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Staten Island’s Historic Richmond Town is experimenting with an unconventional way of preserving an 18th-century farmhouse: inviting local artists to paint contemporary murals across the structure. The paintings completed last month are in tinted primer, so they are temporary and part of the necessary repainting for the old structure. However, with one depicting a 19th-century blue dress from Richmond Town’s collections and the other an Americana tribute with a star-spangled theme, the paintings are not the visuals you’d ordinarily see on the side of a 250-year-old house.
The project is called “Art This House” and is a collaboration with New York City’s Historic House Trust. The Boehm House, as the farmhouse is known, dates to 1750. Centuries after its construction, it needs a fresh coat of paint every few years to assure its wood is watertight. It’s also right on Arthur Kill Road, where soot and grime from passing cars builds up on the house’s exterior. Through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and paint donated by Benjamin Moore, the repainting was completely funded.
Ed Wiseman, executive director of Historic Richmond Town, told Hyperallergic that the project answered the question of “how we can do something differently, so the public will participate and get a sense of the lengths that you need to take to get funding to preserve the house, and at the same time make a statement of our mission of celebrating centuries of everyday American life.”
Historic Richmond Town in Mid-Island has no major historic figures attached, no battles fought on its grounds, or pivotal events. Instead it’s a place that endured as a community for hundreds of years, with around 30 surviving structures across 100 acres dating from the 17th to 20th centuries. The mural artists were asked to interpret the “American experience.” Mark Salinas of 7Train Murals created the towering dress on one side of the building, while Joseph Barral contributed a scene of silhouetted figures painting the American flag on the other.
Located nearly at the center of Staten Island, Historic Richmond Town is off-the-beaten-path for most New Yorkers, and for locals who drive by everyday, it can be overlooked.
“The idea is to remind people that these things can go away if we don’t take care of them, they can disappear,” Wiseman said. “We’ve gone through 9/11, we’ve gone through Sandy here, we’ve gone through some crazy stuff. What’s amazing about Historic Richmond Town, is the houses here have been through centuries. They will still be here for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but not without us paying attention to them.”
Other New York City historic homes have recently engaged more with contemporary art, like Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights that this year hosted Yinka Shonibare MBE’s headless mannequins, or Weeksville in Crown Heights that was recently a stage for theater and dance as part of Beat Festival. Yet most of these interventions are non-invasive, and the Richmond Town murals directly on the building ask viewers to reevaluate the farmhouse as more than a time capsule.
“Attendance at historic sites across the county is just down,” Wiseman said. “There are lines you don’t want to cross and artifacts to care for, but I do believe you have to find creative and innovative ways to capture the hearts of the audience.”
At the end of September or early October, the Boehm House murals will be painted over to the original white. However, for people who saw them during their brief installation, the murals will be a contemporary memory in the long history of the structure.
The Art This House murals are on view through late September or early October at Historic Richmond Town (441 Clarke Avenue, Mid-Island, Staten Island).