Friday, September 4, 2020

Historic Forest Hills Banks Merit New Lease on Life & Not Demolition!

 By Michael Perlman

Banks were traditionally erected as freestanding buildings with solid construction comprised of high ceilings and classical architectural features, to instill a sense of financial stability, integrity, security, and commitment, and were regarded as community centerpieces. In Forest Hills, three bank buildings became available over the past year, echoing the neighborhood’s past, as they were designed in harmony with their surroundings. Now community residents and visitors are hopeful that their unique period details will be preserved, whether the buildings continue to operate as a bank or are adaptively reused, which has been accomplished countrywide. 

A “For Sale” sign was posted on the façade of Forest Hills National Bank of New York at 99-00/02 Metropolitan Avenue , which most recently operated as a branch of Chase. This Greek Revival meets Colonial building style building’s façade remains mostly intact, retaining its brick and stonework consisting of pilasters, a door surround, arched windows, and a pediment. It opened in December 1928 to primarily serve a growing community of south Forest Hills which was 22 years old at that time, whereas Rego Park was 5 years old. The Queens Chamber of Commerce’s “Queensborough” publication stated, “The capital stock of $200,000 is held for the most part by Queens Borough business men who believe in the future of the borough. The bank starts with a surplus of $50,000.” It also explained that the bank operated a Special Interest department and a Christmas Club.

Daniel J. Flynn, Vice President of Jones Lang LaSalle, a commercial real estate services company, explained that he and his colleague is currently under negotiations with a buyer. The façade’s few modifications include the uppermost arched section of the windows covered with aluminum siding, replaced windows, and the building’s original etched name also covered with aluminum. The interior has dropped ceilings, but can be eliminated to reveal distinctive details from 1928. While examining the façade, he said, “I love the look of the building. It captures a bygone era, in which materials and labor were disproportionately less expensive. At this point, the buyer fully plans to utilize the building and not modify the exterior.” Considering its ideal location, he continued, “This part of Queens serves a very important function in housing and commerce.” 

The longtime location of HSBC Bank at 107-15 Continental Avenue was home to The Williamsburgh Savings Bank in 1975 to benefit Forest Hills’ growing community. It is now available for lease and its use remains to be seen. In the 1970s, the bank appointed an architect to creatively design the façade in the Tudor style, a hallmark of Forest Hills architecture, which complements the harmonious ambiance along Austin Street, Continental Avenue, and Forest Hills Gardens. A few decades ago, the commercial district was still referred to as “The Village” by community residents. The façade remains mostly intact and includes signature half-timbering, ornamental brick and stone chimneys, a slate pitched roof, a finial, Roman numeral clock, and flagpoles. 

A leasing opportunity advertises an available 6,500 square feet with an additional mezzanine and basement. It also references heavy daytime traffic and the space’s excellent condition which remains fully built out as a bank.

As of March 1975, The Williamsburgh Savings Bank, which was incorporated in 1851, increased in resources to over $1.7 billion. An ad featuring a façade rendering read, “Get a free gift at our new Forest Hills office only for opening a new savings account of $5,000, $1,000, $500 or $200 or more during the opening celebration.” Weekly door prizes ranged from a G.E. cassette recorder or a Polaroid SX-70 camera to a Raleigh 10-speed bicycle or a Panasonic 16 in. solid state TV. Grand door prizes included a trip for two to Bermuda or Las Vegas, a choice of grandmother’s or grandfather’s clock, a G.E. washer & dryer, a Panasonic Quadruplex stereo, or a Sun Fish sailboat. Nineteen prizes for a new account of $5,000 or more included a Caravelle by Bulova, a Manning-Bowman stainless steel rotisserie broiler, and a Corelle 20-piece Livingware set by Corning. For over $1,000, 14 options included an ICP AM/FM portable radio, a Sankyo digital alarm clock, and a flight bag. 

In November 1921, the Corn Exchange Bank received permission from the State Banking Department to open a Forest Hills branch at 106-24 Continental Avenue. Now it is known as Boston Market and also consists of the recently shuttered Aldo, which is being advertised as a store for rent. Around 1922, patrons were welcomed to a prominent Tudor style brick and stone building at a major intersection. It features a pitched sweeping roof with terra-cotta tiles and a spire harmonious to the nearby Forest Hills Inn, as well as tall windows with motifs of crops and flowers. The bank’s name, etched in stone, reportedly exists underneath Boston Market’s signage. As renovations were underway in Aldo nearly ten years ago, the removal of a faux ceiling revealed a much higher curved ceiling with period details, but was only witnessed by the modern eye briefly.

In January 1928, readers of “Queensborough” learned that the firm, which began business on February 1, 1853, had eight of its more than 60 branches in Queens. It stated, “The bank has a capital of $11,000,000 and surplus and undivided profits of $16,527,000. The bank entered the Queens field on August 28, 1899, when it absorbed the Queens County Bank.” The Forest Hills branch manager was Edward L. DeForest.

“Part of the lure and rewards of exploring New York’s history is how every neighborhood has its own character,” said Riley Kellogg, an adjunct lecturer in history and a licensed NYC tour guide. My hometown’s rich history teaches us about all the people who have been drawn here for myriad reasons, and how all have contributed to building the New York City we know and love. One of the most visible, and we hope lasting marks of those characters, are a place’s architecture. The evidence of who Forest Hills has been, who it is now -- who we are now -- is there to be seen in the mix of Tudor and Classical, humble and grand, commercial and residential buildings. These former bank buildings each reveal one of the faces of this ever-growing, ever-evolving neighborhood. There are good reasons to keep our older buildings. We needn't obliterate our past in order to grow our future. In fact, the future will have stronger roots, and be sounder and more truly ours, if we build with the past, rather than demolishing and forgetting it.”

Helen Day, Richmond Hill Historical Society VP, is also concerned about Forest Hills’ historic buildings. She was surprised to see Chase closing its Metropolitan Avenue branch. “It is a lovely building that I would really like to see preserved with a new use. It is large enough for a restaurant or another bank.” She continued, “The Tudor style buildings on Continental Avenue also fit well with the neighborhood. They don’t need to go to the expense of tearing a building down or doing a complete renovation of the façade. Each one of these buildings contributes to the character and appeal of their location. It is unfortunate that the businesses are no longer there, but this is an opportunity for another business to make good use of them.”

She explained a case in point. “Many period features get covered up, but that doesn’t mean you cannot uncover them. I know of a hair salon in Ridgewood, where the owner pulled out all the modern stuff and found tin ceilings and great details that she incorporated into her décor. The interiors should have as much character as the exterior! Preserving something unique will give a special look to whatever they will open at those three Forest Hills locations.” 

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