70 Satterlee St
Staten Island NY 10307

 (718) 887 - 9125


Tracing the Ownership

My understanding of ownership of The Biddle House was that it remained in the Biddle family until the death of his widow in 1904. It was then sold to George T. Brewster, a sculpture who lived there until his death in 1933. Although I have found no solid evidence of the story, I had been told that a silent movie entitled “The House of The Tolling Bell” was filmed partially at the Biddle house in 1920. Although I can verify that there was such a 1920 silent film and that it was based on a book about someone trying to live in an old abandon house such as the Biddle House, I cannot verify that The Biddle house was the house used in the movie. If the house was used in the movie it would have been during the ownership by George Brewster who was very involved in the arts at that time. Unfortunately I have not been able to locate any copies of the movie.

In the early 1940s my father bought the Biddle House from a lady named Mrs. Dilge. I don’t know if she bought the home from the Brewster family or if she was a distant relative. I remember hearing later from my father that the title to the house and property was not clear and that, in addition to making the purchase from Mrs. Dilge, he also felt it necessary to buy releases from several other persons, which he did.
Being two or three years old when the Biddle House was purchased I remember little of its condition other than the descriptions given by my father several years later. Mrs. Dilge had been living in the kitchen and adjourning room and did not stray beyond those rooms. Some of the other rooms were rented to several individuals on a short-term basis similar to a boarding house. My sister, who would have been about 12 at the time, remembers seeing the downstairs hallway lined with cans of kerosene and smelling the strong odor of each can. She also remembers that many of the rooms had small kerosene heaters in the fireplaces. I am not sure if there was any electricity, plumbing or heating system in the house but if there was, it was old and not being used. Both the outside well and outdoor privy were actively being used.

The outside of the house was in terrible disarray. No maintenance work had been done for decades. Shingles were missing, the roof leaked, the supports under the large pillars were eroding and the landscape was overgrown. I remember my father telling me that many of his friends in Tottenville thought he was crazy to have bought the old “haunted house” way down on Satterlee Street.

Having built and renovated houses before, my father was not overwhelmed but knew he had a large task ahead and that it would take a year or two before it was livable. He hired two local skilled men who worked on the house full time. One was named Joe Verib and the other, A. C. Anderson. Joe Verib was a very talented carpenter, electrician and generalist. I remember following him around always asking him “what are you doing”? He must have had great patience to have tolerated me. A. C. Anderson was a skilled painter and wallpaper hanger. He worked for my dad during the day and tended his popular bar in the evenings. His bar was located down the bottom of Bentley Street near the ferry and train station. He was also the Chaplin of the local American Legion unit. Both of these men had the same passion as my father to do the renovation while preserving the original charm of the great old home. At times other subcontractors were brought in to perform some specific tasks. All of the large boarders around the edges of the high ceilings were restored, the floors which were blackened and stained from kerosene, were returned to their original condition. The general internal structure of the house was strengthened and rotted sills were replaced. I also believe that, as part of the restoration, the two rooms on the lower north side were opened up to form the one large room which became our main living room. Shelving was constructed between the two beautiful fireplaces and served to bring the two rooms together. Originally the second floor had several smaller rooms. These rooms were reconfigured to become four larger bedrooms each having its own walk-in closet. Additional support beams were added to each room which accounts for the step-up in each of the walk-in closets.

Outside there was also much work to do. The larger of the two foundations was removed and a retaining wall was constructed running perpendicular to the house. I remember that they inserted into the wall several items that they had uncovered in the foundation of the old barn. It included the bottom of several old bottles and a few other knickknacks. I seem to remember a small brass figure of a salamander embedded somewhere in the wall. I wonder if it is still there today. A walled terrace was also built part way down to the bay. Even the stained glass privy was restored to its original “glory”. Stairs were installed down to the first terrace, then down to the next level and then another at the last level to the sand beach. All of the lower brush was cleared allowing a beautiful view of the bay. I remember that the cleared area from the first terrace down to the bank at beach eventually grew up with small sassafras trees. What a great scent they gave off when I walked through them. I tried a few time to make root beer from their roots but only got muddy water.
For my mom and dad it was like living two different lives. He would run the shop for many hours each day and spend all of his free time and weekends working at Satterlee Street. During many days my mom would be the book-keeper for the shop while spending time at the Biddle house with my father. Both my brother and sister were in school but I was still too young so I walked around and “supervised” while Joe Verib worked his magic. Eventually the house was ready for us to move in.

By 1945 we had moved into our “new” home. I’m not sure of the exact year but I had not started school yet. For almost the next fifty years our Petersen family enjoyed life in the Biddle house. It became known to those in Tottenville not as The Biddle house but as “The Petersen House”. To me it was just “My Home”.
Shortly after moving in my dad built a three car garage on the north side of the property and had the driveway paved with macadam. As a child I could sit on the large porch facing Satterlee Street and view the great yard. To the right side of the drive way was a large Celtis tree. Its bark had raised ridges which made it too difficult to climb. From one of the limbs hung a swing. I spent many hours on that swing. For many years we had a large garden on that side of the driveway beyond the swing. My parents, my siblings and I tended the garden but I don’t remember getting much produce out of it. I think we fed the large array of rabbits rather than ourselves. The only thing that seemed to grow well was the rhubarb which I hated to touch or eat. From the porch to the left of the driveway was a large mulberry tree. This tree was very climbable. When the mulberries ripened it was impossible not to step on berries and track them into the house. During that time we all had to wipe our feet well and leave our shoes at the door. The tree also was a big attraction for bees which never seemed to bother me. Further to the left from the porch vantage point was a barn. I think my father built it because it seemed relatively new. For a brief time my brother and sister both had horses. I think his was named “Poncho” and hers was “Babe”. Shortly after high school Jack went into the Navy and the horses were sold. There was also a chicken coop next to the barn but I never remember us having any chickens. It was always my play-house.

During the first few years of living in the house my father planted several trees in the yard. Three medium sized long needle pines were planted in the front yard along the north side bordering the houses that were there. He also planted a pear tree near the garage and a peach tree in the corner alongside the flag pole. On the first terrace he planted a cherry tree on the north side and a willow on the south side just below where the septic tank was. Over the years most of these trees grew significantly. The three pines became much larger and required cutbacks. The peach tree produced peaches for many years. The cherry tree became a big producer for many years. Friends and neighbors would seek and get permission to pick the cherries each year. The pear tree never grew much and would produce no more than two or three pears each year. Each of these fruit trees eventually were lost due to storms, the climate or old age. The willow tree continued to thrive for many years and may still be in existence today probably because of the septic tank factor.
Another addition soon after we moved in was the installation of some split rail fences across the front of the property and down a portion of the north side of the property. The remainder of the north side border was lined with a new chain-link fence. There was also a split rail fence running from the chicken coop to near the mulberry tree. I and my buddies spent many hours trying to “walk the tight rope” of the split rail fence. Soon most of us mastered the art, some never did.
When we moved in there were not many houses on Satterlee Street. There was woods across the street from us and all the way down to where the Hamilton family lived. When I was coming home on a dark evening the street-lighting was very poor and I would start running as I passed the Hamilton’s house and not stop until I reached my side porch of our house.

Once we moved in it took a while to become acquainted with the various characteristics of the house. At first I had the front bedroom on the north side. The one over the kitchen belonged to my brother, Jack. Soon after we moved in Jack went off into the Navy and I moved into the bedroom over the kitchen. To me that was the bedroom of choice. It even had a back stairway from the kitchen right up to my room so I could go up and down without having to use the main staircase. I could also swing on the door to the downstairs although I was forbidden to do so. But, there were several challenges for a young lad to overcome living in this old house. My bedroom had one of the 10 fireplaces in the house which were once active. Although my father blocked it off, it still generated a low whistle during each of the windy nights. Then there was the cast iron radiators that clicked on cold nights as they became heated by the steam coming up from the coal fed furnace. Also, almost every morning while it was still dark, we would be greeted by the loud toots of the tugs and ships as they signaled each other upon entering port and preparing for docking. And if that was not enough, my parents had a large grandfather clock which stood in the upstairs hall and chimed on the hour, half hour and quarter hour as well. All of these sounds were new to me and took a long while to get accustom to. As time went on each of the sounds unique to the house became part of its charm and not a distraction from my sleep or school studies. However, each time I had a buddy stay over for the evening he would talk about his lack of sleep because of these “sounds in the night”. For me, the sounds had disappeared.

Growing Up in the Biddle House Part III  Growing Up in the Biddle House Part I