History of the Roebling-Stirn Mansion
79 Howard Avenue, Grymes Hill, Staten Island
The early 19th century was a time when well-heeled socialites flocked to Grymes Hill, an area of New York City with breathtaking views of the Verrazzano Bridge and New York Harbor. One of the many exquisite Grymes Hill mansions was built atop the hill in 1908 as the country estate of Louis A. and Laura Stirn. The Stirn Mansion at 79 Howard Avenue was and still remains a true architectural gem, with an Italianate-style, neo-Renaissance exterior, and an arts & crafts style interior. Also, important to note is that the Stirn Mansion is one of the rare surviving examples of early 20th-century country house designs on Staten Island, and is one of the few houses of its size and type within New York City.*
Louis Stirn was born in 1853 to a prominent Lutheran clergyman. At age 14, he left Germany for New York, where he found work in the silk industry. Stirn became a partner in a firm that acted as a commission merchant for a German manufacturer of velvets and woolens, and he established his own firm in 1894. The firm was an import house dealing in ribbons, silks, velvets and chiffons, distributing to leading retailers like Marshall Field and Co.
Stirn moved to Staten Island in 1882, marrying Laura Natalie Methfessel six years later. Laura was the daughter of Professor Anton Gotlieb Methfessel and Laura A. Roebling Methfessel. The professor was considered one of the most prominent educators on the Island and founded the Methfessel School in 1862. The boys boarding and day school would go on to become The Staten Island Academy and Latin School, which to this day is still the Island’s most prestigious private primary and secondary school.
Professor Methfessel’s wife, Laura A. Roebling Methfessel, was the daughter of John Augustus Roebling, the famed bridge builder and manufacturer of wire cable, who planned and oversaw the early construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Tragically, John Roebling’s foot was crushed in the pilings of a Brooklyn pier when a barge came in to dock. As a result, John contracted tetanus and died less than a month later. His son, Washington, succeeded him as chief engineer, only to later become incapacitated by “the bends,” a kind of decompression sickness caused by changing air pressure, not uncommon on bridge-building sites. Though “the bends” left Washington partially paralyzed and very ill, he continued “working” on the construction of the Bridge via his wife Emily.
Emily was not an engineer, but she would visit the work site nearly every day, relaying detailed drawings and orders from her husband. Keep in mind, Emily was dealing with mostly construction men of over a century ago. A time when men, construction or otherwise, were not accepting of women’s orders in the least! Were it not for Emily’s strong character and perseverance, her father-in-law’s vision, and husband’s designs would not have been executed.
It was thanks to these three individuals — John A. Roebling, Washington Roebling and Emily Warren Roebling — that the largest suspension bridge in the world, at the time it was built, was completed in 1883. In fact, Emily’s enormous role in this colossal task was recognized on March 28, 2018 in The New York Times “Overlooked” section, a series of obituaries dedicated to pioneer women whose accomplishments had been previously overlooked.
How fascinating that The Stirn Mansion has strong ties to one of the most prominent and renowned private schools on Staten Island, and strong ties to the first bridge to span the East River, spanning 3,461 feet and rising 133 feet above the river below. This was a significant milestone in the history of American engineering.
The Stirns took an active part in the community life of Staten Island. Louis Stirn was a member of the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce, the Staten Island Civic League, and the Richmond County Country Club. He was also active in several national trade organizations and was a member of the Manhattan Club. Laura Roebling-Methfessel-Stirn was a founder of the St. Cecilia Society of Staten Island (a women’s singing society) and was a member of the Staten Island Institute of Arts & Sciences, the Staten Island Bird Club, and the Garden Club of Staten Island, where she was known for her collection of rare plants. She was also active in several charitable organizations, including the Stapleton Day Nursery and the Staten Island Hospital, where she served as a member of the board of trustees.
The large house at 79 Howard Avenue provided accommodations for Louis and Laura Stirn, their five children, Laura Stirn’s widowed sister, Emily Wicchers, her son Manolo, two maids, and a cook. According to Laura Patrick, the Stirns’ granddaughter, “There was a great hall, living room, music room, conservatory, dining room, kitchen, pantry, and powder room on the first floor; six bedrooms, a sitting room, and two bathrooms on the second floor; and two large bedrooms, and three maid’s rooms, on the third floor.” *
The Stirns continued to occupy their “charming residence …known for its splendidly appointed gardens and beautiful view of the surrounding country and adjacent waters,”* until their deaths. Laura Stirn died in 1943, Louis Stirn in 1962. Following Louis Stirn’s death, the house was sold to Reuben Gross, a prominent attorney and leader in the Jewish community, and his wife, Blanche Gross.
In the 1990s, the Gross family leased the mansion to Wagner College President Norman Smith. For many years, President Smith was allowed to live in the palatial home and entertained frequently in grand style. After Dr. Smith’s relocation to England, the house and its grounds began to degenerate and fall apart, as the heirs of the Gross family’s estate were in litigation for 11 years.
In 2000, there was concern among neighbors and preservationists that the mansion was to be sold and demolished to make way for several new homes. Luckily, through the efforts of a group of concerned area residents, the Stirn Mansion was protected from demolition through a New York City Landmarks Preservation designation in January 2001.
However, at that point, the Gross estate had been subdivided into two lots (79 Howard Avenue and 77 Howard Avenue). The lot rear to the mansion was not part of the landmark designation, and permission was granted for three homes to be built at 77 Howard Avenue. If that had occurred, the spectacular view from the mansion would have been severely obstructed.
The fate of the Stirn Mansion and its surrounding grounds to become just another Staten Island site for numerous mega-mansions turned in December 2008. Gina and Luciano Rammairone purchased both the 79 Howard Avenue and 77 Howard Avenue lots, with the intention of converting the sprawling estate to an Italian Arts and Cultural Campus.
In 2009, “The Stirn Mansion” was renamed “Casa Belvedere” to reflect its breathtaking view (House with a Beautiful View). In 2010, the mansion portion of the estate, aka Casa Belvedere, was donated to the Italian Cultural Foundation, a newly formed not-for-profit arts and cultural organization. And so this historically significant, privately owned home began its transformational journey to a public institution.
Almost immediately upon acquiring its gifted headquarters, the foundation began offering a myriad of exceptional educational programs in the building: Language and cooking classes; art and photo exhibits; musical and theatrical performances; car shows and fashion shows; book signings, lectures, presentations and more. However, it was quite a challenge to run a cultural center in an over 100-year-old building that had fallen into major disrepair and was in desperate need of rehabilitation.
That said, an integral part of the foundation’s mission quickly became to preserve and restore Casa Belvedere. This multi-million-dollar, multi-phased restoration project continues today. If you stop out front to gaze at this beautiful survivor of a by-gone era, or if you sit on the back terrace mesmerized by the spectacular view, you understand why this incredible home and its history is worth saving.
*This information was taken, in part, from the Landmarks Preservation Commission Designation report dated January 30, 2001.
Partners In Preservation
In 2019, Casa Belvedere competed in a national “Partners in Preservation” online voting contest, sponsored by The National Trust for Historic Preservation, American Express and National Geographic Magazine. Out of over 300 historic sites nationwide connected to “Women In History,” Casa Belvedere came in 7th place with over 70,000 votes.
“Built-in 1908, this former private home-turned-public arts and cultural center has strong connections to notable “women of steel” — Suzette Claiborne Grymes, Emily Warren Roebling, and Laura Roebling Stirn — whose contributions helped shape Staten Island, the Brooklyn Bridge, and ultimately, the United States. The Roebling-Stirn Mansion, known today as Casa Belvedere, serves as a significant architectural and cultural pillar, as well as a destination venue for locals and tourists alike. Grant funding will restore upper levels that sustained severe water damage from Hurricane Sandy, with the ultimate goal to transform them into new gallery space.”
History of Grymes Hill
Grymes Hill is named after Suzette Grymes, widow of the first governor of Louisiana, William Charles Cole Claiborne, who settled on Staten Island in 1836 (she had remarried a prominent New Orleans lawyer, John R. Grymes, after Governor Claiborne died in 1817).
The area was originally named Signal Hill after a British signal station. Deeds of 1836 and thereabout show that the hill was known as Castleton Heights. Grymes Hill was part of a land grant in 1687 to Thomas Dongan, who served as Governor of the Province of New York. Between 1830 and 1833, a local developer, Major George Howard, purchased 42 acres, which included all land between Eddy and Louis streets. Major Howard built many of the hill’s earliest homes, and his name survives in Howard Avenue, the hill’s main street; a portion of this street was known for a time as Serpentine Road due to the hill’s bedrock consisting of serpentinite. The neighborhood has many fine homes dating from the 1920s that overlook New York Harbor.
Former prominent residents
Governor Thomas Dongan (1634-1715) in 1687 was granted a 5,100-acre manor, of which Grymes Hill was a portion.
Oroondates Mauran, a merchant of New York who in subsequent years became owner of the first Italian Opera House, purchased his Grymes Hill home in 1831. In winter he lived in Manhattan, and in the summer on Staten Island. Furthermore, together with Cornelius Vanderbilt, he owned the Staten Island Ferry. He was also one of the oldest members of Union Club of the City of New York.
John Randolph Grymes, a noted New Orleans lawyer, whose wife was Madame Suzette Grymes, bought land at Howard Avenue and Grymes Hill Road in 1836.
Capt. Jacob Vanderbilt, brother of Cornelius Vanderbilt, built a mansion on Grymes Hill.
John Nesmith was an American politician who served as the 25th Lieutenant Governor for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1862. Between 1836 and 1865, the Nesmith family purchased a large tract from 24 separate property owners.
Sir Edward Cunard of the shipping and passenger line family built his mansion circa 1851. The 38-acre Grymes Hill family estate was named “Bellevue” and was built in the Italianate style. Cunard chose the land for its ocean view.
Albert Brisbane, an American utopian socialist, popularized the theories of Charles Fourier. He was one of two sons born to James Brisbane, a wealthy landowner. His house was erected in 1854.
Civil War general William Greene Ward also built a mansion in 1865.
John J. Cisco, a merchant in the dry goods business in New York, retired at age 36 with a fortune. About 11 years later in 1853, he was appointed by President Pierce, Assistant Treasurer of the United States, and placed in charge of the Sub-Treasury in New York. He purchase the house erected in 1855 by Ernest Cazet, under the superintendence of Frederick Law Olmsted, a noted landscape architect.
William Horrmann, owner of Stapleton’s Rubsam & Horrman Brewing Company, built Horrmann Castle at 189 Howard Avenue in 1910. The building was torn down in the 1960s.
Louis A. Stirn, a silk importer, built his home in 1908 at 77 Howard Avenue. In 2006, the Stirn mansion became a New York City Landmark and is now called Casa Belvedere.
John Gans, a steamship-company owner, built his family estate on the hill because it overlooked the New York Harbor where he operated his steamship company. St. John’s University’s Flynn Hall is the former home of John Gans.
Louis A. Dreyfus, a local maker of chewing gum, built his former estate on what it is today part of the 13-acre Notre Dame Academy, an all-girls Catholic elementary and high school.
Charles Wallace Hunt, an American mechanical engineer, inventor and business executive, was known as President of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He invented new methods in the storing and handling of coal. He purchased his residence on Grymes Hill in 1900.
William Butler Duncan, a New York banker, in 1858 purchased a 20-acre property from Madame Grymes.
Mamie Fish, New York Socialite and one of the so-called Triumvirate of American Gilded Age society.
Grymes Hill is best known currently for being the home of two institutions of higher learning: Wagner College, and the Staten Island campus of St. John’s University. The St. Johns campus of 16.5 acres was originally a small Catholic women’s institution, Notre Dame College, which closed in 1971 when St. Johns University took over the campus. Also on the hill is Notre Dame Academy, a Roman Catholic elementary and high school for girls. Adjacent to (and owned by) Wagner College is the site of a former Roman Catholic high school, named Augustinian Academy after the order of monks who ran it; the school closed in 1969. Near the foot of the hill, on Foote Avenue, is P.S. 35, the Clove Valley School. Also located on Grymes Hill is Casa Belvedere, a center for Italian arts and culture, located in the Louis A. and Laura Stirn House which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010, and designated a NYC Landmark in 2001.
Most homes in the neighborhood are private residences, many of which were constructed for Manhattan businessmen. Fred Trump constructed several hundred two- and three-bedroom residences in the late 1940s. These are 423 garden apartments along Howard Avenue and Arlo Road. Fred Trump’s son, Donald Trump, sold these apartments to an unrelated corporation in 2007. Grymes Hill Manor Estates was built in 1953 as rental garden apartments, and switched to co-op status in 1983. It has 152 apartments centering on Seth Court, with some on other streets. Two high-rise apartment buildings at the foot of Howard Avenue were converted to condominiums following a major fire in one. There are several apartment buildings on Victory Boulevard. Two new apartment buildings have been constructed facing the Staten Island Expressway. One was turned into condominiums in 2004. The other is being offered as senior citizen housing.
There are no public parks on Grymes Hill, other than Hero Park, a 2-acre park donated in 1920 by Dr. and Mrs. Louis A. Dreyfus. Grymes Hill includes two cemeteries, both located along Victory Boulevard. Woodland Cemetery dates back to the 19th century, and some headstones are in German, reflecting the population of the day. Silver Lake Cemetery also dates back to the 19th century, and was the original burial site for the Hebrew Free Burial Association.
Grymes Hill residents are within walking distance of the sprawling Silver Lake Park, which features a running path, golf course, and several public tennis courts. The neighborhood also borders Clove Lakes Park, with ponds, baseball fields, and a row-boating house among its amenities.
Neighborhoods around Grymes Hill include Ward Hill to the north, Silver Lake to the west, Sunnyside and Emerson Hill to the south; to the southeast is Concord, and Stapleton and Stapleton Heights to the east. The east side of the hill is defined by Van Duzer Street and Richmond Road to the intersection with the Staten Island Expressway, which, with Clove Road, defines the southern side. On the west is Victory Boulevard. Some claim Cebra Avenue for the northern border, while others believe the border is Louis Street.
Grymes Hill, which has views of Lower New York Bay and the Narrows, is the second highest point on Staten Island, reaching its greatest elevation of 310 feet above sea level at a point on the Wagner College property behind a parking lot and near the football field. Hero Park, 3 acres in size, is located at the intersection of Victory Boulevard and Louis Street, abutting the Notre Dame Academy property. The area’s hillsides and trees are protected by the Hillside Preservation Zoning District which took effect in 1987. The Serpentine Art and Nature Commons owns and maintains several trails on preservation land.
Starting in the mid-19th century, breweries dug caves into the hill to use in the production of beer. Some of these caves off of Van Duzer Street were later incorporated into a popular restaurant, which provided catering for the movie The Godfather during shooting on Staten Island. The restaurant has since closed, and the entire site was redeveloped with a townhouse complex.