Missing Historic District Street Sign to Return to Jackson Heights

New York City’s historic districts are a heterogeneous bunch – ranging from the modest carriage houses of Shingle homes of Ditmas Park to the Beaux-Arts buildings of the Upper East Side, but most of them have at least one thing in common; terra-cotta street signs. These warm-brown signs, designed by Massimo Vignelli, are the first indication to visitors and New Yorkers alike that they are in a designated New York City historic district and serve an important public awareness role for preservation (to say nothing of their de facto regulatory aspect of alerting the public that if there’s work happening to the building – the LPC had better know).  The program was created by Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel (this year’s Landmarks Lion), gained the appropriate design approvals and was launched in celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Landmarks Law in 1990.  Since then. the signs have become New York City icons, appeared in films and television and have been duplicated in other cities around the world.  The initial signs for the then-80-plus historic district were funded by an anonymous donor with the intention that the City would provide appropriate signage as new districts were designated. This was agreed-upon but failed to be kept in practice, and unfortunately now, communities are responsible for providing funds for their own street signs, often through discretionary city council or private funding. This strikes us as a rather sad state of affairs, quite like asked to pay to print your diploma – but we suppose that happens too.

One of the most remarkable street signs in the program was the one installed in Jackson Heights, on the corner of 35th Avenue and 81st Street.  The letters in the sign (pictured above)  are marked with “Scrabble” point values – commemorating the invention of the game by local architect Alfred Mosher Butts, a parishioner at the nearby Community United Methodist Church (legend has it that Butts game-tested his invention at the church).  When Dr. Diamonstein-Spielvogel learned this history (in the course of researching her Cultural Medallions project), she felt the street sign was a wonderful way to pay homage to the beloved game and got Hasbro, who owns the rights to Scrabble, to allow the usage.  It was a hit, “a Jackson Heights icon” in the words of Councilmember Daniel Dromm – so much so that three years ago, it went missing.  As recently reported in The New York Times and the Daily News,  CM Dromm, a former teacher and Scrabble enthusiast,  has been instrumental in getting the sign replaced – a local item of concern during his 2009 campaign for office. “I think it’s important for people to know and understand the history of the community.” CM Dromm is also a strong supporter of the campaign to extend the Jackson Heights Historic District, one of HDC’s Six to Celebrate. We applaud his commitment to preserving his community’s history and look forward to continuing to work with him.

Posted Under: Jackson Heights, landmark lion, Queens, Six to Celebrate, Streetscape, The Politics of Preservation

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