There are 19 residential caretakers for New York City's historic homes, the preserved museums that show how past New Yorkers lived, like Edgar Allen Poe or an early-20th century family. These caretakers seemingly have it all, living in grand homes free of charge. Their presence (as well as acting as overnight security, gardeners, and history buffs) is their job, and their payment is their home.
Most of these caretakers live in the basement or the servant’s quarters, but not George Burke, whom the Historic House Trust (which is overseen by the Department of Parks and Recreation) told us was "a unique case."
Burke lives in the Seguine Mansion on the southern tip of Staten Island, and unlike most he has full access to the mansion, which is filled with his own collection of antique art and furniture. He throws three lavish parties each year: an all-white Spring garden party, a period-costume Fall BBQ, and a black tie Christmas party. His best friend, a doberman named Rusty, can sit on any piece of furniture he wants, from a 19th century French wingback sofa to the Chippendale dining set. Why can Burke do all that? The short answer: it’s his house. Or at least, it kind of is.
The stately Greek Revival house was built by Joseph H. Seguine in 1838, who took advice on where to plant his trees from Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of Central Park. He had made his fortune in everything from oystering to candle making to farming; he also started the Staten Island Railway (where a young Vanderbilt got lessons in railroading).
The Seguines lost the house in 1867, but in 1916 Joseph's great-grandson bought it back. When he died, his wife Elizabeth “Bess” Seguine took it over. This is where Burke enters—as a teenager he would visit throughout the 1930s and 40s.
Burke grew up three miles away from Seguine, in Annadale, in a large six-bedroom Victorian with double parlors for entertaining and a boxing ring in the basement, where his father would teach Burke and his four older brothers to spar. His father was New York City’s Building Inspector for many years, as well as a painter who taught his son to appreciate art.
Bess Seguine held “gymkhanas”, horse riding events, in Seguine Mansion’s adjoining stables to raise money for Richmond Memorial Hospital and invited all the high school students to come. Burke couldn’t wait to go over. He didn’t socialize much with the Seguine’s high society daughters, but loved Bess’s heavy southern accent and mostly, her house.
“I used to say to her all the time, ‘Bess I love your house, I love this house. One day I’d love to own it Bess.’” He said she would laugh and remind him of the Seguine legacy.
“Seven generations,” she said. “We Seguines built it and lived in it seven generations and the girls are getting it.”
(Amy Finkel / Gothamist)
The Seguine nestled in the back of his mind, Burke joined the Air Force and moved to London when he was 19. It was his first time off of Staten Island. In Europe, he felt like he had been awakened by the oldness of the buildings, the gardens and the historical legacy of its art. It was in post WWII Europe, where art was being sold cheaply, that he started to collect and ship his finds back to Staten Island, without a house to put them all in.
He traveled constantly, to “everywhere he was allowed,” consuming the culture voraciously. When in London, he would go horseback riding in Hyde Park every morning at 7 a.m. with a young woman and her boyfriend. It wasn’t until he got an invitation to Princess Margaret’s wedding that he realized who his riding companion had been. Rubbing elbows with the elite further enhanced his desire to live in the lap of luxury.
“I said, ‘When I get home I’m going to live like this.’” Burke recalled. “And that’s what got me into this.”
Burke would visit Portobello Road, the antiques market of London. There, he met Mrs. Murphy, a round Irish lady with a keen eye for art. Burke says she wore two or three soiled dresses at a time and smelled like she had never seen a bathtub. They became great friends and Burke would bring her bottles of whiskey that were allotted to the military; liquor was almost impossible to buy at that time. They would drink whiskey with hot black tea and she would sell him some of the best paintings she had.
Burke tagged along with her to estate sales, where Mrs. Murphy was the authority on quality. “We would look at stuff and she would say, ‘That’s no good, that’s good. That’s no good.’ And I’d say, ‘Murphy I want that mirror.’ And she’d say ‘Ok.’ And she’d sit there and all the auctioneers knew her, and she’d flip her catalogue like that, and ‘SOLD!’ to Mrs. Murphy. That’s how I got a lot of things that’s in the house today.”
After 12 years, he came back to Staten Island. He got a job as an interior designer for Sherwin Williams, and he owned a large Victorian house, as well as a restaurant. That’s when he got the call. He hadn’t seen the Seguine Mansion in years when Bess rang him and asked the question he dreamed of hearing when he was a boy: “George, you still want my house?”
Bess’s daughters had married in Texas and California, and Bess had moved back south, to Georgia. The house had been looted and vandalized in her absence. After a defaulted sale, Bess was desperately seeking a buyer.
He went to see it and found that his childhood dream house had changed. It was in such horrible condition, he didn’t think it could be saved. He called Bess back and said, “The only thing that will save this house is a bulldozer.”
Bess wouldn’t take no for an answer. She said, “In 1920 I got it and I saved it. I pulled the shutters up out of the creek... don’t you tell me that you can’t save it. Sell your restaurants and sell some of those houses. And you go fix my house.”
Burke's journal. (Gothamist)
Burke is not one to be bossed around, but he returned to the property to do some thinking. He started a journal, a leather bound book, to document what he knew was about to be a vast undertaking. This is from his first entry:
“I made my way through the heavy under growth that had covered the front lawn. About two hundred feet in front of the mansion, I looked back. In spite of the decay that started to engulf the house, the mansion stood in its breathtaking splendor. I knew then, I was lost in what seemed a hopeless fight to save and restore this grand old mansion. So be it.”
In the winter of 1981, Burke’s brother stopped by to see the home Burke sold all of his assets for. He found him in a freezing mansion, shut up in one room in front of the fireplace. The paint was peeling, the windows were broken and there was four feet of water in the basement. It was so cold, Burke had to put his dog’s water bowl in the refrigerator to prevent it from freezing. Burke’s brother told him he was insane.
“He said, ‘You can’t live here, you’re going to freeze to death,’” Burke recalled. “He said, ‘Do you have insurance?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I have insurance on it.’ He said, ‘Well it’s a 10 minute candle house. Put a candle in the front hall, and go out for 10 minutes and collect the insurance.’”
Burke would do no such thing. He rallied all of his friends to help him renovate. From his interior design connections, he had friends with bulldozers, who made wallpaper, and were architects. He had to hire very few professionals, only to do the roof and to take out the antique coal-burning furnace in the basement.
His journal entries from 1981 are about the stench of rats infesting the walls and cellars filled with fleas and lice. “Walking through the hall,” he wrote, “By the time I got by the front door, my pants legs looked as some one dumped the pepper pot on me.”
His journal entries from 1981 are about the stench of rats infesting the walls and cellars filled with fleas and lice.
It took 66 gallons of white paint and a little over five years for Burke to breathe life back into Seguine Mansion. In 1989, seven years after Burke bought Seguine, he went on a tour of Marble House, a historic Vanderbilt house in Rhode Island. His group couldn’t go upstairs, the guide said, because a Vanderbilt descendant lived there.
When Burke came home he looked around his mansion. It was one of the last great houses on Staten Island. Surely it was important enough to be a historic house, he thought. He called his lawyer and told him to call the Parks department.
“You’re crazy,” his lawyer said. “They’ll never do this.”
Parks might have felt something like a young Burke, getting the call from Bess Seguine. They were extremely interested in the house and made a deal with him. Burke wanted to donate it, but after putting so much money and effort into the house, he said he needed something to live on. Parks appraised the house and land and gave him half. Burke donated the other half. The other condition was that he got life-long tenant rights. Parks can never kick him out. They also can’t tell him what to do.
That’s how Burke became the anomaly in the Historic House system. His house is owned by the city, and open for scheduled tours, but it’s also a place where Burke puts his feet up, entertains his own guests, and will live out the rest of his life.
(Amy Finkel / Gothamist)
He also finally had a home for his European masterpieces. Every inch of the house is covered in oil paintings, statues and ceremonial swords. To take a tour is to enter a whirlwind of centuries, dates and schools of art. Burke knows them all; he hand-selected everything. Rubens, Jasper Cropsey, and Rembrandt Peale are some of the names that make any art history buff’s heart skip a beat. There's also a portrait of Joseph H. Seguine, which he got the same way he gets a lot of things now: somebody called him up and offered it. Burke’s friend was moving from a large home to the city when she contacted Burke.
“She said, ‘I got something that belongs in your house,’” Burke said. “‘What’ve you got May?’ And she says, ‘Oh, I’ve got Joseph Seguine.’ And I said, ‘Oh my god… in a box?’ And she said, ‘No stupid, it’s a painting.’ So she gave me that painting.”
Seguine presides sternly over his former home; Burke will never know what he thinks about the mansion’s newfound splendor, but Bess, who always had high hopes for the house, saw the completed renovation and thanked George with tears in her eyes.
“You did with this house what I always wanted, but never could do,” she said.
His work is never done. Last year, Burke planted 10,000 bulbs so that Spring’s arrival could be celebrated with an explosion of tulips and daffodils. He paints one side of the house every year, so that the mansion can be fully repainted every four years. He doesn’t like anything to get shabby.
The stables are now operated as an Equestrian center by Christine Carrieri who has been riding at Seguine since she was a teenager, and running the center since 1994. It brings a small amount of income to the house’s many needs. Parks pays the taxes and the water for the house, but the rest is on Burke’s shoulders.
“The deal I made with Parks is that they’re supposed to take care of everything on the outside, I’m supposed to take care of everything on the inside,” he said. “However, they can’t afford to take care of the outside, so I take care of everything. I cut the grass, I plant the flowers, I get rid of the snow, I paint the house, I trim the trees, I trim bushes, I plant gardens, I plant shrubs, whatever has to be done, I do it. Everybody tells me, don’t die George, whatever you do, because we can’t afford that house.”
Burke said he’s not sure what will happen to Seguine when he’s gone. He’s still figuring it out. He’d like someone to care about it the way he does.
“I’ll tell ya, once they’re gone, they’re gone,” he said. “What’s such a shame is after living in Europe all this time and seeing how all their history, and all their historic buildings are so well preserved… you can’t tear down a beautiful old house and put a modern building in its place, or something like that. They just don’t allow it. And they have such respect for old things. Where people in this country, it seems that the big dollar is more important than our history and even saving some beautiful works of art. It would really kill me to see stuff like that go be destroyed when all it would take is just somebody to take a little interest in it.”
The house isn’t easy to get to. It’s located on Prince’s Bay, a 45 minute drive from the Staten Island Ferry. Upon arrival, it’s a shock to remember you’re still in one of New York City’s five boroughs; a new book on Seguine Mansion, which will be printed by Rizzoli next year, calls the house “Country Life in NYC.”
When I walked up the rocky path to the Seguine, the horses were asleep and the grounds were dotted with Burke’s 19 peacocks. Orchestra music filtered through the cold air; there are speakers that play the New York Times classical music radio station all day and all night.
This house is unlike other historic houses, which can feel cold and un-lived in. One step into Burke’s house and I felt cozy. It’s a strange way to feel around chandeliers and priceless art, but maybe it’s the spritely 84 old man leading me around, or Rusty the dog following me with a toy into every room.
We went into Burke and Rusty’s hang out room, a masculine wood-paneled lounge with a portrait of his beloved racing horse and a peacock-shaped fire grate. Rusty jumped up next to Burke on the sofa as Burke told me his favorite memories from parties and how beautiful the garden is in the summertime. He said a five year old boy on a visiting tour pulled on his pant leg to tell him Seguine Mansion was better than the White House.
“Things like that are little things that you remember that are treasures,” he said. “And of course some horrible things have happened and I don’t remember them because I don’t want to.”
That’s part of his secret to eternal youth, he said. “No aggravation, a lot of red wine and some good friends, and some great animals. That’s it.” From one of Burke's journal entries:
“. . . Now I am sitting here on the porch the evening is a 10, beautiful breezes cool the sky in several colors of blue. . . . Strauss waltzes are on and I feel just like dancing up and down the porch. The smell of the flowers are in the air. If my dog could dance I would tire him out. I am in a world of tranquility. The evening has creeped in at a beautiful pace. The moon has set a bright shine across the lawns with long shadows across the lower fields. The bay is a silver ribbon. I just may sleep out here on my lounge.”