Throughout New York City’s history, LGBTQ individuals have lived and worked in all five boroughs. As Pride Month 2020 nears its end, the Landmarks Preservation Commission celebrates three landmarks on Staten Island with documented LGBTQ significance, which together demonstrate the rich intellectual and cultural diversity of New York City across a remarkable scope of history.
Far from the crowds of Manhattan or Brooklyn, some of New York’s leading intellectuals, artists, and activists chose a more rural lifestyle on Staten Island. The borough was sought after as a retreat from city life starting in the late-19th century, when it was characterized by open spaces, large estates, and later, quiet suburban streets.
LPC has designated three residences of LGBTQ individuals who were some of Staten Island’s most important cultural figures of the past 150 years, including the photographer Alice Austen, the opera star Graham Marr, and poet and activist Audre Lorde.
The Alice Austen House, 2 Hylan Boulevard
Initially constructed as a modest one-room farmhouse at the end of the 17th century, by the time photographer Alice Austen inherited the property from her father in the 1880s, the structure had undergone several renovations to become the charming Gothic Revival-style cottage overlooking the Narrows as it appears today.
Alice Austen (1866–1952) was a pioneering photographer of New York City’s social milieu of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. First drawn to photograph her own circles of Staten Island society, by the 1890s, Austen turned to urban subjects, taking photographs of Manhattan street-sweepers, fishmongers, peddlers, and other working-class individuals, and documenting the people and landscapes of New York’s immigration quarantine hospitals at Hoffmann and Swinburne Islands. Unlike the romantic, pictorialist style of many of her contemporaries, Austen favored realistic, documentary images of the world around her. Austen resided at 2 Hylan Boulevard at the peak of her photography career until 1945, near the end of her life.
The Alice Austen House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and designated a New York City landmark in 1971. Subsequent scholarship revealed that Austen lived openly at the cottage with her partner of 53 years, Gertrude Tate, from 1917 to 1945. Her home and studio, which operates as a house museum and interpretive center, is now recognized for its significance to LGBTQ history. Austen’s willingness to break from contemporary societal expectations in both her personal and professional life is reflected in her indelible photographs of New York City at the turn of the 20th century.
The Nathaniel J. and Ann C. Wyeth House (Graham Marr Residence), 190 Meisner Avenue
The Nathaniel J. and Ann C. Wyeth House is an impressive Italianate villa sited on Lighthouse, aka Richmond, Hill, originally constructed in 1856 for the prominent Staten Island attorney Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth and his wife Ann C. Wyeth. In addition to its architectural significance, the house is culturally significant as the home of opera singer Graham Marr and his partner, painter Norman R. Morrison, from 1925 until the 1960s. LPC designated it as an individual landmark in 2007.
Born in Pennsylvania, Graham Marr (1877–1961) began taking voice lessons while attending Columbia University in New York City. Marr trained in Europe as a baritone, and in the early 1910s, began touring internationally with the Quinlan Opera Company. After World War I broke out in 1914, he returned to New York and was engaged by the Century Opera Company, debuting in the title role of William Tell. He later joined the Boston-National Grand Opera, appearing in more than fifty cities across the United States. In 1916, his success in the role of Zurga in Les Pecheurs De Perles led Columbia Records to offer him a contract, billing Marr in their publicity as “America’s foremost operatic baritone.”
In the 1920s, Marr sang with summer opera in Ravinia Park in Chicago, toured for extended periods with Fortune Gallo’s San Carlo Opera Company, and appeared on radio broadcasts with the famous Japanese soprano Tamaki Miura. As Marr’s career drew to a close, in 1925 he purchased the Wyeth House, telling The Staten Island Advance in 1929 that “after a life of operatic tours he was looking for a place to settle down.” With his partner Morrison, Marr renovated the Wyeth House, adding modern electricity and telephone service, rebuilding the captain’s walk around the belvedere, and converting the former dining room into an amateur theater. The house, which the couple renamed “Marr Lodge,” remains an important reminder not only of its origins in the 1850s, but of the early 20th century period when it was home to one of Staten Island’s most notable residents.
Audre Lorde House, 207 St. Pauls Avenue
Acclaimed African American novelist, poet, essayist, and feminist Audre Lorde (1934–1992) lived at 207 St. Pauls Avenue with her children and partner Frances Clayton from 1972 to 1987. During the family’s time on St. Pauls Avenue Lorde produced some of her best-known works, and became a nationally prominent political activist in the African American civil rights, feminist, and LGBTQ movements.
The neo-Colonial-style house at 207 St. Pauls Avenue was designed by Otto Loeffler in 1898, and is located within the St. Pauls Avenue-Stapleton Heights Historic District. Seeking, as she put it, “space and trees” around which to raise her family, Lorde purchased the home in 1972. In 1973, her third volume of poetry, From a Land Where Other People Live, was nominated for a National Book Award, and over the next several years Lorde published important poetry collections, essays, and novels, including Coal (1976), The Black Unicorn (1978), The Cancer Journals (1980), and Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982).
In 1979 Lorde spoke at the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, and in 1980 she co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, a publisher dedicated to producing work by and about women of color. Her book, I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities (1986) was one of its publications. Lorde, the self-proclaimed “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” was appointed Poet Laureate of New York State in 1991, and continued to write and advocate for women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community until her death in 1992.
The Audre Lorde Residence was designated an individual New York City Landmark in June 2019, along with five other sites, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and World Pride, to highlight their contributions to the LGBTQ cultural and civil rights movements.