Places that Matter
Alice Austen House
Place Matters Profile
Across the street from an unexceptional high-rise, a smooth green lawn slopes down to the water, and on the lawn sits a little white house with gingerbread decoration and a long Dutch roof. Clear Comfort - it’s as charming as its name, and it belonged to Alice Austen, a photographic pioneer of the Victorian era. Originally a simple 18th-century farmhouse, it was bought by John Austen, Alice’s grandfather, in 1844; he set about transforming it into a pastoral cottage, with elaborate Carpenter Gothic detail and glorious gardens. Alice moved there with her family as a little girl and spent most of her life there until, facing financial problems and illness, she was forced to move out in 1945. After two decades of disintegration, the house was saved and restored, as a museum of Alice Austen’s life and work.
By the time she was 10, her Uncle Oswald had taught her how to use a camera and from then on she used it to document her busy social life with family and friends–at picnics and tennis parties, swimming, sailing and bicycling. Some of these photographs hang on the walls of Clear Comfort today, creating an evocative portrait of the upper middle-class at leisure. But there was more to her work than that. She was observant, industrious, bold. For more than ten years, Austen photographed immigrants and doctors at three Quarantine Stations for Ellis Island that were situated near her home. She took pictures of Manhattan and its people–street sweepers and rag pickers, policemen and commuters, tickertape parades, Central Park. And always she delighted in photographing the spectacular, bustling, ever-changing harbor at the end of her front lawn. About 3,500 of Austen’s photographs still survive and are housed at Clear Comfort.
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