Cornelius Amory Pugsley Local Medal Award, 1955
Loring McMillen (1906-1991) received the local level Pugsley Medal in 1955 for "staying with such an important dream as the Richmond town restoration and bringing to life two hundred years of life on Staten Island." A New York Times article written about his life in 1998 described him as "a man for the ages on Staten Island". It was McMillen's contributions to local history that resulted in this reference. Loring was born in Staten Island in 1906, eight years after the county became the fifth borough of New York. At that time, Staten Island consisted of small houses, farms, and dirt roads. He was quoted in the same New York Times article as saying "How can anybody live in a neighborhood and not know what's been there before?" It was this curiosity and appreciation of history that resulted in McMillen becoming a "man for the ages".
McMillen's interest in collecting, analyzing, and categorizing things surfaced early. At the age of six, he started collections of childhood treasures, pamphlets, leaves, bird nests, and postage stamps. At the age of ten, his interest shifted from natural to human history after discovering Morris's Memorial History of Staten Island. McMillen read and re-read the library book and when it was due, he renewed it. When asked later in his life about his early associations with collecting and history, McMillen responded that "he could never look back at two objects and not wonder why they had changed and what had caused that change."
McMillen attended Union College in Schenectady, New York, where he majored in civil engineering, and he took courses in architecture at Columbia University. After graduation, he returned to Staten Island to work with the New York Telephone Company for 38 years. McMillen continued his interest in Staten Island history and spent weekends sketching and photographing old houses and buildings. It was while sketching that Loring met William T. Davis in 1929 who was President of the Staten Island Historical Society. McMillen became the society's youngest member in 1931, and joined its board in 1932.
One of McMillen's first forays into preservation was in 1932 when the Richmond County Clerk's and Surrogate's office in Richmondtown were slated for demolition. These buildings were built in 1848 and vacated after the county seat moved north to St. George in 1920. When the county seat was moved they were saved as a result of the combined efforts of McMillen, Davis and Charles W. Leng. This marked the beginning of McMillen's efforts to preserve the rural heritage of Staten Island.
During the 1930s, the Staten Island Historical Society focused upon acquiring objects reflecting life in Staten Island. Such acquisitions were carried out primarily by Mc Millen who acquired the title of the boroughs official historian in the late 1930s. Each of New York City's five boroughs has an official historian. They serve without pay for indefinite terms. They are appointed by the borough presidents and have no specified responsibilities. But McMillen set precedents for the post. Saturdays would find McMillen visiting "likely-looking" houses which someone suggested might contain Staten Island treasures. McMillen knocked at the door explaining his quest to the person who answered and in many instances left with local treasures from barns, attics, or cellars for the Historical Society.
In the early 1940s, while looking at old houses, he came across one that had been built in 1818. Though it was dilapidated and scheduled to be torn down, he bought it and moved into it with his wife and three children. He then began the long process of restoring it. McMillen was an innovative thinker in the preservation movement. This was illustrated by his 1943 proposal for developing the "Richmond Town Restoration". The underlying goal was to "recreate a typical 18th century and early 19th century village in close proximity to people so they could easily visit." This initial plan was deemed "exceptionally bold and ambitious for its time". In fact, the expanded plan captured the attention of City Park Commissioner Robert Moses who requested the New York Foundation provide a major grant for its research. McMillen worked with the architects on the project as an historical consultant.
McMillen's effort to secure historical buildings coupled with his bold and innovative plan eventually resulted in the creation of the 100-acre Historic Richmond Town which is the New York City area's living history village and outdoor museum recalling life in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries on Staten Island. Founded in 1956, this living history museum includes more than 25 homes and public buildings located on 100 acres of land. Among the historical preservations are the Voorlezer's House, a National Landmark building circa 1690s, the Third County Courthouse dated 1837, and PS 28, an early school building. The living history museum recreates over 300 years of Staten Island's history and is operated as a joint project by the Staten Island Historical Society and the City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs. It enables future generations living in the borough of town houses and expressways to picture the once-rural island where Cornelius Vanderbilt and David Tomkins, the sixth vice-president of the United States was born.
After a forty year career as a civil engineer with the New York Telephone company where he designed cable tracks and conduits, McMillen retired and pursued his life long avocation for the historical preservation of Staten Island. He was named executive director of Richmondtown Restoration in 1967, and oversaw the further growth and development of this project until 1976. The project was known as Historic Richmond Town when it was conceived in the 1950s; the name was changed to Richmondtown Restoration in 1958; but the original name was restored in 1992. Following his stint as executive director, at the age of 70 McMillen, began to write the history of Staten Island and its neighbors. Much of this work can be found in The Chronicles of Staten Island, a quarterly eight page newsletter journal he founded in 1985 that details the county's history.
A contemporary executive in the field of historical preservation stated, "I would say that Loring McMillen has two particular and very great talents. One is his thorough and perhaps unequalled knowledge of restoration engineering, and the second is his ability to encourage volunteers. A president of the Staten Island Historical Society at one time told me that the principal function of the membership was to follow the trail that McMillen blazed."
McMillen was often reported as saying too much attention was paid to famous people in history rather than the lives of ordinary people. It was his preference for preserving and celebrating ordinary life that led to his role in the preservation of Staten Island for the ages. A plaque in the Historical Museum of Historic Richmond Town cities a quote from McMillen dated September 20, 1941 which articulated his philosophy: "History is not only made alone on the battlefield nor in the deeds of great men, but equally as well in the everyday life of the farmer, artisan, professional man or housewife."
Loring McMillen died in 1991 at the age of 85. In a memorial Issue of the Staten Island Historian devoted to McMillan, Charles L. Sachs said "few, if any individuals have been as accomplished or influential in the fields of public history, community studies, and building preservation as Loring McMillen. That which began with a ten year old child reading about the history of Staten Island and continued as a 22-year-old college graduate's hobby evolved into a lifelong passion of over sixty years. This lifelong passion resulted in a treasure for the residents of Staten Island and surrounding areas.
Falk, J. Richmondtown Historian, Staten Island, NY. The assistance of Ellen O'Sullivan in securing this biography is appreciated.
Editorial (1988, August 21). A man for the ages on Staten Island. New York Times.
Staten Island Website. http://www.silive.com/siguide/advance/0430gurichto.html
The history of Richmond Town, Staten Island, and development of the museum. http://www.historicrichmondtown.org/about.html.