overview

Pioneering female photographer Alice Austen grew up in her family’s home where she later lived with schoolteacher Gertrude Tate, her partner of 53 years.

Austen’s work includes early images of women embracing and dressed in male drag, which have since become iconic to the LGBT community.

Header Photo

Credit: Amanda Davis/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2016.

On the Map

 

Photo Above

Penny photograph of Alice Austen and Gertrude Tate taken at Pickard's Penny Photo Studio in Stapleton, Staten Island, c. 1905. Courtesy of the Alice Austen House.

History

This picturesque house, sited on the shore of The Narrows, dates back to c. 1700, with a series of later additions, including ornament that transformed it into a Gothic cottage in the mid-19th century after its purchase by businessman John Austen.

In 1867, his baby granddaughter Alice Austen (1866-1952) moved into the house and she remained here until 1945. Alice Austen is one of the first notable women photographers in America. She was introduced to photography as a child and had a darkroom installed in a second-floor closet. Her images, chronicling Staten Island, New York City, and other places, and particularly focusing on the life of her friends and social circle, are considered among the finest produced in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Austen met Gertrude Tate, a kindergarten teacher and professional dancing instructor from Brooklyn, during an excursion to the Catskills in 1899. They then began an intimate relationship that would last until Austen’s death 53 years later. Tate moved in to Clear Comfort in 1917 despite her mother and sister’s disapproval of her “wrong devotion” to Austen.

Austen often photographed her non-traditional friends, creating a unique group of provocative images of a social life that was out of the ordinary for its time. A number of her most intimate images challenge gender roles. Although it is not possible today to know the exact nature of the relationships in her photographs, several stand out for their transgressive character. “The Darned Club” shows two female couples with their arms around each other’s waists. In another photograph, Alice and two friends are dressed in men’s attire; Alice sports a cigarette in one hand, and her friend Julia Martin is seated with her umbrella protruding from between her legs in a particularly phallic manner.

“We look so funny with those mustaches on, I can hardly tell which is which. … We did it just for fun. … Maybe we were better looking men than women.”
Alice Austen, 1951

Austen lost her money in the 1929 stock market crash, but was able to hold onto the house through the earnings Tate made teaching dance classes. Tate also suggested they open a tea room on the property, following success they had in the 1920s running one at the Billiou-Stillwell-Perine House in an effort to help raise funds for its restoration. The tea room at Clear Comfort operated during the summer, but closed in 1940. After being evicted in 1945, the couple moved to a small apartment at 141 St. Mark’s Place in the nearby neighborhood of St. George. Tate looked after the ailing Austen until a fall left her unable to continue teaching dance lessons. Austen was then admitted to several nursing homes, eventually signing over her remaining money and possessions to Tate’s legal ownership.

Tate moved in with family in Jackson Heights, Queens, but they would not let Austen join her. Despite the distance, Tate visited Austen every week, even after she was admitted to the hospital ward of Staten Island Farm Colony, a local poorhouse. The discovery of 3,500 of Austen’s plate glass negatives in 1950 earned her enough money to move to a private nursing home, where she died in 1952. The couple’s wish to be buried next to each other was not granted by their families; Austen was laid to rest in her family’s plot at Moravian Cemetery on Staten Island and Tate was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.

In the 1950s and ’60s, a group of historic preservationists that included photographer Berenice Abbott and architect Philip Johnson fought to save the house from demolition. The property later became a house museum. In a 1994 demonstration, the Lesbian Avengers, an activist organization, marched around the grounds calling it a “National Historic Lesbian Landmark” and passed out pamphlets advocating that Austen and Tate’s same-sex relationship be acknowledged. This has come to fruition in recent years as the house museum staff and board has worked to incorporate the couple’s story by bringing in LGBT scholars and, beginning in 2016, participating in the LGBT Pride March. In 2017, the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project amended the home’s National Register of Historic Places nomination to include Austen and Tate’s relationship, with the museum’s support (see link below).

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