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Did A Famous Actress Really Once Live at Fontbonne?


According to Bay Ridge lore, stage performer Lillian Russell, icon of the Gay (Eighteen) Nineties, once lived in Bay Ridge—in the house that became Fontbonne Hall Academy, the private Catholic girls school on Shore Road and 99th Street. It’s often said the building was built or bought for her by her notorious lover, "Diamond Jim" Brady, the zaftig railroad magnate.


But it's probably not true!


For several seasons at the turn of the twentieth century, Russell summered in Far Rockaway or nearby Long Island towns such as Lawrence and Cedarhurst. Brooklyn for her was a punchline. “For a generation almost she has joked and laughed on stage at the expense of Brooklyn,” the Eagle reported in 1904. “She used to think Brooklyn was too slow for anything…but [she] has decided finally that it is the only real home-like place for a residence.”


That summer she had tired of the Rockaway section and was “determined to get a good house in Brooklyn, overlooking the bay,” the Eagle continued.

She had some difficulty in finding a house that was both vacant and available. She rode up and down the Shore Road, looking longingly at the elegant homes along the waterfront, but the houses she wanted were not for rent.
She offered goodly sums to induce landlords to part with their property, but most of the landlords down that way are very wealthy and wouldn’t sell or rent their homes for any amount.
At last, Miss Russell found the John Robinson house, a pretty place on the Shore road, occupying the block between Ninety-third and Ninety-fourth streets. She arranged with the agents to take the house with all its furnishings for the summer. It is rumored around Bay Ridge that she paid an enormous sum for the house. She set decorators at work immediately to put the colors and tints she loves best in certain rooms. Then she sent down her goods and chattels.
…[She arrived] with a retinue of servants, a fleet of automobiles and numerous housekeeping accessories…Bay Ridge gaped in wonderment when the automobile fleet passed down the Shore road. There were six of the machines and they were nearly all the biggest type of autos. Miss Russell has a beautiful stable in the rear, built on the style of the house, but more ornamental. She may keep a few horses in addition to the automobiles. She is anxious to get a yacht, now that she is just a stone’s throw from the bay.
The house occupied by the actress is large and roomy and is one of the best along the shore, although not so pretentious as others. It is in the middle of a whole block of lawn studded with flower beds, and with the walks crimson with geraniums. There are flowers all around the house.
Miss Russell is in the only section of the Shore road that is not strictly devoted to private residences. On one side of her is a summer boarding house, with several cottages attached, and on the other side is another big house that rents rooms for the summer.

This, obviously, is not present-day Fontbonne, but another grand residence about 1,800 feet north, owned by John Robinson, who had made his fortune in the manufacture of corks and bungs. He was “one of the most prominent residents of [the] Fort Hamilton [section],” the Eagle explained in 1891, and “his magnificent Queen Anne cottage…is considered the richest and handsomest house of many in the vicinity. With the surrounding land, the neighboring real estate men have estimated Mr. Robinson’s residence property alone to be worth fully $100,000. [He] has lived in [the] Fort Hamilton [section] for seven years or more,” and had made many local property deals, buying large plots of land and reselling them in smaller parcels, grossing another $100,000. “The members of his family move in the best social circles of the town, which is saying a great deal, and the equipages of the Robinson stables are among the best on the avenues of the village. The Robinsons attend St. John’s Episcopal Church.”


These were the glory days of old Shore Road, before the apartment buildings, the expressway, even before the park. At the turn of the twentieth century, it was still a country lane that fronted the sea, lined with Gilded Age mansions, erected by assorted captains of industry, that offered impeccable views and fresh air, far from the madding crowds yet still in New York City.

In June 1904, the Robinsons sailed for Europe, leaving Russell to rent their home until the theatrical season restarted. How much she paid exactly, people could only guess, but it showed “that property in that particular section cannot be had at ordinary prices,” the Brooklyn Times reported. The singing actress' presence was a minor media sensation, covered at least in passing by at least half a dozen New York papers, from the New York Times to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.


Russell was a legend in her day, but she has faded to a footnote. “Between 1881 and 1899, she starred in two dozen musicals, many written expressly as vehicles for her limpid, lyrical voice,” according to the Grove Dictionary of Opera. “None of the musicals written for her nor the songs she introduced are remembered today, but she remains a legend among theatre congnoscenti.” She performed at first in operettas, emerging from the chorus of a Gilbert and Sullivan show (in which she made her professional debut) to become a star. She was a buxom beauty and an icon of the era, giving the tabloids something to write about every time she went out to dinner let alone starred in a show. By the time she moved to Brooklyn, her star had begun to fade, but she was still a celebrity.

No outlet covered her first summer in Brooklyn more thoroughly than the New York Sun, which visited her rented home more than once. The first article was printed June 25, which detailed the Robinsons’ artworks on the walls, including scenes of American history (Washington, Revere, Clay), a view of Green-Wood Cemetery in 1859 and several scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, including Eva teaching the title character to read and Eliza crossing the ice with bull terriers chasing her. “Those dogs are so lifelike that I haven’t been able to get my toy Japanese spaniels to come into this room since we moved here,” Russell told the Sun.


Several months earlier, Russell’s trousers and other stage clothes had been seized by a Brooklyn sheriff as part of legal proceedings against Weber and Fields, the musical variety troupe to which she belonged. “It was a revelation to me,” she told the paper. “I never realized before they had the nerve to do anything like that in Brooklyn. For years I had been cracking stage jokes [about] that village, just the same as we do about Harlem and Hoboken, and then comes along a Sheriff and grabs my best silk tights. I didn’t mind the loss of the tights a bit, for the incident gave me a new feeling toward Brooklyn, and in spite of all I’ve said I have come here to live.”


She wasn’t the first actor to stay in the southern Brooklyn area. “Miss Russell will prove a welcome addition to the colony of thespians who have long made their home in the Bath Beach [and] Bay Ridge districts,” the Daily Standard Union reported. That summer the great boxer Bob Fitzsimmons also passed through Bay Ridge every day from Bath Beach, often running behind his wife (who rode on horseback), becoming an object of local gossip. “Bob seems to like it,” the Sun reported.


Russell had been looking for a new place to summer. The last five years, she’d maintained a farm in Cedarhurst, but at the end of the season in 1902, “a careless servant threw a lot of corks out on the garden patch and they got ploughed in and ruined the soil, so [in 1903] the beets wouldn’t come up at all.”


She raised vegetables in Bay Ridge that summer. “Come into my garden,” she told the Sun reporter. “I just love green things, and nothing pleases me more than working among them.”

The Broadway favorite led the way to her vegetable patch in the rear of the house. “Here,” she said, “in the front centre are my early peas. I planted every aisle of them myself. Over there in the right rear, where you see the earth all ridged up or sort of corrugated like the metal ceiling of a Broadway restaurant, are my later peas. They are not up yet and won’t come on till the middle or last of August.
“That’s the corn, over there in the deep centre, extending in a kind of semicircle from the right front around to the left front as a high background for the peas and limas and beets. I got the idea from the opening formation of the Amazon chorus in the old ‘Black Crook’ [regarded as one of the earliest examples of the modern American musical].
“I think the beasts are horrid,” exclaimed Miss Russell, as she suddenly squatted down in her potato patch and made a raid on bugs. Her fingers, loaded with the diamonds which Joe Weber once described in the palmy days of “Twirly Whirly” as “Tiffany’s window,” plied deftly among the leaves and removed five cutworms, three caterpillars and nineteen orange-colored bugs.
“Some friend of mine,” she said, “had a lot of Government agricultural reports sent to me as soon as he learned that I had moved out here in the country. I suppose that he did it for a joke, but they are real interesting. One report said that the quail is useful for a farmer, and told how many worms and things were found in one quail’s stomach.
“Now, I know that in almost any normal human stomach that had been hungry you might find five or six quails after one little luncheon, but who would ever suppose that you would ever find fifty-nine cutworms and thirteen caterpillars in the stomach of just one small hot bird like a quail? I’m going to get some quails the very next time I go to Sherry’s [an elite restaurant and rival to Delmonico’s] and bring them out here to my garden, for I do hate to pick off bugs.
“Those Agricultural Department reports are just full of good things. I don’t see why one of them shouldn’t be dramatized some time.”
 

The Sun returned in July, reporting first on Russell’s morning routines and the accompanying local gossip. She “goes out for an airing every morning in one of her motor vehicles or a trap driven by a coachman. The variety of conveyances and the many changes in Miss Russell’s attire give both the men and women of [the] Fort Hamilton [section] something new to talk about mornings.”


Ten days later the paper reported on her exercise routine in an article dripping with sexual subtext. “The house has a piazza from which there is a fine view of the Narrows and the bay, but Miss Russell evidently doesn’t believe in vacations spent exclusively on summer piazzas.”

One way of exercising to the best advantage for the woman who can afford it is to have a trainer. Miss Russell has a trainer in the person of a young man, lithe of limb, who sees that she takes neither too much nor too little exercise. Her exercise period usually lasts two hours. It begins about 10 o’clock in the morning.
On some days it will be tennis, played at a fast clip, too, and often in the hot sun. Recently, however, Miss Russell and her trainer have been paying most of their attention to “medicine ball.”
There isn’t a lot of fun in that game, but there is more exercise for more muscles in the human anatomy than almost any other kind of exertion affords, and it is as well suited for women as men. It consists of passing a big rubber ball which is larger than a football back and forth between two persons in all sorts of positions. It takes a good husky man to endure it long without getting tired.
Miss Russell and her trainer keep at it on a lawn in the back of her house until they are both winded. When the exercise period is over the actress trips into the house, doffs her heavy sweater and takes a bath and a rub down. Then she is ready for a pleasant afternoon.
Many of the Bay Ridge folks who have noticed the regularity with which Miss Russell and her trainer get to work have been astonished at the strenuous summer she puts in, but they see its results already. So will a lot of women later when they come back from summers spent on hotel piazzas to gaze again on the fair Lillian and wonder how she can stay so youthful.

Russell seems to have had a reputation for promiscuity. She had been married four times when she died, including to a man who hadn’t been legally divorced from his first wife. (Russell had a daughter with him before they were wed, as she'd been pregnant when she married her first husband. This was in the 1880s!) She was also the very well-known, er, "companion" of "Diamond Jim" Brady for decades; he kept her in jewels and fancy dinners, and they were leading figures of New York society. She’s often referred to as his “friend,” but the implication seems clear. (The papers never reported Diamond Jim’s presence in Brooklyn with Russell, though that doesn’t mean he didn’t show up.)


In the early twentieth century, a cat at the Dyker Heights golf course was named Lillian Russell, before the stage star even moved to these parts. This seems to be a joke that, 115 years later, isn’t easy to parse; I would guess it has something to do with the fact that the cat was known for a fondness for rich foods, or because she had many kittens, hinting at an unrestrained, “wildcat” sexuality.


Or both.

 

On July 21, 1904, a policeman, George Ryder, was standing at the corner of 85th Street and Third Avenue when a stylish horse pulling a stylish cart came toward him. The coachman was drunk. “The driver was in danger of being thrown to the pavement and Ryder decided that the best and safest place for him would be in a cell,” the Eagle reported. “He stopped the horse and climbed up on the seat alongside [30-year-old John] Moffatt, who strenuously objected to giving up the reins to the cop.”

“I’m coachman for Lillian Russell, the singer,” shouted Moffatt, “and yer can’t touch me. I kin drive dis horse all right and yer kin git off here right now.”
Ryder grabbed the reins, and in doing so the horse started up at a lively gait. While the men were struggling for the lines, the horse, cart and men got too near the edge of [an] embankment and over they went. The horse fell on Ryder…and the driver, who had been entangled in the mess, insisted on standing on Ryder’s chest. The latter, however, hung on to Moffatt and finally got him to his feet. Then he placed him in the rig after it had been righted and Ryder drove all the way to the police station.
His fair employer was notified at her beautiful home at Shore road and Ninety-fourth street, and she promptly gave bail for his appearance in court this morning. When Moffatt appeared before [the judge] this morning…matters were explained [and] sentence was suspended.
 

Russell had come to Brooklyn “mocking and making fun,” the Eagle reported. “She said she was going to take a three months’ nap; that she needed sleep and Brooklyn was so soporific.”

“I used to make fun of Brooklyn,” she said… “I poked fun at the old town for years and years, but now I find the joke was on me. I wish I could recall the wasted years when I did not live in Brooklyn.” …She regards herself as the discoverer of this borough… somehow the charms of Brooklyn gripped her heart and the fair Lillian went away in the fall with a sad feeling that she was parting with a friend….One taste of Brooklyn joys has made Lillian Russell this borough’s devoted slave….now she cannot bear to live anywhere else.

She returned to Bay Ridge the following summer—but not to the future Fontbonne, and not even to Shore Road. Instead, she rented the $200,000 Thomas H. Thomas house, on 75th Street, atop the ridge (between First and Second avenues, now called Colonial Road and Ridge Boulevard). The Thomas family was set to sail to Europe for the season.

The house had originally belonged to William Spencer, a dry goods merchant, who moved to the area in the mid to late 1850s. At that time, Shore Road was inhabited by farmers; wealthy newcomers settled atop the area's eponymous ridge, near today's Ridge Boulevard, presumably for the views. The Spencer house was later bought by Benjamin C. Townsend, a Georgia native and descendant of an old Oyster Bay family who was in dry goods and fire insurance; he moved to Bay Ridge in 1861. His daughter married cigar-importer William Thomas’s son, and the couple took over the old Spencer–Townsend house. (William's brother Samuel was an early photography enthusiast whose glass slides of the neighborhood from the turn of the twentieth century are the prized possessions of the Bay Ridge Historical Society, which presents them annually.)


When 75th Street was cut through, around the 1890s, a third of the house was cut off, as it stuck out into the line of the new road. Thirteen rooms on the kitchen side of the house were lopped off. The center hall, a local attraction for its sheer size—wide enough for two teams of horses—became the side of the house.

Townsend house
The original Spencer–Townsend house, before 75th Street was cut through, looking west, ca. 1890s. Photo by Samuel Winter Thomas, courtesy of the Bay Ridge Historical Society

But it was still large and magnificent, suitable for a celebrity such as Lillian Russell. “It is one of the largest estates in the city,” the Eagle reported. The grounds were “notable because of the fine trees,” Charlotte Bangs writes in her 1912 book, Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus. “There were about twelve acres to this parklike stretch of beautiful ridgeland.” (Townsend had been a well-known horticulturist before he died in 1891.)


“Miss Russell has developed bucolic tastes and will lead a somewhat pastoral life in Brooklyn,” the Eagle reported.

She is going in for grape raising. There are many fine vines on the Thomas place and an arbor of grape vines stretching half a block. She will do a little gardening on the side and look after the chickens.
The stables of Miss Russell’s new place are commodious and will hold nearly all her automobiles and half a dozen horses and carriages. The house is large enough for several families. It is a big square house, set on the top of a high hill overlooking the bay, sloping down to the grounds of the Crescent Athletic Club on one side and to Second avenue [Ridge Boulevard] on the other. The house is surrounded by majestic old trees [such as the clump of beeches known as the Twelve Apostles]. Miss Russell picked the Thomas place because it was so retired and quiet.

Her daily schedule for the season involved waking up late, lots of exercise, constant bathing (five times a day in tepid water, concluded with a shock of cold), horseback rides in Prospect Park and automobile rides to the race track out in Brighton Beach (where, who knows, she may have met up with Diamond Jim).


A Bensonhurst resident complained Russell and her pals were going 50mph down Stillwell Avenue, from 86th to 80th streets, most days that summer. But the sergeant to whom he reported it didn’t believe it. “He figured that, if the actress was taking in the daily sessions at the Brighton Beach race track, she would travel to the track by way of Seventy-ninth street, Twenty-second avenue and Ocean parkway, or by Cropsey, Harway and Surf avenues to the Boulevard,” the Eagle reported. “Just why any chauffeur would choose Stillwell avenue was more than [he] could fathom, and he so informed the resident on Stillwell avenue.”

“They’re using the six block stretch in front of my house just to open up the machine,” said the aggrieved man. “When they hit some one some day there won’t be nothing to it but a sad story.”

Russell’s stay in Brooklyn that summer was not as pleasant as the previous year’s. For starters, around noon on Sunday, June 11, her fox terrier, Jack, “the pride of the house,” went missing. “All the afternoon, [just] about every small boy of Bay Ridge was scouring the district in search of him,” the Times reported. When they didn’t turn him up by evening, Russell contacted the local police, asking the sergeant to search. “Jack has been carefully brought up,” the Sun reported, “but in spite of training and naturally fine instincts shows a disposition occasionally to go on a tramp with plebeian dogs”—that is, it was believed he ran off with strays.


Though several newspapers reported the dog’s disappearance, none followed up, suggesting the dog was lost for good. Even worse, in early July, Russell fractured a rib. While riding near the Spencer–Thomas house with friends, “her horse stumbled,” the Brooklyn Standard Union reported, “throwing her over its head. She was picked up, and, except that she was a trifle dazed and bruised about the body, she declared that she was none the worse for the mishap.”

On Friday, July 21, however, about three weeks later, she went to visit Dr. John F. Erdmann, at 60 W. 52nd Street, and discovered she had in fact fractured her rib. (Driving into Manhattan, her car broke down at the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge, and she was forced to finish the route by cab.) “The fracture is only slight,” the Eagle reported, “and the actress says it will not prevent her from enjoying the summer at her beautiful home on Second avenue, Bay Ridge.” The doctor’s order was to rest. (Fractured ribs can heal on their own in six weeks, give or take a couple of weeks.)


Russell did have some good news that summer, however. On August 1, all the papers announced she had signed a new contract. “Many managers have tried to get Lillian Russell to go into vaudeville,” the New York Times reported, “and now F. F. Proctor has succeeded.” The impresario would reportedly pay Russell an estimated $4,000 per week, “said to be the largest [salary] ever paid in vaudeville,” the Sun reported, for an engagement starting in October at Proctor’s New York City theater, on 23rd Street, between Sixth and Seventh, for as long as business was good, followed by a tour to his other theaters in cities around the northeast.


Russell signed the contract in Saratoga, the papers reported, suggesting she’d left Bay Ridge for the summer. Perhaps business had pulled her away; perhaps she had also tired of the place where she’d lost her dog and busted her rib.


None of the papers ever again reported that Russell, once a proud convert and Brooklyn booster, returned to the borough. We can't be sure she never stayed in the vicinity again, but given the previous coverage of such visits in the New York papers, it’d be surprising if she returned to Brooklyn for a summer accompanied by a media blackout.

In 1908, she summered in Europe. Ditto 1909.

 

In 1913, the old Robinson house on Shore Road, where Russell had first summered in Bay Ridge, was sold to an investor for $175,000 [more than $4.5 million, adjusted for inflation]. Three years later, it was flipped to Larry J. Margulies, with plans to convert it into a restaurant. “Margulies…has observed thousands of persons passing along this road with no place to rest or get refreshments,” the Eagle reported. “It is his intention to provide a place where the public can rest while enjoying the wonderful view of the bay.”

There was some uneasiness among the neighbors when the report of the sale spread. It was generally feared that the property would be converted into a road house, where liquor would be sold, but Mr. Margulies said…it would be a tea house, and that no objectionable features would be permitted.

It would be the “first commercial enterprise on the Shore road,” the Sun reported.


It’s unclear whether this dream came to fruition. In 1938, a man wrote to the Eagle, claiming to have information about “the Shore Road restaurant that was once the Summer home of Lillian Russell.”

In 1922 I bought about 25 lots fronting on 93rd Street and Marine Avenue…running to [an] Italian villa on Shore Road. On the corner was a large house with three outbuildings. I was informed that these…served as restaurant, laundry and bar…My informant said that often on a Sunday evening some six hundred persons were served dinner in the Summer garden.
…When we demolished the old buildings we found many evidences of the use of the property as a retreat for the tired business man and his family. Tables and furniture and garden seats were a reminder of those days.

But he seems to have been writing about Bay Cliff Villa, a glamorous boarding house across the street, on the northeast corner of Shore Road and 93rd Street, opened around 1895. In 1899 it could accommodate 110 guests—at the time the largest resort by far in greater Bay Ridge. (In 1900, it was the scene of what the Eagle called a “Miniature Race War” when a very racist and very drunk Irish gardener attacked African–Ameircan staff with the kitchen table, some cobblestones and then the gory axe used to kill chickens. He was eventually subdued and arrested; no one was killed.)

Restaurant or no, the Robinson house persisted, though without much of its erstwhile grandeur, until it was torn down in 1956 and replaced within the year by 9303 Shore Road, the Water’s Edge apartments, advertised upon opening to feature “Free Air-Conditioning” and “Kelvinator refrigerators with freezers across the top.”

The old Spencer–Townsend–Thomas house had been torn down three decades earlier, replaced with 130 Bay Ridge Parkway.

The Townsend house
The Spencer–Townsend–Thomas house. Postmarked 1916. From the Museum's collection

Four years before that, in 1922, Lillian Russell died in Pittsburgh—where she lived with her fourth husband, a newspaper publisher—at the age of 60 or 61. She had been “suffering from a complication of diseases believed to have been caused by slight injuries suffered while on shipboard when returning from a trip to Europe for an immigration survey,” the Times reported—above the fold, on A1. (Her conclusions from that trip had been proto-Trumpian: “The immigration of recent years has been from a class of people which arrests, rather than aids, the development of any nation…The melting pot has been overcrowded. It has boiled too quickly and is running over…If we don’t put up the bars and make them higher and stronger there no longer will be an America for Americans.”) Among the more than 1,000 telegrams of condolence that arrived was one from President and Mrs. Harding, who had sent her to Europe. “We feel the loss of a very dear friend,” they wrote.

 

The earliest reference I’ve found to Russell’s allegedly living at Fontbonne is from 1940, in a feature in the Eagle about the new school. “If the old tales are true,” the paper reported carefully, in the language of lore, “Lillian Russell once lived here, and on these balconies she played Juliet, to the delight of appreciative guests.” Nowadays, this is reported as fact in guidebooks and neighborhood histories.

The preceding decade had been a height of nostalgia for the Gay Nineties and Lillian Russell. In 1933, Parker Morrell published a biography, Diamond Jim: The Life and Times of James Buchanan Brady, which was adapted into a film, released by Universal in 1935, with a screenplay by Preston Sturges. The film touched on his relationship with Russell. Five years later, 20th Century Fox released Lillian Russell, starring Alice Faye; Edward Arnold played Brady, as he had in the earlier film. Henry Fonda played Alexander Moore, her end-of-life Pittsburgh-publisher husband.


This period of nostalgia was also a highpoint for Shore Road nostalgia: the first apartment buildings began going up in the mid 1920s, and over the subsequent years, more and more of the grand old mansions were razed and replaced with boxy, six-story monstrosities. The last of the grand old Shore Road mansions today is, in fact, Fontbonne, so it might make sense that a generation mourning both the passing of the old homes and the old stars would put one in the other—Russell in Fontbonne, one legend inside another.

Russell was said to have stayed at other homes, as well. One old-timer said Russell once held weekend parties in a twenty-two room mansion on the corner of Oliver Street; another said she favored the Langley mansion, on 64th Street and First Avenue; yet another said her favorite hostelry was the Fort Lowry Hotel, at the foot of Seventeenth Avenue, in Bath Beach.


“There isn’t an old house in the Eastern States that hasn’t born the legend: ‘George Washington slept in this house one night,’” wrote Eagle columnist Margaret Mara in 1938.

How many times have YOU been confronted with that piece of information? We have, many times, but not any more times than we have been told in Bay Ridge:
“Lillian Russell once lived in this house.”
 

The house that became Fontbonne was built in 1898 by Albert Johnson, then president of the Nassau Electric Railway Company, which owned and operated several streetcar lines around the borough. Albert and his older brother Tom grew up poor in Louisville, Kentucky, before moving to Cleveland as young men and working their ways up a streetcar company there, eventually becoming vice-president and president of a line. Tom Johnson stayed in Cleveland and became a successful politician, first as a congressmember and then as the mayor, for four two-year terms, 1901–09. Albert moved to Brooklyn, continuing in streetcars, with similar interests in other American and international cities.


Albert’s father, Albert, Sr., a veteran of the Confederate army, was the first Johnson attracted to the Fort Hamilton area. The elder Albert had retired, and while visiting Albert, Jr., in Brooklyn, he visited the vicinity. “He thought the view from the Shore Road was the finest in the world,” Junior told the Brooklyn Citizen, “so he bought a large tract of land there and built a house upon it, and settled there” in the late 1880s or early 1890s. The house was right on the water, where there’s parkland today, the only “pretentious” residence on that side of the street.

Senior died in 1895, just a few years after moving to Shore Road. The following year, the city bought all the land on the west side of Shore Road (planning the future park and boulevard), including the Johnson house, which in a short time had already become a local fixture. “With the departure of [the Johnson] family from their shore home, a deal of the life and gaiety will disappear from the road,” the Eagle reported in October 1896.

Every night crowds gather to listen to good instrumental music, the fine singing, and to take part in the dancing which always winds up the entertainment. The family is famed for entertaining and their visitors are both numerous and accomplished. The house is locally famous for the pleasures it affords. One has been able to get the most enjoyable treats in the way of music, economics, travel, astronomy or philosophy.
The women folk of the Johnson family have contributed the music, while Tom L. Johnson, Henry George [the famous economist], a constant, almost nightly visitor, and a telescope provided the rest. Often while dancing crowds have glided over the drawing room floor, Mr. Johnson, Mr. George and other congenial spirits have discoursed most abstruse problems on the balconies without. With the laying out of the new boulevard all of this entertaining road picture will be swept away.
…Johnson’s place is, in the language of the locality, known as the shell house, from the fact that shells have been placed in the plaster panels of the wall. This is a fad in construction, but it is decidedly becoming in the Johnson residence…

The only other houses on the shoreside of the road at that time were three or four “humble dwellings…down near the water [probably between Oliver and 94th streets], one or two of them almost entirely concealed from the road by the foliage in the summer time, so that the passerby would imagine the place untenanted did he not hear now and then the laughter which issues nightly from the depths below,” the Eagle reported.

Of all the inhabitants along the shore these who most enjoy life are the bachelors who rent the little cabins which lie on the strip [in] back of the water. They are only summer tenants. Nothing but enjoyment apparently bothers them from the time they rise in the morning until they reach their beds at night. Some of them go to New York for business for a few hours, but the majority are summer men who swim, sail, play tennis, fish and participate in every other kind of sport that gives wings to time. Altogether they are a jolly set and furnish more than a modicum of pleasure for the people who reside in the neighborhood all the year round. Their bonfires at night when they take the last dip of the day in the water have become a sort of social institution, for with them go good songs, a mandolin, or perhaps a banjo obligato, and a dozen laughable yarns.
These youths have, in all probability, spent their last summer beside the bay, and with their leaving, a deal of fun for the neighborhood will have been swept away.
Still another class of houses—they have four walls—along the road and on it must disappear with the new drive. These structures are hardly houses, more properly little retreats on the top of the bluffs at the side of the wood. The residents who use them call them lookout houses. They command a splendid view of the bay and are the resorts for the most part of the old people, who like to sit in them in summer nights and see the [sea]craft ply up and down the bay. They are airy retreats, too, and cool when the dwelling houses nearby are uncomfortable.

The city paid the Johnson family $175,000 for the shell house, and they built a new one on the correct side of Shore Road, next door to Albert, Jr.,’s future palace, just about where Fontbonne’s chapel is today.

When they sold the old house, they “retained the right to build a tunnel underneath the Shore Road leading to the beach, the idea being that [they] might wish to construct it and have an elevator shaft dug down from the house to connect with the tunnel,” Albert, Jr., told the Citizen, so they could reach the house “from the bay without having to climb the steep hill to the Shore Road. This right accrues to any part of the land owned by” the family. There’s no indication, though, that this project was ever actually begun.


Mrs. Johnson soon gifted her son Albert, Jr., the Fontbonne tract, on which he built the house for his family in 1898; across 99th Street, Tom Johnson owned a modest summer home [likely the old Henry Stanton homestead], and two doors down from that was the house of Henry George, the famed economist, who’d bought the land from the Johnsons; he was good friends with Albert, Sr., and with the rest of the family as well. The Johnsons and Georges today are buried side-by-side. “My father and Mr. George selected family burial lots adjoining each other in Green-Wood Cemetery and overlooking the ocean,” Tom writes in his autobiography, My Story. “Here as time goes on members of our respective families are gathered to their final rest.

“I was with Mr. George a great deal in the Fort Hamilton days when his home was the headquarters of the single tax movement in this country,” Tom continues. “Sometimes he went with me on bicycling excursions, and we used to laugh a good deal.” When George ran for mayor of New York City in 1897—he died during the campaign—Tom was his “political manager.”  

The George house stood until 1954, at which time it occupied a broad lawn, sandwiched between two apartment buildings. It stood directly in the way of 98th Street, which is likely why that street does not continue to Shore Road today. It was replaced by an apartment building, 9801 Shore Road.


(N.B. I have seen the above house referenced as the George house, in the Eagle and by the Brooklyn Public Library, but I have seen a different house also referred to as such, in the old postcard below and in the drawing above. It's possible one was replaced by the other, maybe around 1925, according to vague department of buildings records. Or it's possible that someone made a mistake. I'm not sure!)

The Henry George house on Shore Road
Postmarked 1909. From the Museum's Collection

 

The Citizen described the future Fontbonne in great detail when it was new, in 1898. “It is virtually a double house connected by a porch,” the paper explained.

The foundations are of stone, the frame is of wood, but when finished it will look like an ancient stone house. There is nothing ancient, however, about the interior or the decorations. They will be modern…The view from the house is, in the opinion of its owner, nowhere to be equalled…Every ship coming or going to New York Harbor must pass before the house. When the work of clearing away the rubbish, trees and shrubs now disfiguring the city’s property between the Narrows and the Shore road has been done, Mr. Johnson will have a clear view of the Narrows from the Shore road side…
Mr. Johnson’s house is two stories, attic and basement. It is to be finished externally of rough cement of a light grey color and decorated with stucco work. The roof is to be of red tiles. The porch which connects the two wings of the house on the Shore road will be ornamented with pillars massive in construction. The ground part is in reality a court with a fountain in the center. The floor is to be tiled. The roof of the court is slanting towards the fountain, into which it will drain, the space above the fountain to be left open so that the playing of the fountain may be seen from the living apartments above. Blue stone steps will lead up to the main entrance, which is on the Ninety-ninth street side. A driveway is to be built in circular form so that a carriage may empty its occupants right at the entrance and under cover. No entrance is to be had to the house from the shore side, as a stone coping will encompass it, surmounted with a hedge growth, back of which will be a graded lawn.
The interior of this model house is unique in design. It differs from all other private dwellings in that it has a large living room right in the center of the house, from which all the other rooms radiate. This living room extends in height from the ground floor to the roof. Large beveled-glass windows will admit light from the front and rear. Corresponding with the second floor, a white enameled railing will encircle the living room, back of which is to be a balcony on the four sides. From this balcony one may command a view of the living room below, Fort Wadsworth and the Narrows, to the front, or the lawn and Ninety-ninth street, from the rear.
…Every room in the building will have a fireplace…The heating is to be done through the medium of hot water pipes and radiators. Not a chandelier will find place in the dwelling. The light will be furnished from electric bulbs placed artistically in the ceilings and walls shaded and arranged to emit a soft, steady glow.
The dining room is situated in the front farthest from the Ninety-ninth street side. It is to be finished in mahogany. It has a view of the Shore road, the fountain and the bay. Just back of the dining room is the butler’s pantry, then the kitchen, the laundry room and a servants’ sitting room, all in rotation. Just above the dining room on the second floor is Mr. John’s bedroom. From it he may step out upon the porch and command a view of the ocean. His children’s rooms and the servants’ quarters are back of it. The parlors are on the ground floor on the Ninety-ninth street side. On the floor above them are guests rooms. Here the lucky friends of the family sharing the hospitality of the house will be virtually occupants of another house, separated, yet a part of it, for they will be masters of all they survey on their side of the house, while the Johnson family will be holding forth on the other side, yet both will have ready access to one another by means of the balcony and the large living room below.
The dwelling, when finished, will stand to cost $36,000, to which will be added $20,000 for furniture—a tidy sum for a man to pay for a home who twenty years ago was not worth a dollar in the world.
 

Albert, Jr., fell ill in June 1901, just six years after his father’s death and three after building his “moorish palace.” “In his mansion on the Shore Road overlooking the Narrows…the railroad magnate is ill, suffering from a severe cold received in Cleveland last week,” the Eagle reported. The family physician told the paper “that while Mr. Johnson had been very ill, he was now out of danger and [the doctor] expected his speedy recovery.”


But “as midnight approached” on July 2, the Brooklyn Standard Union reported, Albert “turned over in bed, raised himself up, and clasping his mother and brother, Tom Johnson, around their necks, [said]: ‘I am going!’ In a few seconds he was gone. His hands chilled, but mother and brother never removed them till the doctor told them all was over.” His wife and four children were also at the bedside.

The Standard Union said he’d been suffering for a month from heart disease. He was just 41 years old, and left behind $1,000,000 of personal property, a tremendous sum for the time.


His mother died four years and nine days later, on July 11, 1905, at her home Shore Road—possibly Albert’s home, the future Fontbonne—after being unconscious for days. She left behind $100,000 of real estate and more. “The beautiful Shore Road home is left to the Mayor [Tom],” the New York Times reported, “‘inasmuch as it was his money that paid for it in the first instance.’”

In less than a year, Albert’s spectacular mansion was sold. Tom had built himself a “magnificent mansion” on Shore Road in 1903, tearing down the old Henry Stanton homestead to do it. Stanton, a retired military officer, was an important early member of Fort Hamilton village, with property fronting Shore Road between 97th and 99th streets. (He had died in 1856, during the yellow fever epidemic.) An old road, which went straight from about modern-day 93rd and Third to 97th and Shore, was called Stanton Street; when commissioners drew a street grid for the area in 1875–8, the old road wasn't on it, but what’s now 96th Street, between Shore Road and Marine Avenue, was instead called “Stanton Street,” à la Oliver Street a few blocks to the north, also named for a prominent family that had owned land there. For some reason, though, Stanton didn't stick.


The future Fontbonne was sold in June 1906 to Lewis J. Selezwick, then vice president of the Bay Ridge Hospital (then on Second Avenue, around the city line at 60th Street). The Eagle described the house then as a “unique dwelling, decidedly novel in Brooklyn, but more common on the Pacific coast and in the best sections of Italy.”

It was built…from plans of California mansions, being an adaptation of Pompeiian dwellings recently exhumed from buried ruins. The court, always a feature in this type of house, contains a fountain and flower beds…This specimen of the old Pompeiian dwellings was built by Mr. Johnson regardless of the expense, which accounts for the $70,000 said to have been paid by the purchaser. The general appearance is one of richness rather than show. The main entrance leads from the porte cochère, with its door of solid paneled mahogany, to a foyer hall, on either side of which will be found telephone booth, coat, racks, lavatory and other luxurious conveniences. The foyer ceiling rises to a height of two stories, paneled and lighted with incandescent bulbs. Extending up one wall is a big chimney rising from an open fireplace, while library shelves and window seats decorate the other walls and are in full view of the court and road.
On one side of the court is the library and on the other side the dining room, both of which are connected with the hall. Large fireplaces also adorn these rooms. Glass doors lead on to big piazzas on both sides of the house, giving an extensive view up and down the Narrows and Shore road. Passing up the grand staircases leading from the foyer, the hall on the second story leads out to the various rooms, each of which affords even better views than the rooms on the ground floor. The mansion is filled with antique furniture gathered during years of search, the crowning feature of which, from a decorative standpoint, is the huge bronze lantern lighted with incandescents and hanging from the ceiling in the foyer.
Fontbonne, Bay Ridge
The Johnson house and future Fontbonne at left. Postmarked 1907. From the Museum's collection (courtesy Janet Cox)

Selezwick seems to have unloaded the house within a few years. Or perhaps that sale never went through, as an Eagle article from August 1909 reports that the house, “built in the California Mission style,” was sold by Mrs. Johnson’s estate, and not Selezwick, “to a client who is to make extensive alterations and changes in it, and will make it his home.”


Though the buyer in that article was unnamed, it was probably Max Kurzrok, who’d recently become active in Bay Ridge real estate and development. In 1907, for example, he flipped some properties between Third and Ridge, from 88th to 91st streets, and within six months bought properties from Ridge to Colonial, 82nd to 85th streets, about ninety lots, with the purpose of erecting “a number of high class private dwellings,” Brooklyn Life reported. In 1914, the Johnson estate was auctioned off, and the "heaviest buyer" was Kurzrok.


Kurzrok probably lived there about seven years, before selling the house to Charles Obermayer, a blind man who was president of the Greater New York Savings Bank (and a member of the Crescent Athletic Club, on the grounds of what’s now Fort Hamilton High School). He died around Christmas 1925, according to Green-Wood Cemetery, where he’s buried.

Fontbonne, Bay Ridge
The Johnson house and future Fontbonne. Postmarked 1916, around the time Kurzrok was probably selling to Obermayer. The postcard was colorized from a black-and-white photo; the house may never have actually been this color. From the Museum's collection (courtesy Janet Cox)

At the time, before the rezoning that would allow apartment construction, many old Shore Road homes were being used for commercial purposes. “The former home of William F. Kenny [No. 9249] is now the Shore Road Academy, a day school for girls,” the Eagle explained in 1928. “The Shepard mansion [at 91st Street], for years the show place of the drive, has been turned into a hospital. The Shuttleworth mansion [at Oliver Street] houses a kindergarten school, while the famous Johnson house, overlooking the Narrows, has been lying idle, going to ruin since the death of its owner, Charles J. Obermeyer.”


The following year, the Brooklyn Daily Times reported the house had “passed into other hands.” This may have been a reference to Essa Awad, one of the earliest Syrian immigrants in Bay Ridge; he had a business in Manhattan that imported and exported “Philippine handmade baby wear,” according to his Eagle obit. He actually lived, though, with his wife, at 9405 Shore Road.

“Many unusual objects of art representing the art of their native Syria are seen in the Awad residence,” Eagle columnist Margaret Mara wrote in 1937. “Unique among them is a framed tapestry representing a peacock in natural color, the design executed in needlepoint on white velvet, is bordered with a pleated band of aqua satin bound with a white silk cord. The tapestry was made by a relative of the family and required one year to embroider.”


The Awads didn’t live in the old Johnson house—Essa leased it for commercial purposes. In 1930, what was now commonly referred to as 9901 Shore Road became home to the Edwards School. “The play school provides for children in their third year and after, a day nursery in which the most intelligent beginning is made in their training,” Brooklyn Life reported in 1930.

The mid-day meal is provided and the mother relieved of the care of her child for the morning or for the day until three in the afternoon. A beginning is made in companionship and the habit of working and playing well begun.
The more advanced Edwards School takes care of pupils until their eleventh year, following in the main the outlines of the public school requirements. These are intelligently administered with full advantage taken of the excellent opportunities for recreation and play. The usually accepted diversions of music and dancing have separate instructors and are frequently made an important part of the early education of Edwards children.

The last ads for the Edwards School appear in the Eagle in 1933; presumably it closed that year. No mention is made of the property again in the newspaper record until 1936, when it became home to the Normandie Club. In November 1935, the club had begun selling memberships for $25 [more than $466, adjusted for inflation], “on a prospectus setting forth that it would be an exclusive club with all modern recreation facilities,” the Eagle reported. “Some success attended the selling campaign, buyers thinking the club would be a legitimate successor to the Crescent Athletic Club’s country branch,” which had closed in 1931, after occupying the grounds of present-day Fort Hamilton High School since 1889.

The club started about the middle of last January [1936] without the recreational facilities but with a bar and restaurant and so much noise that tenants of two large nearby apartment houses complained to the police and threatened to move. On March 1 the Normandie Club closed, but on May 23 incorporation papers were filed for the Narrows Shore Road Club, Inc., to occupy the same property.
…[Fourth Deputy Police] Commissioner [John J.] Sullivan [a Bay Ridge resident] held the first hearing on the application of the Narrows Shore Road Club for a cabaret license on June 23. About 30 property owners turned up to oppose the license, in which they were joined by the adverse report of Police Capt. Patterson of the 64th Precinct [precursor to the 68th Precinct].
The hearing was somewhat acrimonious. Commissioner Sullivan told the applicants that if they could not offer a lot of favorable evidence to their cause they would lose and gave them until June 30 to produce.
Protests were filed from St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, St. John’s Episcopal, Christ Episcopal Church, the Union Church, two Lutheran churches and a Methodist Episcopal Church, a taxpayers’ organization and various others.
Commissioner Sullivan on June 30 gave the applicants two more weeks to dig up friends for their venture into night life in a strictly residential section of Brooklyn.

In July, the club advertised in the Brooklyn Times Union that applications for membership were open, and invited prospective members to inspect the club. But it doesn't seem that the club ever opened.

In August 1937, the Community of the Sisters of St. Joseph bought the would-be clubhouse from Essa Awad with plans “for a new diocesan academy for girls,” the Eagle reported. “The residence, which contains 20 rooms, is one of the show places of Shore Road. A large garage is at the rear. The plot is attractively landscaped.”


It was named after the Rev. Mother St. John Fontbonne, who’d died in France in 1843 after founding the Sisters of St. Joseph. The sisters planned to remodel the mansion and open within weeks. Awad would vacate immediately.

The school opened on September 13, 1937. “Carpenters still were busy with renovations on the two-story, 20-room building as the students arrived for their first classes,” the Eagle reported.


And it’s been a Catholic girls’ school ever since.


It’s impossible to say for sure if Russell ever stayed at Johnson’s house (though she and Diamond Jim certainly never owned it, as is sometimes said). Perhaps she did at least appear there once, performing the balcony scene, delighting the locals. Or perhaps it was just local lore, grown from a kernel of truth into something much larger than that—into legend.


Read more about the history of Bay Ridge and Shore Road in our book How Bay Ridge Became Bay Ridge.


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