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The Lost History of the Grandest Mansion Left in Bay Ridge

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

8311 Ridge Boulevard in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn
Photo by the author for the Bay Ridge Museum

It’s not the oldest house in the neighborhood. But 8311 Ridge Boulevard, on the northeast corner of 84th Street, may be the grandest, certainly the most dramatic, situated with graceful symmetry atop a verdant hill—half a block wide—decorated with ornamental plantings. Its grand front staircase is one of the tallest private staircases in the neighborhood, with so many steps it’s fenced off by its current owners, who use a more accessible entrance, in need of less maintenance, around the corner.


It’s not merely built on a hill, like the A-frame catercorner to it, but built for it, proportioned to the rolling lawn, puffing its chest and spreading out regally over Ridge Boulevard. Meant to be a commanding sight, and to make the most of its vantage point, it looks out at the Narrows with the confidence of a lighthouse. The house announces itself.


It’s in startling, tragic contrast to its neighbor, the garish Ridgefield Towers, an apartment building whose lot was once home to a similarly grand home, built by the Dowling family, whose patriarch, William, was a developer; he built many of the large, dignified homes on surrounding blocks, part of a development he called Rhododendron Park. "I was picking daisies in the field when Mr. Dowling was sizing up the property," old-timer Katharine Pool told The Home Reporter in 1963. "I was just a small girl, but he was very pleasant and very interested."

Dowling had once lived in James Bullocke’s house, built in the 1850s, but it was in the middle of what became 84th Street, between Third and Ridge; when that street was opened, the house was razed, ca. 1905, and Dowling built a new, larger and elegant home on the nearest corner.


Bullocke’s house had once marked the end of Bay Ridge—the southernmost point-of-interest before you crossed into the northern hinterlands of Fort Hamilton Village. "The Bullock house…was a landmark from the water with its cupola and its beautiful trees," Pool continued. "It had a formal rose garden, and a wisteria draped arch."

James Bullocke house
The James Bullocke house. From Bay Ridge (Images of America) by Peter Scarp, Lawrence Stelter and Peter Syrdahl

Bullocke was one of the early “mercantile elites” to settle in the community, the first class of new, nonfarming residents who moved to the area in the 1840s and ’50s (including influential Old Bay Ridge residents such as Joseph Perry, Henry Murphy, Benjamin Townsend and others). Bullocke had bought a corner chunk of Isaac Bergen’s farm, atop a hill people came to call Bullocke’s Hill; it’s this hill that 8311 Ridge Boulevard sits on. (For more information about Bullocke, Dowling, Perry and Murphy and this period of Bay Ridge development, buy our book, How Bay Ridge Became Bay Ridge, available at the Bookmark Shoppe and on Amazon.)

James Bullocke
James Bullocke. From Bay Ridge (Images of America) by Peter Scarpa, Lawrence Stelter and Peter Syrdahl

8311 was built at the turn of the twentieth century; it does not appear on a map from 1898–99, but does appear on another from 1905; it was photographed by the Brooklyn Eagle in 1903, perhaps when it was brand new.

It was built by Dowling, who lived in it temporarily, between the razing of the Bullocke house and his new permanent home next door (which first appears on a map from 1907–12).

It was then briefly occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Alexander J. Sheldon, prominent figures in the social life of the community at the time. I skimmed hundreds of articles about them and never saw a mention of what he did for a living, suggesting perhaps that being a socialite was his vocation; his father, Henry, a prominent resident of Brooklyn Heights (he lived in a brownstone two doors down from the Brooklyn Historical Society), made a fortune importing teas, much of which he lost in the Panic of 1893.


The Sheldons bounced around handsome homes in the neighborhood, including 219 76th Street (still standing) and 7522 Second Avenue (since replaced by an apartment building); in 1908, they moved from No. 8311 into 8203 Second Avenue (still standing), and in the 1920s, into 95 81st Street (also still standing), part of what was then the new and fashionable Crescent Hill subdevelopment. They later moved to Bronxville and then Daytona Beach, where Alexander died in 1937, without an obituary in the Brooklyn, Florida or national papers. He was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery.


No. 8311 was purchased in July 1908 by John Hendry Boyce, whose family would become its first permanent residents. He was the founder and president of Boyce, Wheeler & Boyce, a Manhattan firm that manufactured knit and woolen goods. He was active with the local Episcopalian Christ Church and a non-Bull Moose Republican; he was an elector in the presidential election of 1912, which was disastrous for the party—Taft finished third, behind Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt (running as a Progressive).


Previously, the Boyces had lived on 67th Street and First Avenue (now Colonial Road), probably on the southeast corner, across from the Bliss estate, now Owl's Head Park, on land presently occupied by the apartment building 6701 Colonial Road. (They appear here on the 1900 federal census and the 1905 state census, as well as in various newspaper articles.)


The Boyces’ son, Harry, arrived in Brooklyn at the end of his honeymoon, in 1904, and would eventually settle at 217 83rd Street, just four hundred feet from his parents’ future home at No. 8311. But for his first visit to Bay Ridge as a married man, the Boyce house on 67th Street, “one of the finest in the Bay Ridge section, was jammed, and the spacious verandas at the front and side of the house were generously patronized,” the Eagle reported. “The decorations were exceedingly elaborate, but the art of the florist had prevented quantity from detracting from the general beauty of the floral setting.”

Chinese lanterns were hunt from points of vantage throughout the house, and the hum of scores of voices and the gayety within attracted a large crowd at the main entrance to the dwelling to watch the guests as they stepped from their carriages to the awninged pathway. The strains of music from an orchestra of several pieces could be heard far away, so calm and still was the night.

In 1910, the Boyces hosted a similarly large and attractive reception at their new home, No. 8311, for their daughter-in-law’s parents, who had recently moved to the area. “The drawing-room was most effectively decorated with pink carnations, ferns and smilax,” the society magazine Brooklyn Life reported; “white roses were used in the library, and in the dining-room, where the appointments were in red and gold, red carnations were used.” The guest list included many familiar names from Bay Ridge high society, including Sheldon and Dowling, as well as Cocheu, Townsend, MacKay, Heinigke, Bennett, Weir and Thomas.


In 1908, Boyce had been a delegate to the Annual Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Long Island with the Thomas brothers, William and Samuel, the latter of whom was a local historian and early photography enthusiast, whose glass slides of the neighborhood at the turn of the century are the prize possession of the Bay Ridge Historical Society. In 1911, Boyce and his wife hosted the retirement party for Christ Church’s pastor at “their palatial residence,” the Eagle reported.


John’s wife, née Frances Louise Martin, died at the house two years later, on April 30, 1913, “after a long illness,” the Brooklyn Citizen reported. Known for her church and charity work, she was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, close to the Fort Hamilton Parkway entrance; the Christ Church pastor came out of retirement to lead the funeral service. Their son, Harry, had an appendectomy not long after, and to aid in his recovery, father and son left in August for a two-month “automobile tour of England, Scotland and Ireland,” the Eagle reported.


On the boat, the Boyce men met Lucie Clark Streich, a thirty-five-year-old widow from Louisville with a ten-year-old daughter. Within a year, John, the sixty-one-year-old widower, “one of the best known residents of Bay Ridge,” announced he was engaged to Streich, “one of the most beautiful women in Louisville.” They were wed on June 30, 1914, at the brides’ parents house on Third Street, in Louisville. Harry was best man. The newlyweds left on July 7 by ship (in the imperial suite of the Vaterland) for two months of motoring across Europe, expected home at No. 8311 “after October fifteenth,” Brooklyn Life reported.


World War I broke out three weeks later, on July 28, and they became two of many Brooklynites stranded in Europe. The papers don’t account for when and how they returned, but surely they did, as 8311 Ridge Boulevard is listed as John Boyce’s address in his obituary almost ten years later. He died on February 11, 1923, of pneumonia. He was buried in Green-Wood, with Frances. (Lucie would die in 1940 and would be buried in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, where her parents were buried. The name on her tombstone is Lucie Clark Boyce.)


Harry, as executor of his father’s estate, sold 8311 Ridge Boulevard just three months later, in May 1923, to Herbert F. Gunnison, the vice-president and treasurer of the Brooklyn Eagle, as a home for himself and his new bride, who quickly became members of the local social scene.

Eight years later, the house was the subject of a feature profile in the Eagle.

Georgian architecture, so often identified with Southern Colonial building, is the predominating motif of the H. F. Gunnison home, which sets upon a gently sloping terrace above Ridge Boulevard…facing the harbor. An ancient elm spreads its wide branches across one side of the lawn, usurping attention from smaller but not less attractive shrubs and plants which cluster about the house and garage.
Entering the hall, one is immediately conscious of the richness of its furnishings. Crystal chandeliers which once reflected the rays of candle light in some Colonial homes have been wired for electricity, rich draperies and oriental rugs, mahogany benches of a bygone period in Spain, oil portraits and tables of intricate inlay work and decoration are placed about the hall with the nonchalant tastefulness which comes from constant association with fine works of art.
The dining room furniture is genuine Heppelwhite, and in this room the chandelier above the dining room table is a shallow Italian alabaster bowl. Just outside the dining room door and at the foot of the hall stairs stands a grandfather clock that bears upon its face the name of the famous old clockmaker, William Upjohn, and the date 1741. The clock tells not only the hour but also the date and the phase of the moon. Its polished case and the handsome ornamental work about its face are the result of painstaking handwork, and can never be duplicated by machine.
Beside the fireplace in the second floor living room is a sea chest that undoubtedly was the possession of some old skipper in the days of canvas sail and wooden ships, and could it talk would be able to narrate stories of stormy trips around Cape Horn and rich treasures of jade and teak, and perhaps even the skipper’s private store of rum. It spends an unexciting if safe existence now as a receptacle for firewood.
A chair which is especially prized by the Gunnisons and which has a duplicate in Holyrood Castle, [Scotland], was made of the ash wood salvaged from the old bridge of Firth in Scotland in 1841. The back of the chair is formed in Gothic panels, each panel is of brass and Robert Burns’ poem, “Tam o’ Shanter,” has been hand engraved upon the brass and signed with the name of the engraver. On the reverse side of the chair is a painting on wood of the witches’ dance, a scene in the poem.
In the bedroom hang a number of Currier & Ives lithographs. Thirteen of the 38 La Blonde Ovals, lithographs from the work of the British artist Barrie, are in the possession of Mrs. Gunnison. A rosewood table, once the possession of Lord Barrington, is another of the treasured Gunnison possessions.
A white baby seal has been made into a rug for Mrs. Gunnison’s bedroom [!!!], but probably in Mr. Gunnison’s den can be found the most carefully preserved treasures in the house, for here is a scrapbook containing original letters in the handwriting of every President since George Washington. The Washington letter, despite care taken in preserving it, has faded so that it is barely legible. Mrs. Gunnison numbers among her collection of autographs one from Madame Curie, the discoverer of radium, who has even refused to put her autograph on checks for sale for charity.
The Gunnison home was built 35 years ago [not quite], and commands a magnificent view of the Narrows from its bedroom windows, as well as from a small turret room in the tower, which hash been fitted up to resemble the bridge of a ship, with telescopes and glasses, so that it is possible plainly to sight ships off Sandy Hook.

Gunnison inhabited the house less than a decade when he died there on November 25, 1932, surrounded by his immediate family, “after a lingering illness…caused by heart complications,” the Eagle reported. He had been in a coma almost a week. The paper, of course, ran a rather long obituary—three columns!—commensurate to his position there: he’d started at the Eagle in 1882 as a reporter, rising to become editor of the paper’s Almanac (a comprehensive reference guide to what was then still its own city) before moving to other side, rising from business manager to publisher to vice president to president to chairman of the board. (He’d been succeeded as president by Frank Gannett, the newspaper titan whose eponymous company remains a huge publisher in the U. S.)


Coverage of Gunnison’s death continued for days, including outpourings of sympathy from leading citizens and a memorial service for “the Eagle family” attended by three hundred people. At his wake, “there were prominent and distinguished men among the 600 who crowded into the little [Universalist church on Ocean and Ditmas], men of such position and wealth, leaders in journalism and community leaders in other fields,” the Eagle reported. (Gunnison’s father had been a Universalist minister.)

But there were also others, old family servants, old employees of The Eagle and former employees, simple and obscure people in humble walks of life whom Herbert F. Gunnison, through the various activities that brought him into touch with every phase of Brooklyn life, had befriended.
…They had been coming in a steady stream, to the Gunnison home at 8311 Ridge Boulevard, ever since the news of his death…became known. They came now to the church.

He was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, in the southeastern section, about half way between Civil War general Henry Halleck's grave and Jean-Michel Basquiat's, with his first wife, Alice, who’d died in 1903. His second wife and widow, Effie, was buried on the other side of Green-Wood, near McDonald Avenue, when she died in 1947.


In November 1933, a year after her husband’s death, Effie moved to her country estate at Highmount, New York, in the Catskills, once famous for its Grand Hotel. (It’s not far from Phoenicia.) She sold 8311 Ridge Boulevard to A. J. Gonnoud, the president of the Kings County Lighting Company, a precursor to Brooklyn Union Gas (which was a precursor to Keyspan, which was a precursor to National Grid). The Lighting Company had a large showroom (with offices) at Fourth Avenue and Senator Street, the building now housing an NYU Langone ambulatory care center, and it owned and operated the hulking gas tanks on 65th Street and Ninth Avenue, once visible from almost everywhere in the neighborhood.


The Eagle described Gonnoud’s new home as a “handsome residence….one of the show places of the Bay Ridge section…situated on a terraced plot 120x150.” It was big enough not just for Andrew, his wife, May, and their children but also his parents; Andrew’s mother, Margaret, was living there when she died in June 1934; her husband, James, Andrew’s father, died in September 1939—at the house, like Gunnison and Boyce before him. James and Margaret both had a requiem mass at St. Anselm’s and were buried in St. John’s, in Middle Village, Queens, like many Bay Ridge Catholics of the time.

In between their deaths, Andrew’s daughter Catherine died at 8311 Ridge Boulevard of pneumonia, on July 8, 1936, following an appendectomy three weeks earlier at Victory Memorial. She was 23 and survived by her parents and sisters, Helen, Alice and Grace. She too had a requiem mass at St. Anselm’s and a burial at St. John’s. (The family apparently did not blame the hospital, as her mother, May, remained president of its ladies auxiliary.)

The last reference to the Gonnoud family in the Eagle archives is Helen’s engagement, in September 1938, to Ralph Hamilton. The wedding was the following month—ceremony at St. Anselm’s, reception at 8311 Ridge Boulevard.


The house, in the 1910s, 20s and 30s, was a frequent place of celebration and death.

 

In probably the 1950s, Andrew Gonnoud moved to Florida. He died in Key West in 1985, at the age of 96, retaining well into old age much of his Powers Booth-like debonairness. He’d sold 8311 to George Kateb at least by 1958, when Kateb was reported to be living there.


On November 1, 1961, a fire swept through the upper floors of the house, causing “light” damage, according to the fire department. “Two persons, including a city fireman, were injured,” the Home Reporter reported. “Their names were not available at press time.”

The burned mansion is owned and occupied by George Kateb. It is built on a 15,000-sq. ft. corner plot at 84th St., and reportedly has an assessed valuation of $37,000 [more than $315,000, adjusted for inflation]. However, when real estate interests were negotiating for possible apartment house land parcels in the area earlier this year, Mr. Kateb is said to have valued the property at upwards of $125,000.
When the mansion caught fire Wednesday, due to causes not ascertainable as this newspaper went to press, it was being scraped and repainted. The major damage apparently happened in the double-decker attic area, which includes the servants’ quarters. These floors appeared to be substantially burned. There was less visible damage on the two lower or main floors.
The once-beautiful structure had been the home of Andrew Gonnoud, ex-president of the Kings County Lighting Co., before he moved to Florida.
Lately, the property has been in the public eye chiefly as a possibly site for apartment construction. However, the block was recently rezoned to restrict such construction.

Any exterior damage was repaired, and the house restored; today, from the street, you’d never know the blaze had happened.


Not so lucky was Dowling’s old house next door. The home and office of Dr. Henry F. Bruning for the previous thirty-one years, 8301 Ridge Boulevard reopened in March 1957 as “The Ridge Hill Social Club,” with two hundred members and lavish dining facilities. Dr. Otto Carabba, of 217 82nd Street, was the director, and his wife, Edith, was president of the ladies auxiliary. But the venture was short-lived—on July 12, 1960, a fire gutted the old house.

“A number of gasoline drums were found in the building following the fire,” the Home Reporter reported. "Witnesses also said they observed a station wagon racing away from the scene shortly after," the same paper reported later. Police suspected arson, and Anthony Mascola, 37, of Cobble Hill, was arrested; he was “a business associate” of one of the club’s major stockholders. Insurance investigators were looking into at least sixty members.


“Promoters of the swank, exclusive club were warned by the underworld to ‘turn out the lights and lock the doors’ shortly before the building burst into flames,” the Daily News reported. Jeanne Toomey, a pioneering woman reporter on the crime beat, supported this mob angle in her book, Assignment Homicide.

A former policeman visited us and debunked a recent puff piece in…the New York World-Telegram and Sun. This was a rave feature about plans for an exclusive club to be called the Ridge-Hill Club, slated to be opened in Bay Ridge with its own yacht to take members out for moonlight sails. The visitor laughed and said that the backing was a group of Coney Island mob guys with criminal records.
Next day I did my research, checked out the ex-cop’s tip and found out that his story was true. I wrote a hatchet piece on the proposed exclusive club with the yacht to be anchored in the Narrows. My exposé caused authorities to vet both the liquor and the cabaret licenses for the project, effectively putting an end to it. Not much later, the building was destroyed by an arsonist.
The phone rang the night my exclusive ran. It was the informant. “Don’t ever tell anyone where you got that story, Jeanne,” he warned….Though I was wary for months, nothing happened…

In October 1961, just before Halloween (and the fire next door), the old Dowling–Bruning–Ridge Hill house, victim of “a series of smaller blazes” since the first, was knocked down by a wrecking ball.

Rezoning prevented No. 8311 from being torn down and replaced by an apartment building, but No. 8301, the “Ridge Hill site, [was] the last apartment scheme to beat the deadline set by the city planning commission,” the Home Reporter reported. The Ridgefield Towers, which still occupy the site, opened in June 1963.

The boxy, seven-story cooperative offered each owner a plot of land on premises, to garden or grill on, which the owners considered innovative. “We all expect that this Plan will usher in a new era—a new way of life—right here in Brooklyn,” the manager told the Eagle. “Already, Ridgefield Towers has attracted considerable attention among urban planners.” People were supposedly abandoning their private houses to move in.

“This Plan,” he remarked, “provides Brooklyn with suburban living—and a view of ‘The Bridge.’” [He] referred, of course, to the Verrazano Bridge, nearing completion nearby. He believes it will give Brooklyn fresh impetus and help to make the borough one of the most significant residential and commercial centers in the East—“if the borough is planned wisely from here on out.”

The complex was “the first privately sponsored and financed cooperative apartment house to be built in Brooklyn since the late 1920’s,” the Home Reporter reported in March 1964, calling it a “$1.5 million town house with all the essential features of suburban living.”

For owners who enjoy parties, a fully equipped party room has been provided on the lower level. A fully appointed bar, dance floor, tables, murals on the walls, indirect lighting, and acoustical ceiling round out the room’s appointments.
…there is an Olympic-size swimming pool with private lockers for each family. The roof-top observation deck offers a panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean and Lower New York Bay. Each apartment contains a washer and dryer, another first in Brooklyn apartment house construction.
Bridgeview, from the Ridgefield roof, March 1964, via the Home Reporter

Three-room apartments started at $7,300 [roughly $60,000, adjusted for inflation], and the builders’ emphasis on suburban living perhaps explains why it’s so ugly—it wasn’t intended to fit into its surroundings but to usher in a “modern” era that became, almost immediately, dated.

 

George Kateb was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in June 1980, seven years after his wife, Rose—on the eastern side, not far from the Fort Hamilton Parkway entrance, like so many owners of 8311 Ridge Boulevard before him. In 1983, executors of George Kateb’s estate signed the house over to Catherine P. McDonnell, who was living there at the time—presumably a descendant or relative. She sold it two years later, in November 1985, to Carmine Gargano and his wife Rosa, according to the department of finance. Though it has since passed between various family members and even a holding company, 8311 Ridge Boulevard still belongs in the Gargano family. Since the first permanent residents, the Boyces, moved in 111 years ago, the house has been owned by just five families.


It’s looked better. They seem to have given up on the front stairs, which for years have been blocked off, and the paint always seems in need of a fresh coat. But this house must be a handful, to say the least, and whenever I pass I usually see workers chipping away at a surely infinite to-do list. The current owners seem to be doing their best to keep the house standing tall, a glorious reminder of Bay Ridge’s blueblooded history.


Read more about the history of the neighborhood, including many people and places mentioned in this post, in the book How Bay Ridge Became Bay Ridge.


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Photo by the author for the Bay Ridge Museum

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