Staten Island’s Hidden Gems: Several Borough Cultural Institutions Remain Unexplored by Local Residents

Ask a native Staten Islander for a guided tour of their home borough and they’ll point out all of the main attractions.

Those attractions are the Historic Richmond Town, Snug Harbor Cultural Center, The Conference House and the Staten Island Zoo.

But what about the lesser known destinations?

Those smallish cultural institutions that even native residents have yet to explore? Within our borders there are many. Here, we highlight three of Staten Island’s oft forgotten landmarks.

The writing room, photo courtesy of Noble Maritime Collection by Michael Falco.

The Noble Maritime Collection
According to its executive director, visitors who enter the Noble Maritime Collection at Sailor’s Snug Harbor often expect to view a couple of sketches and steal a glimpse of some rare historical maritime artifacts. But when they are greeted by the museum’s centerpiece, John A. Noble’s actual houseboat studio, which was moored in the Kill Van Kull for over 40 years and taken down piece by piece to be reconstructed in the 28,000 square foot former dormitory, they are simply in awe.

John a. Noble’s Houseboat Studio. Photos courtesy of noble Maritime Collection, exterior by Michael Mcweeney

“In 2000, Erin had the studio, which is a national historical landmark, taken apart and pieced back together like a puzzle,” explained Ciro Galeno Jr., Noble’s current executive director, referring to the museum’s founding executive director Erin Urban, who spearheaded the Noble’s creation in 1986. “The houseboat was featured in National Geographic in 1954 so they chose to recreate how the ship looked in that year. It really is a very unique experience to see his bedroom and living room installed here in the museum. Many are shocked to see this giant structure; but I think it’s what charms visitors most.”

John A. Noble’s Houseboat Studio. Photos courtesy of Noble Maritime Collection, interior photo by Michael Falco.

Basically the teak saloon of a European yacht, the houseboat is impressive, but so is Noble’s story. A distinguished maritime artist who chronicled the last chapter in the Age of Sail, Nobel worked on schooners in New York Harbor during the 1920s when he was inspired by Port Johnston, “the largest graveyard of wooden sailing vessels in the world.”

The son of American painter, John “Wichita Bill” Noble and a one-time student of the National Academy of Design, the young sailor was inspired to document through sketch the beauty of these old vessels.

“He began to build his floating studio in 1941 and lived there until the early 1980s,” Galeno said, noting that the artist died in 1983. “His work was truly beautiful and unique.”

Currently located on the former grounds of the famous Sailors’ Snug Harbor retirement home, the museum was founded in 1987 at Noble’s home on Richmond Terrace. It made the move to Snug Harbor in 2000 after a $3.5 million adaptive reuse project transformed a derelict former mariners’ dormitory into a beautiful museum on that site.

“We basically outgrew the home and couldn’t accommodate school children there,” Galeno reported. “But this space and the maritime history here was a perfect fit. It took eight years of restoration by the ‘Noble Crew,’ who volunteered their time and money to the daunting preservation project. With its Edwardian fixtures and transom windows, it really is a complete recreation of how the sailors lived.”

The museum’s permanent exhibitions feature the Writing Room and the Dormitory Room, recreations of original Sailors’ Snug Harbor facilities and the Ship Model Gallery featuring 40 models of vessels. Continuing exhibitions focus on the history of the site; Treasures of Sailors’ Snug Harbor is an exhibition of Sailor’s Snug Harbor art and furnishings, and Daily Life at Sailors’ Snug Harbor exhibits material about the lives of Harbor residents and the people who cared for them.

In 2010, the museum took over the stewardship of the Robbins Reef Light Station, the off-shore, four-story, conical tower constructed of brick and cast-iron on a granite caisson located between the Statue of Liberty and Staten Island’s North Shore. Built in 1883, part of its historical significance lies in the story of Katherine Walker, who took over lighthouse duties when her husband died. She was officially appointed in 1895 by the Lighthouse Board, and kept the light until 1919. The Noble Crew is in the process of restoring the structure.

Admission to the Noble Maritime Collection is by donation. Snug Harbor Cultural Center is a New York City park open to the public daily.

The Tibetan Museum represents the first Himalayan style architecture that was built in the United States.

Tibetan Museum
Nestled into the side of Lighthouse Hill, the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art is one of Staten Island’s most uniquely peaceful retreats. The museum presents the art and culture of Tibet and the Himalayas to a world audience in order to educate and inspire others in the value of this cultural heritage.

Established in 1945, the Tibetan Museum was founded by the pioneering American woman Jacques Marchais (1887-1948), an important collector and respected expert on Tibetan art. Designed by Marchais, the rustic complex of fieldstone buildings resembles a Tibetan mountain monastery. These historic buildings represent the first Himalayan style architecture be built in the United States, and it was the first Museum world devoted solely to Tibetan art.

The surrounding landscape design, which Marchais named the “Samadhi Garden,” features a fish pond, meditation cells and many of her original plantings. The Museum’s distinctive setting highlights and enhances the experience of viewing the art within.

“Jacques Marchais was born in Ohio and was a child actress in the early 1900s,” noted Meg Ventrudo, executive director of the Tibetan Museum. “Her acting career took her from Boston to Chicago and eventually New York, where she settled in 1916. Working in Vaudeville put her in touch with many very interesting and spiritual people and she became fascinated with the exotic images of the East.”

In 1920, Marchais married Harry Klauber, a Brooklyn-born entrepreneur in the chemical business. The couple moved to Staten Island in 1921 and settled on Lighthouse Hill, where according to her diary they could have “a farm within commuting distance of Manhattan.” It was there that she began to collect Tibetan art.

“There are so many interesting pieces here,” Ventrudo said, naming the 11-headed Avalokiteshvara Paritcarlyar which dates back to the 18th century as one of the museum’s most intriguing finds.

“So many Staten Islanders don’t realize what’s at their doorstep,” Ventrudo concluded. “We have about 5,000 visitors here annually, probably about half of which live in another corner of the world. We love visitors from every country but we hope to attract more of our own neighbors and make Staten Island residents aware of what their local museums have to offer.”

The Tibetan Museum is open to the public every Wednesday through Sunday from 1 to 5pm. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for seniors and students. In January, the museum is open on Saturdays only. Guided and group tours are available by appointment. Call 718-987-3500 to make a reservation.

The National Lighthouse Museum educates visitors about the history and technology of the nation’s lighthouses.

National Lighthouse Museum
Located on the former site of the United States Lighthouse Service’s General Depot in St. George, the National Lighthouse Museum educates visitors about the history and technology of the nation’s lighthouses.

“We’ve been in our current location since 2015,” noted Tina Cuadrado, the museum’s curator and site manager, explaining that the National Lighthouse Museum has been in existence since 1997 but recently earned a prominent place in what was formerly the national headquarters, testing ground and distribution center for all materials and equipment used by light keepers from 1864 to 1939.

Once a lively and bustling site of 18 buildings, today only six remain, the National Lighthouse Museum’s 1912 foundry building being one of them. The 2,400 square foot space is entirely self-guided but also features monthly lectures, group tours by appointment, annual events and seasonal Lighthouse Boat Tours, which are offered from May to October.

“We typically offer one boat tour per month and each one has about 200 people on board,” Cuadrado said. “It’ a wonderful way to learn about the city’s lighthouses and simply just a great way to spend the afternoon.”

A three-minute walk from the Staten Island Ferry terminal, the Museum receives some 5,000 tourists annually in addition to the school programming they provide. Current exhibitions include the Wall of Lights where more than 180 lighthouse models from 29 states are displayed; Life At The Light, which features life-sized images and personal stories of featured keepers, such as Kate Walker and Charles Vanderhoop, Sr., whose character embodied the dedication, perseverance and resilience of these remarkable individuals in the “lonely life,” and Nantucket To New Jersey: Navigating New York Harbor – a large navigation chart marked with the local lighthouses of New York Harbor.

“Even though the scope of the museum is national, we also about the lighthouses of the world,” Cuadrado concluded.

General admission to the National Lighthouse Museum is $7, children under 12 are free.