Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Lost Battalion Hall, Where History & Recreation Come Alive

By Michael Perlman

Lost Battalion Hall in 1940
Lost Battalion Hall linen era postcard, Courtesy of Michael Perlman

One historic site that has served as a community beacon for over 75 years is Lost Battalion Hall at 93-29 Queens Boulevard in Rego Park. From 1938 to 1939, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) funded an Art Moderne building that bears homage to the 77th Division of the U.S. Army for its heroism in the Battle of Argonne in France during WWI. Over half of its 550 American soldiers perished and are remembered as members of “The Lost Battalion.” The building was placed under Parks Department jurisdiction in 1960, and also serves the community as a recreation center for children to seniors with diverse programs and activities including art, a media lab, weightlifting, ping-pong, basketball, and fitness classes.

Lost Battalion Hall's Art Moderne facade, Photo by Michael Perlman

Lost Battalion Hall's limestone inscription with bronze tablets, Photo by Michael Perlman
WPA mural 1, Lost Battalion Hall gym, Photo by Michael Perlman

WPA mural 2, Lost Battalion Hall gym, Photo by Michael Perlman
Adorning the façade is a tributary limestone inscription with two bronze tablets of the Statue of Liberty. In a most unassuming place, the gymnasium, players encounter two “Sailor, Soldier, Marine” WPA murals of the Lost Battalion in action, which were painted by Oscar Julius in 1938 and last restored in 1995. Two bronze plaques are displayed in the lobby. One features Lady Liberty with an inscription that reads, “In Memory of The Lost Battalion. Built AD 1938 By Work Projects Admin. George U. Harvey, Boro. President of Queens.” Another memorial plaque features BP Harvey’s portrait as Lieutenant colonel, DSC (Distinguished Service Cross) dedicated by the citizens of Queens in 1946.

Lost Battalion Hall memorial plaque, Photo by Michael Perlman
Queens BP George Harvey memorial plaque, Photo by Michael Perlman
Company C 308th Infantry, Camp Upton, Lost Battalion, Jan 1918
Company C 308th Infantry, France, 1919
Historically, Lost Battalion Hall featured a firing range and drill hall for the Queens Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. This is also where the Civilian Defense Volunteer Office welcomed enrollees for World War II. In 1941, 2,000 guests celebrated President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s birthday with a dance to aid an infantile paralysis drive. Among other diverse events are square dance festivals in the 1940s, an appearance by professional basketball player Bobby McDermott in 1950, boxing matches, a Perquackey contest in 1966, and testimonials for Presidents Truman and Eisenhower.

Lost Battalion Hall, WWII civilian defense matchbook, Courtesy of Michael Perlman

Square Dancing at Lost Battalion Hall, March 22, 1943, Courtesy of Parks Dept

Square Dancing at Lost Battalion Hall, March 22, 1943, Courtesy of Parks Dept

Lost Battalion Hall, Boxing with champ Emile Griffith circa May 1962, Courtesy of Parks Dept
Lost Battalion Hall boxing circa May 1962, Courtesy of Parks Dept 
Lost Battalion Hall Perquackey contest, September 10, 1966, Courtesy of Parks Dept
Lost Battalion Hall Director David Siegel presents bust to Barnett Federoff, 1963, Today Federoff Triangle park in Forest Hills bears tribute

Mayor Michael Bloomberg presented a proclamation and proclaimed August 22, 2003 as “77th Appreciation Day” in recognition of the brave men and women who served on behalf of our nation. An excerpt read: “For 86 years, the 77th Army Infantry Division has protected our city and our nation in times of crisis. On its 86th anniversary, we salute its descendant, the 77th Army Reserve Command and its courageous and skilled members who continue this illustrious unit’s legacy of valor. The unit was established on August 25, 1917 in New York State, and was called the ‘Metropolitan Division’ because a large percentage of its membership was residents of New York City.”

77th Appreciation Day Proclamation to Lost Battalion Hall, Photo by Michael Perlman
Lost Battalion Hall security with youth coach Eric Friedman & manager Angela Elie, Photo by Michael Perlman
“I have the pleasure of meeting and working with people of many backgrounds and have a chance to listen to their experiences and learn about their customs,” said Lost Battalion Hall Manager Angela Elie, who serves the community since 2011. “We engage people of all ages and abilities through art, music, technology, and so much more. For example, I enjoy watching seniors get active through various programming.”

Elie’s service is complemented by diverse experiences including working with professional basketball players. She said, “One of our former teen members plays for Oklahoma City Thunder and won last year’s NBA All-Star Slam Dunk Contest. I felt a sense of pride watching the content and even told my husband, ‘That’s my kid!’” Other unforgettable moments include hosting Mayor de Blasio’s Town Hall in June 2017 and a holiday event with Derek Jeter portraying Santa Claus. “A most notable perk is that I get to work in a building with so much life, character, and history every day,” she said.

Elie is also grateful to educate the community about the site’s rich history. “I love meeting people that visit who are relatives of those that were part of the Battalion,” she said.

Lost Battalion Hall Recreation Center hosts a wide range of programs including some that precede the start of her position. In affiliation with her staff, she has developed, conceptualized, and launched enrichment programming including culinary arts which is offered every first Saturday. She explained, “This program is tailored for children, ages 8-13, and helps them get comfortable in the kitchen. Participants prepare three-course meals inspired by international cuisines with the assistance of New York Cares volunteers. We also host a Study the Stars Program that actively explores the field of astronomy. Participants utilize our state-of-the-art telescopes on the rooftop and are encouraged to engage with our natural environment.”

Among the humanitarian causes, the center has participated in food donations and has been part of the Department of Homeless Services’ community outreach initiatives. Additionally, it has served as a deployment site for the Board of Elections.

Elie feels that the WPA murals serve as a touching reminder of sacrifice and freedom. “I recall being in awe when I first laid eyes on them, and they’re a lovely piece of history.” In recent years, artist Lufa Rufo painted a mural that transformed the Senior Center’s walls, ceiling, and a piano with trees, birds, butterflies, and the Unisphere.

For 25 years, Eric Friedman, has served as the center’s youth coach, and feels that this historic building is a second home. “Knowing that Lost Battalion Hall bears homage to the 77th division of the US Army makes me feel proud to be an American.” He has been running tiny tot programs for ages 1-3 for over 20 years. He continued, “Watching children learn, grow, and develop is truly enriching. My programs teach and prepare toddlers for preschool, and it’s been a pleasure to work with families of the surrounding communities.”

I also coach street hockey and serve as director of the afterschool program here at Lost Battalion Hall Recreation Center. Each aspect of my position here is rewarding and fun.

Friedman has long been an inspiration. “I tell all my athletes, members, and program participants to enjoy life and respect their families and communities. As long as they focus on that, they can always reach for the stars.”

He also fondly recalls Derek Jeter’s holiday event. “Jeter handed out gifts to hundreds of children, and I can’t begin to describe the priceless expressions on their faces when he walked in.” Another highlight was hosting the New York Rangers during a street hockey clinic. He said, “The players were so receptive to the children and truly engaged our members to help them master the sport of hockey. It was great to see children interact with these athletes.”

Some events may not be as well-known. He explained, “A few Golden Glove fighters trained as part of our boxing program. We also run an Olympic weightlifting competition and had a few NBA players that played here before their professional careers began.”

Thursday, February 6, 2020

If Only It Was Landmarked…

By Michael Perlman

Howard Johnson's with the Trylon & Perisphere, 1939 World's Fair, Courtesy of Rego-Forest Preservation Council
Landmarks come in all styles and forms and are in the eyes of the majority of the public, but that is not enough to preserve historic and character-enriching buildings, districts, or monuments, and rescue them from significant alterations or demolition. Therefore, the public has the tools to advocate for the establishment of an Individual Landmark (façade), Historic Districts, Interior Landmark, or Scenic Landmark by submitting a Request For Evaluation (RFE) form to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), which may calendar properties for a public hearing to determine their eligibility.
The Landmarks Law was a gift to the people when signed in 1965 by Mayor Robert Wagner, in response to countless protestors whose pleas to halt the demolition of the original Beaux Arts Pennsylvania Station fell upon deaf ears.

A landmark is required to be at least 30 years old. The LPC states, “According to the Landmarks Law, the purpose of safeguarding the buildings and places that represent New York City's cultural, social, economic, political, and architectural history is to stabilize and improve property values, foster civic pride, protect and enhance the City's attractions to tourists, strengthen the economy of the City, and promote the use of historic districts, landmarks, interior landmarks, and scenic landmarks for the education, pleasure and welfare of the people of the City.”

Forest Hills (founded 1906) currently has three official landmarks, Remsen Cemetery (designated 1981), Ridgewood Savings Bank (2000), and Engine 305 & Ladder 151 (2012), whereas Rego Park (founded 1923) has none.

Let’s bear homage to a sample of buildings that would likely achieve landmark status, only if they were still standing. While viewing a photo of a classic building that no longer exists or reminiscing while taking a stroll, the sounds of the wrecking ball can still be heard, but only preservation can offer harmony and character, and a building’s story can continue to evolve. 

Al Jolson's house being prepared for demolition, April 2006, Photo by Jason Steinberg
Al Jolson, nicknamed “The world’s greatest entertainer” was a singer, Vaudeville, and early motion picture star, who owned a Tudor Gothic home at 68-12 110th Street. It was built circa 1925 in a section of Forest Hills developed by Cord Meyer Development Company. The brick façade featured an ornate bay window of stained glass, a distinguishable flagstone sloped roofline, and a corbelled chimney. This home was eyed for landmarking under the LPC’s Community Board 6 January 1990 draft survey, but as a result of the city’s delays, it was demolished in 2006 for a McMansion, which places remaining landmarking candidates in the Cord Meyer area increasingly at risk. 

A mundane black glass office building stands at 95-25 Queens Boulevard in Rego Park, erasing any trace of the 3-story, $300,000 Colonial mansion-like Howard Johnson’s, which was erected in 1939 and presented with a Queens Chamber of Commerce architectural award in 1940 . Its distinctive façade featured sculptures, ornamental cast stone, pilasters, a portico, and shutters, and was topped with a cupola. It was advertised as “The largest roadside restaurant in the U.S.” with 1,000 seats, and was designed by the chain’s chief architect, Joseph G. Morgan and owned by Howard D. Johnson. 

A freestanding Art Deco sign boasted 28 ice cream flavors such as chocolate chip and burgundy cherry ice cream, as well as a grille and cocktail lounge. The 1939 World’s Fair’s esteemed seafood chef Pierre Franey was at your service. Weddings were held in the Colonial Room and Empire Room. Regal appointments included crystal chandeliers, a winding grand staircase, and murals by the famed Andre Durenceau. It was the end of an era in 1974 due to standardization and changing tastes for fast food. 

1939 World's Fair Gulf Service Station, Queens Blvd & Horace Harding Blvd, Courtesy of Rego-Forest Preservation Council
Rego Park once had its own version of the Empire State Building, as in a streamlined glass block Art Deco tower of the Gulf Station on the northeast corner of Queens Boulevard and Horace Harding Boulevard. A curved façade with curved windows and stainless steel accents were among the other novelty features, since nearby service stations exhibited Tudor and Mediterranean influences. It was erected by John J. Meehan Construction Company for Gulf Oil Company. 

It was deemed futuristic, coinciding with the 1939 – 1940 World’s Fair’s “World of Tomorrow” theme, and was conveniently situated en route to the Fair when Horace Harding Boulevard was briefly known as World’s Fair Boulevard. The Gulf Station earned a 1st prize award by the Queens Chamber of Commerce in the commercial construction category. The site was redeveloped in 1987 when the 17-story Queens Boulevard Tower opened at 92-29 Queens Boulevard. 

Roman Avenue now 72nd Avenue rowhouses, Forest Hills, circa 1910, Courtesy of Rego-Forest Preservation Council
On 72nd Avenue, formerly Roman Avenue, between Austin Street and Queens Boulevard, an assemblage of ten Neo-Renaissance rowhouses once stood on parallel sides, recalling a more humble time, when Austin Street and nearby streets were nicknamed “The Village.” As of 2018, only two rowhouses remained at 108-11 and 108-19 72nd Avenue, and an out-of-context 7-stoy building is slated to rise between them. 

A plaque states, “This marker denotes the first assemblage of residential structures, still extant, erected in Forest Hills. Built in 1906, they were the beginnings of this historic, beautiful community.” They housed Forest Hills’ first plumber, electrician, and carpenter. The rowhouses were erected by Cord Meyer Development Company which named Forest Hills, and they were designed by a prominent architect, Benjamin Dreisler. Prior to 1906, Forest Hills was known as Whitepot, consisting solely of farmland.

Distinctive features are unique low-rise stoops, bowed fronts of red brick and limestone, bedrock bases, a lion gargoyle, and a variation in cornice and lintel detail, which made no two exactly alike but harmonious. Similar rowhouses were more prevalent in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but with traditional high stoops. Central Queens Historical Association, chaired by historian Jeff Gottlieb, led a dedication ceremony in 1991 for their 85th anniversary, and in 2006, the site was re-dedicated to commemorate the rowhouses’ 100th anniversary, synonymous with Forest Hills’ 100th anniversary. 

Drake Theatre, Rego Park, Courtesy of Cinema Treasures
Saxon Hall at 62-60 99th Street was renamed The Drake, and although it is praiseworthy to pay tribute, it is even more beneficial to preserve the original building. The Rego Park and Middle Village communities were once largely served by the Drake Theatre at 62-90 Woodhaven Boulevard. This 585-seat Art Deco theater movie opened in 1935 in a growing community, twelve years after Rego Park’s founding, and was designed by Charles A. Sandblom. It was mainly a second-run double bill theater. 

Theaters, whether large of small, were spaces which united the community regardless of social status. They were designed to offer a memorable experience with fine architectural features, making patrons feel welcomed and offered a temporary escape from reality. After the Drake shuttered in 1992, Joe Abbracciamento Restaurant, a NYC institution established in 1948, expanded into much of the building. The façade and sections of the interior were preserved until 2016, when the site was demolished for a mundane condo.