The State of Landmarks in Queens…16 years ago

In the course of doing research on another topic, we came across this article in The New York Times from February 1993.  Since then, the following areas which are mentioned have been designated as landmarks or historic districts: Jackson Heights (1993), Douglaston (1997) & Douglaston Hill (2004), Sunnyside Gardens (2007) and most remarkably, Jamaica Savings Bank (2008 & affirmed by City Council!).  Astoria, College Point, Forest Hills Gardens and Kew Gardens, as well as the Steinway Houses are still unprotected, to say nothing of many of the other potential landmarks and historic districts mentioned in Dr. Kroessler’s book.

 February 3, 1993
Historic Preservation Comes of Age in Queens; Scarcity of Landmarks Reflects Distrust Within the Borough and Snobbery Outside It

To preservationists, the history of the city’s landmarks law is littered with the ruins of the architectural and historical treasures of Queens.

Even as the law has protected hundreds of historic buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn, preservationists in Queens have watched with dismay as many of their most cherished landmarks have fallen: Jacob Riis’s stately 19th-century home in Richmond Hill, the Bodine Castle overlooking the East River in Long Island City and the Loew’s Triboro Theater in Astoria, one of the grand palaces of the Golden Age of movies.

Nearly three decades after New York City enacted the nation’s strictest landmarks preservation law, Queens has the fewest landmarks of any borough. The scarcity reflects a deep distrust that many in Queens feel toward any meddling by Manhattan bureaucrats, as well as what some have seen as anti-borough snobbery in the preservation community. But it also stems from the legacy of one man, Donald R. Manes, the former Borough President, who wielded his power to block many landmarks in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

In recent years, however, as the pressures of development have increased, especially with the influx of immigrants, and as the leadership of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission has changed, a nascent preservation movement has gained momentum and political support in its effort to preserve the historic buildings and neighborhoods that have shaped the identity of Queens.

Now, after years of hostility and frustration, of resistance and political machinations, the commission is weighing an issue that preservationists see as a test of the city’s and the borough’s readiness to accept landmarks in Queens: whether to designate as a historic district the elegant early-20th- century buildings in Jackson Heights that gave garden apartments their name.

“Queens is an anomaly,” said Jeffrey A. Kroessler, president of the Queensborough Preservation League. “When I look at Manhattan and Brooklyn and all the landmarks they have, at the pride they have, I just don’t know. There hasn’t been the political support. It’s so unnecessary, because there are so many great buildings and so many historic districts in Queens.”

The city’s landmark law, which restricts the demolition or exterior alteration of designated buildings, has always provoked strong reactions, pitting the desire to preserve the city’s rich history against the rights of homeowners and developers.

In the 28 years since the law took effect, the city’s landmarks commission has designated 931 landmarks and 58 historic districts, the vast majority in Manhattan: 625 landmarks and 36 districts. Brooklyn has 127 landmarks and 15 districts; the Bronx has 57 landmarks and 5 districts; Staten Island, 86 landmarks and 1 district.

In Queens, first settled by the Dutch in the 1600’s but largely developed in this century, there are only 36 landmarks and one district, a small block of 19th-century row houses in Hunters Point.

“There hasn’t been a strong preservation ethic, so there’s not very much designated,” said Laurie Beckleman, chairwoman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, who has promised to consider areas she acknowledges lack their share of landmarks: not only Queens, but also the Bronx and Staten Island. “I blame it on a few people who held the power and said, ‘This is my town and you’re not going to tell me what to do!’ ”

No one reflected that sentiment more than Mr. Manes. With his vote and power on the Board of Estimate, Mr. Manes often vehemently opposed landmark status, including during the bitter, unsuccessful effort over the last historic district proposed in Queens, the row houses in Steinway. From 1973 to 1989, the board, which gave final approval to landmarks until the City Council assumed that role in 1990, rejected or modified 19 sites designated by the commission. Nine were in Queens.

Reputation for Hostility

Frances A. Eberhart, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said that the borough’s reputation for hostility to landmarks became such that the commission and preservationists simply gave up, not even proposing other buildings or districts. “The powers that be didn’t want them,” she said, “and the landmarks commission looked elsewhere.”

The City Council Speaker, Peter F. Vallone, said Mr. Manes simply reflected the views of constituents, especially developers and middle-class homeowners, who feared the legal restrictions and rejected the value of landmark status.

“He was typical of most in Queens,” Mr. Vallone said. “He viewed it as another intrusion from Manhattan to the outer boroughs.”

Short Shrift

While Queens lacks Manhattan’s concentration of historic sites, it does not lack architecturally significant buildings and districts. But preservationists say the borough has not received the attention it deserves.

“The landmarks commission is after all located at City Hall and it tends to have the vision of City Hall,” said Barry W. Lewis, an architectural historian from Kew Gardens. “They have to see brownstones. If they don’t see brownstones, they don’t think it has anything to do with New York City.”

Preservationists say that neglect has marred some of the borough’s most distinguished neighborhoods, in which valuable buildings have been altered or demolished.

In 1990, the Queensborough Preservation League published a book listing 35 structures and 23 neighborhoods that it said deserved landmark status but faced threats, from the Hell Gate Bridge and Queens College to entire districts, including Astoria, College Point, Sunnyside Gardens, Forest Hills Gardens and Kew Gardens.

“It’s a race against time in Queens,” said Kevin Wolfe, the president of the Douglaston and Little Neck Historical Society, which has begun the long process of seeking designation for the stately homes of Douglaston Manor. “There are many wonderful buildings here, and right now, it’s anybody’s right to do what they want with their property.”

A New Awareness

Now, though, a new awareness of the importance of preserving unique or significant buildings and neighborhoods has risen in Queens. Nascent efforts to designate several buildings and districts, including those in Jackson Heights, Douglaston and Kew Gardens, have so far not encountered the resistance of the past.

“Donald Manes had his own views on landmarking, but he’s not here anymore,” said Peter Magnani, the deputy to Borough President Claire Shulman, who has strongly favored landmarks. “This is a new era.”

Still, echoes of hostility remain.

Preservationists cheered last year when the commission designated the Jamaica Savings Bank on Jamaica Avenue, 17 years after the Board of Estimate rejected the commission’s first attempt to designate it. Their hopes collapsed in September, however, when the City Council overturned the designation.

The Council, including the entire Queens delegation, rejected the designation of the four-story Beaux-Arts building built in 1897 after the councilman who represents Jamaica, Archie Spigner, lobbied against it.

Mr. Spigner said he opposed designation because the local community, including the owner, did not want it, even though preservationists, the Borough President and the Queens Chamber of Commerce did. The designation, he said, would have “impeded the utilization of that building.”

‘An Elite Group’

Mr. Spigner said that he did not oppose landmark designation, but that problems arise when “an elite group of preservationists” interfere in others’ neighborhoods.

“I think landmarking is so subjective,” he said. “Everybody has his or her own standards for applying it.”

Preservationists, who have begun using Mr. Spigner’s name as a verb to signify opposition to landmarks, reacted angrily to the Council’s vote. Mr. Kroessler of the Queensborough Preservation League described the vote as a throwback to the Manes era.

“That was a tough loss,” he said. “We ran into political horse-trading of the highest caliber. If this sets a precedent, it’s going to be a problem not only here in Queens, but all over the city.”

The Council’s vote also created apprehension about the future of the designation of 500 homes on 38 blocks in Jackson Heights, a designation that has support from residents, the community board, the Borough President and the local City Councilman, John D. Sabini.

Cohesive Ambiance

Frank B. Moon, the president of the Jackson Heights Beautification Group, said the long process to seek landmark status began with the appearance in the neighborhood of boxy modern apartment buildings and, more recently, the steel girders of an office building. The development, he said, threatened the cohesive ambiance of a neighborhood that has changed little since it was built early in this century as an antidote to the congestion of Manhattan.

As he walked along the mannered blocks the other day, away from the bustle of commerce and the clatter of the elevated subway on Roosevelt Avenue, Mr. Moon pointed out the arboreal sidewalks, the luxurious gardens, the gables and griffins, columns, arches and other ornate details that adorn elegant apartment buildings like the Greystones, the Chateau and the Towers.

The apartments, as well as dozens of houses, were all built by Edwin A. MacDougall and his Queensboro Corporation, who envisioned a unified community, modeled on the garden suburbs of England and Germany. The buildings included many of the first amenities of the modern age: cooperative ownership, driveways for cars and the first self-operated residential elevators.

“There is no Ansonia,” Mr. Moon said. “There is no Gracie Mansion. There is no Chrysler Building. There are none of the landmarks that Manhattan has. But there is a groundbreaking plan, a vision that makes this a wonderful place.”

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