In this New York Times Habitats column Constance Rosenblum visits the old Bechtel mansion on St. Pauls Avenue. I was quoted, but I wasn't given a credit. My film and photo location company which lists this property (The Arabesque Victorian) is CVB Spaces. Check that out if you want to see dozens of my pictures of it (you can see a few of my photographs here). Staten Island is filled with this type of wondrous home. -Cynthia von Buhler
For a Family, Elaborate Elbow Room
By CONSTANCE ROSENBLUM
Published: June 26, 2009
IN 1888, a German-born beer baron named George Bechtel, who was said to be the richest man on Staten Island, gave his 21-year-old daughter Annie an extraordinary wedding present.
A Time Capsule
Annie was betrothed to a German-American named Leonard Weiderer, and the gift was a three-story, 24-room Victorian mansion in the Queen Anne style. The 4,500-square-foot showpiece, on the street known as Mud Lane (later rechristened St. Paul’s Avenue), was outfitted with eight bedrooms, two kitchens and six fireplaces, each of a different design.
Annie’s bridal home included virtually every detail of Victorian domestic architecture — hipped roofs, gables, fish-scale shingles, chimneys, bay windows, dormer windows, even a turret. Garlanding the exterior were a series of porches and balconies. Two dozen imported stained-glass windows, courtesy of the glass factory Mr. Weiderer owned, exploded with stars, sunbursts, crescent moons and floral designs pricked in luminous primary colors. Chestnut and oak paneling covered nearly every available inch of wall space.
But the couple’s time in the house was brief. Three years into the marriage, tuberculosis claimed Mr. Weiderer’s life. His young widow moved to Germany and married a second time, but just five years later, in 1899, she died also. She was 31.
Annie’s sister Agnes lived in the house until 1928, followed by the Teitelbaums (1928-48), the Fraziers (1948-88) and, from 1988 to 1999, a chef who painted the exterior what one paint consultant described, not intending to pay a compliment, as a “Lucille Ball shade” of pink.
Through all these incarnations, the house proved a hardy survivor, the undisputed but neglected star among nearly a hundred handsome Victorian dwellings in the Stapleton area. What it lacked was someone who valued its lustrous past.
That person turned out to be a soft-spoken Montana-born doctor named Ted Brown. Dr. Brown, 63, who is the director of the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Institute for Basic Research, and whose specialty is autism research, works out of offices on Staten Island.
At the time he began house-hunting on the island, he and his family were ensconced in a 200-year-old farmhouse in Port Washington, on Long Island, and he was developing a taste for living close to the past. When he was shown what a real estate agent modestly described as an “older house of character,” he was blown away.
“Maybe I was crazy, but I just thought it would be fun to live there,” Dr. Brown said in his understated way as he and his wife, Donna, sat side by side in what they call their formal parlor, an octagonal space framed by a sweeping archway.
Ms. Brown, a speech therapist who works with autistic schoolchildren (the couple met in 1985 at a genetics conference in Australia), viewed the situation differently.
“When I first saw the house,” she said, “I thought Ted had lost it.”
And remind us why she went along with the idea?
“Because I love him,” Ms. Brown said with an adoring smile.
When the couple bought the house in 1999 for $525,000, they set aside $250,000 for renovations, a figure that ballooned to $400,000. Before moving in, they worked for six months on the interior; once in residence, they tackled the exterior. Painting the facade — using sun-drenched colors like squash, copper, antique gold and seven others — took five months.
“The first couple of years, the house was really in sad shape,” Ms. Brown said. “We were really overwhelmed. Then we began to love it.”
But they know the work will never be finished, in part because the family, which includes the couple’s son, Hunter, 17; their daughter, Montana, 19; and two dogs, use all 24 rooms, amazing as that seems.
The room where the Browns were sitting on this day had the look of a perfectly appointed stage set for some forgotten Victorian-era drama. Furnishings include Persian carpets from Dr. Brown’s childhood home, an inlaid chessboard atop an inlaid table and a piano with Debussy on the music stand. (Dr. Brown, who in 1964 was a Montana state chess champion, plays both the game and the instrument.)
The mantel is almost hidden by an assortment of crystal — bells, goblets, paperweights, teardrop candlesticks. A velvet shawl with ivory fringe is draped over one chair, and needlepoint pillows nestle in the corners of the sofa.
The couple are justly proud of the grand staircase, which looks like a puzzle composed of intricately braided chestnut spindles and a matching woven screen, each tiny curl milled separately. At the base of the stairs, a pair of linked circlets have been carved into the wood. It is an emblem, Ms. Brown thinks, of the union of the young couple whose time in the house was so brief and so tragic.
The second floor is devoted to bedrooms, and the third, the onetime servants’ quarters, with its tiny rooms and low ceilings, is a teenage boy’s paradise; Hunter has his own bedroom, kitchen and video area.
The third floor is also the entrance to the little two-story room at the top of the turret. On a Web site that lists the Brown house as a location for filming and fashion shoots, the passageway to the turret is described as a “creepy, coffin-shaped tunnel.”
Creepy is the word.
“When we first moved in, the kids used to play there,” Dr. Brown said, “and someone was always being dragged in and locked away and had to be rescued.”
After he moved to Stapleton, Dr. Brown joined the Mud Lane Society, the preservation group that helped get 92 Victorians designated as city landmarks. The group’s president since 2007, he knows more than most people about what life in this part of the city was like a century ago. Along the staircase hang photographs giving a vivid picture of the brewers who were island royalty before Prohibition brought them low, and through eBay Dr. Brown has amassed a collection of old bottles from the Bechtel brewery.
He has discovered that living in such an over-the-top house was just as he thought it would be — fun. Total strangers stop and take pictures, in part thanks to www.forgotten-ny.com, a Web site that proclaims 387 St. Paul’s Avenue as “possibly the most gorgeous private dwelling on Staten Island and a contender for most beautiful building in NYC.” And at least for the Browns, who see themselves as caretakers of a piece of Staten Island history, the poignant history of the house only enhances its appeal.
“This was a wedding gift for a bride,” Ms. Brown pointed out. “Don’t you wish you could give your child such a gift?”