BY JON CRONIN
Historical landmarks in Queens have always been a tough battle. It is the largest and most diverse in its populace, but is not a mirror to Manhattan’s opulent skyscrapers or Brooklyn’s brick facades.
Every Queens-based historian would strongly look to define this borough through its own unique history, culture and architectural design.
Jack Eichenbaum, Queens Borough Historian, stated the main reason the borough has few landmarks may be because Queens doesn’t have the upper class that Manhattan and Brooklyn have. He noted that many of our structures are older than those in Manhattan but were not built to the same standards.
“The Landmarks Commission is run by people in Manhattan,” he said, Queens landmarks, are credited for community appeal and not as much for architectural merit.
However, he noted the caveat that the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan was landmarked, not because of its architectural significance, but because of its sentimental value to their community.
Eichenbaum said when the other boroughs became one city in 1898, “they lost the power to govern themselves locally.”
It wasn’t until 1965 that the Historical Landmark Commission was formed. By that point the beautiful Victorian houses that flooded Flushing had already been bulldozed for high rise apartments.
“[Preservationism] is skewed toward the upper class, not the working class,” said Eichenbaum. He stated that in this country property rights are sacred and in a place like Queens, where development is growing, owners do not want their property rights restricted. He believes in Queens many residents would not put landmarking first on their list of priorities.
Paul Graziano, a Queens based urban planner who has worked tirelessly on a plethora of campaigns to declare sites and districts as historical landmarks, sees the ignoring of Queens by the LPC as “systemic since the beginning.” He noted that when the LPC began in 1965, they mainly focused on the urban character of the city, not the suburban.
“The commission was more interested in brownstones and brick buildings,” he said. Beginning in 1965 the rule for a landmarking application was the structure had to be more than 30 years old or older, so then it was prior to 1935, now it’s prior to 1986.
Graziano noted that in the 1970s then Queens Borough President Donald Manes overturned the landmarking of the Steinway Piano Factory and the Triboro theater both in Astoria, and as well as the RKO Keith Theater in Flushing, which as of today only has the lobby landmarked. He suspects the motivation for only the lobby is to allow development around it.
He also believes during Claire Shulman’s term as borough president Jackson Heights was designated as a landmarked district because “it was the center of the Columbian drug trade, and it was a way to get them out of there.”
Graziano was pleased to see Douglas Manor designated in 1997, but it took 10 years. He added that it was architecturally similar to Malba, “Both on the waterfront and architecturally gorgeous.” Today, he wishes that Malba was as fortunate because he’s seen many of those potentially landmarked homes bulldozed.
He added that if not for the intimidating nature of former state Sen. Frank Padavan’s bellicose approach toward landmarking Douglas Manor, it may not be labeled a historic district today. “He put the fear of God in them,” said Graziano, “after they claimed having no interest.”
“Tell me how arbitrary and capricious this process is,” he said.
He also shared the story of St. James Anglican Church on Broadway in Elmhurst. It was built in 1734 and is one of the oldest standing Anglilcan churches. He said 10 years ago it was restored with a $400,000 grant and has been on the National Historic Register for 15 years.
He noted that later the proponents of the landmarking received a letter from the LPC stating that the church could not be landmarked because it recently burnt down and rebuilt. Graziano said the LPC was grossly misinformed and was referring to a church that was burnt down two blocks away from St. James.
“It’s sick. We are decades behind in terms of designation. We’re losing these great neighborhoods. Partially in fault of politicians, some of whose masters are the real estate industry,” said Graziano.
Most recently the City Council voted “to weaken the landmarks law,” said Graziano, which he believes is a reflection of the city council and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s philosophy of pro-development.
Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing) created Intro 775A, which takes potential designations off out the running after one year which would result in reapplication for the site.
In a statement after the vote, Koo said, “We have amended the bill to allow for more flexibility with public hearing timelines, providing one year for individual landmarks and two years for historic districts.” He added that this language follows a precedent set by the federal government and other cities.
Ivan Mrakovcic, an architect and president of the Richmond Hill Historical Society said they have been lobbying to create a historic district there since 1997, soon after they formed the historical society and will be embarking on another landmarking effort this time with smaller districts.
He’s knows that even without landmarking, Richmond Hill residents are paying to restore their homes “rather than slapping up diagonal vinyl siding.”
He believes that the landmarking committee does fear the wood frame, which is what most Queens structures are, more than the masonry and stone construction.
Mrakovcic hopes, “If [the LPC] sees the interest maybe they’ll get over their fear of the wood frame house.”
Still, he has also noticed that lion’s share of landmarks tends to be Manhattan and Brooklyn, but adds the LPC has acted positivity when the Richmond Hill Republican Club got landmarked.
“Community Board 2 in Manhattan has a landmarking committee. I wish we could have that,” said Mrakovcic.
He also believes that the LPC can’t handle the work load they have with their current staff and that their resources are stretched too thin.
Greater Astoria Historical Society President, Bob Singleton, believes that at times like this when people question what to value in the boroughs are good, for the reason that it causes people to think. “Unlike the naysayers,” he said, “I believe we stand on the threshold of what makes a successful community.”
Reach Reporter Jon Cronin at 718-357-7400 x125, email@example.com, or @JonathanSCronin