In 1916, a young woman with dreams of making it big on Broadway lit off from her home in Cincinnati, leaving her young children with their grandparents, and arrived in New York City. She never found success as an actress. Instead, she opened an antiques gallery on Madison Avenue in Manhattan and developed a keen fondness for — rather, obsession with — Tibetan art and took up residence on Lighthouse Hill, a leafy enclave of Staten Island.
While Jacques Marchais never set foot in Asia, she accrued what remains one of the largest collections of Tibetan art outside Tibet. It's all housed in the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art, which she opened in 1947, next to her home. It took her nine years to build, during which time she collected stones in her pickup truck that were used in the construction of the museum and terraced garden.
"It's a wonder there were any stones left on Staten Island after she was done," the museum's executive director, Jeff Gaal, told me, pointing out the flat roof, trapezoidal-trimmed windows and doors with crosscut wood posts, a few of the elements in the style of a Tibetan monastery in the United States. She instructed that the place stay a museum after her death and left it to a public trust.
Staten Island, which sits 5.2 miles south of New York City's Financial District and measures 58.5 square miles, has been called many things: the greenest borough, the Forgotten Borough, Staten Italy, the Rock, the city's dump. (It was the site of a noxious 2,000-plus-acre landfill, one of the world's largest, for more than 50 years. A project to turn it into green space is underway, with some sections now open to the public.) The borough rose to national prominence thanks to "Mob Wives," the VH1 series that portrayed the lives of local women over the course of six seasons whose respective husbands have run up against the law. Arguably today's most famous Staten Islander is SNL prodigy and boyfriend to the stars Pete Davidson, who wrote and starred in Judd Apatow's "The King of Staten Island" in 2020.
Learning what makes the island so unique can bring understanding of New York City — and other parts of the world, too — into clearer focus.
IF YOU GO
Traditional Sri Lankan dishes such as roti, hathmaluwa, and saffron-accented biriyani take center stage at this husband-and-wife-owned local fixture. Open Tuesday to Friday, noon to 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 12.30 p.m. to 9.30 p.m. Closed Monday. Entrees from $14.95. The popular weekend buffet is offered all day Saturday and Sunday for $15.95.
INFO 668 Bay St., 347-857-6619; lakruwanarestaurant.com
Killmeyer's Old Bavaria Inn
Set in a building that some say dates to the early 1700s, this Bavarian tavern has been a gathering space since the mid-1880sThe menu features traditional German fare, such as schnitzel, wursts and goulash. Entrees from $8. An extensive selection of German beers is on offer. The beer garden, which features a tap system of its own, opens in spring. Open Tuesday to Thursday, noon to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until midnight and Sunday until 10 p.m. Closed Monday.
INFO 4254 Arthur Kill Rd., 718-984-1202; killmeyers.com
New York Chinese Scholar's Garden
Based on the gardens built during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), this attraction in the Snug Harbor Cultural Center is a series of eight pavilions featuring ponds, a forest path, waterfalls, rock formations and bridges. Opens for season March 19. Purchase timed-entry tickets online. Admission $5 adults; $4 for seniors 65 and up and for students. Active military and children 5 and under, free.
INFO 1000 Richmond Terr., 718-425-3504; bit.ly/scholars-garden
Jacques Marchais Tibetan Museum
Founded by an enterprising young woman in 1947, the namesake museum includes Buddha sculptures, ritual objects, furniture, scroll paintings and musical instruments. Items also come from Nepal, Northern China and Mongolia, as well as Southeast Asia. Marchais designed the building to look like a Himalayan monastery, complete with a tranquil garden. Tibetan Buddhist monks visiting New York City, including the Dalai Lama, have been known to stop by. Open March 5 through Dec. 22, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday. Admission $6 adults; $4 children under 18, students and seniors.
INFO 338 Lighthouse Ave., 718-987-3500; tibetanmuseum.org
Historic Richmond Town
A preserved 17th-century village features 40 historic buildings, including a tavern, a printmaker's shop and a courthouse. A museum chronicles life on the island from the time of Indigenous communities to Dutch settlers and Colonial-era societies. Museum open Friday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; guided tours of the site offered Friday to Sunday hourly, noon to 3 p.m. General admission $10 for ages 3 and up; free for 2 and under. Admission with guided tour $13; free for children under 3.
INFO 441 Clarke Ave., 718-351-1611; historicrichmondtown.org
The Noble Maritime Collection
Located on the Snug Harbor campus in a magnificently restored former dormitory for retired sailors, the museum houses a collection of maritime art and artifacts, including paintings and model ships. Open Thursday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Admission by donation.
INFO 1000 Richmond Terr., Building D, 718-447-6490; noblemaritime.org
National Lighthouse Museum
Set in a former Coast Guard station, this museum chronicles the history of Staten Island's role in the evolution of the network of lighthouses in the United States and the role of the structures and their keepers throughout history. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Adults $7, seniors 65 and up and military $5, students 12 and up $4; free for children under 12.
INFO 200 the Promenade at Lighthouse Point, 718-390-0040; lighthousemuseum.org
Sri Lankan Art & Cultural Museum
Julia Wijesinghe hatched the idea to open a Sri Lankan museum when she was a teenager. Now 23, Wijesinghe opened the only Sri Lankan museum outside of Sri Lanka in the basement of Lakruwana, her parents' restaurant, in 2017 before moving to a bigger space a few months later. Open Sunday by appointment only. Book through the website or Facebook page. Admission $8, students free.
INFO 61 Canal St., 718-576-5035; srilankanmuseny.org