Thursday, June 19, 2014

Touring Forest Close & the Forest Hills Gardens with Architectural Historian Barry Lewis

By Michael Perlman, Rego-Forest Preservation Council Chair & Forest Hills Times Columnist

On a warm Saturday morning, nearly 40 residents of Forest Hills and other communities gathered in Station Square, to begin their weekend with a tour of the Forest Hills Gardens and Forest Close. Many anticipated their first encounter with notable architectural historian Barry Lewis, who conducted historic NYC tours, televised on Channel Thirteen, and wrote the book, “Kew Gardens: Urban Village in the Big City.”

This tour was made possible by the Historic Districts Council, NYC’s largest citywide preservation advocate. It is part of the non-profit’s “Six To Celebrate,” where the HDC will offer tours of the neighborhoods which encompass the six preservation-worthy selections of 2014 between June and October. HDC Preservation Associate Barbara Zay explained, “These tours serve to highlight neighborhoods that many New Yorkers are unaware of, and in places that are more heavily trodden, to shine a light on unknown aspect of their history or built environment.”

The Forest Close Association nominated Forest Close, an assemblage of rowhouses designed in 1927 by Robert Tappan, a client of Cord Meyer Development Company. It is bounded by 75th Road, 76th Avenue, and Austin Street. Zay explained, “The HDC seeks to raise awareness of this delightful neo-Tudor enclave and explore opportunities to further protect it for future generations. The Association is concerned about new developments and real estate projects in its surrounding neighborhood that could threaten the Close’s sense of place.”

“Town home living in Forest Close and nearby Arbor Close allows for gardening, outdoor dining, or winter reading by the fireplace,” said Forest Close resident Elisa Barsoum Losada. “Each home has a private patio overlooking a shared common green space and has doorbells on the patio and front doors. These features encourage a sense of community, and allow neighbors to live and work together throughout the seasons.”

“Contemporary architects and developers can take a lesson from the design of Forest Close,” said Joanne Wasti, who opened her home and served fine cookies and lemonade. She explained, “As people become more aware of their carbon footprint and green design, Forest Close is an example of a design emphasizing community and away from the car culture. The shared garden area also helps with run-off and cools our homes in the summer.”

The Association maintains a covenant which regulates changes to its architecture and open space, similar to the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation, which upholds restrictive covenants governing the Forest Hills Gardens.

Established in 1909, the Gardens is America’s earliest planned garden community. It originated when the Russell Sage Foundation purchased land from the Cord Meyer Development Company, and Principal Architect Grosvenor Atterbury and Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. developed what would become an internationally recognized model of urban planning. Tudor and Arts & Crafts mansions, a few apartment houses, the Forest Hills Inn, religious institutions, and outdoor and indoor recreational features can be found.

Barry Lewis highlighted the community’s history and clever design principles. Station Square was conceived as a town center, which merges residential space with an inn, shops, and the LIRR station. Lewis explained, “Atterbury’s walkway system around Station Square is brilliant. He figured, ‘Why should people staying at the Inn have to schlep their luggage outside?’ He created over the street bridges and a walkway system that goes through the buildings.” He continued, “This is urban thinking. Not suburban thinking. It’s about civilizing the city’s way to live in the industrial era.”

Lewis glanced across the way at The Inn Apartments (separate from the Inn) and pointed at the oversized casement windows. He said, “These architects understood that modern people wanted light and air in their apartments. The waffling allows for a multiple exposure.” He continued, “There was a feeling of security and coziness using distressed brick over fieldstone, which gives a rugged feeling of civility.”

Addressing front lawns of homes, Lewis pointed out that most are not fenced in, which can be attributed to covenants. “You would get off the train from NY, where everything follows a grid street system and felt claustrophobic, but here you would have a feeling of openness,” he said.

Every community faces some controversy over development. Lewis addressed the last lot to be developed, which is where The Leslie apartments stands. The site was formerly the Russell Sage Foundation’s sales office and the Austin Hanks house, where the lone surviving family member refused to sell for redevelopment’s sake. Not long after she died, The Leslie was completed in 1942.

The Leslie’s advantages were sunken living rooms, artist studio windows, social rooms, and indoor and outdoor play areas. Additionally, he stated, “An entire city block is completely surrounded by gardens. This was a template for some white brick apartment buildings of the post-war period such as the Manhattan House.”

The Community House
Another stop was Atterbury’s 1926 Community House, which contains a theater, a social hall, and basketball courts. Lewis said, “There was room for everybody. It was very common in a quality community development to have a clubhouse.” He related it to garden communities of Jackson Heights and Kew Gardens. Other historic sites that Lewis featured were the West Side Tennis Club, the Church-in-the-Gardens, the Tea Garden, Hawthorne Park, PS 101, and the Holland House just beyond the Forest Hills Gardens.

The Church-In-The-Gardens

“Protecting places such as the Forest Hills Gardens and Forest Close is important, for it is part of the fabric of New York City,” said Elmhurst resident Helen Chin. “It is unique not just terms of community, but in architecture, design, and urban planning. What was incredible is how soothing and nurturing the environment was.”

A similar version of this feature was published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column:

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ben’s Best: A Legend Since 1945

By Michael Perlman, Rego-Forest Preservation Council Chairman & Forest Hills Times Columnist

Ben's Best founder Benjamin Parker & son Jay Parker
Few independently owned restaurants in Rego Park among citywide establishments hold the merit of satisfying taste palettes of New Yorkers since 1945. The days of seeing neighborhoods lined with mom and pop shops inclusive of delicatessens on every few blocks may have faded, but Ben’s Best at 96-40 Queens Boulevard is here to stay, according to second generation owner Jay Parker. Local delicatessens which now only exist in the memories of longtime residents are Sandy’s Surf, King Delicatessen/Boulevard Delicatessen, and the Pastrami King.

   Ben’s Best opened in 1945 and was incorporated in 1947 by its founder Benjamin Parker. His son, 62 year-old Long Island resident Jay Parker is the third generation in the kosher deli business. Reminiscing his youth, he said, “I would work for my father on weekends and ran the franks and knishes grill.” His grandfather owned a Hebrew National deli on 163rd Street and Southern Boulevard in the Bronx.  

   Some people attribute the dwindling of classic neighborhood delis to changes in demographics, modern tastes, or retirement. However, Jay Parker, who purchased the business from his father in 1984, values tradition while maintaining his faith in the future.  He said, “All neighborhoods change, but we looked far ahead. There is only one reason for success, but thousands for failure. You have to fertilize the soil you are growing on.” He explained his recipe of survival. “During the holidays we charge a little less for our products, since we have an ethical component to our business. The more the community needs us, the lower the price we set.”

   Parker takes Ben’s Best in the direction of private and corporate catering for events of all sizes, maintains an online presence, is open 7 days, and processes orders from anywhere in the United States. “We have 250 corporate accounts that we service all the time,” he said. Ben’s Best even catered Air Force One under the Clinton Administration.

   Parker takes pride in what’s more than a position, but rather a commitment. “It has been my life. I met my wife and closest friends here. Customers have been here for 40 years, and when they come back, they pick up the conversation from where they left off.” Businesses are destined to become a mainstay when their owners foster new relationships daily. “When you like what you do, it comes a little better,” said Parker. 

   “I have an obligation to keep the community strong,” said Parker, who has proudly served the Rego Park-Forest Hills Lions club and the Rego Park Merchants Association, and was also a past president of Rego Park Jewish Center.

    Another key ingredient is tradition. “Seventy years ago you walked through the door, and you got the same product you will get today. Consistency is the word,” said Parker. His personal favorites are goulash and his grandpa’s recipe of stuffed cabbage. Some patron favorites are pastrami, corned beef, chicken soup with matzo ball, and the Knishwich. Parker explained, “You won’t get a pastrami sandwich with sprouts and sundried tomatoes anytime soon. Corned beef should be corned beef. A little mustard and cole slaw, and we’re good.” Some foods that have been phased out are heart stew, lung stew, cholent, and jellied calves feet (p’tcha).

   Ben’s Best was a stop for notable figures such as Jerry Lewis, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Senator Jacob Javits, Governor Pataki, Mayor Ed Koch, Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz, and Architect Jack Brown. Ben’s Best was featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and will be featured in “Deli Man,” a documentary produced by Erik Greenberg Anjou, which chronicles cross-country deli owners who maintain the tradition.

   Enter Ben’s Best and one will see an appetizing counter with photos of notables and plaques on the wall. Just beyond, a 65-seat wood-paneled dining room displays historic Rego Park scenes. A painting of Benjamin Parker looks out at patrons with pride. A map reads “You’ve been in our home. Where is yours?,” and allows patrons to pin their residence. A classic wooden sign of a Judaic main street is another definitive element, often memorialized on Ben’s Best postcards. The famed logo depicts a man on a bicycle, who rides by a deli window. 

A classic menu

A current menu of a classic!

  Parker displayed a classic menu insert, potentially dating to the Mayor Lindsay Administration. It boasted a 99 cents Friday lunch special with no tax, and offered soup, golden brown filet of sole, French fries, cole slaw, tartar sauce, dessert, and coffee, tea, or Coke. The menu featured an Amstel Holland Beer logo and a sketch of a fisherman on a boat.

   Reflecting upon the past while sensing the future, Parker stated, “Every day is a challenge to get better than the day before. Whatever you learned on Monday, you bring to work on Tuesday and add to it. Now I am focused on the next 70 years.” He continued, “For our 50th anniversary, we rolled the prices back. Maybe for our 75th anniversary, we will do the same.”

Monday, June 9, 2014

Midway Theatre World's Fair Films on June 10 at 7 PM - You're Invited!

Come celebrate the 75th anniversary of the 1939 World's Fair and the 50th anniversary of the 1964 World's Fair by attending two complimentary films on June 10 at 7 PM at the historic Midway Theatre, 108-22 Queens Boulevard, Forest Hills. With much gratitude to the Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce and Regal Cinemas.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Michael Perlman Receives 2014 Grassroots Preservation Award by the Historic Districts Council

For those who missed my speech at the Historic District Council's 2014 Grassroots Preservation Awards (or wish to relive it), you can view the video clip. Preservationist Jeffrey Kroessler spoke with much grace and spirit, and presented my award at the time slot of 9:45. The text of my speech is below:

Good Evening, Everyone,  As a 31 year-old native Forest Hills resident and Chairman of Rego-Forest Preservation Council, I feel honored to receive the 2014 Grassroots Preservation Award. I am also encouraged to become an even stronger historic preservationist of Forest Hills and Rego Park, among other neighborhoods.

I founded Rego-Forest Preservation Council in 2006, in response to the 100th anniversary of Forest Hills, and the parcel which became known as Rego Park in 1923.  Landmark-worthy buildings and stretches of Forest Hills and Rego Park faced a growing number of insensitive alterations and demolition. We seek to preserve and commemorate our architectural and cultural history by advocating for Individual Landmarks, Interior Landmarks, and Historic Districts, as well as State & National Register of Historic Places sites, and by assisting property owners in the acquisition of funding to restore their properties. 

As a Forest Hills Times columnist since 2012, I take pride in featuring preservation, an often underrepresented topic in local media.  Preservation is my civic duty and religious calling.

1. I conducted a PR campaign and petition drive in 2010 in response to the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium’s potential sale for condos. This contributed to its iconic stadium’s partial restoration and creative reuse in 2013 as a concert venue.

2. I assisted Rego Park Jewish Center and the First Presbyterian Church of Newtown in the acquisition of National Register status. Presently, I am co-organizing concert fundraisers, to help restore the church.

3.  I founded Friends of TheRidgewood Theatre, and succeeded in obtaining Individual Landmark status.

4. I assisted in landmarking campaigns for Engine Company 305 / Hook & Ladder Company 151 in Forest Hills, as well as the Forest Park Carousel and the Sunnyside Gardens Historic District.

5.  Jay Dee Bakery in Forest Hills offered a great slice of Americana, but when it shuttered in 2009, I brokered a deal to have the huge neon sign salvaged.

6. I founded committees and brokered deals to spare the Moondance Diner in SoHo, and the Cheyenne Diner in Chelsea from demolition. Respectively, they were transported on flatbed trucks to Wyoming and Alabama. I then earned the nickname, “Diner Man.”
Forest Hills and Rego Park have numerous properties which fit the criteria for landmark status, but since 2005, the Landmarks Preservation Commission rejected properties for a public hearing. Despite an over 100-year history, current official landmarks are the Remsen Family Cemetery (designated in 1981), the Ridgewood Savings Bank facade (designated in 2000), and the Forest Hills firehouse facade (designated in 2012). 

I extend an invite to Mayor de Blasio and the Landmarks Preservation Commission to see Forest Hills and Rego Park from our perspective at a walking tour and meetings. Let’s work collaboratively on a city official to constituent basis, before experiencing any further architectural losses.

Extending much gratitude to the Historic Districts Council for this true honor!

Michael Perlman, Chairman of the Rego-Forest Preservation Council
Nadezhda Williams with Simeon Bankoff of the Historic Districts Council 
Preservationist Jeffrey Kroessler
Preservationists and friends of Rego-Forest Preservation Council