It starts with the Bullock house, which is long gone. According to Old Bay Ridge, a 1934 local-history pamphlet compiled for the Ladies Aid Society of Union Church:
The Bullock house stood at what is today Ridge Boulevard and 83rd Street. The homestead was in the center of an estate including both sides of 83rd Street and extending to 85th Street, and from Third Avenue almost to Colonial Road. This plot was developed by Mr. William L. Dowling, who occupied the house for some years, before it was torn down. The lovely homes there now still have some of the original shade trees in their yards. This Bullock estate was a bower of beautiful planting, with a formal rose garden on the terrace in front of the house, overlooking the Bay, and famed for a great arch, covered with wisteria and other vines.
This estate, and the empty land that surrounded it, was briefly known in fin-de-siècle Bay Ridge as a park—Rhododendron Park, at today’s 83rd Street and Ridge Boulevard. Today we think of a park as any patch of open space, maybe with some plant life, that’s open to the public. At the turn of the 20th century in Bay Ridge, there was a whole lot of open space—especially below Third Avenue, where there were still some large estates and rambling farmlands.
“The Bennett and Bergen farms stretched from the Shore Road to Second Avenue. As children we often walked through them to the shore,” Grace A. Glen writes in her 1962 pamphlet-memoir of the late 19th century, also called Old Bay Ridge. “There was a kind of gentleman’s agreement between the farmers and the children. Anything on the ground you could have, but no picking apples or pears from the trees—that was stealing. Tomatoes were all right however. Did you ever pick a big red, just ripe, tomato off its vine, dust it off with your handkerchief, or the hem of your petticoat and then eat it in delicious mouthfuls? If you haven’t, you don’t know what a tomato really tastes like.”
A park back then would have been a specially designed place for public access, likely something more along the lines of an English garden—manicured and exceptionally beautiful, which seems to be what Rhododendron Park was. An 1898 Eagle article describes it as the site of “a patriot lawn fete” held by the Bay Ridge Presbyterian Church, still on 81st and Ridge, of which Mr. Dowling had been a founder. “The grounds were brilliantly illuminated, and American flags at every turn, suspended from the trees, from poles and from invisible wires, completed the picture.” Different stands in the park that day offered different items: cut flowers, potted plants and fruit; refreshing drinks; ice cream; “pretty and useful articles”; candies; aprons, thread and needles; homemade preserves and jelly.
I had a difficult time figuring out what Dowling did for a living, but it seems he was a developer. A 1932 Eagle article calls him a “well-known builder who…controlled about 200 houses.” A 1904 Brooklyn Life article mentions his building 10 two-family brick houses on Third Avenue, between 83rd and 84th Street, at a cost of $75,000. These are the out-of-place residential rowhouses on the west side of Third, some of which only in the last several years were adapted to include some commercial space, as well as the two larger apartment building/shopfront combos on either corner. They’re out of place because they predate most of the other buildings on the surrounding blocks of Third Avenue.
Rhododendron Park soon became the name of the microneighborhood comprised of the tract Dowling owned. (It was also, at least twice, called “Dowling Park,” including this June 1900 real estate listing.) In 1890, Dowling purchased the old “Bullock manor,” which became Rhododendron Park—eight acres from Third Avenue to halfway between Ridge and Colonial, 85th Street to halfway between 82nd and 83rd. (The same year he also bought the Van Brunt farm between Third and Fourth avenues, 82nd and Denyse Lane—just about 78th Street—then split it into lots and auctioned it off to Manhattan builders the following year.) “Nothing was done with Rhododendron Park until 1895,” the Eagle reported in 1900—referring to the development, not the park—“when [Dowling] subdivided it into plots and began building operations.”
Probably the most conspicuous feature of Rhododendron or Dowling Park is its unsurpassed tree growth and shrubbery. Its scattered grove embraces tulips, English hawthorns, spruces, beech trees and copper beech, which last is scarcely equaled on Long Island, and display a perfect cone shape. Some of the trees are even of original growth, while even those of modern date were set out so long ago that they have attained a large size.
A map from about 1898 (above) shows the Rhododendron Park area relatively undeveloped, compared to a map from 1905 (below), which shows more houses, especially along 83rd Street. These were owned by myriad men: W. A. Main of the Park Bank; Henry Firth Wood, secretary of the Empire Laundry, in Manhattan; Dr. John B. Lauderdale, retired United States Army surgeon major; Captain Pendleton, who owned several steamships; John F. O’Neill, a journalist from Manhattan; Reuben Reilly, a former Brooklyn Bridge trustee; Asa Dickinson, who held a consular appointment in the Cleveland administration; and so on—quite well-off people, but not magnates, such as Eliphalet Bliss, who could afford waterfront mansions and estates.
Among the best of these homes was Dowling’s, which he’d bought from Bullock; it was supposedly an “exact copy of [Bullock’s] habitation in Belfast,” the Eagle reported in 1900.
It was erected in the early [eighteen] fifties and upon entering the visitor is ushered into a large hall with a music room to the right, which has a dining room and library in its rear. To the rear of this hall are two kitchens and two pantries, while to its left is the coat room. Ascent to the upper floors is made by a tower staircase, which starts on the left side of the hall. On the second floor and off the stairway is a large reception hall opening into several saloon bedrooms and a spacious bathroom. On the third floor are other bedrooms and a billiard parlor. The staircase ends in the observation tower, which affords a commanding view of the neighborhood and the adjacent bay.
At the time of purchase Mr. Dowling laid four thousand feet of hard wood floors and made other repairs. The interior was remodeled and finished in white wood. Unfortunately, the weight and size of the structure makes its removal [that is, picking it up and moving it to a new spot] of such cost as to necessitate its demolition whenever Eighty-third street is cut through, and therefore this interesting landmark must disappear in the near future.
And disappear it did, but without something similarly grand taking its place nearby, ca. 1905. “Few residents in Bay Ridge are so well adapted for large affairs as that of Mrs. William L. Dowling on Ridge Boulevard,” Brooklyn Life reported in December 1911, “for there is not only the spacious music room which takes up one side of the house but the hall has a large seating capacity and the rooms beyond it are connected in such a way that they can be thrown practically into one. The Dowlings are most generous in the matter of lending their home for charitable entertainments and many of the most important ones given in Bay Ridge the past few seasons have been held within their hospitable doors.”
“There is no more delightful home in Bay Ridge for entertaining,” Brooklyn Life added in 1913, “nor one more generously opened for public affairs than this hospitable residence, with its beautiful outlook towards the water and over the fine trees that are such a feature of that section.”
Most distinctive was the music room’s magnificent pipe organ, which Dowling bought in 1907 from Odell & Co. “The Articles of Agreement…state that Odell would build a two-manual organ with tubular-pneumatic action for the Dowling Residence,” according to the New York City Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. “Odell would provide case-work of native hard wood (Birch cabinet finished) that would harmonize with the architecture of the residence, and display pipes that would be richly and artistically decorated. The organ would be installed complete and ready for use…for a consideration of $2,075 [approximately $50,000, adjusted for inflation].” It was eventually returned to Odell, which sold it in 1919 to an Episcopal Church in Garnerville, NY, on the west side of the Hudson, across from Croton-on-Hudson, for $2,000.
The Dowlings’ son, Nelson Lynn, played the wedding march (presumably Wagner’s, or Mendelssohn’s) on the organ during the wedding of his sister Jessie to Daniel Van Brunt (of one of Bay Ridge’s oldest families), which took place at the Dowling house. “The ceremony was solemnized in front of the organ, amid greenery and pink roses,” the Eagle reported in April 1913. “Miss Dowling’s marriage will be remembered as one of the very pretty weddings of the spring…The dining room was decorated in green and white, and the hall in yellow. Another feature of this wedding was the porches, which were decorated with spring flowers and thrown into use. It was an ideal night for a semi-open air wedding of this order.”
Dowling died a few months later; he was buried on October 13, 1913, though the Eagle ran no obituary. The only item appeared on October 22, a tiny box at the bottom of a page, reporting that resolutions of sympathy were adopted at a meeting of the Bay Ridge Presbyterian Church, on 81st and Ridge, which he had helped to found. His wife, Jessie Ketcham Dowling, lived more than twenty more years. They’re buried together in Green-Wood, on the far eastern side of the cemetery.
Ironically, Dowling’s house became one of the neighborhood’s ugliest apartment houses: the boxy and automobile-friendly Ridgefield Towers, a 55-unit co-op on the corner of 83rd, with its semicircular driveway, set back from the street just like Dowling’s house; its exterior looks like an establishing shot in a gruesome 60s sitcom. (In fact, it was built in 1963, making it one of the newest such buildings in the neighborhood. The social Bruning family lived at the Dowling’s old house into the 1950s, when the Eagle stopped publishing.)
But even if Dowling’s house didn’t survive, his larger development established a residential character that persists to this day; from Wakeman Place to Marine Avenue, most of Ridge Boulevard became apartment buildings or quick snatches of rowhouses—except for about half a mile, from 75th Street to 85th Street, just a little larger on either side of the borders of what had been Rhododendron Park, where the Boulevard and its cross streets are lined predominantly with handsome freestanding houses. The crumbling mansion on the corner of 84th and Ridge, once the Dowlings’ neighbor, is a fine still-standing example, as are the houses that continue up 84th Street toward Third Avenue—each enormous, built atop a hill high above the street.
“The portion of the Bay Ridge region through which Second avenue extends may be called the detached dwelling section,” the Eagle reported in 1909. “Here extensive grounds and fine houses are the rule, and the heights are crowned with residences which, for tastefulness of architecture, amplitude of design and attractive outlooks, are hard to be equaled anywhere.” It cites one recently developed block—83rd Street, between Second and First avenues, where Dowling’s son and Edward Slogget, who lived up the block, were building six new detached houses.
As late as 1924, the entire street was described this way. “Some of the finest private residences are to be found on Ridge blvd.,” the Eagle reported. “This is a wide avenue paved with asphalt and traversing an elevated ridge from which a fine view of New York Bay, the Narrows and Staten Island may be had for nearly its entire length…The fine Colonial residences with terraced lawns form a picture of great beauty.”
Just three years later, in 1927, during an intense building boom that followed the extension of the Fourth Avenue subway to 95th Street, “Property along Ridge blvd., one of the most attractive thoroughfares in the boro, is being avidly sought by apartment builders, who appreciate the significant trend of residential development in the section,” the Eagle reported.
Unrestricted plots along the boulevard are being held at a premium, and owners of private dwellings are daily tempted by alluring offers from speculative builders. Many of the residences along Ridge blvd. are surrounded by ample land beautified with garden effects and lawns, and in many instances it would require only one of these plots to provide a site for a large multi-family building.
Many such plots today do house apartment buildings, though not so many around old Rhododendron Park. And while the houses on the surrounding blocks are a little closer together today than they were a century ago, as lots were subdivided into tighter lots, the spirit of open space, fine design and leafy trees high atop the namesake ridge survives. And it’s not just there. “Rhododendron Park and its abutting agricultural section recalls the historic Jacques Van Brunt farm,” the Eagle reported in 1900, “which extended from Seventy-ninth to Eighty-second street, between the Shore Road and Third Avenue.” These are also the rough boundaries of another residential development, Crescent Hill, created less than a decade later. It became the fashionable section for Bay Ridge’s elite—even the widowed Mrs. Dowling died there, at 153 84th Street.