Anyone who has owned a really old home—one that has been around a century or more—can tell you it’s a bit like being a parent: The joy is big, the work is tremendous, and the pain can be intense.
For Anthony and Susannah Abbate and their family, the story of their Staten Island home contains all of these emotions and more. It’s also a unique tale, as they live in a home that’s like few others: a decommissioned fire station built shortly after the turn of the 20th century. In fact, it’s such an uncommon dwelling, the family is sometimes identified by it. “It's one of the first things people mention if they introduce me,” Susannah says.
Anthony grew up on Staten Island and, frankly, he never thought he would spend his adult life here. “I left to go to boarding school when I was 15, I went to NYU after that, and I settled in Manhattan. That’s where everyone wanted to be,” says Anthony. “I never envisioned myself back on Staten Island.”
But time has a way of changing perspectives and real estate. Anthony operates his business—a company called Box Furniture that builds furniture for old-school, high-fidelity stereo systems—in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, and used to live in Manhattan’s East Village.
“In a decade, I saw that area go from a mixed and varied place to one that’s affordable only for the very rich,” he says of the East Village. “We originally went looking for a place closer to my work. But, because of the rising prices, we missed our chance to buy a Brooklyn brownstone. We went looking elsewhere.”
Time had also changed his home turf of Staten Island. “Look, Staten Island has a reputation for being the most conservative and isolated of all of New York City’s boroughs. In some respects, the reputation is deserved,” he says. “But there are some amazing things to see here.”
One of those things is Tompkinsville, a neighborhood located on the island’s eastern shore along New York Harbor. The area is a mix of industrial and residential, and it’s dotted with tall brick buildings and row houses.
One such building is this three-story former fire station, composed of brick with limestone ornamentation and cornices. Through a family friend, the Abbates heard the owner might be willing to sell and thought it might be a good live/work space. On a whim, they went to take a look and fell in love with the place.
“We had been living in a 625-square-foot apartment in the East Village, and we just couldn’t believe the space in the fire station,” Anthony says. It’s easy to see why when he describes the three-story building, whose second and third levels each measure 2,100 square feet, whose ground level amounts to a 12-car garage, and whose yard is an adjacent empty lot set up for gardening and outdoor dining.
Even when it became apparent that Box Furniture could not relocate, due to complex zoning rules, they were still intent on buying the place. “I remember though, when I was asking the former owner all kinds of questions about the place, he told me: ‘This is the thing, if you want to live here, you have to learn to live like a pirate.’” The meaning of the statement would become more clear in time.
What was more immediately apparent is that Staten Island wasn’t as Anthony remembered. “Driving around, I could see it had become more populated. The area around the waterfront had more going on, and people as well as businesses were there,” he said. “I found that it reminded me of the New York City I missed from the 1980s and ’90s. I was ready to move.”
Initially, Susannah was more hesitant. “I was not excited about moving to Staten Island. I came because I love my husband,” she says. “Now, I love the place. It's a great small town in a big city. There's diversity and familiarity and community. There's hidden sophistication that hasn't been commercialized and there's hilarious ostentation. Staten Island is a wonderfully odd place, which has piqued my fascination.”
But whether the fire station was ready to return the love was another question. Anthony has traced the origins of the building back to 1911, but the exact year is unclear (ironically, a fire in FDNY’s records department destroyed documents that would date it exactly). “There’s evidence of where the stables were set up in the first floor, so we know they had horse-drawn wagons early on,” he says.
In 1972, the building was decommissioned and sold, and then sold again in 1979 to a couple who updated it, adding kitchens and bathrooms on the second and third levels.
When the Abbates took over, the 1980 remodel was starting to get, in Anthony’s words, “tired.” The couple was eager to get in and work on cosmetics, but the building—and Mother Nature—had other ideas.
“The year we moved in, there was a pretty bad nor’easter, and that exposed a serious waterproofing issue,” Anthony says. “We had to do some major maintenance, including replacing all the windows on the second and third level and repairing the parapet. It was a pretty big number... a very large number, in fact. It was a dark time.”
It’s the dark times that really test the mettle of old-house aficionados, separating the people who just admire them from the folks who want to truly live in them. The Abbates fell into the latter camp.
“We decided we were fully in, and that we were going to do what we had to do to maintain it,” says Anthony. “That meant that we had to take care of all the things you can’t necessarily see.”
The family lives on the third floor and maintains the second floor as a rental. The ground floor, where first-fire wagons and horses, and then fire trucks, once lived, is the family garage—and more. “We have a trampoline and a basketball hoop set up for the kids down there,” Anthony explains. “There’s plenty of room.”
Inside, you won’t find many of the original fixtures. When the building was empty, scavengers stripped it of brass and copper fittings and ornaments—including the fire pole.
What you will find are vast, open living spaces. In the family’s quarters, a bank of windows and a windowed door were initially the only thing that divided the space. “We think this formed the captain’s office,” Anthony says. “When the kids were born, I put up a wall that separated the space into two rooms.” Today, Tony is 8 and Bea is 5.
The rest of the space is a combined kitchen, living room, and master suite. Although the couple put in an Ikea kitchen, they have many improvements they’d like to make in the future.
“We’d like to redo the kitchen and the bathroom, add another bathroom, and remove the dropped-tile acoustic ceiling,” he says. “We will get to that someday.”
But that’s not to say there isn’t a lot to celebrate now.
“Living here makes us really happy. How many homes are there where the kids can ride their bikes around inside?” Anthony says. “We have great views of the harbor, we have a great yard for grilling and entertaining family. We have plenty of room to park. To be honest, the thing I dislike the most about living here is how much sidewalk I’m responsible for shoveling, but I’m looking into a service for that.”
That said, what did the former owner mean by that pirate remark?
“I’ve thought a lot about that over the years, and wondered exactly what he was talking about,” says Anthony. “I think he meant that most pirates are not made of money. They have to work with what they have, and if a leak springs up in the bottom of the boat, they have to plug it and just keep on going.”