Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Forest Hills South: Helping Hands Improve Historic Ambiance

By Michael Perlman

On a chilly but sunny Saturday morning before Thanksgiving, residents of the Forest Hills South cooperative demonstrated why every day should be “Thanksgiving.” As approximately 20 multi-generational residents took their shovels and planted 3 Tulip trees, 200 Tulip bulbs, and 100 Daffodil bulbs on November 23rd, they also instilled humanitarian values and lessons comprised of community service, environmental beautification, and neighborliness.

Forest Hills South exemplifies neighborliness in a unique country style setting blocks from the heart of Forest Hills, and is situated between Queens Boulevard and Grand Central Parkway from 76th Drive to 78th Avenue. Residents come home to a retreat consisting of seven well-preserved Georgian Colonial buildings facing a park-like campus which is unnoticeable from Queens Boulevard, and offers monumental trees, pathways, benches, and fountains.

Residences are The Parkview, Meadowbrook, Beaverbrook, Girard, Dover, Dartmouth, and The Marlborough. Developed between 1939 and 1941, Forest Hills South was completed during the population boom witnessed as a result of the 1939 World’s Fair. The complex contains 604 apartments, and was designed by famed architect Philip Birnbaum, who was often recognized for his efficiency of layouts and communal living. 

Forest Hills South in 1941, Courtesy of Library of Congress & James Griffin

George McGrath, President of the Board of Forest Hills South, first learned about the availability of free Tulip trees by corresponding with Rego-Forest Preservation Council, and sent Resident Manager Jose Leon to adopt some trees which remained from a fall 2013 tree giveaway event at the PS 219 Paul Klapper School. Forest Hills South experienced the loss of trees due to storms including Hurricane Sandy, so introducing Tulip trees was the ideal fit. They are fast-growing, hardy, bear colorful flowers, and will assimilate well with an ambiance of flowers and the foliage of mature Beech, Sycamore, Maple, Cherry, and Japanese Maple trees.  

“Our residents and staff take pride in our trees and gardens which make this such a unique property in Forest Hills,” said McGrath. Residents planted bulbs in the central courtyards between 77th and 78th Avenues. The trees were planted along the garden walkway in front of the Dover, on the side of the Dover, and adjacent to a recently completed parking lot at the corner of 78th Avenue and the Grand Central Parkway. He added, “We have been coordinating bulb plantings for 10 years, and this is the first time we invited residents to plant trees.”

Migda Cartagena made a move to Forest Hills South last January, and was drawn by its landscaping. She said, “I want to participate in every event that I can. It’s fun, and even more fun when everything is in bloom.”

Jose Leon, who took pride in attending the event with his grandson, always makes sure that each residence is notified about events. He stated, “We are teaching the children how important it is to keep our area nice, and how to get together like a big family, which Forest Hills South is. They will grow up and teach their children to do the same.”

At age 5, Oliver Mandell helped plant a Tulip tree and bulbs. His reaction was “I loved it! I learned how to plant bulbs and trees.” Matt Mandell, a resident since 2000, has participated in many events with his children and wife. He said, “Since we live in an apartment, this is a rare opportunity for us to do some gardening. In the spring, we walk around and try to figure out which flowers we planted.”

Greening the complex can be accomplished through additional methods, where being environmentally sustainable while restoring period architectural features is considered a priority. “Whenever we make property enhancements, we make sure it is in the style of what was here,” said McGrath. Next year, the board envisions installing LED lighting with classic style fixtures.

A conversion from oil to natural gas was made in 2008, which cut fuel costs in half. McGrath then explained, “We were one of the first in Forest Hills to install white roofs, which reflect 70% of sunlight to help keep our buildings cool. The installation costs 2/3 of a traditional asphalt roof. This allows us to retain more capital for future building maintenance and improvements.

 Next week, staff members will plant bulbs around the fountains, and residents can also anticipate more happy times with their neighbors. A Hanukkah menorah and an Evergreen with colored lights will be placed in the central gardens. McGrath explained, “We will be stringing hundreds of white lights on the trees and shrubs throughout the property, have a countdown, and throw a switch that turns on all the lights. Then we will go into our community room for a party with hot chocolate and cookies.”

Photos by Michael Perlman of tree & bulb planting ceremony: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8095451@N08/sets/72157638069132195/

Michael Perlman's column in the Forest Hills Times/Queens Ledger, "Forest Hills South: Helping Hands Improve Historic Ambiance" http://www.foresthillstimes.com/view/full_story/24121199/article-Forest-Hills-S--is-grounds-for-improvement

Forest Hills South prospectus from 1941

Monday, November 25, 2013

Forest Hills Before Time: Discover The History of Whitepot

Forest Hills residents shop and dine on Austin Street, patronize the Midway Theatre, may stroll through the Forest Hills Gardens, and may have graduated from Forest Hills High School. These are some of the “landmarks” which grant character to “Forest Hills.” Now one may be at loss for words if they walked in the footsteps of their ancestors, just over a century ago.

Encounter a land called “Whitepot,” which was predominantly occupied by wood-frame farm houses and fields of crops, with “landmarks” on a humble scale. In the early 20th century, some homes were up to 200 years of age. Today there are none.

As of 1924, a survey was conducted by local resident Lucy Allen Smart. Colonial farmhouses were typically situated on large parcels of land, and exhibited any combination of a porch, pitched roof, and shutters. The Whitson Homestead, built in 1800, still stood on Queens Boulevard, steps away from Backus Place. It became the residence of John E. Backus. Also along Queens Boulevard was the McCoun-Backus House, which was recognized as one of the best homes of Whitepot at 160 years old. It was demolished a decade earlier. The Boulevard also offered the Horatio N. Squire House, which was demolished after 150 years in 1923.  

McCoun-Backus House
Judge Jonathan T. Furman House
The Judge Jonathan T. Furman House dating to 1750 stood on Dry Harbor Road, which ended in a cluster of farms facing a large pond. Situated on the property of Cord Meyer Development Company was the Jarvis Jackson Homestead, built a century earlier. Walking over to Remsen Lane, a noteworthy site for the birth of Clarence P. Tompkins was the Joseph J. Tompkins House. A 200 year-old survivor was known as “The house on the Abram Furman Estate,” and was on the east side of what was called Yellowstone Avenue (now Yellowstone Boulevard). 

 In 1652, Newtown was settled by Englishmen from New England, and Whitepot was one of its sections. An early 20th century debate was whether Forest Hills was originally known as Whitepot or Whiteput. If it was spelled “Whitepot,” it would bear relevance to the original purchase of the land from the Indians in exchange for three clay white pots. That was refuted by J.H. Innes, who told the publication “Ancient Landmarks of Queens Borough,” that the authentic spelling was “Whiteput.” If correct, the land would be named in conjunction with the Dutch term “put” for a stream that became a hollow pit.

Whitepot consisted of six farms, which were named after Ascan Backus, Casper-Joost Springsteen, Horatio N. Squire, Abram V.S. Lott, Sarah V. Bolmer, and James Van Siclen. In 1829, Ascan Backus acquired parcels of Whitepot’s farmland, which benefited Manhattan’s produce needs and army purchases during the Civil War. Ascan Avenue bears homage to his name.

The oldest living member of one of the first families was Frederick D. Backus, who told Lucy Allen Smart about Whitepot’s residents. He stated, “The neighbors were few when I was a boy, and some that lived a mile away we called neighbors. The farmers raised hay, grain, and vegetables to supply the New York markets. Fruit and nuts were in abundance, and every farmer would take his apples to a cider mill, which was located on the Hempstead Swamp Road; now Yellowstone Avenue. The children attended the Whitepot School, but we all had to go to Newtown to church.” He also explained that since few homes had ice houses come summer, food was kept cool by hanging them in wells and tin pails. In the winter, oxen were driven through snow drifts along narrow roads.

The area bounded by Queens Boulevard and Union Turnpike was the Hopedale section of Whitepot. The Hopedale Railway Station stood near that intersection, and the architecturally distinct Hopedale Hall accommodated dining and dancing.

In 1900, the New York Times reported Whitepot’s population as 30, and consisting of German residents who plant potatoes and celery. In 1906, Cord Meyer Development Company purchased 600 acres in the Hopedale section, and renamed it “Forest Hills” after its high elevation of Long Island and proximity to Forest Park. In March 1931, George Meyer, son of the late Cord Meyer told the New York Times, “Roman Avenue between Queens Boulevard and Austin was the first street to be cut through, and on it, the company started its first building operations, ten two-family brick homes.” Today, only 4 Neo-Renaissance rowhouses remain from 1906, and are reminiscent of the first signs of development under the Forest Hills name.

The only known remnant of Whitepot is the landmarked Remsen Cemetery between Trotting Course Lane and Alderton Street. The Remsen family was among the area’s first settlers. Tombstones range from 1790 through 1819, and include Revolutionary War Veteran Colonel Jeromus Remsen. 

Remsen Farm House with caption courtesy of Historian Bill Safka
Let’s continue to seek signs of our Colonial past, while preserving our 20th century landmarks.

Please read Michael Perlman's column with the Forest Hills Times/Queens Ledger for more stories which document and commemorate Forest Hills and Rego Park history and architecture: http://www.foresthillstimes.com/view/full_story/24088871/article-Before-there-was-a-Forest-Hills

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Midway Theatre Merits Preservation - Not Endangerment

If you are concerned about the future of the historic Midway Theatre, an Art Deco gem, please email Rego-Forest Preservation Council at unlockthevault@hotmail.com   

Forest Hills’ Midway Theatre turned 70 on September 24, 2012, and theater aficionados truly had something to reminisce about while looking ahead in pride. Nearly a year later, The Real Deal reported that the theater at 108-22 Queens Boulevard, which is operated by United Artists and home to notable businesses such as Banter Irish Bar and Kitchen, Gloria Pizza, and Liberty Travel, was sold for $20.5 million. Now the community is questioning whether the historic theater and small businesses will be preserved, or undergo redevelopment for condos.

    The Midway Theatre was acquired by real estate investors, which include Eric Roth of Brick Realty Capital, Lloyd Goldman of BLDG Management, and Brian Ezratty of Eastern Consolidated. The theater is a 48,400 square-foot property which has development rights of 65,000 square feet.

    In an interview, Roth would not reveal the specifics of their future plans, but cited “investment purposes” as their vision. He told The Real Deal, “We were quite fortunate to have been presented with an off-market opportunity to acquire a trophy asset of this kind. While it generates ample cash flow, there is a tremendous opportunity for future growth as the longer term leases expire.”

    With the onset of DVDs, Movies On Demand, and soaring real estate values, nearby historic theaters faced closures and insensitive alterations in just beyond a decade. That included the Trylon Theater, the Forest Hills Theatre, the Drake, and the Elmwood. Other than the Midway, remaining theaters are the 5-screen Cinemart on Metropolitan Avenue and the twin Brandon Cinemas (The Continental) on Austin Street. Further multiplexed in 1998, the Midway holds the distinction of offering 9 screens, 1,933 seats, first-run features, and state-of-the-art digital projection systems. This prime entertainment venue is on a major thoroughfare in the heart of Forest Hills.   

    Opened in 1942, the Midway Theatre is far from the cliché of brick and mortar. It plays a pivotal role in Forest Hills’ cultural and cinematic history. The Midway was dedicated to the courageous Americans in the Pacific Islands’ outpost, Midway Island, and named after WWII’s “Battle of Midway.” First dates, couples, families, and friends typically make a day of catching a movie and shopping or dining blocks away.

   The Midway Theatre bears architectural significance. Scotland-native Thomas White Lamb (1871-1942) is often accredited as “America’s foremost theater architect.” He designed over 300 U.S. theaters including the RKO Keith’s Flushing Theatre, Ridgewood Theatre, and some European theaters. Forest Hills is fortunate to have Lamb’s last theater creation, which is one of his few in the Art Moderne style.

   The stone façade features a curved corner with a streamlined band conveying harmony. A curtain-like accordion exists above the marquee, with an accentuated vertical beacon reading “Midway” in neon lights, which adds a Jazz Age touch.

    The grand foyer is oval and features a 30-ft ceiling with domes and a South Beach color scheme. A whimsical winding staircase leads to the mezzanine promenade with its defining picture window which enables an abundance of natural light. One may visualize how movie-going was fashionable in the 1940s, and how a woman’s dress would conform to the sweeping staircase.

    Tom A. Lamb, great-grandson of Architect Thomas W. Lamb, said the Midway’s history grants the community a feeling of permanence and belonging. “My great-grandfather understood that while he was creating a fantasy for the masses, the buildings and the people that used them were very real, and they had to operate within the modern context,” said Lamb. He then explained, “In order to ensure that the community grows along with the times, we must make sure that developers provide the financial impetus that ensures a vital and lively community, but we must also provide reasonable limits on what can be done within our communities.

    Karen Noonan, immediate past president of the Theatre Historical Society explained, “Thomas Lamb created some of America's most notable theaters. For generations, this theater has not only been a community gathering place for entertainment, but for news and group support during the war years. This classic should be zealously protected and preserved.

   The Midway Theatre hosts community functions. At the 70th anniversary celebration, 170 patrons saw Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” (1954). Steve Melnick, Treasurer of the Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce worked with Regal Entertainment, and nearly $2,000 was raised for the Alzheimer’s Association (NYC Chapter). He plans to co-sponsor more classic movie fundraisers.

    “The Midway attracts moviegoers from all over Queens, and supports hundreds of local businesses. Many restaurants even run dinner and movie promotions,” said Melnick. When asked about redevelopment, he responded, “Keep the screens and incorporate space for a multi-purpose performance center with dance, music, and school events that supports our community. A void would have severe economic ramifications.”

   Neighborhood resident Anne Duterme echoed similar sentiment. “Forest Hills has a lot of character. Rather than destroying the Midway Theatre and building more uninspired condos, thinking outside of the box and multi-purposing this property for independent film festivals and plays is an opportunity to enrich our community.”
   Duterme referenced two large residential projects under construction. “With our schools experiencing overcrowding, a third residential project will only exacerbate things, and is not going to contribute to our community’s needs,” she said.

   The newcomer restaurant, Banter Irish Bar and Kitchen, at the Midway was an instant attraction. This authentic family-operated restaurant offers specialties such as beef and Guinness pie, traditional Irish stew, and Craft Beer. On September 14th, Banter commemorated 6 months with a customer appreciation party featuring a live band. “We haven’t met our new landlords, but presume they will be amenable to us,” said owner Michael Mansfield.

  “The Midway is a Queens cornerstone, and we hope the new owners continue its operation,” said Seth Bornstein, Executive Director of the Queens Economic Development Corporation. Lamb added, “I pray the new owners have a love for community and history that informs their actions, and that residents value their history enough to make their voices heard.”

This is Michael Perlman's column in the Forest Hills Times/Queens Ledger: http://www.queensledger.com/view/full_story/23684487/article-Sale-of-Midway-raises-concerns-for-future 

Midway Theatre photos on flickr: http://bit.ly/MidwayTheatre 

A lighting spectacular on Queens Boulevard, accomplished by the the streamlined vertical beacon and the accordion Art Moderne facade

Just beyond the sweeping 40s era staircase, a definitive picture window provides natural light into the Art Moderne lobby
The whimsical curves of the Art Moderne lobby

The Midway Theatre is often the subject of the Downtown Forest Hills Tour, led by Historian Jeff Gottlieb, President of Central Queens Historical Association