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In Search of Old New York

Unlike Williamsburg, Virginia, where every house is restored to the same period and every shop sells identical crafts, the buildings in Richmond Town range from the tiny 1695 Voorlezer House and school ("Voorlezer" is Dutch for lay minister and teacher) to the 1869 Edwards-Barton House, done up in a high-Victorian palette. Some structures are fully restored; others hang on for dear life as they await work. Despite the cars, the setting is almost bucolic. Down a hill is a pond, behind which is the basketmaker's house, a stone church, and a small stream with a cemetery beyond.

Inside the restoration's Historical Museum, the former Richmond County Clerk's and Surrogate's Office (1848), is a comprehensive exhibition of Staten Island history that could as easily be a record of Anytown, U.S.A. Among its inventory are beer barrels from the local breweries, a carousel horse, silk-printing blocks, packages from the island's Procter & Gamble factory, and a loaded dairy cart. The general store mock-up a few doors away, rebuilt as it was around 1860, is stocked with things like pen nibs, lengths of cloth, a wax mannequin, and irons.

A 25-minute ride on the Staten Island Ferry back to Manhattan means a reacquaintance with the 20th century. The service, by the way, has been running regularly ever since Staten Island native Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt started it in 1810 as a teenager with an investment (supposedly $100) borrowed from his mother.

MICHELE HERMAN writes often about New York's history for various periodicals


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