Staten Island Borough Hall and Richmond County Courthouse
Updated: Aug 31
The east facade of the Staten Island Borough Hall in October 2020
Front entrance of the Richmond County Courthouse Building in October 2020
Just steps from the St. George Terminal of the world-famous Staten Island Ferry sit two of Staten Island and New York City's most beautiful and important civic buildings: The Staten Island Borough Hall and the Richmond County Courthouse.
These two magnificent structures were built roughly ten years apart and are linked together by formal French gardens. They have greeted almost everyone arriving on Staten Island by ferry for over 100 years, standing as "the centerpiece of Staten Island's civic center." Individually designated as New York City Landmarks and listed together on the National Register of Historic Places, the Borough Hall and County Courthouse are significant for their early twentieth-century French Renaissance, Roman Classicism, and Beaux-Arts architecture and design. They also help tell the story of Staten Island's political and civic history and are physical reminders of the 1898 unification of the five boroughs that formed modern New York City.
Political History of Staten Island
The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge connects Staten Island to Brooklyn and is named for the first European explorer to visit the area
Each of the five boroughs of New York City (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, and Staten Island) is technically considered a county of the State of New York. Manhattan is New York County, Brooklyn is Kings, Queens is Queens, Bronx is Bronx, and Staten Island is Richmond County.
Artifacts left behind by the native inhabitants of Staten Island now on display at Ward's Point
Staten Island is the ancestral homeland of the indigenous Raritans, bands of the Lenape people who enjoyed the island's natural beauty and bounty. The Raritan burial ground at Ward's Point Archeological Site on the southern tip of Staten Island is a National Historic Landmark that protects a trove of archeological artifacts from the island's first inhabitants.
Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano was the first European to visit what is now New York Harbor and see Staten Island, though he did not stay. The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, America's largest suspension bridge, links Staten Island to Brooklyn and is named for him.
A bronze statue of English explorer Henry Hudson in his namesake park in the Bronx
Eighty-five years later, the Dutch ship Half Moon and its famous captain Henry Hudson reached New York with more permanent goals in mind.
One of Hudson's crew members, John Coleman, was famously killed by an arrow through the throat in what has been referred to as "New York City's first murder." Though the incident likely happened somewhere near the coast of New Jersey, it is possible that the arrow was fired by one of the Raritans who lived on Staten Island. Hudson named the island "Staaten Eylandt" in honor of the States General of Holland, the Dutch equivalent to the American Congress, in 1609.
Hudson's arrival opened the door to the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, which became New York, in 1624. The European settlers battled the Raritans for control of Staten Island in a series of bloody encounters before the indigenous people eventually "sold" their land. By 1826, there were no Raritans still living on the island.
The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge as viewed from Brooklyn. The tower on the Staten Island side marks the rough location of the first Dutch settlement on the island, a neighborhood now known as Old Town
Staten Island's most successful settlers were not Dutch at all. Instead, they were Waldensians from the French and Italian Alps and French Huguenots (Protestants). These religious minorities ventured further into the island's interior than their Dutch counterparts, setting up the community of Stony Brook near what is now known as the neighborhood of New Dorp. Since "dorp" is the Dutch word for "town," this was just a reference to the settlement being the second or "new" town on the island after the "old" one near the shore. Staten Island's first courthouse and jail were built at Stony Brook.
In 1661, the English took control of New Amsterdam in a bloodless transfer after the Dutch surrendered. New Amsterdam became New York, and Staaten Eylandt became Staten Island, at least informally. The Dutch briefly re-took the colony a few years later, but the 1667 Treaty of Breda handed over New York to the English until the American Revolution.
The English brought with them their system of justice and administration, dividing their new land into counties. Staten Island was named Richmond County after Charles Lennox, the 1st Duke of Richmond, an illegitimate son of King Charles II, who ruled Great Britain. The county seat was set at Stony Brook, where the existing courthouse and jail stood.
One story goes that there was a dispute between the lords of New York and New Jersey over which colony Staten Island should be part of. They decided that any island that could be circumnavigated in 24 hours should be part of New York, but the rest should be in New Jersey. Sailor Christopher Billop is said to have completed the journey around Staten Island in just under 24 hours aboard his sloop "Bentley," thus securing the island for New York. Further research has suggested this story is merely a local legend, despite its enduring popularity.
One reason the county seat was moved to Richmondtown was that the bell tower at the nearby Church of St. Andrews added "dignity" to the area
In 1729, the county seat was moved from Stony Brook to a place known as Cocclestown or Cuckoldstown, named for the heaps of oyster and clam shells or "cockles" left there by the Raritans. Shell mounds are some of the most important indigenous archaeological sites in the United States and often mark the sites of large indigenous settlements. The English chose the area as the new county seat because of its central location on the island, which could also have been why it was a popular spot for the Raritans. The English also reportedly liked that there was a steeple and bell at the nearby Church of St. Andrews, which the locals felt added "dignity" to the area. The new county seat was eventually re-named "Richmondtown."
The third Richmond County Courthouse at Richmondtown still stands and is seen here in the summer of 2017
Richmondtown became the county court site and home to the county clerk and surrogate office, public stocks, and a jail. The first courthouse was erected in Richmondtown in 1729 at the corner of present-day Richmond Road and Richmond Hill Road. In 1794 a new courthouse on Arthur Kill Road replaced the original. In 1837 the Third County Courthouse was built, a Greek Revival temple-fronted structure on Center Street that remained in use until 1920 and still stands at the center of Historic Richmondtown.
Staten Island, and New York City, changed forever on January 1, 1898, when the five boroughs consolidated into a single city. The effort to consolidate mainly focused on the will-they-or-won't-they dance between Manhattan (then New York City and County) and Brooklyn, an independent city that in 1890 was the fourth most populous in America. The Bronx was already a part of New York City, along with Manhattan, while Queens and Staten Island were largely rural collections of small towns. Consolidation was put to the voters in 1894.
Richmondtown was deemed too far from the newly consolidated city's Civic Center in Lower Manhattan, shown here, so Staten Island's political buildings were moved near the ferry terminal in St. George
New York, Queens, and Richmond counties voted for consolidation by healthy margins with clear majorities. The towns of Pelham and East Chester did so as well, joining the city and becoming part of the Bronx. The villages of Westchester and Mount Vernon voted against consolidation and remained independent. Brooklyn was split down the middle, voting for consolidation by a roughly 300-vote margin out of some 130,000 votes cast. The plan went ahead, and modern New York City was born. The Staten Island Independent reported on November 9, 1894, that the residents of the new borough had voted 5,246 in favor of consolidation and 1,447 against it.
Consolidation meant the end of the incorporated villages of Richmond County and its independent county government. Richmondtown was deemed too far from Lower Manhattan and the City Hall of the now-consolidated city to operate as the borough's civic center, especially once the famed Staten Island Ferry service began in 1900. Borough offices moved temporarily to the Richmond Building on the corner of Richmond Terrace and York Avenue in New Brighton, closer to the ferry.
While the county offices were moved, the county courts were combined with those in Brooklyn. That meant that judges, who mostly lived in Brooklyn, every so often had to travel by ferry across to Staten Island and then all the way inland to Richmondtown to hold court. Anyone on Staten Island who had business before the federal judiciary had to travel all the way to Brooklyn.
Due to the exponential increase in the convenience of transportation around this time, the trip from Brooklyn to Richmondtown was no longer palatable to the judges, and even though residents were physically closer to Richmondtown, it wasn't a major transportation hub, which meant the trip there was still highly inconvenient. The trip to Richmondtown was so inconvenient that as many trials as possible were moved to a room in Borough Hall when that building was finished. Roughly a decade later, in 1913, construction finally began on the new Richmond County Courthouse at St. George, where all the island's railroad and trolley lines converged and connected to the ferry, and the historic Third County Courthouse was closed as soon as the new one was finished.
While locals have been calling the island "Staten Island" for centuries, after consolidation, it was officially referred to as "The Borough of Richmond." This formal title persisted until 1975, when the city council and Mayor Abraham Beame finally passed and signed, at the request of frustrated residents, a resolution making Staten Island, the name given by Henry Hudson centuries before, the official moniker of the borough.
While Staten Island had embraced the consolidation movement in the 1894 election, by the time a century passed, many residents were more interested in seceding from the city and declaring their independence. One movement called for Staten Island to become "the first city of the 21st century" by leaving NYC at the turn of the millennia. These sentiments were eventually tamped down by the election of Rudolph Giuliani as Mayor of New York City, with overwhelming support from Staten Island. Giuliani made good on two promises that helped ease tensions between the island and the rest of the city: eliminating the fare for the Staten Island Ferry and closing the Fresh Kills landfill.
In modern times, Staten Island has been a mixed bag politically, meaning that it is exponentially more conservative than the rest of New York City, known for its overwhelming support of the Democratic Party and liberal, progressive policies. The Democratic nominee for President of the United States has won Staten Island just four times since 1940, with island residents backing the re-elections of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, President Bill Clinton in 1996, and President Barack Obama in 2012, as well as the unsuccessful candidacy of Vice President Al Gore in 2000. Staten Island has supported the Republican nominee in all the other presidential elections since 1940. By contrast, the last time the Republican nominee won a majority of the vote in Manhattan was in 1920. Staten Island was the only borough to back Republican President Donald Trump, a New York City native born in Queens and a resident of Manhattan at the time of his 2016 election. When a Republican candidate is elected to represent the U.S. Congressional District containing Staten Island, they are usually the only Republican in Congress representing an entirely urban district.
The famous Staten Island Ferry has played an essential role in linking the island to the rest of the city since consolidation
Staten Island Borough President George Cromwell, as seen in the New York Times, March 31, 1912
Soon after consolidation, George Cromwell, a graduate of Columbia Law School representing Richmond County in the State Assembly, was narrowly elected Staten Island Borough President. His vision for the new civic center would become essential to its success, and he is responsible for constructing the two beautiful buildings that occupy the site today.
Cromwell was responsible for integrating local government functions into the newly consolidated city while maintaining his neighbors' pride in their island. He achieved both goals by constructing Borough Hall in 1903, designed by local architect John M. Carrere. More on their collaboration is below.
Though, when it was completed, Borough Hall had "to hobnob with wooden
and brick structures of no distinction whatever," that building was only the starting point of Borough President George Cromwell's vision for the future of Staten Island. A 1912 article in the New York Times, written after the completion of Borough Hall but before the construction of the County Courthouse, lays out his plan under the headline:
NOBLE LINE OF CIVIC BUILDINGS FOR STATEN ISLAND
"President Cromwell...is proposing to the City to provide sufficient funds to purchase the entire southern front of Jay Street [now Richmond Terrace] to the point where it runs into Stuyvesant Street, and plans to erect upon it a series of fine public buildings, each harmonizing with the other and each standing in grounds of its own. By this means he would create overlooking the Bay a noble row of municipal and governmental offices, which would add dignity to the end of Staten Island, that is most generally seen, and at the same time concentrate the business of the Borough at the point where it can be most conveniently transacted."
Next to Borough Hall, Cromwell planned to build the County Courthouse. That part of the vision came true, but the rest did not. Next down the line, he planned for a Federal Building and Post Office. Instead, that block remained privately owned, and today is a bland mix of apartment buildings, shops, restaurants, and parking lots. A post office was eventually built in the opposite direction, just south of Borough Hall. Cromwell envisioned a grand home for the Staten Island Museum on the next block, which the Times reported "has collections of considerable and increasing value." Instead, that land was put to a different public use and is now home to the 20th Police Precinct Station House (formerly the 66th Police Precinct Station House and Headquarters) and the Staten Island Family Courthouse, both New York City Landmarks. A small brick building for the museum was built behind the police station in 1918, bringing a part of Cromwell's vision to life on a smaller scale. The remaining triangular plot of land where the two streets intersect "might be devoted to any one of a number of civic purposes, such as a park or public market," the Times reported. Instead, it remained privately owned and contains some offices and a new apartment building constructed as part of the redevelopment of St. George, which also included a new outlet mall by the ferry terminal.
The biggest reason Cromwell's complete vision did not come to life appears to be land acquisition costs. While the city already owned the block on which the police precinct and family courthouse would later be built, the rest of the land needed to be purchased, and the newly consolidated city would be the entity footing the bill. New York City Comptroller William A. Prendergast was unconvinced the purchase was necessary. While the land for the county courthouse was purchased, the remaining lots, as detailed above, remained privately owned.
Cromwell worked closely with architect John M. Carrere, who lived on Staten Island, to envision the civic center. Carrere selected the site for the County Courthouse right near Borough Hall and envisioned its L shape. He also suggested the inclusion of a garden between the two buildings. The two men were likely inspired by the City Beautiful Movement, which entered the public consciousness through the Court of Honor at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. City Beautiful ideals called for grand public spaces, especially wide streets, lush parks, and open gardens. Though Manhattan was already designed with its groundbreaking grid plan, the newly consolidated outer boroughs had the space to put these ideas to use. In Brooklyn, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux started with Prospect Park as a follow-up to their masterpiece Central Park in Manhattan. The architectural firm of McKim, Meade, and White, then probably the most prominent in America, was also crafting some of its greatest works at the time. Still, two men who worked there were about to start on their own and design some of the nation's most impressive buildings: Carrere & Hastings.
Carrere & Hastings
The main branch of the New York Public Library in midtown Manhattan, a National Historic Landmark, is likely the most famous work of Carrere and Hastings
John M. Carrere and Thomas Hastings started their firm in 1885 after studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and working in the McKim, Mead & White office. The two had not interacted much in France but met at the firm in 1885 and were connected by their common education. They started their independent enterprise in the back room of McKim, Mead & White before moving to their own space in Lower Manhattan near Bowling Green.
Hastings focused on the design part of the firm, while Carrere ran the business side and managed negotiations with clients and contractors. Both men also benefitted from their extensive connections to the wealthiest and most powerful New Yorkers of their time. For example, Hastings' father was the Rev. Doctor Thomas Hastings, minister of the West Presbyterian Church in New York and president of the Union Theological Seminary.
Carrere and Hastings designed Whitehall, the Palm Beach mansion of millionaire industrialist Henry Flagler that is also a National Historic Landmark, as well as some of Flagler's most iconic Florida hotels
Carrere and Hastings got their first big break, not in New York but in Florida, where Henry Flagler, a friend and parishioner of Hastings' father, was busy building a railroad from Jacksonville to what is now Miami and, in doing so, singlehandedly spurring almost all the development along the Atlantic coastline of the state. Flagler hired the pair to design the Ponce de Leon and Alcazar Hotels in St. Augustine along his new rail line in the late 1880s. Both buildings were a rousing success and still stand today. The Ponce de Leon is a National Historic Landmark. Having a happy, high-profile client like Flagler on their side was good for business, and by the turn of the century, Carrere and Hastings were architectural superstars, on par with their former bosses at McKim, Mead & White.
In 1891, the pair placed second in the design competition for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, America's largest church. In 1897 construction began on the main branch of the New York Public Library, based on a winning design by the duo. The building also became a National Historic Landmark, the pair's most famous work. In 1901, Flagler had them back in Florida, designing his mansion in Palm Beach, Whitehall, another National Historic Landmark that is now a museum home.
The Staten Island Borough Hall and Richmond County Courthouse are in some ways the most representative of Carrere and Hastings' entire body of work because they capture one of each man's most defining characteristics: Hastings' commitment to the French Renaissance style and Carrere's interest in the future of civic planning.
Hastings was a committed Francophile. He believed that French architecture was "consistently modern" due to the "high classic standard of study which has...always been adhered to by the authorities in the art schools" there, schools like the one he and Carrere had attended. In Hasting's view, architects needed to be masters of a style that defined their times, a style that was "an adaptation of past work to modern needs." He rejected the thought "that each kind of problem demands a particular style of architecture," calling that concept "the irrational idiosyncrasy of modern times." As he surveyed those modern times, Hastings believed that "American life was still motivated by the forces that had brought about the Renaissance" and shunned pre-Renaissance architecture as "an anachronism," that is, out of place, and lacking in "life and spirit." For all these reasons, Hastings, and therefore the firm, settled on designing buildings in the French Renaissance style. Hastings felt the designs were beautiful, modern, inspired by greatness, and in tune with the prevailing intellectual energy of the moment.
Carrere, for his part, was enraptured by the concept of urban planning mainly through the lens of the City Beautiful movement, as described earlier. He had consulted closely with Borough President Cromwell as the latter man was crafting his plan for the civic center, and Cromwell's vision was as much Carrere's as it was his own. It wasn't the first time Carrere had tried his hand at urban planning. The architect served on a state commission that redesigned a section of Cleveland and on similar commissions in Baltimore and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Carrere also personally penned a master plan for Hartford, Connecticut, following City Beautiful ideals.
As Hastings was connected to high society through his father, Carrere was politically connected due to his public planning skills and his friendship with Elihu Root, who served as Secretary of War, Secretary of State, and U.S. Senator from New York and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912. The firm designed Root's personal residence on Park Avenue. While Root was serving in the Cabinet of President William McKinley, the firm won the contract to design office buildings for the House and Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington, constructing the Cannon and Russell buildings there. Carrere was also influential in helping the federal government hold design competitions for new public buildings, particularly U.S. sub-Treasuries.
Civic buildings became a core part of the firm's work. The pair unsuccessfully entered design competitions for the city hall in Worchester, Massachusetts, and for the Rhode Island State Capitol but later designed the city halls of Paterson, New Jersey, and Portland, Maine.
The pair's prolific partnership was tragically cut short in March of 1911 when a New York streetcar collided with Carrere's taxi cab, throwing him 30 feet out of the vehicle. Carrere's body lay in state in the rotunda of the nearly-completed New York Public Library on the day of his funeral, allowing the great architect to enjoy his most well-known work one last time. Hastings continued the firm's work under the same name, collaborating with outside architects and trusted firm associates until he died in 1929.
The Manhattan Bridge arch and collonade is another NYC work of Carrere and Hastings that combined Hastings' love of the French Renaissance style with Carrere's passion for urban planning
Borough Hall: French Renaissance
While Borough Hall is generally a French Renaissance building, it takes its design cues specifically from the period that includes the end of the reign of King Henry IV (1589-1610) and the entire term of his son King Louis XIII (1610-1643). Buildings from this time are notably more restrained and less extravagantly ornamented than works from later in the Renaissance.
The NYC Landmark nomination form calls this Early French Renaissance style "an economical design mode that made use of inexpensive and durable materials used in a manner that rationally expressed a building's use and structure." The notable architectural characteristics of these buildings are "extensive use of brick, contrasting stone trim, heavy classical ornamental forms, and steep mansard roofs punctuated by dormers," all of which are present in Borough Hall. One of the defining works of this style is the Place Des Vosges in Paris, which has all of the above features and resembles Borough Hall.
The Neue Galerie on Manhattan's Upper East Side
In New York, the best example of this style besides Borough Hall is the William Starr Miller Residence on 5th Avenue and 86th street, now home to the Neue Galerie, also designed by Carrere and Hastings. As seen above, that building resembles Borough Hall with many of the same features, from the limestone base and window trim to the brickwork, balustrade, and dormer windows in the slate roof.
The firm usually selected stone as their building material of choice, but in keeping with the tenets of this Henry IV-Louis XIII Early French Renaissance style, they chose brick for Borough Hall. The firm may have selected this style to pay tribute to Staten Island's Huguenot settlers, who, as mentioned above, were largely responsible for establishing the first primarily European presence on Staten Island. Brick manufacturing was also a significant industry on the island at the time, so the contract for the project may have required brick construction. However, there is no documentary evidence of such a demand.
Though built of stone rather than brick, the Portland, Maine, city hall designed by Carrere and Hastings soon after Borough Hall features many of the same architectural elements
Staten Island Borough Hall also stands firmly in the tradition of municipal buildings designed by Carrere and Hastings. Pictured above, the Portland, Maine City Hall, built soon after Borough Hall, features many of the same design elements. These include an imposing central portion topped by a mansard roof, an open front court with large steps leading to the main entrance, and a tall central clock tower. The city hall in Paterson, New Jersey, also designed by the firm, has a clock tower even though it lacks other elements. The inspiration for each of these buildings appears to be the city hall of Lyon, France. That structure features the same general plan: a large central portion with two projecting side wings topped by a clock tower. Carrere & Hastings' scrapbooks, preserved at the New York Public Library, contain a drawing of the Lyon building. Both architects likely visited it during their time studying in France.
However, Staten Island Borough Hall is nowhere near as ornate as its inspiration in Lyon. The nomination form calls Borough Hall "an imposing structure with crisply modeled detailing that gives it the softer, more elegant tone, appropriate to a twentieth-century civic symbol."
What was initially intended to be the main entrance of the building faces Richmond Terrace and New York harbor. This is the side of Borough Hall seen by anyone coming off the Staten Island Ferry. The entrance is recessed back from the projecting wings of the building, allowing for a courtyard, which is reached by climbing twenty steps.
The stairs and courtyard are ornamented with bronze lamp standards. One is seen in the foreground, flanking the stairs, with two in the background in the courtyard.
The central pavilion is five window bays wide and constructed primarily of smooth limestone, which also runs around the base of the entire building. A narrow flight of stairs leads from the courtyard to the central entrance, marked by an arch (seen at the lower center of the above photo) and flanked by four segmental-arched windows. Rising from the limestone base above the door and windows are six engaged Doric columns. Two wide limestone piers and the Doric frieze above bracket the collonade. The columns are linked by stone balustrades that rise in front of the recessed second-floor windows. The central balustrade is visible directly above the entrance door.
The wall surfaces between the stone columns are red brick laid in Flemish bond. The windows are set within heavy limestone enframements, which on the second floor are ornamented with foliate brackets, fasces friezes, and projecting lintels, as seen above. This is one of the building's best examples of French Renaissance decoration.
The central colonnade is topped with a Doric frieze, a highly detailed projecting cornice, and a second balustrade visible above just below the dormer windows.
A two-story mansard roof of slate shingles rises above the balustrade. The first story sports five segmental-arched dormers indicative of the French Renaissance style, with five small shed dormers above. Each of those small windows is currently used to hold an air conditioning unit, as seen in the photo above.
On either side of the central pavilion are one-window-bay-wide sections connecting the main and side wings. According to the landmark nomination form, "these connectors are recessed and give a sense of plasticity to the facade that is not always evident on the Early French Renaissance prototypes."
From top to bottom, as seen in the photo above, each of these sections has a round oeil-de-boeuf dormer projecting from the mansard roof, a heavy limestone enframement around both windows, and a round arch around the entrance door, in an echo of the central pavilion. The cornice from the central wing carries over and continues to the side wings. The Flemish-bond brickwork does as well.
According to the nomination form, "the projecting wings are extremely simple in their massing and detail." The south side of the south wing is pictured above. Note the heavy limestone base, which runs around the entire wing.
As with the rest of the building, above the base, the walls of each wing are faced with brick punctuated by heavy limestone window enframements. On top is a mansard roof with pedimented shed dormer windows.
The west elevation of Borough Hall faces Stuyvesant Place and is now used as the main entrance to the building. Because it was intended to be the rear side of the building, this facade is more straightforward in detailing than the one facing the water. Utilizing the grand entrance on the water side would have made sense if Cromwell's full vision for the civic center had been realized. Still, today it is more appropriate for the front door of Staten Island's premiere civic building to face inland toward the bulk of the borough's population.
The main mass on this side is a seven-bay wide central pavilion set on a limestone base. As shown above, there are five central window bays and one on either far side that is flanked by rusticated limestone piers.
A flight of nine steps leads to the doorway, which on this side has a rectangular rather than rounded entrance and is topped by a slab lintel.
On either side of the entrance are four windows with limestone trim, which is lighter and far less ornate than on the opposite side of the building.
The aforementioned pairs of rusticated limestone piers, each separated by a tall rectangular window, mark the ends of the central pavilion. They are unique to this side of the building. The landmark nomination form explains that "the use of rusticated piers to give added emphasis to a building was a popular Early French Renaissance design motif."
A simple stone cornice crowns the central mass of this facade and forms the base for the attic story that serves as a transition between the lower floors and the mansard roof and tower. Four small shed dormers, each now holding an air conditioning unit, project from the mansard roof, which is split by the tall square brick tower as it rises flush with the main facade. As seen in the above photo, the tower is ornamented by a small stone balcony and balustrade.
A stone frieze, a crowning balustrade, and a flagpole top the tower.
The most prominent features of the tower are the clocks on the east and west fronts. As seen above, each clock face is set within a foliate surround and placed beneath a pediment supported by elongated brackets. Even this high up, the detailing is elaborate, echoing that of the window frames on the water side of the building.
As the main civic center of Staten Island, Borough Hall has become a place to honor its citizens and remember its history. Inside the building are a series of murals completed in 1940 by artist Frederick Charles Stahr with funding from the Works Progress Administration depicting critical moments in Staten Island history. Outside are a series of commemorative plaques on the walls of the main block near the front entrance. The World War I memorial designed by A. Weinert is seen above and is described by the nomination form as "the finest" of the bunch. The plaque is dedicated "IN PROUD MEMORY OF STATEN ISLAND MEN WHO DIED IN THE SERVICE OF OUR COUNTRY IN THE WAR WITH GERMANY 1914-1919" and was installed in 1920. An inscription at the top of the plaque reads "ERECTED BY THE CITIZENS OF THE BOROUGH OF RICHMOND," as Staten Island was then known.
Another plaque on the building honors Giovanni da Verrazzano, the first European explorer to enter New York harbor and see Staten Island. Verrazzano is also the namesake of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge that connects Staten Island to Brooklyn.
Richmond County Courthouse: A Roman Temple
Front facade of the Richmond County Courthouse
For its part, the Richmond County Courthouse is a departure from the usual French Renaissance designs of Carrere & Hastings. Instead, the building shows the influence of Roman Classical, Italian Renaissance, and Northern Renaissance architecture. In particular, the courthouse appears to be inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, though it is not a replica of that building. Some features borrowed from the Pantheon include the Corinthian temple front, alternating bands of wide and narrow rustication, and upper story pilasters. The courthouse also features rusticated wall surfaces and rhythmically placed pedimented windows that are reminiscent of the Roman palazzi of the early sixteenth century, which in turn, were based on classical architecture.
The courthouse was constructed after Carrere's death, but he helped select the site and envisioned its signature L shape. Hastings designed the building, turning to Italy for inspiration despite believing that only French architecture was "consistently modern." The very fact that the building is a courthouse likely explains its departure in style from the rest of the firm's work. Temple-fronted courthouses had been the standard in the United States since the nation's founding. Even the Third County Courthouse in Richmondtown, which this one replaced, had a columned temple front, as seen in the photo earlier in this post.
The U.S. Supreme Court Building is the most famous temple-fronted courthouse in America
The most famous example of a temple-fronted courthouse in the United States is the U.S. Supreme Court Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. That National Historic Landmark was designed by the legendary architect Cass Gilbert and built between 1932 and 1935. However, the Supreme Court Building was the culmination of classical-style courthouses in America rather than the model for future ones. Around the time of its construction, the prevailing design style was changing to an Art Deco, or International Moderne look, as seen in the Bronx County Courthouse, which also serves as that borough's borough hall and was built around the same time as the Supreme Court Building, or the federal courthouse in Los Angeles, built in 1940. Even those buildings seen below have columns over their entrances.
The Bronx County Courthouse has columns over every entrance
Even when courthouses moved on from full temple-fronting, as seen here in the Art Moderne Los Angeles federal courthouse finished in 1940, the buildings still had columns over the entrances
The New York County Courthouse in Lower Manhattan was being built at the same time as the Richmond County Courthouse and is also temple-fronted, a further sign of unity between the consolidated five boroughs. When designing a courthouse, Hastings did not have a choice: courthouses at the time were temple-fronted. However, as detailed below, Hastings' preference for Renaissance design is readily apparent.
What was initially intended to be the main entrance to the courthouse is on Richmond Terrace and faces the water, but it is infrequently used today. This entry is marked by the signature pedimented temple front supported by six giant Corinthian columns that project from the face of the building. Those columns are flanked by recessed Corinthian pilasters, as seen on the far right of the above photo and set at the top of a long flight of steps in much the same way as the colonnaded front of a Roman temple. The front elevation wall is coursed with rusticated limestone laid in alternating wide and narrow bands and can be seen above in between the columns.
A closer view of the rusticated limestone and the massive entrance enframement surrounding the wooden double doors and a bronze transom above them.
As seen at the top of this photo, a Greek key band runs along the walls at the level of the column capitals. The side walls of the entrance porch have arches and the same rusticated limestone as the rest of the facade. These features combine to create one of the most beautiful but unknown public spaces in New York City, grand as any great building in a European capital.
Another view of the Greek key band, the Corinthian column capitals, and the coffered ceiling of the front porch area, which features the building's most ornate decoration
On the north and south facade of the building are a pair of pilasters that
form the transition between the temple front and the rusticated wall area. The north pair are pictured above. These pilasters take the place of the open colonnade on the side elevation of Roman temples.
The north elevation of the courthouse, along Schuyler Street, is seven-window bays wide and rises from a smooth limestone base. The first floor is heavily rusticated and is articulated by rectangular windows, as seen above. The second story has alternating simple rectangular windows and pedimented windows set above balustrades, as seen above. Finally, an attic story lit by small rectangular windows is located below the projecting cornice, which in turn is topped with a balustrade that runs along the roofline.
The ell wing fronts onto the garden and faces the water, just to the south of the temple front. It is divided into eight window bays and features a heavily rusticated ground floor. As seen to the left above, the two end bays project slightly and are punctuated by second-floor windows with pediments.
As seen above, the five central bays are marked by Corinthian pilasters that separate each set of rectangular windows and carved plaques. A full cornice, a balustrade, and a hipped roof crown the building.
The final two projecting bays of the garden wing ell are flush with the south facade, which carries the cornice and balustrade around the building above three rectangular and three pedimented windows. The rustication on this side of the building almost looks like brickwork.
The rusticated rear facade, which now functions as the main entrance to
the courthouse, runs along Stuyvesant Place and is thirteen window bays wide. The cornice and balustrade continue along this elevation, as does the brick-like style of the rustication.
The focal point on this side is the massive entry enframement with its Northern Renaissance-inspired portico, including banded columns on either side of the door and a Doric frieze above it, all topped by a bracketed cornice. The portico surrounds a rusticated wall surface pierced with a round-arched entrance with pairs of wooden and bronze doors. This is the building's most obvious Renaissance-style detail.
On either side of the entrance are four window bays simply articulated by rectangular windows, surrounded by brickwork-like rustication, which differs significantly from the alternating wide and narrow band rustication at the temple front and seen here running along the bottom of the building.
The two end bays on either side of this elevation project slightly and have pedimented window enframements on the first floor. The south end bay is seen here with Borough Hall in the background. Note how the balustrade on that building's clocktower harmonizes well with the ones running atop the courthouse and below the pedimented windows.
Each of the individual design features detailed above combines with the others to create what the landmark nomination form calls a "courthouse
that clearly dates from the early twentieth century."
One of the courthouse's most beautiful but unusual features is the formal French garden facing Richmond Terrace and New York Harbor. To the extent that courthouses in dense urban centers have landscaping at all, it is usually a few strips of grass and shrubbery or a paved plaza. In this case, the nomination form reports that "this beautifully planned and laid out open space was designed by Hastings in such a way as to set off the courthouse, giving it greater monumentality," a design choice more commonly used for American state capitol buildings than courthouses.
Carrere and Cromwell planned the courthouse to be built in an L shape so that there could be open space between the building and Borough Hall, per Cromwell's master plan for a grand civic center and City Beautiful ideals. Hastings filled the space beautifully, drawing on the French architecture he loved so much to create a three-level space landscaped with a combination of formal parterres, paved walks, sculpted elements, and fountains in a manner typical of seventeenth and eighteenth-century French gardens.
The final two sentences describing the garden in the courthouse nomination form, prepared in 1982, read, "Unfortunately this garden, which is unique in New York City, is poorly maintained. With only a minimal amount of care this could be one of Staten Island's most beautiful open spaces." Sadly, some forty years later, the situation does not appear to have improved much. The photos below were taken in October 2020 amid the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, which devastated New York and during which both public buildings were closed to in-person business. While the garden was likely not receiving a high degree of care at this time, it is apparent this area suffers from a long history of neglect and a lack of proper respect for its role as a public space.
The lowest of the three levels is a narrow grassy strip that runs along Richmond Terrace and was heavily overgrown during the pandemic.
That grassy strip is separated from the central garden by a stone wall with a balustrade, also visible in the previous photo, which itself is a feature on both Borough Hall and the courthouse.
The wall is interrupted by stairs and by a pair of handsome fountains, one of which is shown here. The wall balustrade is again visible to the left in this photo
Each fountain has a stone urn and basin
The fountains are ornamented with representational sculptures of shells, dolphins, and cascading water.
Another view of a full fountain
The central garden expanse on the second level includes grassy areas, paved walks, decorative hedges, and towering trees. This view looks north toward the temple-fronted portion of the courthouse.
This view of the central garden portion looks east toward Richmond Terrace, the St. George ferry terminal, and New York Harbor. Unfortunately, the view of the water has been blocked by the construction of the new outlet mall, visible across the street.
This view of the central garden looks southwest toward Borough Hall (left) and the ell portion of the courthouse (right). This view shows how the garden beautifully fills the space between the two buildings, just as Carrere and Cromwell imagined.
This view of the central garden faces due south toward Borough Hall. The balustrade in front of that building's limestone base marks a staircase between the two structures that leads up the hill to their main entrances.
This statue in the central garden honors Frank D. Paulo, who served as the Surrogate of Richmond County from 1961 until he died in 1981. The Surrogate’s Court of Richmond County is located in the courthouse. It is responsible for the probate of wills, guardianship of infants, and approving adoptions, which likely explains why the judge is depicted here with a young child. An intermediate school on Staten Island is also named for Judge Paulo and sits on Huguenot Avenue, yet another tribute to the islands' early European settlers.
The balustrade on the left in this photo marks the stone retaining wall that separates the main section from the upper garden, the third and final level of the landscape.
The upper garden lacks the open grass spaces the two lower levels have but includes this handsome row of trees, a fine paved walk, and some shrubbery.
The defining feature of the upper garden is its handsome Renaissance fountain, a monumental stone structure. From top to bottom, as seen above, the fountain features a segmental arch embellished with a cartouche, Doric columns, and a lion's head set within a niche. Water gushes from the lion into a series of stone basins when the fountain runs.
The garden is one of the most unique public places in New York City, especially in the category of borough halls and courthouses. Perhaps the only other public building in the city to have as ornamentally landscaped grounds is the New York Public Library's main building on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, which Carrere & Hastings also designed. The NRHP nomination form also mentions Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza, another Carrere & Hastings design, as a similar area of formal gardens in the city.
In the landmark nomination form, Borough Hall is described as "Staten Island's grandest civic monument," while the courthouse is deemed one of "New York City's most impressive judicial buildings" that "stands as a symbol of justice and rule by law." Both buildings are indeed grand and beautiful, the brilliant work of Carrere & Hastings, and "important examples of early twentieth-century Beaux-Arts design principles," but they are also symbols of the strong "civic aspirations" of what is often unfairly referred to as New York City's "forgotten borough."
They were born of the vision of a pioneering Borough President "determined to make the approach to Staten Island as notable in its architectural features as it is already in its natural surroundings." They are symbols "of the unified borough," "a source of pride to all Staten Island residents." And, they are, as The New York Times wrote in 1904, an acknowledgment and declaration that Staten Island is "an integral part of the Greater New York," the unified city we know today.
Borough Hall at sundown, October 2022