Grantee Spotlight: Historic Richmond Town's Restoration

Seen from a short street called Court Place, which leads uphill from Richmond Road, the bell tower of the iconic Third County Courthouse in Staten Island resembles a white jewel box floating above Richmond Town.

The goings-on around this 180-year-old structure are like scenes in a movie. As the camera zooms out, autumn leaves drift over the heads of schoolchildren, a diverse group of New York City children being whisked through a living-history museum by guides clad in period attire. Families return from a ride to nearby Decker Farm carrying armloads of pumpkins and travel back centuries to learn old crafts. In December, carolers and lantern-toting tour guides walk the streets.

The Third County Courthouse and bell tower, built in 1837, is part of Historic Richmond Town. Its 30 original structures spanning 100 acres of parkland are a living-history village and museum complex evoking 350 years of New York City history and culture. More than 70,000 people visit each year.

The Greek Revival Courthouse is the town center. The bell tower is the focal point of the courthouse and is currently being restored with NYSCA funds—delighting those involved with a sweeping restoration of the site that has been underway for more than half a century.

The tower is a remarkably complex structure, with columns, plinths, and louvered windows. It is adorned with decorative moldings and topped by triangular crests that have curved end pieces resembling cat ears. The painstaking restoration work funded by NYSCA involves repairing and repainting the various components. New materials like weather-resistant Sapele wood and stainless steel nails will ensure a long lifetime for the repairs. Vertical tongue-and-groove boards at the base of the cupola structure must be removed to rework the flashing where the bell tower walls meet the copper roof of the main courthouse structure.

“The Third County Courthouse represents a time in Staten Island’s history when this structure was a town center, a Staten Island center, and the bell tower represents that because you can see it from far away. Every time I see it, I think of that,” says Timothy Boyland, a member of Historic Richmond Town’s Board of Directors (the public name for the Staten Island Historical Society). “We have a responsibility to make sure that people can still see and recognize and appreciate its importance to our community,” he added.

The Courthouse was designated an official New York City landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1969. Today, it serves as Historic Richmond Town’s Visitor Center and museum store. The second floor houses school programs and hosts a variety of functions, from scout troop events, fashion shows and film shoots to trial re-enactments, wine tastings, graduation celebrations and English country dance classes.

The building had a lively past as an active court and town jail. Its most sensational trial featured a defendant named Polly Bodine, who was charged with murdering her sister-in-law, Emeline, and Emeline’s 20-month-old daughter on Christmas night in 1843. With hordes of press and onlookers poised for the verdict, Bodine was acquitted—just as Edgar Allan Poe, covering the case for a Pennsylvania newspaper, had predicted.

“Poe covered a court case here as a journalist—that’s just one example of the historic value of the structure and the importance of saving our history,” says board member, Bob Champi. “We appreciate the help from NYSCA. It’s our iconic building. It’s on our logo.”

Melissa Perez, Museum Educator for Historic Richmond Town, said that as of last summer she had never heard the bell ring. “Because of the deterioration of the cupola, it has not been safe to ring it in recent years. When the repairs are done and the bell can ring again, it will make Historic Richmond Town come alive again,” she says. “I can’t wait!”