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.

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