Neighborhood at risk: Kew Gardens

Kew Gardens is one of seven planned communities developed in Queens between 1870 and 1950. The homes in this garden suburb, designed to make the best use of fresh air, sunshine, and peace of the country, were built primarily between 1910 and 1930.

Manhattan lawyer and developer Albon P. Mann (1811-1891) purchased the farmland in 1868 and named it North Richmond Hill. While the first house went up in 1872, the community was slow to grow and remained a sleepy area with dirt roads for a number of decades. The main attraction was the Richmond Hill Golf Course, opened in 1895. It closed thirteen years later when the Long Island Rail Road main line was electrified and its route modified, taking it straight through the course.

In return for losing its golf course, the neighborhood gained a train station that opened in 1910 and proved to be a huge attraction for would-be residents. By this time, Mann’s sons had inherited their father’s investment and renamed it Kew Gardens, after the famous botanical gardens in England. In 1912 they formed the Kew Gardens Corporation and set about laying out the street plan and developing the land. They also sold some parcels of land but with restrictive covenants that ensured the quality and style of new homes in the neighborhood.

The Homestead Hotel, Grenfell StreetOver the next two decades, a neo-Tudor village of small apartment buildings with ground-floor stores above grew up immediately around the train station. The Homestead, a neo-Georgian hotel, opened in 1921, providing visitors and locals a fine restaurant, a ballroom, and an outdoor roof terrace. A combination of private, freestanding homes for one or two families, townhouses, and apartment complexes were built around the town core. An abundance of greenery was planted providing naturalistic settings for each building.

Homes of varying size, type, and style line winding streets. Influenced by the Arts-and-Crafts movement, they were designed in a number of revival styles including Tudor, Dutch Colonial, Spanish Colonial, and Georgian. These homes exhibit the American post-Victorian desire for a “comfortable” home, one that was more open and informal than in the previous century.

In 1915, the neighborhood’s first large apartment building, the Kew Bolmer, opened. Some homeowners protested, but after World War I New Yorkers increasingly accepted apartment life as a respectable alternative. By 1936 there were more than twenty such structures in eclectic revival styles. Ralph Bunche House, 115-25 Grosvenor Road

In addition to businessmen attracted by the 16-minute train ride to Penn Station, Kew Gardens became the home of an artistic and intellectual set. In the 1910's and 1920's, neighbors included film and stage stars, writers, musicians, and artists such as Charlie Chaplin, Will Rogers, Anais Nin, Dorothy Parker, Joseph Lhevinne, and George Gershwin. United Nations diplomat and Nobel Prize winner Ralph Bunche’s home is now an individual New York City landmark.

Like neighboring Richmond Hill, Kew Gardens is threatened by out-of-scale development that ruins the carefully planned proportions and open spaces of the neighborhood. Residents have looked to rezoning as well as landmarking as a possible way to alleviate this issue. Kew Gardens’ character is also jeopardized by insensitive “improvements.” Oftentimes inappropriate materials are used to replace original brick, stone, stucco, shingle, tile, and wood, materials so important to the integrity of these Arts-and-Crafts inspired homes.

For more information contact Murray Berger, Kew Gardens Council for Recreation and the Arts, Inc. at 718-263-7180

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