Living in a 17th-Century Manor on Staten Island

Living in a 17th-Century Manor on Staten Island

“When they say they’ve sold the building, but stay as long as you like, get out — because you want to leave at your convenience, not theirs,” she said. Within days, a friend who knew of Ms. Woodbridge’s love of history called her up and asked, “Would you be interested in becoming a caretaker at the Conference House?”

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At the southernmost tip of New York State, on Raritan Bay, in Tottenville, Staten Island, Conference House is owned by the City of New York.

Credit
Robert Wright for The New York Times

Ms. Woodbridge went through several rounds of interviews before she and the association concluded the arrangement would be a good fit. During the last step of the process — touring the caretaker’s apartment — “I got three or four feet into the door and said, ‘I’ll take it,’” she recalled. “There were beautiful eight-foot ceilings with no popcorn on them, and I could paint the walls as I liked.”

Well, sort of. The colors have to be approved by the board as historically accurate, a requirement that Ms. Woodbridge did not find too onerous. She was, for example, able to select a butter yellow for her kitchen, where on a recent afternoon she was preparing soup with the last of the butternut squash from the 18th-century kitchen garden.

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The caretaker’s apartment was a 1740s addition to the back of the Conference House, originally used as a summer kitchen and servants’ quarters.

Credit
Robert Wright for The New York Times

Ms. Woodbridge is, it would seem, uncommonly suited to her role as the Conference House caretaker. An artist and professional pattern designer and seamstress, she moved to New York in the early 1980s from Toronto, after meeting her husband in the Revolutionary War re-enactment community.

In 2004, she lost both her husband and her job at a pattern company, where she had worked as a designer. The next few years were difficult.

Name: Deborah Woodbridge

Age: 62Rent: $0, in exchange for providing tours three days a week from April through November, assisting with events, gardening, and doing basic maintenance and cleaning of the Conference House interiors, among other tasks. Occupation: Ms. Woodbridge is an artist, working mostly in acrylic, gold leaf and gold pen, and does custom sewing projects. Periodically, she also works as a bed stylist for Hollander Home Fashions, a producer of pillows, comforters and linens.Can anyone become a caretaker for a historic house? No. Resident caretakers must have years of relevant skills and experience, be available at all times for house-related issues and display a passion for the property, as well as submitting to a thorough background check and interview process.The Historic House Trust: A nonprofit organization, it works in tandem with the Parks Department to maintain and preserve 23 historic house sites in the city. There are no open positions for caretakers at the present time. Security: Ms. Woodbridge has had two would-be intruders over the years, though they seemed more interested in breaking than entering, she said, and ran off as soon as the alarm sounded. The alarm system, however, took some getting used to. She set it off accidentally shortly after moving in, with steam from a shower, and was shocked when a barrage of police and fire trucks pulled up. That’s when she discovered that the alarm was hard-wired to the fire department. Her historical re-enactment and sewing skills: come in handy every September when the house hosts the 1776 Peace Conference celebration.The kitchen garden: is a replica of an 18th-century kitchen garden, with peppers, potatoes, beans, peas, lettuce and herbs. Visitors sometimes complain that the tomatoes she grows are anachronistic, but they had been introduced here by the end of the 18th century, she said.Living off the last stop of the Staten Island Railroad: While some might have been hesitant to move so far from Manhattan, Ms. Woodbridge has lived in Staten Island since moving to New York in the early 1980s. First she lived in South Beach, by the Verrazano Bridge, before acclimating to the more suburban environs of Eltingville, followed by the somewhat rural ones of Tottenville.

“When my husband passed away; I lost a lot of solvency,” she said. “I was not floundering, but I was not in an ideal place. When I moved in here, I found the house and the greater connection to the seasons that I have here to be very stabilizing.”

Her contract, which is renewed on an annual basis, stipulates that she give tours between early April and early December on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, from 1 to 4 p.m. She also gives them by appointment and occasionally by happenstance, if she has the time and inclination. She dusts and vacuums, repairs broken furniture, maintains the kitchen garden and donates what she once calculated to be in the high hundreds of hours each year beyond her duties.

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Ms. Woodbridge maintains the museum rooms year-round.

Credit
Robert Wright for The New York Times

She has, for example, worked with the board to organize a number of concerts, art shows and literary events at the house. Her sewing skills have also come in handy: In the museum’s upstairs bedrooms, she made new bedcovers, hangings and drapes, researching historically accurate fabrics before taking measurements, making the patterns and sewing them.

“Basically, this house comes first, then everything else,” Ms. Woodbridge said. “It’s not that they particularly say that, but you’re here and given a big responsibility.”

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The Conference House is open for tours on weekends from April through November.

Credit
Robert Wright for The New York Times

The two-bedroom apartment where Ms. Woodbridge lives was a 1740s addition on the back of the Conference House, originally used as a summer kitchen and servants’ quarters. She has a big kitchen and living room on the first floor and two bedrooms upstairs, under the eaves.

While her apartment is not part of the museum, she sometimes offers up her bathroom during events held at the house, since the property’s only public bathroom is in the visitor center, a few hundred yards away.

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The caretaker’s apartment has a big kitchen and living room on the first floor and two bedrooms upstairs.

Credit
Robert Wright for The New York Times

This may have led to a recent decision to remodel her bathroom. “Right now, there’s a table by Kohler in the living room and a toilet in a box,” she said. Even so, her apartment, a cheerful space with hardwood floors, remains cozy and welcoming, decorated with her paintings and homemade pillows.

Deer are the neighbors she sees the most of, though in winter other houses are visible beyond the park’s bare trees.

For her first two years as caretaker she lived alone, before being joined by her partner, Juan Rios, who built the trellises and raised beds in the kitchen garden.

Living alone didn’t bother her, she said, but she did have a few unsettling experiences. On one of her first nights there, she woke up to bright lights shining in her eyes and a rumbling that made the house tremble: It was an ocean tanker going by on Raritan Bay.

As for ghosts, every so often a medium comes through, asking if she can feel their presence in house. She replies that she doesn’t need to meet anyone.

“I don’t deny their existence,” she tells the mediums. “But I’m here on my plane, taking care of the house.”

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