When Jessica B. Phillips was named executive director and CEO of Historic Richmond Town last September, the appointment itself was significant.
Phillips, who maintains a personal commitment to historic preservation and boasts a lifelong passion for New York history, became the first female leader of the Staten Island site, pledging to continue to build upon the location’s success and relevance.
“It truly is a privilege to be named the first woman director here at Historic Richmond Town,” revealed Phillips, a Hudson Valley native. “This is a wonderful community with deep historical roots and I’m extremely excited about serving its residents and visitors.”
For the borough, Phlliips’ appointment ushered in a new type of leadership.
She assumed the role vacated by Ed Wiseman in 2017, and subsequently, filled by interim executive directors Barnett Shepherd and Ken Bach, bringing in a fresh perspective to the position. And in the past seven months, Phillips has helped build upon the revitalization that had already been building at the historic site.
“I have been extremely lucky to take on this position during an exciting time of rebirth and transition,” Phillips declared. “The board, which has been so wonderful to me, saw that a change would benefit the mission of this organization and has worked hard to initiate that change. My work here simply builds upon that strong foundation that they have already laid.”
The change Phillips speaks of began last summer when Egger’s Homemade Ice Cream, an 87-old Staten Island ice cream maker, opened up shop in the heart of the historic site, attracting hundreds of visitors daily. Other Summer Series events followed suit, opening up the historic village to younger generations of Staten Island residents.
“We have a Summer Eats program, our Tavern Terrace Beer Garden and Mystery After Dark Tours which allow visitors to tour our historic structures by candlelight and hear folklore and mysteries from the past,” Phillips reported. “We’ll also be hosting a new program Pastry Picnic in the Park every Sunday which will offer picnic baskets with blankets and a delightful selection of pastries from Mark’s Bake Shoppe sold at our new coffee and gift shop. We are working on partnering with The Grace Foundation to provide ‘autism friendly’ site access for children. In addition to preserving 300 years of history and culture on Staten Island, we host programs like this so that families can celebrate and enjoy our beautiful grounds.”
Phillips, who prior to her appointment at Richmond Town, served as leader of the Fraunces Tavern Museum in Lower Manhattan for eight years, was elected by the Board of Directors of the Staten Island Historical Society, which operates the 100-acre living history village.
“I’ve always loved history,” Phillips revealed of her career choice. “At Marist College I studied early American history and then worked at several historic sites and museums before pursing my Master’s in history from the University of Albany.”
She interned for the Hudson River Valley Institute, the Constitution Island Association, the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site and the Consortium of Rhinebeck History before being named the docent coordinator at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in 2008. She started working at the Fraunces Tavern Museum in 2011, earning the title of executive director in 2013.
Under Phillips’ leadership, Historic Richmond Town is currently in the process of renovating their largest museum gallery, which will reopen in February of 2020 with a new exhibition titled “Working da’ Roots,” a history of hoodooism in African American culture which will be guest curated by Cheyney McKnight.
Historic Richmond Town is also gearing up to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Richmond County Fair this September.
“We’re about to wrap a multi-year capital project made possible by our Borough President and Council Members during which the streets here at Richmond Town were updated,” Phillips said. “All of the electrical wires underground were updated, new lampposts were added and we were added to the city sewer system, closing off an aged out septic system. We will commemorate those changes at this year’s Fair and recognize the event’s landmark anniversary with beautiful images from throughout the decades.”
And Phillips says the future of Richmond Town will continue to focus on new and innovative programming.
“In the future I see Richmond Town as continuing to be a vibrant, active piece of the Staten Island Community,” Phillips concluded. “We will offer creative new programming that celebrates the rich diversity of Staten Island and invite the community to hear the voice of their past. It really is a wonderful time to be a part of this organization.”