In 1916, a young woman with dreams of making it big on Broadway lit off from her home in Cincinnati, leaving her young children with their grandparents, and arrived in New York City. She never found success as an actress. Instead, she opened an antiques gallery on Madison Avenue in Manhattan and developed a keen fondness for — rather, obsession with — Tibetan art and took up residence on Lighthouse Hill, a leafy enclave of Staten Island.
While Jacques Marchais never set foot in Asia, she accrued what remains one of the largest collections of Tibetan art outside Tibet. It’s all housed in the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art, which she opened in 1947, next to her home. It took her nine years to build, during which time she collected stones in her pickup truck that were used in the construction of the museum and terraced garden.
“It’s a wonder there were any stones left on Staten Island after she was done,” the museum’s executive director, Jeff Gaal, told me, pointing out the flat roof, trapezoidal-trimmed windows and doors with crosscut wood posts, a few of the elements in the style of a Tibetan monastery in the United States. She instructed that the place stay a museum after her death and left it to a public trust. It remains so groundbreaking in its significance that the Dalai Lama visited it in 1991. One of the Buddha statues is draped with his scarf.
One day last spring, I sat for a while in the garden outside. It was easy to understand why Marchais found it a refuge from Manhattan.
Staten Island, which sits 5.2 miles south of New York City’s Financial District and measures 58.5 square miles, has been called many things: the greenest borough, the Forgotten Borough, Staten Italy, the Rock, the city’s dump. (It was the site of a noxious 2,000-plus-acre landfill, one of the world’s largest, for more than 50 years. A project to turn it into green space is underway, with some sections now open to the public.) In recent years, its reputation, shall we say, lacked sophistication. The borough rose to national prominence thanks to “Mob Wives,” the VH1 series that portrayed the lives of local women over the course of six seasons whose respective husbands have run up against the law. Arguably today’s most famous Staten Islander is SNL prodigy and boyfriend to the stars Pete Davidson, who wrote and starred in Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island” in 2020.
Despite Davidson’s greatest efforts, tourists still give more attention to glamorous Manhattan, ultrahip Brooklyn and Queens, an international dining hub. Yet to write it off is to do yourself a great disservice, one I, like many fellow New Yorkers, have been guilty of for many years. With the exception of a few trips over the years to see friends, visit one of New York City’s most impressive community gardens and attend a concert at the circa-1929 St. George Theatre, my relationship with the borough has been one of a passing acquaintance, which is to say crossing the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, cruising eight miles of the Staten Island Expressway, then over the Goethals Bridge to New Jersey, en route to my brother’s house in the Garden State.
But over the past few months, I’ve made a few trips to the borough to see things I sheepishly and shamefully never knew there were to see. And learning what makes the island so unique has brought my understanding of New York City — and it’s no exaggeration to say other parts of the world, too — into clearer focus.
Case in point: Tibet. And also, Sri Lanka. A community of Sri Lankans from the South Asian island nation has grown here over the past few decades. Lakruwana, which opened its first location in Manhattan in the 1990s and its second here in 2000, is a bedrock of the community. It’s run by Jayantha Wijesinghe and her husband, Lakruwana, who met on the Staten Island Ferry. He oversees the place and decorated it with art, furniture and Buddhist sculptures he shipped over from Sri Lanka. She’s the chef, and her visually arresting dishes emphasize traditional flavor — curries and sambals. Their daughter, Julia, created a Sri Lankan museum, the first outside the country, in the restaurant’s basement in 2017. She was 18. The same year she moved it to a bigger space down the street.
What was fast becoming an Asian-arts-oriented expedition continued a few days later when I returned to visit Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, an 83-acre campus that encompasses three museums, 14 botanical gardens, two art galleries and a two-acre urban farm where produce is grown for some of New York City’s most famous restaurants. Among the sites is the New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden, an otherworldly space. “Authentic” is a word I tend to use sparingly, because it often sounds a bit bombastic, but in this case, it’s the best term to objectively explain the tranquil space, a re-creation of Ming Dynasty Chinese gardens. Sounding like the stuff of fairy tales, the buildings were fabricated in China by 40 artisans, then shipped to New York City and assembled here in the late 1990s in accordance with old-world methods. That’s to say: no nails, screws or glue, just pegs securing the latticework.
On a winter afternoon right after New Year’s Day, the waterfall was a pillar of ice and the pond a glistening frozen block. A hawk whizzed by above. Come spring, the space will be overrun with jasmine, wisteria and blossoming plum trees. Koi will glide through the pond. Indeed, Manhattan has the hushed Cloisters, the quiet parts of Central Park and Riverside Park, and, of course, the cathedral-like New York Public Library. Brooklyn has the lively Prospect Park and the dazzling Brooklyn Botanic Garden. But when it comes to urban sanctuaries, the Scholar’s Garden, like Jacques Marchais’ garden, is wholly transportive. Here it’s easy to forget you’re in a city at all, let alone the most densely populated major city in the country.
But Snug Harbor is not why people call Staten Island “the greenest borough.” You can chalk that up to the Greenbelt, a 2,800-acre expanse of parks, trails and open spaces that cuts diagonally across the center of the island. (For scale, Central Park is 843 acres.) The park on top of the aforementioned dump nearly doubles the island’s green space. Red foxes, groundhogs, beavers, deer, wild turkeys and great blue herons are just a sampling of the wildlife that roam the woods and wetlands.
“Islanders were always interested in preserving nature and the environment. Today there are efforts to preserve Greenbelt,” said Pat Salmon, an historian, author and retired curator of the Staten Island Museum. She moved to the island with her family from Brooklyn as a child in 1962, two years before the completion of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, a 4,260-foot crossing that connects a northeastern point of the island with Bay Ridge, a residential coastal enclave in southwest Brooklyn. It marked a turning point in the island’s development. Until then, it was mostly farmland owned by first- and second-generation Italian and Greek families, she recalled. There was just a scattering of houses, she told me. Once the bridge opened, development started.
For centuries before that, however, going back to the Lenape Indians who lived here when the Dutch arrived, life and commerce revolved around the farmland. And the sea. A visit to the museum at Historic Richmond Town, a collection of 40 structures (including outhouses) on the site of a 17th-century village, offers insight on that, with its display of old local oyster shells, some as large as adult shoes.
But it’s the Noble Maritime Collection, one of the museums in Snug Harbor, that drove home just how connected the island is to the wider maritime world. The Greek Revival building was a dormitory for retired sailors who lived out their last years here when the parcel was called Sailors’ Snug Harbor. The building was gloriously restored by volunteers after falling into disrepair, but it was once a thriving community. Between 1833 and 1976, more than 10,000 seamen were cared for here. Now it’s a museum dedicated to maritime art, particularly the work of John A. Noble. Artifacts on display — tobacco, model ships made by the sailors, letters, photos — portray life when the building was a home to many.
“It was the first charitable institution of its kind and the model for modern retirement homes,” said Ciro Galeno, the executive director. “It was all-encompassing care, and activities offered the men a sense of the culture they knew at sea, but on land.” There was even a music hall. Just one difference: No drinking.
A visit to the National Lighthouse Museum, located in a former Coast Guard station a few minutes from the ferry terminal, gave me a clearer understanding of the island’s critical role in the evolution of the nation’s lighthouse network. But nothing brings the borough’s reliance on maritime culture into starker relief than the Staten Island Ferry, which runs free 24/7, 365 days a year. I have an unapologetic obsession with ferries, which I indulged last fall on an island-hopping jaunt through Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. The 25-minute crossing from Lower Manhattan to the St. George Ferry Terminal is a bit less romantic and dramatic than a trip that passes small islands marked by castles and manors, but it’s certainly more scenic and less stressful than driving. The trip provides orchestra-seat views of Lady Liberty, thus it’s pretty certain you’ll find foreign tourists on the deck filming the scenery as locals look on, eager to get home from work. One person’s commute is another’s joyride.
In June 1959, National Geographic magazine published “Staten Island Ferry, New York’s Seagoing Bus,” an article that sets the scene: “Traffic swarms about her flanks: tankers and warships, scavenger scows and sleek yachts; muscular tugs nudging bargeloads of coal, scrap iron, and freight cars, sightseeing boats circling Manhattan or heading for the Statue of Liberty.” Not much has changed, except now the barges carry fuel. And you can spot city-block-long container ships en route to the port in Newark. The article says the ferries carried 24 million passengers the prior year. According to a spokesman at the state’s Department of Transportation, which runs the ferries, pre-pandemic, 25.2 million people rode the ferry annually. On a typical weekday, five boats would make 117 trips, carrying approximately 75,000 passengers.
The day I spoke to Pat, we met at Flagship Brewing Company. The first of several of the island’s contemporary brewpubs, it has created several collaborations, such as Irish Coffee Stout, made with beans from nearby Unique Coffee Roasters. It was a fitting setting for the author of “Staten Island’s Brewery Barons.” She explained how the concentration of German immigrants and the local spring water was the foundation of a once-thriving beer industry, when giant breweries cranked out massive amounts of lagers, pilsners and other styles. She recommended I go to Killmeyer’s, a Bavarian tavern that has been a gathering space since the mid-1880s.
On a chilly Thursday night in January, I took a nearly hour-long bus ride from the ferry terminal to the south end of the island. It was worth every minute. Warming up with beef goulash and a lager served in a hefty mug at the century-plus-old mahogany bar, I was transported decades — and great distances — from the modern rush and glamour of the more famous island just across the water.
If You Go
Where to eat
668 Bay St.
Traditional Sri Lankan dishes such as roti, hathmaluwa, and saffron-accented biriyani take center stage at this husband-and-wife-owned local fixture. Open Tuesday to Friday, noon to 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 12.30 p.m. to 9.30 p.m. Closed Monday. Entrees from $14.95. The popular weekend buffet is offered all day Saturday and Sunday for $15.95.
Killmeyer’s Old Bavaria Inn
4254 Arthur Kill Rd.
Set in a building that some say dates back to the early 1700s, this Bavarian tavern has been a gathering space since the mid-1880s. The grand mahogany bar, made in the Bowery, is marked with the date 1890, the year it was installed. The menu features traditional German fare, such as schnitzel, wursts and goulash. Entrees from $8. An extensive selection of German beers is on offer. The beer garden, which features a tap system of its own, opens in spring. Open Tuesday to Thursday, noon to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until midnight and Sunday until 10 p.m. Closed Monday.
What to do
New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden
1000 Richmond Terr.
Based on the gardens built during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), this attraction in the Snug Harbor Cultural Center is a series of eight pavilions featuring ponds, a forest path, waterfalls, rock formations and bridges. The buildings were constructed in China and reassembled by a team of artisans on Staten Island using traditional construction techniques. Opens for season March 19. Purchase timed-entry tickets online. Admission $5 adults; $4 for seniors 65 and up and for students. Active military and children 5 and under, free.
Jacques Marchais Tibetan Museum
338 Lighthouse Ave.
Founded by an enterprising young woman in 1947, the namesake museum includes Buddha sculptures, ritual objects, furniture, scroll paintings and musical instruments. Items also come from Nepal, Northern China and Mongolia, as well as Southeast Asia. Marchais designed the building to look like a Himalayan monastery, complete with a tranquil garden. Tibetan Buddhist monks visiting New York City, including the Dalai Lama, have been known to stop by. Open March 5 through Dec. 22, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday. Admission $6 adults; $4 children under 18, students and seniors.
Historic Richmond Town
441 Clarke Ave.
A preserved 17th-century village features 40 historic buildings, including a tavern, a printmaker’s shop and a courthouse. A museum chronicles life on the island from the time of Indigenous communities to Dutch settlers and Colonial-era societies. A total of 60,000 artifacts are on display throughout the buildings. Museum open Friday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; guided tours of the site offered Friday to Sunday hourly, noon to 3 p.m. General admission $10 for ages 3 and up; free for 2 and under. Admission with guided tour $13; free for children under 3.
The Noble Maritime Collection
1000 Richmond Terr., Building D
Located on the Snug Harbor campus in a magnificently restored former dormitory for retired sailors, the museum houses a collection of maritime art and artifacts, including paintings and model ships. One of the permanent exhibits spotlights the work of John A. Noble, a painter born in 1913 who is known for chronicling the waning days of the Age of Sail, and features his Houseboat Studio. Open Thursday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Admission by donation.
National Lighthouse Museum
200 the Promenade at Lighthouse Point
Set in a former Coast Guard station, this museum chronicles the history of Staten Island’s role in the evolution of the network of lighthouses in the United States and the role of the structures and their keepers throughout history. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Adults $7, seniors 65 and up and military $5, students 12 and up $4; free for children under 12.
Sri Lankan Art & Cultural Museum
61 Canal St.
Julia Wijesinghe hatched the idea to open a Sri Lankan museum when she was a teenager. Now 23, Wijesinghe opened the only Sri Lankan museum outside of Sri Lanka in the basement of Lakruwana, her parents’ restaurant, in 2017 before moving to a bigger space a few months later. It now houses a collection of more than 500 objects that includes masks, ceremonial objects, drums and other musical instruments, and statues of Buddha and Hindu deities, all of which she selected over several trips to the island nation. Open Sunday by appointment only. Book through the website or Facebook page. Admission $8, students free.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.