John Gibb was born in Forfarshire, Scotland, in 1829. As a youth, he apprenticed to a dry goods merchant, and at the age of 18, went to London to work for JR Jaffrey and Company, a dry goods import-export house.
He came to the U.S. in 1850, to run a Jaffrey department here, and 15 years later, started his own company with a coworker. That company, Mills and Gibb, soon became one of the largest importing companies of lace, white goods and upholstery in the city of New York.
Gibb became a very wealthy man. By 1887, his office and warehouse at 462 Broadway was an enormous half block long and wide, cast iron front building on the corner of Broadway and Grand Street, built in the French Renaissance style in 1880, by John Correja. Now a part of the Soho Cast Iron Historic District, this building is now better known as Daffy’s and the French Culinary Institute and restaurant.
In the late 1850s or early ’60s, John Gibb bought up a lot of land around Gates and Classon (spelled Clason, in those days), and built a house. This area, on what is now the Bedford Stuyvesant and Clinton Hill border, was just starting to be developed, and the Brooklyn Eagle has numerous announcements of street paving in the area.
Houses here at this time were mostly clapboard, and the large robber baron mansions of Clinton Hill had not yet been built. Gibb built a large four-story, with a giant back extension, Second Empire, mansard-roofed red brick house on a large lot near the center of the block, at 218 Gates. At that time, there were no buildings between his house and Classon Ave.
The house had 14 rooms, with two bathrooms, and an enormous dining room in the back extension. He needed all of this room because he and his first wife, Harriet, had 11 children.
When Harriet Balston Gibb died in 1878, the Brooklyn Eagle notes that the funeral was held in this home. Four years later, John Gibb marries Sarah Mackay, who bore him two more children.
The Gibbs entered the whirlwind of upper-class Brooklyn life, with numerous activities chronicled in the Eagle starting in the 1880s. He was Commissioner of Parks in 1889, and was oft quoted as a leader of a dissident faction of Republicans opposed to certain Brooklyn city policies.
In he 1890 resigned from the party altogether, being vehemently opposed to William McKinley’s high tariff policies, taking his sons and business colleagues with him.
Meanwhile, as the Gibbs’ children grew up, they married into some of the most prominent names in Brooklyn and Manhattan society — Pinkerton, Swan and Pratt, among others — and all of the weddings are lengthily described in the Eagle’s society pages.
At least one wedding took place at 218 Gates. With all the activity going on, there was also drama. In 1886, John Gibb and two other plaintiffs successfully sued the New York & New Jersey Telephone Co. and prevented them from erecting telephone poles and lines on Classon, between Quincy and Monroe.
He said they interfered with his full and proper enjoyment of his estate. In 1893, his butler, a man known to him as Walter Jones, was run over by a milk wagon while on the Fulton Ferry, at 2 a.m.
At the coroner’s inquest, it was discovered that Walter Jones was really James Bevan, a loyal former servant of an unnamed female employer in Manhattan, who had left the country under a cloud of scandal. Mr. Bevan had changed his name to protect her reputation when he went to work for the Gibbs.
The papers loved it. When not in Brooklyn,the Gibb family also had a second estate called Afterglow in Islip, where they spend their summers. There, John Gibb enjoyed his horses, sailed his yacht, the Bonnie Doone, and belonged to the local Penataquit-Corinthian Yacht Club.
He more or less retired in the early 1900s. In 1901, the house at 218 Gates was on the market, advertised in the Eagle for sale for $13,000. In comparison, most of the houses in the area were selling for around $4,500. He also owned at least four other properties next door and in the immediate area.
By 1919, the Gibb Mansion was owned by the National League for Woman’s Service, and was called the Winter Convalescent Home. By the early 1980s when I first saw it, was a rundown hotel of notorious reputation, with the front porch closed in, and cheap outbuildings in the back of the property, being used as rental rooms.
Next door, the clapboard house dating from the 1870s and part of Gibb’s holdings, was covered in cheap siding, and also part of the hotel. The Pratt Area Community Council (PACC), affordable housing advocates, bought the house from the city, and proceeded to renovate it for use as a headquarters and meeting place.
It is also a hub for a housing program with 71 studio apartments for service-enriched low-income residents with HIV/AIDS, housed in new buildings built on the grounds.
The exterior renovation was designed by architect Kaitsen Woo. The project opened its doors in 2003, and in 2005 was awarded a preservation award by the Preservation League of New York State.
Today, the mansion is alive again, serving as a meeting place for PACC programs and local organizations, and hosts gardening programs, affordable housing seminars and other programs.
In Part 2 of this story: In 1897, John Gibb and sons partner with one of Brooklyn’s most successful retailers, and open a store rivaling the best in the Ladies Mile. The rest of the tale, and the third building are revealed.
[Photo by Suzanne Spellen]