogenarians as well. Among those, I see magnolias most frequently.”

Since its introduction to the West in 1859, cultivars of Sawara cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera) have been planted in gardens worldwide. Native to the Japanese islands of Honshu and Kyushu, this species is prized in its native region for beauty and for lumber, owing to its hard and durable wood. As the photo shows, this enormous specimen was planted as one of a pair of walkway plantings. The all-brick house was constructed by Thomas Fitzgerald and his wife Mae in 1935. Mr. Fitzgerald was a master plumber with Babcock & Wilcox, an international power unit company that supplied high energy boilers to power newly constructed Staten Island ferries beginning in 1950. —John Kilcullen

Even those of us who are already so thoroughly taken with trees are bound to be moved by viewing the trees and homes John has lovingly documented through his Downtown Doors series. Further, although John’s subject matter is within Staten Island, his photographs illuminate the service and nobility of urban trees everywhere. Here we present a sampling of John’s work, with the hope that you will visit his Instagram for a more in-depth photographic tour. We thank John for sharing his stunning pictures with us.

This octogenarian saucer magnolia (Magnolia × soulangeana) shelters a circa-1920 Colonial Revival Foursquare in greater Willowbrook, a part of Staten Island that remained open farmland into the early 1960s. In 1940, the home was owned by Lewis S. Latourette and his wife Ottillia through 1967 when it was sold to its present owners; Mr. Latourette was a chauffeur for the Gulf Oil Corporation on the Island’s northwest shoreline. —John Kilcullen
This stately but unassuming Osage orange tree (Maclura pomifera), male and fruitless, stands atop historic Ward Hill in Tompkinsville, a neighborhood in northeastern Staten Island. Ward Hill was named for Caleb T. Ward, nephew of neighborhood namesake and developer Daniel Tompkins, who was the fourth Governor of New York (1807-1817) and the sixth U.S. Vice President (under James Monroe, 1817-25). The mature Osage orange tree now shelters the front of a stucco house designed by architect Robert Waterman Gardner for himself and his wife Eleanor in 1920. Mr. Gardner specialized in the use of reinforced concrete in residential architecture and designed many buildings on Staten Island, including the home of the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Science (now Staten Island Museum). —John Kilcullen
Blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica) has the ability to survive and thrive in environments where other oaks and trees would struggle—in dry, sandy, nutrient-poor soils. This standout specimen is growing on Staten Island’s western shore overlooking the Arthur Kill tidal strait, which separates New York from New Jersey. This blackjack oak stands in front of the Winant-Gericke house and farm. The circa-1870 house was constructed by the Winant family, descents of Pieterse Winant, one of the earliest settlers of the Island. In 1949, subsequent owner Herbert Gericke established one of the first organic farms in New York City and, along with his son Richard, grew and sold organic produce across Staten Island and the region. In 1976, theirs remained NYC’s last operating farm until the Gericke family sold the property to New York State and it became part of Clay Pits State Park. It is now open to the public … a wonderful preserved piece of history! —John Kilcullen
White oak (Quercus alba) represents less than 1% of the more than 600,000 street trees in New York City. This white oak measuring 30 in (76 cm) DBH is one of two wonderful specimens growing on Winant Street in the Elm Park neighborhood of Staten Island. This beautiful specimen shelters a late 19th century vernacular style stucco house originally owned by Irish-born Mary Hamstram (nee Cavanaugh). Mrs. Hamstram immigrated with her parents, Christopher and Matilda in 1868. Her father worked in the nearby linoleum factory, then a major employer on the Island. —John Kilcullen
This Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) was probably planted as a “dainty” ornamental for a home constructed in the late 1920s, but it has miraculously survived driveway and house expansions to grow to be a formidable, thriving specimen. This house was constructed on land once part of the Reade Benedict estate in West New Brighton, Staten Island. Mr. Benedict was a successful jeweler in Manhattan; his wife, Mary, was a descent of the Winants, one of the Island’s earliest settler families. —John Kilcullen
This extra-grainy 1940 photo has the additional charm of a dog in the frame, who seems to be looking in the direction of the red cedar (Juniperus virginia) across the intersection in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Staten Island. Red cedars in the urban landscape provide high wildlife value for mammals and for songbirds that are nesting, foraging fruit, or seeking winter cover. —John Kilcullen
A European import, the horsechestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) is often planted for its showy upright panicles of flowers that appear in late May. It’s widely planted in the U.S. as a street tree or lawn specimen. The tree is hardy and long lived, but it occasionally escapes cultivation (via squirrels) and has become an invasive species in some natural areas. This individual tree shelters a classic 1922 Dutch Colonial Revival. This house was designed by Staten Island-born architect Henry G. Otto, who designed many homes in the area. The design and construction was commissioned by Dr. Robert Krause, who was a chemical engineer with the Tompkinsville-based Louis De Jonge Paper Works Company. —John Kilcullen
Staten Island is home to some red maples (Acer rubrum) with unrivaled autumnal color. This wonderful specimen shades a circa-1920 house originally owned by Irish immigrant Mary Daley and her daughter Gertrude. Mary Daley immigrated to the US in 1852, first settling in Stapleton then moving to West Brighton. —John Kilcullen
Once gracing streets and avenues across America, the American elm (Ulmus americana) was the quintessential street tree. We all know what tragically befell that beautiful, but vulnerable, monoculture. A surviving sentinel in Staten Island’s Sunnyside neighborhood, this octogenarian specimen shelters an original bungalow style house, which itself has grown over the years. —John Kilcullen

Staten Island’s history didn’t, of course, begin with European settlers. We invite you to learn about the Lenape people of the Island through these and other sites:

Roxanne Johnson: Occupied Sites: A Look at Staten Island’s Prehistory

Andrew Lipman in Slate: A Hard Bargain: The Munsee Indians sold Staten Island under duress—but not before they got the colony of New York to make some surprising concessions.

Selling Staten Island: Deed for Purchase of Staten Island, interpreted

—Michelle Sutton, Council Editor

 

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