Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Initiative to Re-Designate Elmhurst’s Jamaica Savings Bank as a Landmark

By Michael Perlman

The new Jamaica Savings Bank, Elmhurst, circa 1968
Queens has Jet-Age buildings that merit landmark status, but sometimes they are misunderstood and unappreciated. Locally, one of the most unique Modernist buildings is the former Jamaica Savings Bank at 89-01 Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst. It was erected from 1966 to 1968, and was experimental and revolutionary in style, evoking the spirit of a 1964 World’s Fair pavilion. In 1968, the Queens Chamber of Commerce awarded the bank a bronze plaque for “outstanding excellence.” Today it serves the community as a branch of Bank of America.

In a rare move, after the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) designated the building as an Individual Landmark on June 28, 2005, City Council voted to overturn its designation in November 2005. A majority of City Council was persuaded by the owner’s claim that the bank faced flooding issues, and at the time, City Council Landmarks Subcommittee Chair Simcha Felder and Council Member Helen Sears ultimately did not defend its landmark status. Nearly 15 years later, there is renewed hope and determination by preservationists to see the LPC re-designate a unique architectural work, as the faces behind City Council and the LPC have changed, in addition to the most recent tenant.

Most notably, Council Member Daniel Dromm serving Elmhurst said the bank merits landmarking and would support the vision of Elmhurst History & Cemeteries Preservation Society, according to Marialena Giampino, the organization’s president. She said, “Our organization firmly believes this building is one-of-a-kind with its cutting edge, innovative, and unique design. It resembles something out of the future, and yet we are in the year 2020! It truly is deserving of landmark status!” 

The new Jamaica Savings Bank, Elmhurst, 1968
The LPC’s designation report referenced the bank as “one of the most unique and memorable structures on this busy multi-lane thoroughfare.” Construction began in 1966, which marked the bank’s centennial, and it was designed by the William F. Cann Company, part of the Bank Building and Equipment Corporation of America, based in St. Louis, Missouri. It opened its doors in March 1968. The designation report explained that its form is reminiscent of an elongated saddle, better known as a hyperbolic paraboloid. The LPC stated, “To create this distinctive form, Cann used reinforced concrete and bronze glass, cladding the 116-foot-long roof with copper panels” and then referred to the building as “a bold expression of 20th century engineering recalling works by Eduardo Catalano, Felix Candela, and Eero Saarinen.” “This unusual design solution created not only a column-free banking hall, but a visually-distinctive form that stands out from neighboring structures,” the report read.

From local to out of state, preservationists call on landmarking while sharing their perspectives. Mitchell Grubler, Queens Preservation Council President had much to say about the LPC and City Council. “The bank was designated by the LPC, the body charged with the responsibility for surveying, researching and determining the significance of buildings and districts that require designation in order to ensure the protection of our architectural, historical and cultural patrimony. The problem is that the designation goes to the City Council, a political body, lacking the scholarly expertise of the Commission and its staff.”

He continued, “Its hyperbolic paraboloid form is not only unique, but reflective of its time and represents the optimism for a modernist future in post-World’s Fair Queens and the nation. We need to do more to educate the public and the members of the City Council that the best of Modernist architecture is as worthy of designation as the classical banks and Victorian houses that are so venerated.” 

Former Jamaica Savings Bank, back facade, Photo by Michael Perlman
Architectural historian Frampton Tolbert founded Queens Modern, with hopes of granting recognition and preservation of unappreciated Modernist treasures. He said, “While there is a significant amount of Modern architecture in Queens, most is done by regional architects. This bank is unique, as it was designed by an architect known nationally for cutting-edge bank design. Other Modern buildings in Queens designed by architects of this caliber were typically major projects for airports, and many have been demolished or badly altered. Its eye-catching design was to attract drivers and pedestrians along Queens Boulevard, and is evocative of how bank construction and design of the era embraced Modernism.”

Utah resident Kirk Huffaker, a Consultant for Kirk Huffaker Preservation Strategies, came across this building while researching the company. “So much to the contrary of coming upon it on the street, I was in a dark archive room looking at microfilm, and immediately saw its significance and a clear interpretation of International Style architecture.”

He feels that history does not stop in a certain year. He explained, “Historic architecture, as well as a community’s corresponding history should be viewed along a time continuum. The modern styles of architecture that became prevalent in America after WWII are no less significant to preserve than the more traditional styles. As the National Register of Historic Places tells us, they should be viewed equally.”

“It angers and saddens me that financial gains, land use, and development very often comes at the expense of removing the culture and diversity which makes our city unique, so any local legislator should have the best interest of the community when making decisions that impact its future integrity and honor its history,” said local resident Debby Dip. She compared the bank’s style to the World’s Fair experience. “That was instrumental in placing our lovely borough on the map, as a look to the future. These non-designated buildings and structures and the landmarked Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center at JFK now turned hotel deserve an equal place of honor and integrity, which only landmark status will achieve.”

NYC licensed tour guide Linda Fisher considers the bank to represent the Googie/Populuxe architectural style. “It represents the aspirations of the Space Age and echoes the style of the nearby 1964-65 World’s Fair, and stands as a reminder of the days when Queens was standing on the edge of the future. The modernist flair was uplifting and fun, ready to take off in flight and head for the heights!”

In reference to landmark status being overturned, she said “In 2005, Queens’ reputation was still that of a backwards town and landmarking was disdained. Queens residents were and many still are completely unaware that occurred.”

She feels it is essential to remember what principles were valued by a community. “Each style celebrates and incorporates a guiding value, whether it is the democratic values of the Greeks and Romans or the minimalist values of Brutalism. Modernist architecture tells the story of man’s reach in the modern age, which is a story worth remembering.”

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