At the southern edge of Staten Island stands a large mansion overlooking the Arthur Kill, built in 1680 by Captain Christopher Billopp. Just over a century later, this stately house would experience its biggest claim to fame.
In 1776, a scant few weeks after the Continental Army’s defeat at the Battle of Long Island, Lord Richard Howe met here with John Adams, Edward Rutledge, and Benjamin Franklin to try to negotiate a peace. It failed, mostly because the Americans would accept nothing less than independence. Despite the lack of progress, the three-hour meeting would later be memorialized in the 20th century by changing the name of the building to the Conference House.
The original Christopher Billopp owned 932 acres of land in the south of Staten Island, but actually lived and worked in New Castle, Delaware, as the Collector of Customs, leaving his wife to manage the property. His land holdings later increased to 1,630 acres and became known as Bentley Manor. It was passed down through the generations to another Christopher Billopp, who lived there during the Revolutionary War.
This Billopp was a Tory, and was in charge of enforcing the ban on communication between Staten Island and New Jersey. He was taken prisoner on two occasions, one of which saw him treated poorly in retaliation for the treatment of American prisoners on the infamous prison ships. It’s said that when he returned from the second imprisonment, a maid in his house ratted him out by placing a lantern in the window as a signal to the Continental troops in Perth Amboy. When he caught her, he threw her down the stairs and both their ghosts haunt the manor still.
The house was confiscated after the war and portions of the land sold off. It would later serve as a hotel and rat poison factory before falling into disrepair. Ownership was transferred to the City of New York in 1926, and the newly-formed Conference House Association set about restoring the building. The various rooms were repaired over the course of the next 11 years, including a new brick floor laid down in the kitchen using vintage molds. The Conference House opened to the public in 1937 as the first house museum in Staten Island, and it’s currently managed by the Historic House Trust.