The Mud Lane Society for the Renaissance of Stapleton is a non-profit neighborhood corporation that exists to promote and improve the village of Stapleton, located on the Northeast coast of Staten Island, N.Y. Our neighborhood includes an abundance of Victorian and historic homes as well as small businesses. The area also boasts bucolic harbor views and greenery, and is just a short ferry ride across the harbor from the bustle of Manhattan.
When the Mud Lane Society was formed in the summer of 1977, its officers discussed strategy for the revival of the once-delightful, then distressed Stapleton. Consensus was that the splendid houses "up the hill" could be promoted easily and quickly. The effort was a success. Newcomers who shared Mud Lane's outlook began arriving from everywhere. They removed boards from windows and sheetrock from walls. The houses of Stapleton Heights reaffirmed their owners' belief that they were originally built spendidly.
Mud Lane takes its name from the 1840's when St. Paul's Avenue was dubbed Mud Lane. Before pavement and sewers, passing downpours would wash mud from the surrounding hillside onto the street. Many of our members are in the active pursuit of restoring and maintaining these gorgeous old homes.
The village of Stapleton was founded in the1830's as a complete town just south of the Staten Island Ferry. During the 19th century and into the early 20th century, the town was the commercial brewery center of Staten Island, and a retreat for the wealthy who built many of the imposing Victorian structures. In fact, those who called Stapleton home, included well known local families including the Outerbridges, the Wards, the Van Duzers and the Vanderbilts.
In recent years, The Mud Lane Society has actively showcased these structures by sponsoring architectural house tours. We have also sponsored a summer luncheon music interlude in Tappan Park, the center of the business district in Stapleton, which is known for its Carnegie designed Victorian community center, gazebo, and a quaint square.
Mud Lane's interests encompass economic development and environmental, cultural, social, political, and architectural concerns. We continue to remain active in protecting this unique area and, working with others, to make a better Stapleton and Staten Island.
More than a legal jurisdiction or political entity, Stapleton has always been a state of mind. If Stapleton has official borders, their locations are generally unknown. Areas today considered parts of Stapleton have in the past gone by the names of Edgewater (a late 19th-century incorporated village), Morningside (a section of Grymes Hill in the vicinity of Sunrise Terrace), and Rocky Hollow. Stapleton is a feeling , a sense about the environs that is distinct from its neighboring communities of Tompkinsville on the North, Clifton on the South, or any other place. Geologically and architecturally, Stapleton is one of the most diversified places in New York. Yet for all its dynamics, its other ancient names have been forgotten as people perceived the unity called Stapleton.
Stapleton's special "feel" is largely a consequence of Nature's handiwork. The hills rise sharply from sea level, beginning only a few hundred feet from the shore. With the vast New York Harbor to gaze across from the waterfront or the elevations above, Stapleton affords a sense of spaciousness that is not common to most New York communities. Stapleton also is one of the New York communities that retains a "small town" identity. The commercial district surrounding the Village Square (Tappen Park) remains the "downtown" of the community. Between there and the hills are clusters of modest homes known locally as the "worker's cottages". Many were originally occupied by employees of the breweries of Stapleton, and although vernacular in style they possess a charm that often reminds of New England. Then, up in the "Heights" are Stapleton's regal "suburbs". Here the well-to-do of Stapleton--
merchants and brewers--became Stapleton's folk on the hill.
It was the landscape that determined the social patterns of Stapleton. The community evolved as not just a neighborhood, but as a complete village. The terrain varies but whether up the hill or down the same qualities greet the senses: the spaciousness, a constant presence of vegetation, a continual awareness of earth, water and sky. That is why the composition of Stapleton can vary so greatly, and still retain a unity.
Stapleton is named for William J. Staples, who in partnership with Minthorne Tompkins purchased a tract of land from the family of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. Since Tompkinsville was already on the map (named for Minthorne's father Daniel, a former Governor of New York State and Vice-President of the U.S. under Monroe) the decision was apparently made to name the new development after the second partner. Although several houses in Stapleton are believed to hail from Revolutionary War times, the name Stapleton was first applied to the land in the mid 1830's. Streets and building plots were laid out , though maps prior to the 1860's show a sparsely developed community with a few waterfront hotels, plenty of saloons, light industries as well as lumber and coal yards.
Henry David Thoreau lived nearby as tutor to the nephews of his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He characterized the "grand and generous scale" of the environs, the "great shad nets spread to dry", and "the ships afar off going about their business". he wrote to Emerson of the magnificent panoramas of Brooklyn and New York visible from the house of Mrs. Grimes (sic) atop the hill, where he was a frequent visitor. And ironically for the man who advocated return to nature, he complained about the local vegetation. The wild onions and garlic that was--and is--so bountiful here was irresistible to local cows, causing dairy product to reek.
In the 1860's the Germans came to town, and one look told them this was a place to establish roots. Fresh springs abounded (there actually is a canal in Canal Street, tracing its way from Broad, snaking about beneath Tappen Park, and draining into the Narrows). Fresh water is a fundamental ingredient of beer, a fact the German brewmasters knew well. They also knew that caves could be dug into the hillsides to keep the brew properly cooled.
The Bechtel brewery was the first to get started, halfway up Grymes Hill, above Van Duzer Street. The Rubsam & Horrmann Atlantic Brewery became the largest of Stapleton's breweries, situated directly across from the Village Square (then known as Washington Square). Other Stapleton brands included Meuller's, Bischoff's, Schumacher's, Grieme's, Menken's, Bahr & Krasman's, among others. All were within a quarter-mile's radius of Washington Square. Bechtel and Rubsam & Horrmann both took top national honors at the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia in 1876, as did Bachmann's, situated about a half mile away on the present site of the Rosebank A&P.
In time, a number of other bottlers would set up in Stapleton. The Standard Bottling Works distributed the local brew to certain regions. Henry Carsten bottled and distributed the Rubsam & Horrmann product. On Prospect Street Louis Birkle bottled soft drinks, as did Jacob Adamo a few doors away. The Old Homestead Dairy distributed milk and cream, apparently from the Canal Street building now occupied by the Store of a Million Items. Next door was another dairy, Meadow Brook. A Borden's dairy once occupied the corner of Broad and Van Duzer Street, across the street from a winery. Whiskey, bottled from bulk, was sold from another Canal Street storefront facing the Park. And on Roff Street the Imperial Beverage Company bottled seltzer, soft drinks called Champ and Wise-Up, and a citrus-flavored, carbonated laxative called Yankee-Lax. From the 1860's onward, local products ensured that no Stapletonite need go dry.
Stapleton bustled into the commercial and residential capital of Staten Island during the 1870's and 80's. The industrious brewers and merchants erected their fine homes along St. Paul's Avenue (believed formerly to have been called Mud Lane) and many other streets of the "Heights". Portions of Bay Street with a waterfront view also attracted the well-to-do. From Greek Revival to Gothic to Italianate, French Second Empire to Queen Anne, every major residential style of the Victorian era was erected. The splendid houses were frequently built to harmonize with their natural surroundings, often turning their backs to their streets in order to present their finest facades to the harbor and the packed, steaming cities beyond.
The Village Square area became a banking center too. Staten Island Savings Bank moved to the former Village Hall built in 1874, after the current Village Hall in the Park was opened in 1889 (the Second Empire structure was replaced by the present bank building in the mid 1920's). Facing the Park from Bay Street was the Stapleton National Bank; the building survives as the Chembank. And a block North on Bay, the Richmond bank occupied the present site of Citibank. Agust Horrmann of the R&H Atlantic Brewery became President of the Staten Island Savings Bank in 1898, after serving many years as Vice-President.
By 1889, Stapleton was at its self-sufficient peak. The Vanderbilt School (later P.S. 14) stood a block away from the Square, on the corner of Broad and Brook (now Wright) Street. Stapleton's fire department was situated across from the Square on Canal Street (present site of Caro beverage distributors) while the Village fire bell stood in its tower adjacent to the Square. In the Square, the Village police department inhabited the Village Hall. The Stapleton Library was still a few years in the future, but the town bristled with theaters, hotels and saloons, mercantile shops of every description, printers and publishers, pharmacies, funeral parlors, ice cream parlors, and the light industrial activities interspersed with marinas and the Staten Island Yacht Club along the waterfront. Down Bay Street, near Vanderbilt Avenue, stood the Marine Hospital, as old as Stapleton itself, while on Tompkins Avenue was the Mariner's Family Home. St. Paul's Episcopal Church stood on St. Paul's Avenue about three blocks from Trinity Lutheran. Half a block up Cebra Avenue was the Kingsley Methodist, while back in the Village was First Presbyterian, and on Tompkins Avenue stood what is today believed to be the oldest free black church.
You could be born, educated, entertained, employed, fed, housed, provisioned, intoxicated, cared for in old age, embalmed and packed off to an even greater heaven, all without leaving Stapleton. Not bad for a town one mile in length and barely that in breadth.
Another event of 1898 was the consolidation of "Greater New York". Like the city of Brooklyn, Staten Island became a borough of the metropolis. But unlike Brooklyn, Staten Island was not a city. It was a county composed of a few villages and a lot of farms and wilderness. Neither trees nor cows can vote, and the Island's sparse population put it at a disadvantage in the legislative bodies and political activities of New York City.
The City did provide some tangible benefits for Stapleton. For example, in 1908 a municipal ferry service was opened. Two sidewheelers of the 1880's, renamed Stapleton and Castleton, ran between Whitehall ("South Ferry") and Canal Street, Stapleton. Much as the direct transportation link could have contributed to Stapleton's growth, the service was discontinued after five years. In its place, by 1920, was a better idea--or so thought Mayor Hylan--in the form of a massive international marine terminal.
The natural cove of which the Stapleton waterfront is a part was termed "The Watering Place" by the earliest Dutch navigators, and it was their preferred anchorage in Nieu Amsterdam. Staten Island was largely ignored for the next two centuries, until the opening of the Erie Canal. Within a few years, the Port of New York leapt from third or fourth place to the premier seaport in America, and downtown Manhattan became the cargo transfer point between inland and deepwater vessels. Competition for commercial space drove Manhattan's residential districts ever further uptown, until it became sensible to consider moving "downtown" to Staten Island. Cornelius Vanderbilt got his start operating a ferry between Manhattan and Staten Island, and introduced steamboats to the run. They docked at Vanderbilt's Landing at the foot of Canal Street, almost exactly where the short-lived Municipal ferry did years later. It was the Erie Canal that created the demand for Stapleton, and its scenic waterfront drew them in.
But the new marine terminal of the 1920's--"Hylan's Folly" as it was called by its numerous detractors--closed off the waterfront with its barricade of 17 ship piers, each with an enclosure several stories high. As part of the piers project, the City also constructed a 50-acre landfill to accommodate railroad trains and trucks servicing the docks, pushing the waterfront further from its waterfront town. But from the 1920's until the time the pier enclosures were cut away, the perception on the water was gone from the Village Streets, barred from the Heights above.
Hylan's Folly had been the first domino in Stapleton's downfall. One of the most devastating was the demolition, in the mid 1970's, of the old Rubsam & Horrmann brewing complex in the heart of town. The only one of Stapleton's breweries to survive Prohibition, the complex was acquired by Piels, which subsequently closed it because of antiquated equipment. The structures remained sound, however--so much so that the wrecker's ball could not knock them down and other means had to be employed. The buildings lent themselves to many forms of adaptive reuse, especially in a time of housing shortages, but proposals for their reuse were ignored. It is said that many old-time Stapletonites wept openly when the landmark clocktower finally crashed down.
One by one, Stapleton's most memorable places had been disappearing. The opulent German Club Rooms on Van Duzer and Prospect Streets was struck by lightning in the 1930's, the 1874 structure burning to the ground in a spectacular conflagration; the site is now a vacant lot. The picturesque P.S. 14 was demolished, and across from it the Richmond Theater (now a nursing home) disappeared. The Horrmann Castle--on its hilltop, an excerpt from some Bavarian fantasyland--was demolished by speculators.
Economic patterns took their toll, too. As in the case in many communities, sprawling shopping malls drew traffic away from traditional shopping districts. Stapleton's "downtown" has took a nosedive. A revitalization began in the 80's with Antiques Row on Bay Street and a buzz about the community. Unfortunately, that positive growth was interrupted when the U.S. Navy built the Homeport on the waterfront only to attract bar business. Rents soared and Antiques Row disappeared. The Homeport is now closed and New York City is trying to find tenants for the waterfront site. The Stapleton community is encouraging the City to allow public access its waterfront and positive development.
Despite hard times, the landscape is as dramatic as ever. A closeness with nature is ever present, as hilltop trees mingle with clouds or as possums and raccoons scamper along even the "downtown" streets. Large tract of woodland on Grymes (Serpentine Art & Nature Commons) and Ward Hills announce the change of seasons. Through its vegetation alone, the face of Stapleton bears an ever-changing, dynamic expression. During the warm seasons, many street become enshrouded with the leaves of their ancient trees, lending an introspective character to those streets--and perhaps to the pedestrian passing along them. When the branches bare for winter, the panoramas emerge behind them and vision is hurled for miles--to Bay Ridge, Manhattan, and beyond the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Thoreau's "Grand and generous scale" endures, and the sense of spaciousness makes the beholder feel enlarged.
Stapleton's potential is yet to be realized in this generation. The newcomer is smitten by the antiquity that shrouds the unique topography of the area. It's a community with a village currently in need of investors with visions. There is truly a wealth of potential! Although sections look depressed in the downtown area, you see the bustling byproducts of nearby thriving businesses. There is a good sense of community in Stapleton; its residents believe a rebirth of the community is at hand.
What does Stapleton have to offer?
It's very close to Manhattan (a 20 min. walk to the S.I. Ferry to Manhattan),
wonderful views of the New York City and its' Harbor
convenient to various means of public transportation
a public library
private and public schools
eclectic shops (antiques and otherwise)
large artists' community (inexpensive studio space!)
a friendly community
full of history
topographically interesting (hilly!)
beautiful Victorian homes, many on interesting hillside homesites
resonably priced real estate
lots of turn-of-the-century character
close to 4 parks
a diverse population (both economically and culturally)
it's a blend of country and urban
10-minute car ride to Verrazano Narrows Bridge