On Staten Island, surrounded by Historic Richmond Town to the south and ritzy Todt Hill to the north, is the neighborhood of Lighthouse Hill, an area whose real estate makeup includes both modest and stately home. With outstanding views of New York harbor, access to parkland via the Staten Island Greenbelt, and home to notable community and cultural institutions, it is definitely a neighborhood worth exploring—though like many areas in Staten Island, you may need a car to do so.
Formerly known as Richmond Hill (not to be confused with the Queens neighborhood of the same name), Lighthouse Hill acquired its name from the presence of the Staten Island Lighthouse, also known as Staten Island Range Light or Richmond Light. The octagonal tower was built in 1912 and stood 90 feet tall, although upon the hill, it stands approximately 145 feet above sea level.
The website LighthouseFriends.com gives a thorough account of the planning and building of the lighthouse, which was intended to serve as the rear range light companion to the West Bank Lighthouse (built in 1901 and located in Lower New York Bay). When the lighthouse went into operation in 1912, the New York Times described it as “destined to take its place among famous beacons of the world, such as Eddystone Lighthouse” off the coast of Plymouth, England.
The lighthouse was designated a New York City landmark in 1968, though the federal government (which maintains it and holds jurisdiction) did not fully support the move. Citing the importance of this historic landmark, which serves not only as a beacon to ships but as an important fixture of the community, the LPC asserted that designation was crucial, stating that “at some time in the future this building may be in jeopardy.” Although this fate did befall other lighthouses, luckily the same cannot be said for this particular structure—which still remains a valuable (albeit now automated) aid for ships to this day.
Much of Lighthouse Hill remained undeveloped until the 1850s, though some structures were built as part of the neighboring Richmond Town, which was first settled in the 1670’s. According to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, David Moore, the minister of Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, built a Federal-style, gambrel-roofed farmhouse in 1818 which was occupied by members of his family until 1943.
In 1836, David Latourette built a stately gable-roofed brick farmhouse in the Greek Revival style; today it serves as the clubhouse of the LaTourette Park Golf Course and is currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Other historic structures in the area included its first public school, built in 1830 opposite St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, as well as the Richmond Seminary for Young Ladies, a finishing school also erected circa 1830. In 1852, the schoolmaster of the Seminary converted this building to a summer resort-boarding house, known as the Richmond Hill Hotel, which operated until about 1870.
German immigrants Carl August Meissner and his wife Amelia Fredericke Roebling Meissner (sister of John Roebling, who built the Brooklyn Bridge) purchased land in the area for farming and erected a house near present day Richmond Road, west of an existing old dirt road leading up the hill. According to the LPC, Meissner “extended that road … creating a private drive that became present-day Lighthouse Hill Road and Meisner Avenue. Later on, Meissner built a 15-room Italianate mansion atop the hill (now demolished), offering views of the ocean and countryside. In the 1850’s, Meissner sold a portion of his land to attorney, legislator, and civic leader Nathaniel J. Wyeth, who built a stunning residence that still stands to this day.
The Nathaniel J. and Ann C. Wyeth House dates back to 1856 and evokes the Italianate villas that were once prevalent the borough. The brick masonry house with sandstone trim is among the earliest rural residences in this style on the island. The LPC designation report highlights the features of the house that evoke the hallmarks of the Italianate style: “cubic form, low hipped roof, wide overhanging eaves supported by decorative brackets, paired chimneys with molded caps, and octagonal cupola or belvedere.”
The house was inspired by “English principals of planning and design that emphasized seclusion and privacy and the enjoyment of ‘Picturesque’ vistas.” The main entrance includes a small porch and is partially screened from view, whereas the larger porches were built on the opposite side of the house, providing views of the landscape and the bay. The pinnacle of the house, the belvedere, offered majestic views of the ocean. The house, which still stands at 190 Meisner Avenue, was designated a NYC Landmark in 2007.
Lighthouse Hill is also home to two structures that have gotten their share of coverage, but are worth re-mentioning nonetheless. The Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art, located at 338 Lighthouse Avenue, was established in 1945 by the Jacques Marchais, who was one of the earliest American collectors of Tibetan art.
Inspired by the Potala at Lhasa (the historic seat of the Dalai Lamas), the building was designed to resemble a small Himalayan mountain monastery, with a facade of natural fieldstone and both flat and pagoda shaped roofs. It’s a peaceful retreat featuring meditation gardens, a fish pond, and meditation classes; if you are feeling stressed and wary, a visit here just may do the trick.
And last, but certainly not least, is the William and Catherine Cass House—aka the Crimson Beech—which is Frank Lloyd Wright’s only private home in New York City. For a full history of this monumental house, check out Curbed’s recent article here.
This is just a glimpse into the architectural fabric of this area—house lovers could spend endless hours gawking at the wide array of homes, many of which are nestled comfortably into the surrounding landscape. Traversing through the area, it is easy to see why the original European settlers built their homesteads here. Although many years have passed, this much is still true: given its landscape and location, Lighthouse Hill is a spectacular place to be.