Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Preservation Call: Public Art in Forest Hills & Rego Park

By Michael Perlman

Forest Hills and Rego Park are home to classic examples of public art, which foster a neighborhood’s distinctive identity and are often impacted by a community’s development and societal events. However, without educating property owners about their value and applying for NYC Landmark and National Register status, artistic works are being altered or demolished rather than restored.

Rego Park resident Pat Morgan is a regular on walking tours, who explained, "The design on our architecture is the creation of an artist put together by artisans of decades past. It was accomplished usually by hand, as computers were not available in the 30s and 40s for design, and relied upon the mechanical engineering of architects and their engineers." She continued, "As we bear witness to the work of the last century, we have proof that those designers and workers were truly artisans creating works that with proper care and maintenance, can last for more than a century."

Come upon the International-style Forest Hills Post Office façade, embellished with the “Spirit of Communication,” which is a terra-cotta relief designed in 1938 by famed Sculptor Sten Jacobsson. It features a female figurine holding a carrier pigeon and a clock, relating to timely services. It was commissioned by the Treasury Department Section of Fine Arts, where the goals were to enhance the public’s experience with art during the Great Depression while assisting impoverished local to national artists. The building earned National Register status in 1988 and the sculpture is part of the New Deal Art Registry.

Places of worship often become a showcase of religious art, where one acquires an appreciation regardless of faith. The Art Deco and Bauhaus-inspired Rego Park Jewish Center, completed in 1948, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2009 in response to local advocacy. The façade displays a massive mosaic mural depicting Old Testament scenes and symbols, which was designed by the notable 20th century Hungarian-born artist Alexander Raymond Katz. 

Banks were often designed on a more elaborate scale, meant to instill confidence while demonstrating commitment. Therefore, another mosaic mural was installed on the façade of Home Savings Bank of America at 108-36 Queens Boulevard (now TD Bank). It was designed by Richard Haas, an internationally recognized architectural muralist in 1989. It was nearly demolished, until owner Cord Meyer Development Company decided to cease lease negotiations with a prospective tenant that would not preserve it. Work was executed in Spilimbergo, Italy, and features views of the Forest Hills Gardens with Forest Hills Stadium, and the Twin Towers in the backdrop. 

There are other incidents where public art has vanished or perhaps temporarily, as in the case of Bank of America at 99-01 Queens Boulevard, which opened in 1952 as the Metropolitan Industrial Bank, and has sat vacant since 2015. A 22-by-25-foot mural, which illustrated Forest Hills’ growth was a focal point of the main lobby, but may have been covered over decades ago. It was situated in an International-style building designed by the award-winning architect, Philip Birnbaum, which consists of triple-height windows, a rotunda, and a colonnade of granite columns with stainless steel fins; an achievement of open planning that made patrons feel invited at a time when the norm was to erect banks in the Colonial and Art Deco styles with traditional materials, rather than industrial materials. 

When community residents picked up a copy of The Forest Hills-Kew Gardens Post on September 18, 1942, they came across an ad for the soon-to-open Art Moderne style Midway Theatre, designed by Thomas Lamb and S. Charles Lee. It read, “The Midway Theatre has been so named and dedicated as a tribute to the gallant men of our armed forces who achieved so brilliant a victory at Midway Island.” The glory was captured in a WWII “Battle of Midway” mural, but today it could likely be rediscovered under layers of paint. Patrons were ready for a single-screen theater, where they could enjoy films and attempt to escape the pressures surrounding WWII.

Four Art Deco murals once accentuated the facades of the Thorneycroft Apartments complex, completed during the 1939 World’s Fair along 99th Street and 66th Road, but today only one 99th Street mural remains intact, while the others have been concealed and removed. “The image of a man and woman sitting under a tree, with a dog on one side and a cat on the other, adds a personal touch,” said resident Carol Hagarty. “Over the past 30 years, my husband and I had several cats and dogs as companions, so the building’s rooftop artwork came to symbolize my own little family within those buildings. I hope that other neighbors know to look up and appreciate it, since artwork adds meaning to our lives.” A former Rego Park resident David Kalfus, who recalled his childhood, said, “I was puzzled by those murals when we passed them in our explorations, and I would tell my gullible brothers they were ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.” 

“Public art is a gift to the masses that should be celebrated and treated with the utmost level of respect,” said architect Matthew Ferraro, president of the board of directors of Chatwick Gardens, an Elizabethan and Tudor cooperative from 1929 in Forest Hills that is overseeing a large-scale façade restoration. “Previous renovations may have eliminated some historic features, but capital improvements provide a unique opportunity for owners to explore the history of their property, in order to evaluate how and if particular elements should be maintained or restored.”