By PATRICIA COHEN JUNE 26, 2007
Thomas W. Matteo, the recently appointed borough historian of Staten Island, at Fort Wadsworth near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. CreditPhotographs by Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
Brooklyn has Walt Whitman to sing praises of its “ample hills.” Manhattan has Woody Allen to capture its outsize style and neuroses. And Staten Island? Well, Staten Island has Thomas W. Matteo for a borough historian to chronicle its glories, its goofs and, yes, its landfill.
Of course Mr. Matteo, who was appointed to this unpaid post just three weeks ago, is not unaware that the other four boroughs often treat suburban-looking Staten Island as the embarrassing cousin that’s purposely left off the guest list. But he is undeterred.
“We may not be the vital organs, we may not be the heart, but we are an integral part of the city,” he says. Standing at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, where George Washington set up a lookout in 1776, and soldiers in 1812 draped chains across the Narrows to stop British ships, he stretches out his arms and says, “Look at this view.” Across New York Harbor, Manhattan rises in a haze, like the Emerald City, except in washed-out blues and grays. New Jersey is to the left and Brooklyn to the right, linked by the soaring Verrazano Bridge. Sailboats, tugs, tankers and motor boats dot the panorama.
“It’s the ‘Wow’ that you have to feel, that I can’t express in words,” he says.
The “Wow” is also at the Victorian Gothic house of Alice Austen, a pioneering photographer who spent most of her 70s and 80s in the borough’s poorhouse before her work was rediscovered in 1948.
Austen isn’t the only famous islander, Mr. Matteo notes. Christina Aguilera was born here; Steven Seagal and Paul Newman lived here, as did the exiles Garibaldi and Santa Anna; Ulysses S. Grant almost lived here, but his wife thought there were too many mosquitoes when they visited one unusually hot summer; Aaron Burr died here; and the Roman Catholic missionary Dorothy Day is buried here.
Mr. Matteo, 58, fills in the list of notables as he drives his new black convertible to Sea View Hospital Rehabilitation Center and Home, where he was chief executive for seven years before retiring in 2005 to spend more time with his father, who died last year.
Now a city-run nursing home, Sea View was started in the early 1900s as a tuberculosis sanitarium on 280 wooded acres and served nearly 2,000 patients at a time. The original housing pavilions, built in a fan-shape pattern, included the nurses’ quarters, the children’s hospital and the rounded kitchen building. They were abandoned decades ago, not long after doctors at Sea View helped develop a cure for tuberculosis.
He drives around the grounds, showing off sights like a proud parent. “Sorry if I get carried away,” he says. Within a year of Mr. Matteo’s arrival, the center’s recurring deficits disappeared. At Colony House, the large meeting hall, he used city workers to renovate original maple floors, plaster detail and gold chandeliers (another “Wow,” he says); at the Catholic chapel, they uncovered the stained-glass windows. He rented the old morgue to the Staten Island Ballet for dance studios and installed a small in-house movie theater with cushy leather chairs in the nursing home.
Mr. Matteo, who wears a white puka-shell necklace he bought in Hawaii as a symbol of his retirement, says the historian’s job is something he has always wanted to do. Still, he admits, “I miss the action” of running something.
“I’m an adrenaline junkie,” he adds. And the adrenaline is still pumping; he is already envisioning the decayed children’s hospital at Sea View transformed into a luxury seaside resort, or a rebuilt staircase in the chapel to reach the choir’s loft.
His mother, 86, lives at the nursing home now, and he visits her every day.
“I call it Mommy time,” he says. Each morning, after drinking a shot of green tea in a Diet Pepsi, he bicycles past the cemetery where his father is buried; “I’ll ride by and say good morning.”
Mr. Matteo’s parents raised him in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where he could look across the Narrows and watch the Verrazano Bridge being constructed. After getting a degree in biology at St. Bonaventure University in southwestern New York State, he did graduate work in education at St. John’s University (on the Staten Island campus) and City University.
Looking for a teaching job in 1973, he spotted Diane Russo, his future wife, working at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn and didn’t bother applying anywhere else. The couple moved to Staten Island in 1979. Years later, when he was researching a fact book about the borough (due out this fall), he would ask his wife if she had heard of some tidbit he had found.
“No, I didn’t know that,” she replied, and so he titled the book “Staten Island: I Didn’t Know That!”
After the borough president named Mr. Matteo to the post, the younger of his two daughters made him a badge and a card that read: “Have a History Emergency,” “Borough Historian to the RESCUE.”
It was the 1919 State Legislature’s idea to have a historian for every borough to preserve local history. Mr. Matteo plans to start an oral history project and campaign to include Staten Island history in the public schools’ curriculum.
He decided to apply after seeing an ad in The Staten Island Advance when the previous borough historian died. Although he has no formal training, Mr. Matteo has worked for six city agencies under five different mayors.
“I bring something else,” he says, “my life.” He also brings his passion. He first delved into Staten Island’s history as chief of staff for the Staten Island Charter Commission in 1991. (Ten years later he was appointed a commissioner.)
So far his new job has cost Mr. Matteo $128, which he spent to buy a domain name, statenislandhistorian.com; he is hoping to raise about $2,000 for the Web site, where he can centralize information about the borough.
One of the landmarks featured is the Conference House. At the southernmost tip of the island, it is the spot where Admiral Lord Howe convened a secret meeting in September 1776 with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Edward Rutledge to negotiate a peace.
It failed (obviously), but every year there is a re-enactment and festival. At the grounds’ cotton-candy-colored pavilion, a lone man is fishing. Moments later a giant freighter sails by. Another “Wow.”
The Conference House is about a 15-minute drive from Historic Richmond Town, “the center of the universe in colonial times,” Mr. Matteo says, already thinking about what could come next there.
If he could only get his hands on a financer, he says; with its original buildings and period-costumed guides, it could be turned into a living museum like Colonial Williamsburg.
On this weekday morning Richmond Town’s 25 acres are mostly empty, except for a few school groups. Arrayed in plaid jumpers and maroon shirts are second-grade girls from Beth Jacob Day School in Brooklyn. They are looking inside M. Black’s Fine Groceries and Provisions, where lanterns and kettles hang from the narrow store’s ceiling. A large round contraption that cleans knives is on the counter; jars, bonnets and candy tins line shelves.
“Do you own the store?” one girl asks Mr. Matteo, who has followed the children inside.
“No,” he replies. “I’m just learning about Staten Island history, like you.”