Clifton Lake, Staten Island

As the last borough in the city with substantial undeveloped land, Staten Island also has the largest number of hidden waterways in the city. On a dead-end one-lane road just north of Fort Wadsworth is a rare privately-owned pond.

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Located in the Shore Acres residential enclave, this kettle pond is situated entirely within private land, divided between three properties. In 1924, photographer William J. Grimshaw was given access to the pond, which hasn’t changed much over the decades, except for a fence to keep outsiders out of the water.

Mark Brumagim

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Its first mention as a named entity on a map appeared in J. W. Beers and Company’s 1874 Atlas of Staten Island, where it was dubbed Clifton Lake. The surrounding land was owned by Mark Brumagim (1827-1914), who had greenhouses on the property overlooking The Narrows. Brumagim was an early California pioneer, having settled in San Francisco in 1849 and establishing a bank. This led to other riches, including ownership of gold and silver mines, and the Pacific Pearl Company. He was a true 49er. He later had the last name changed to Birmingham, making research on him a bit confusing.

The photo above is the first known image of the pond, taken by Isaac Almstaedt between 1880 and 1885. The photo is in the collection of the Staten Island Historical Society, which dutifully placed its watermark on the photo. Brumagim sold his Birmingham Estate property by 1887.

Alexandre & Sons

The next boldface name to own the property was F. F. Alexandre, who founded the F. F. Alexandre & Sons Steamship Lines, based in downtown Manhattan. Alexandre acquired the former Birmingham property and renamed it Shore Acres. When local naturalist William T. Davis documented the waterways of Staten Island, he was given access to the property, whose pond was known by then as Lake Alexandre. City photographer Percy Loomis Sperr also visited Shore Acres, capturing its lakeside pergola in 1926, 1930 and 1934.

The shipping business brought plenty of capital to the family and for the next three generations, his son J. Henry Alexandre, grandson J. H. Alexandre 2nd, and great-grandson J. H. Alexandre 3rd, all appeared in social registry entries and other high society publications, describing the parties that they attended together with the Whitneys, Vanderbilts, et al.

Below is one example, an October 16, 1940 entry in Brooklyn Daily Eagle announcing the engagement of J. H. Alexandre 3rd to Catherine Clark. At the time the bridegroom was residing in Old Brookville on Long Island, having left Staten Island a few years earlier. As if his paternal lineage isn’t enough, on his mother’s side he was the second cousin to Sir Winston Churchill. Another place to find the names of F. F.’s descendants was in horse racing columns, as they owned the horses that raced at Sheepshead Bay.

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Subdivided Shore Acres

In the 1930s, the Alexandre family sold Shore Acres to developer Cornelius Geertruyus Kolff (1860-1950). Very much a man of Staten Island, he is responsible for naming some of the borough’s neighborhoods.

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A descendant of Dutch settlers, he sat in many local civic groups, authored the local folklore book Staten Island Fairies, established the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce, and owned a log cabin, where he wrote essays that lamented on how his profession was destroying the island’s pastoral landscape. But he also sought to preserve history as president of the Staten Island Historical Society. In 1951, shortly after his death, Kolff received the ultimate Staten Island honor– a ferryboat carrying his name. One of the last two public steam ferries in the city, it served the public until 1987 and was scrapped in 2005.

His home, 15 Harborview Place was on the northern edge of Shore Acres, and still stands today. In developing Shore Acres, Kolff touched it gently, preserving its stone border wall along Bay Street, and dividing the estate into single family homes, all with generous yard space. Four narrow roads pass through the subdivision. It is today a special zoning district, designed to preserve open space while enabling property owners to live opulently within their mansions.

What’s There Today

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Tucked between the older Clifton neighborhood to the north and the former military base at Fort Wadsworth on its south, Shore Acres is a secluded enclave of mansions amid densely forested terrain, with spectacular views of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The best place to catch sight of the fenced-off Clifton Lake is from its southern side on Sea Gate Road.

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When it to comes to GIS data, the closest rival to the DoITT NYCity Map is the Oasis NYC Map, which gives us property lines. In red, I marked the stone border fence that defines Shore Acres. As you can see, the Clifton Lake today is within three of its properties, belonging to Boris Gutin, Robert W. Verde, and Kai Yin Tam. Department of Finance records show the properties valued at well over a million.

Von Briesen Park

To the immediate south of Sea Gate Road, the 14-acre Arthur Von Briesen Park occupies the former estate of Arthur Von Briesen, a noted immigration advocate and founder of the Legal Aid Society. He lived on this property from 1901 until his death in 1920, and he called his home here “Gernda,” a German term for “wishing to be there.” In 1945, a quarter century after his death, Von Briesen’s heirs donated his estate to the city.

Fort Wadsworth

Further south, Bay Street enters Fort Wadsworth, a unit within Gateway National Recreation Area. The fort is one of nearly a dozen built around the city to protect it in the early 19th century against the British, should they ever wish to recapture the former colony.

In the News:

Staten Island Advance reports on a local fisherman catching a tiger shark in Prince’s Bay.

Curbed contributor Nathan Kensinger reports on Mill Creek at the borough’s southwest extreme.

Author Talks:

The quota for my July 17 bike tour of Flushing Creek is filling up quickly! Reserve your spot today.

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