The history of a house -- or, perhaps a state of mind -- or, conceivably, both at once.
The physical place and space I've named Villa Florentine exists at 465 Van Duzer Street in the township of Stapleton, on the North Shore of Staten Island, the most remote of New York City's five boroughs. A local architect, James McDermott, built it in 1910 for himself and his family to occupy. There's stylistic reason to believe that he bought a stretch of property along this block, subdivided it, built at least five houses on it (all of them fully detached), and sold the others off to amortize his expenses for this one.
At the time its present owner and occupant, A. D. Coleman/Allan Douglass Coleman (that is to say, I myself), purchased it, in 1970, it had become known in the neighborhood simply as "the McDermott house." From the hands of the McDermott family it passed into the possession of a local real-estate agency, and though it had several renters during the 1960s its current owner apparently is only the second party (excepting that real-estate agency) to hold title to it, and only the third or (possibly) fourth to inhabit it.
The original version of the house was a one-family four-bedroom dwelling, constructed of what builders at the time called "stucco over tile," which in fact means stucco over a hollow-core brick. It had two full floors, ground and first, with two outdoor porches and one indoor one, a semi-finished attic (flooring, particle-board walls, no insulation) and a cement-floored but otherwise unfinished basement.
Because it stands on a hillside (Grymes Hill), and accommodates itself to the slope, the front end of this basement sits below street level, while one walks out of the basement's rear door directly into the back garden. The house has a narrow front garden and a deeper, wedge-shaped rear garden; at the far edge thereof, there's a fence atop a retaining wall, then a 25-foot drop to the lot and house below.
That rear side of the house, with its garden and terraces, looks down into Stapleton Valley -- a maze of back streets and one- and two-family houses, with a not-unattractive red-brick retirement home (built in the 1990s) in the middle of the scene, and a Catholic church and its bell tower on the right. On the right-hand side there's the upward sweep of Todt Hill, so tree-covered that its houses disappear almost entirely from view in mid-spring, not reemerging till late fall when the leaves come down.
At the end of the outward view, unfortunately, stand the Stapleton Houses, a 1960s-era city-run warehouse for humans unredeemed by any attempt at architectural grace (though perhaps not unredeemable). Doctors bury their mistakes, goes the old saw, and architects plant ivy -- advice not taken in this case. I fantasize sitting on my terrace with a cognac, coffee, and cigar one warm day and watching it -- with all its former occupants happily relocated to better digs -- implode. I don't hold my breath on that; instead, they're building a new community center in the middle of it, due to open in 2006.
Curiously, given that this view in 1910 would have shown mostly trees, houses, and a few breweries (for which the township was famous at that time) on Todt Hill, the rear side of the house as found in 1970 did nothing to exploit the view of the valley, the open sky above it, or the sense of space generated by the combination of these. Indeed, it closed itself off fairly effectively from that prospect.
A small back porch off the kitchen served as an entrance to the kitchen from the outside. A 10-foot-square slate-and-cement patio (with an oil tank beneath it) sat against the house in the rear garden, surrounded by a clay-like dirt in which not even crabgrass grew. Two trees, a large maple (hardwood) and a sprawling mimosa (softwood), provided shade and solitude, but it seemed clear no one had used this space much -- not for socializing, not for cooking, not for hanging out. Nor did the rear windows take advantage of the vista; most were quite small. (Continued . . . )