History

The Conference House Museum has helped shape American history.  

Built by English immigrant Captain Christopher Billopp, in or around the year 1680, this handsome stately manor was a wheat farm throughout the first century of its existence.  An invaluable relic in America's history, the Conference House was the site of a 1776 peace conference which attempted to end the Revolutionary War.  Edward Rutledge, John Adams, Lord Howe and Benjamin Franklin were among those in attendance.  Surrounded by lush acreage of forests, marshland and meadows, the Conference House overlooks the Arthur Kill River, Lower Raritan Bay and nearby New Jersey.  The history and location of our museum gives visitors a glimpse of a pre populated landscape of New York City, while also illustrating our nation's history.

 

Historical Background

The Conference House is named in honor and commemoration of the famous peace conference of 1776.  On September 11, 1776, Continental Congress representatives John Adams, Edward Rutledge, and Benjamin Franklin met with the King’s representative, Lord Richard Howe, at Colonel Christopher Billopp’s home on Staten Island.  The British would not consider independence a negotiable term and the congressional representatives had been authorized only to negotiate terms that included independence.  No reconciliation was reached.  With the failed peace conference, both the Crown and the colonists faced the inevitability of war.

The Conference House (formerly known at the Billopp House) is a two-story, rubble stone masonry building constructed circa 1680 by Captain Christopher Billopp.   Originally a rectangle in plan, with two rooms and a center hall on each level, the house was extended in the 18th century with the addition of a one-and-a-half story kitchen wing.  The wing was constructed of rubble stone and clapboard.  The steep gable roof is distinguished by brick gable ends and parapets.

Restoration

The House was in a deteriorated state when it came under the ownership of the City of New York in 1926.  Extensive interior and exterior restoration work was needed.

The minutes of the Conference House Association and related documents provide the sequence of the restoration as it occurred over a period of eleven years.  A 1925 photograph shows that emergency repairs had been undertaken before the restoration began; the roof was patched and temporary windows installed in the first floor south room.

The restoration of the house began in October 1926 starting with the North Room (parlor) on the first floor and basic infrastructure.  The work in the basement kitchen began in June 1928.  That same year, restoration began on the main entrance and hall, the first floor South Room, and construction of the main staircase.  The South Room restoration was sponsored by the Philemon Literary and Historical Society of Tottenville, the organization also credited with securing funding for the first Carnegie library on Staten Island, the Tottenville Branch Library at 7430 Amboy Rd.

Cornelius Kolff, noted Staten Island real estate magnate, assumed the initiative and responsibility for the restoration of the basement kitchen; the work was to be done at his own expense.  During this process, the remains of an older brick floor were discovered “well below the present surface.”  He described the bricks as “a peculiar kind made in Holland during the middle and latter part of the 17th century.”  Kolff located a Dutch brickmaker who possessed old molds, and the bricks were reproduced and the floor laid in 1930.

Between 1929 and 1933, the Association oversaw the installation of a new roof, exterior painting, the construction of stairs between the basement and first floor, and the restoration of the old well and sweep.

By 1934, substantial work on the grounds was completed, including the planting of the Colonial rose garden and 13 trees (representing the original 13 colonies).  In 1935 and 1936, the rooms on the second were completed.  A new floor in the attic and restoration of the attic steps were among the final projects completed before the Billopp House was formally dedicated on May 15, 1937.  The House became the first house museum on Staten Island and has been open to the public since then.

The Billopp Family

Captain Christopher Billopp (sometimes spelled Billop) came to New York with the newly appointed royal governor of the province of New York and New Jersey, Edmund Andros, in 1674. In 1676, Billopp received a patent for 932 acres of land on the southern tip of Staten Island plus 30 acres of salt meadow on the west shore of Staten Island. It is believed Billopp built his stone manor house ca. 1680.

In August 1677, Billopp accepted an appointment as Collector of Customs for Delaware. He resided in New Castle, Delaware, while his wife remained on Staten Island managing the property. In 1687 his land grant was increased to 1,630 acres and became the Manor of Bentley. During the next few decades he traveled back and forth to England several times. He died in London in 1725.

In 1702, Billopp put his two daughters, Mary and Anne, in charge of Bentley Manor. Mary married twice, each time a clergyman, and had no children. Anne married Colonel Thomas Farmar in 1705 and resided in the Manor house. Their third son, Thomas, born in 1711, assumed the name of Billopp and inherited the estate. Thomas and his second wife, Sarah Leonard, had eight children; Colonel Christopher Billopp, of Revolutionary War fame, was the oldest.

Colonel Christopher Billopp (1737-1827) the eldest son of Thomas and Sarah Farmar Billopp, was born in the manor house and inherited the Manor of Bentley. He was the “Tory Colonel” of the American Revolution.

During the war, Colonel Billopp was very active, and received many communications and orders from those in authority, especially in the year 1777. Billopp was in command of the Richmond County (Staten Island) militia before the war, and later commanded a regiment of native loyalists. He was described as “…a man of courage and energy, of high standing in the province of New York – of the Assembly of which he was a member for some years.”

Col. Billopp’s brother, Thomas Farmar (he reassumed the family name Farmar) “…was a staunch whig, and joined the colonists in their struggle for liberty. He turned out in the militia with his musket as a private, but it is not known that he was in active service.”

Col. Billopp was active in enforcing the order prohibiting communication between Staten Island and New Jersey, and the patriots of New Jersey were very hostile toward him, taking him prisoner on two occasions. His estate, Bentley Manor, was confiscated, and on July 16, 1784, commissioners of forfeitures for the southern district of New York sold 850 acres of Bentley Manor to Thomas McFarren, merchant, for 4.695 pounds. But Billopp had already deeded this property, including the manor house.

Billopp moved to Canada with all of his family except for his two sons, Thomas and John, who became businessmen in New York City. Colonel Billopp died at St. John, New Brunswick, Canada in 1827.

His gravestone reads:

Sacred / to / the memory of / the Honorable / Christopher Billopp / A member of His Majesty’s / council in this province, whose / uncompromising loyalty and / distinguished exertions as/ a Lieu. Colonel, in the Royal / cause during the American / rebellion, obliged him at the / termination of that contest, to / abandon without compensation / his hereditary property on Staten / Island, and retire with his family / to this Colony, wherein he has since / resided universally respected./ He died on the 28, day of March / 1827, in the 90th year / of his age.