Brooklyn Structure: Bay Ridge’s well-known gingerbread home
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in 2011 and has been updated. You can read the previous post here.
Sometimes it can be difficult for a creative person to define themselves through just one job, but if that one job makes you a household name, who can argue? For James Sarsfield Kennedy, a talented architect who worked in the early 20th century, that one work was the house he designed for Howard and Jessie Jones at 8200 Narrows Avenue in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
Today, right or not, this house is known worldwide as the “gingerbread house” because it looks like a fairy tale house, something from the world of Hansel and Gretel and European folk tales. In reality, the house is a rare American example of the Arts and Crafts style that came from the fertile minds of a group of English artists and reformers.
Bay Ridge was originally part of New Utrecht, one of the six original cities that would one day become Kings County. The Dutch settled this part of New Utrecht in 1657 and named it Yellow Hook because of the color of the clay found there. A yellow fever epidemic in 1848 and 1849 caused people to change the name to Bay Ridge, after the high glacier ridge that rises above the coast. The city remained an agricultural parish until the late 19th century when the Brooklyn expansion finally found it.
Because of the beautiful coastline scenery and surrounding heights that stretch along Lower Bay and the Narrows, Bay Ridge has become a popular suburban retreat, with large mansions overlooking Shore Road and up the steep ridge extend across the bay. Ferry services to Manhattan, Staten Island, and transit services to downtown Brooklyn made the area very attractive to wealthy business people who could still commute to work and then return to their palatial homes. In the early 1900s, properties such as those owned by EW Bliss, a wealthy manufacturer, and the infamous Diamond Jim Brady enjoyed great views of the bay.
Another famous and influential “resident” of Bay Ridge was the Crescent Athletic Club. It began as a football club for young Ivy League alumni in 1884 and grew to become Brooklyn’s most respected men’s sports club, attracting many of Brooklyn’s most important and wealthy men.
Its headquarters were in Brooklyn Heights, but the club expanded into Bay Ridge to make room for more fields for team sports, golf, boating, and other summer activities. They bought the old Van Brunt mansion and grounds near 80th Street and Shore Road and built a new clubhouse and boathouse, both of which were widely photographed and sold as popular postcards.
The boathouse was a large two-story clapboard-style building surrounded by porches anchored by round towers. It was designed in 1904 by an architect named James Sarsfield Kennedy.
J. Sarsfield Kennedy was born in Barrie, Ontario, near Toronto, to the son and grandson of architects. He came to Brooklyn in 1898 and two years later is on record for his design for 169 Westminster Road in Prospect Park South, one of the earlier homes in Dean Alvord’s upper-middle class enclave in Flatbush. This home is a lovely but not standout suburban Four Square home.
He also designed two other houses in this neighborhood, one of which was 152 Stratford Road in 1905, a house very similar to the house on Westminster Road, with a more colonial style. In 1909 he designed a beautiful Beaux Arts townhouse for Charles Meads in Park Slope and was the architect for several other suburban homes in what is now Victorian Flatbush.
Perhaps after seeing the Crescent Club boathouse, shipping tycoon Howard E. Jones decided to give this young architect the chance to show off his stuff in his own new home. Jones was president of the major shipping company James W. Elwell & Co, a position he held for nearly 23 years. Mr. Jones was also a director of the Maritime Association Board of New York, became vice president of that organization in 1932, and was also the administrative chairman of the local Brooklyn Civilian Defense Volunteers Organization. He and his wife, Jessie, were also very active at Victory Memorial Hospital, an organization of which he was president.
In 1915, Kennedy designed a garage for Howard Jones on 81st Street near Colonial Road. Could this have been his “audition” for the gingerbread house? The Real Estate Record and Builder’s Guide of September 1, 1917 lists the following: “J. Sarsfield Kennedy, 157 Remsen Street, Brooklyn, NY, has plans for the two-story residence, approximately 40 x 36, on the northwest corner of Narrows Avenue and 83rd Street, for Howard E. Jones, c / o James W. in progress . Elwell Co. 17 State Street, Manhattan, owner. ”
The architect and his client must have spread some ideas and decided to expand because when the site manager announced on September 29, 1917 that the Rupp brothers, a construction company based on Montague Street, had the building contract, the building had been signed by 40 times 36 increased to 59 times 75. It would cost $ 25,000. A year later, in 1918, Jones bought a 100 by 100 foot lot on 8nd Street and Narrows Avenue from the Crescent Hill Improvement Company. It cost him $ 15,000 and gave him plenty of room to build Bay Ridge’s most famous home.
Kennedy designed an unusual and magnificent house in the Arts and Crafts style for the Joneses. At that time, the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States was in full swing, spurred in part by many ideas from Henry Hobson Richardson, masterpieces on the west coast of Greene & Greene, Gustav Stickley’s quaint bungalows on the east coast, and the prairie Style from Frank Lloyd Wright and others in the Midwest. But Kennedy’s inspiration went to the source: the English Arts and Crafts styles of architects like Richard Norman Shaw and the writings of John Ruskin and William Morris.
They, like their followers in America, wanted to return to the ideals of handcrafted craftsmanship that had been lost in the mass production of the industrial revolution. They advocated the use of natural materials and a return to the country through rustic architecture, furnishings and living. What could be more rustic than a stone and rubble house, with a naturalistic and organic roofline that mimics the thatched roofs of the English countryside?
The sprawling house is made of rough stone, in various shapes, colors and sizes. It takes advantage of the topography of the property that matches its ups and downs and doesn’t force the land to blend in with the design of the home. The porte-cochere seems to support the house, while the distinctive chimney wall at the south end of the house, which is higher than the other side, holds the house at that end.
It’s a brilliant and organic way of using the land for design. The main entrance is under a charming archway, and the house only rises in irregular lines, with irregular and wonderfully placed windows, crowned by an organically and charmingly undulating asphalt shingle roof that must be a roofer’s nightmare, in polychrome clapboards that wrap around it wrap edges and upwards under the eyebrow windows.
It may be a picture book design, but the generic term “the gingerbread house” hides the subtlety and nuance of this design. This is not a stupid folly of a house. Amidst the stone and clapboard are elements of a modern, almost prairie-like stucco house, best seen on the north and south sides, where rows of casement windows add a measure of order to the otherwise organic growth.
In the photos used in recent listings, the interior of the house appears to be in artisan mode, with classic bungalow-style beamed ceilings and paneled walls.
A 1918 article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described the interior as “English oak.” The garage once had a turntable that allowed a car to always drive to the driveway without reversing, but this feature no longer works.
The house is also adorned with another handicraft, an abundance of quirky hand ironwork in the form of the fences and ornate gates, as well as the lanterns and downspouts.
The house stands on a large lawn with a rear annex, an enclosed garden and the garage. Other wonderful little details are the traditional English garden fence in the back, the red chimney pots and the completely unexpected window clap in the middle of the chimney wall. Absolutely brilliant!
The Jones’ must have loved their house, although it was likely a tourist attraction from the day it was finished. Kennedy designed a very Wrightian, Prairie School meets Italian villa at 109 Rugby Road in Prospect Park South.
This 1920 house again combines different design elements and shows the workings of a mind that saw connections between styles that many other architects did not see. Some of his efforts are a little harrowing, but they are all interesting.
Kennedy died in 1946 with a decent portfolio of work, but never returned to the level of brilliance that was achieved in the Jones house. How do you top that? It’s just unique and very, very good.
[Photos by Susan De Vries unless where noted otherwise]
Send an email to [email protected] with additional comments, questions, or tips. Follow Brownstoner on Twitter and Instagram and like us on Facebook.