Politics & Preservation

by Dr. Jeffrey Kroessler, President of the Queensborough Preservation League

On May lst, the Landmarks Preservation Commission hosted its annual preservation awards in a ceremony at gracious Gracie Mansion. The entire preservation community was in attendance. Imagine our surprise when we opened the program to find that Borough President Claire Shulman was receiving a "Preservation Achievement Award."

The citation proclaimed she "has brought the leadership and resources of [her] office to the cause of historic preservation in Queens. From supporting the designation of the Jackson Heights Historic District to helping fund the restoration efforts at Flushing Town Hall and the Lewis Latimer House, she has encouraged the growth of historic preservation in Queens."

Our jaws dropped.

This at the very moment that the Aquacade was being demolished! Who else could merit a preservation award for tearing down a National Register structure? And for misleading the public every step of the way. We are extremely disappointed by the timing of this choice.

Let us be clear. That award was not about preservation. The three instances in the citation do not represent "leadership" in the cause of preservation. In each case, she was doing nothing less than what she was elected to do. For ten years now, preservationists have said, "Well, she's better than Donald Manes." Well, is she? Where is the evidence?

Designations have been few, and the demolition of historic buildings has proceeded apace. Manes got all kinds of grief for suggesting a grand prix race in Flushing Meadows; Shulman tears down the Aquacade and gets an award.

For evidence of her leadership, should we look at the RKO Keith's, deteriorating because the owner has willfully disregarded the landmarks law? At a recent hearing for the RKO Keith's her office was silent. How about the Hammerstein House, victim of repeated arson? Should we look closely at St. Monica's, abused by York College? Can we assume that she will support the designation of an historic district in Douglaston?

And what about Fort Totten? Has any statement come from Borough Hall mandating the creation of a Historic District there? No.

It saddens me to say that Mrs. Shulman's award had more to do with mayoral politics than with preservation. However, it is surely a measure of historic preservation's importance, even in Queens, that she is busily accepting and giving preservation awards. But in this matter, the empress has no clothes. Saying you're a preservationist doesn't make you one.

"We will protect the Fort's natural areas and offer reasonable uses for its surplus portions, ensuring ample community input throughout this process." Claire Shulman, Queens Borough President

The Queensborough Preservation League has written to the Landmarks Preservation Commission to request that Fort Totten be designated an historic district. This will protect its historic core. Governor's Island recently won this protection. Fort Totten deserves the same. The question is whether it will be decided on its merits, or await the blessing of Borough Hall.

Historic Preservation in Queens: Volume II

What do Bohemian Hall & Park, Glen Oaks, Douglaston, the First Presbyterian Church of Newtown, the Long Island City Mathew Model Flats, and Maspeth Town Hall have in common? They were all omitted from our 1990 publication Historic Preservation in Queens. That volume nominated 35 individual buildings, 23 historic districts, and 6 scenic landmarks. But we missed so much. We are now working on Historic Preservation in Queens, Volume II !

We need your suggestions for landmarks in our borough. The nominations may be individual landmarks or historic districts; religious or secular; public or private. Publicly accessible interior spaces (such as Rufus King Manor or the lobby of the RKO Keith's) are also eligible. The sites must be at least 30 years old and of historical, cultural, or architectural significance.

Become a Friend of The Queensborough Preservation League !

Queensmark Program

Stanley Cogan, of Bayside, President of the Queens Historical Society

How many times have you passed that great old Victorian or post-war modern house on the way to the station or store, and wished that it could receive some kind of special recognition or honor that it deserved?

Or how about that statue, or LIRR station, or house, or ... ?

If you live in just about any Queens community, you know what we're talking about. This borough, in spite of wide-spread demolition and development, still has hundreds of houses of heritage, just waiting to be recognized!

Queens Historical Society has inaugurated a new program called the Queensmark program. A structure or sight designated as a Queensmark will not have an official New York City designation as a landmark, but it will be a Queensmark, a recognition by the borough, the community, and Queens Historical Society, that it is something special, deserving special recognition by way of a ceremony and a plaque.

The search for Queensmarks will be borough-wide, and all interested parties are invited to submit recommendations. It will take time to get to all communities, but we plan to try.

This is the first such program in the borough — perhaps in the city. The first community to receive a Queensmark will be Richmond Hill.

The Society has started its research, and, in the Fall, will present the first awards. It hopes to choose three structures or sites, and present the awards at a time and place to be announced.

Residents, institutions, and media are invited and welcomed to participate. For further information, please contact Queensmark, Queens Historical Society, 143-35, 37th Avenue, Flushing, N.Y. 11354 or call (718) 939-0647.

The Queensborough Preservation League's



An opportunity for the people of Queens
to informally meet and discuss neighborhood preservation questions.
otable political, media, and preservation personalities will be featured.

Coming soon to a neighborhood near you !

The Aquacade Demolition: Media Outrage!

"Our Apologies, Gertrude," Queens Chronicle, April 4, 1996

The city's foolish decision to take a wrecking ball to the World's Fair Aquacade in Flushing Meadows Corona Park will have an especially harsh effect on one Queens woman in particular: Gertrude Ederle.

In 1976, long after both the 1939 and 1964 World's Fairs had come and gone, a city administration decided to name the Aquacade pool after Ederle, a Flushing resident who gained fame in the '20s by being the first woman to successfully swim across the English Channel. Now, another administration has decidedly less notable plans for the Ederle pool and Aquacade: demolition.

The decision is especially tragic because Ederle is still living, right here in Queens. Those that know her say she lives alone and is nearly deaf. But when the wrecking ball strikes in coming weeks, it will be loud enough for even Ederle to hear the sound. She will have been alive to see both the construction and destruction of the pool named for America's long-retired aquatic queen.

Borough Hall and the Parks Department say the site is near collapse, that the Aquacade is now little more than an asbestos hazard and a target for vandals. They charge that numerous fires have been set within the structure.

But much of the arena's troubles are the direct result of not properly securing and monitoring the site after the Ederle public pool was closed in 1981. The Aquacade was left to rot. It's no wonder that vandals broke in. Meanwhile, preservation groups claim that the much touted asbestos problems and other complaints have been blown out of proportion to support the city's call for demolition.

The battle over the Aquacade has been likened to the old Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, which was demolished in the 1960's despite a public outcry and gave birth to the city Landmark Preservation commission. Preservations can only hope that Aquacade's demise will spur a similar movement.

Preservationists rightly argue that the Aquacade is a historic gem that should be saved, renovated and put back into use. But the city has refused to entertain such a possibility and has focused only on forging ahead with this regrettable demolition project.

The Parks Department is prepared to shell out approximately $1.3 million for demolition and site "stabilization" costs. After the work is complete, what the city will be left with is a cement slab.

Our apologies, Gertrude.

Flushing's Olympic champion Gertrude Ederle was the first woman to swim the English Channel in 1926. A back injury in 1933 left her in a cast for years; the doctors said she would never walk again. She later stated, "When I heard Billy Rose was going to have a water show, I was determined to be in it, if I had to crawl on my hands and knees to the water." On the fiftieth anniversary of her Channel swim, in 1976, the pool in the Aquacade was dedicated to her. She said, "I hope this serves as an inspiration to both young and old." At ninety, she lives in Flushing.

The Aquacade Demolition: Media Outrage!

"The End Of A Landmark," Queens Tribune, April 5, 1996

The battle appears to be over and city officials are moving in for the kill at the old Aquacade in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. Destruction begins this month.

In this day and age, when we supposedly have become aware of the importance of preserving our heritage, here the city is going to take away a very real piece of our borough's — and city's history. The art-deco structure offered up the hit show of the great 1939-40 New York World's Fair and also was an attraction of the 1964-65 Fair. After the fair it nobly served generations of residents as a place to swim during the day and watch a show or concert at night.

The reason the building fell into disrepair was the neglect of duty on the part of our public officials whose job it is to protect the public's

property. Fear of rock concerts as a reason to demolish it is pure nonsense. The very similar Jones Beach Theater is a successful and safe revenue producing entertainment facility and it seems the same could have been done at the Aquacade.

The New York Landmarks law came into being when a shocked public witnessed the destruction of the old historic Penn Station. Now Queens residents will get to see one of their own bits of history be torn away - piece by piece — until this building joins the ghosts of the Trylon and Perisphere and other 1939 World's Fair wonders and becomes only a memory

lt's a shame. To those who made it happen — for shame!

Is this our Penn Station?

The Battle of Fort Totten

by Ray Beckerman, Esq., a resident of Jamaica Estates

One of the best kept secrets in Queens is the soon-to-be retired army base at Fort Totten.

Jutting out into Little Neck Bay, in Bayside, Queens, lies a beautiful peninsula with open spaces, rolling hills, tall trees, sandy beaches, birdlife, wetlands, a natural deep water pond, an ancient historical fort, a native American burial ground, museums, beautiful homes, and seldom used roads ideal for walking, bicycling, and roller blading. The waters adjacent to Fort Totten abound in waterfowl, and in striped bass and bluefish.

The Officer's Club at Fort Totten

Most of Fort Totten is to be shuttered this summer, and could become available for use as public parkland.

Local politicians — especially Congressman Gary Ackerman and Borough President Claire Shulman who are in control of the disposition of the property — have done nothing to inform the public about these facts, and indeed have done their best to keep all of this a secret from the public.

Although they have been discussing the disposition of Fort Totten for a year, they have done nothing to educate the public about (a) the impending closing of the property, (b) the environmental concerns for the property, (c) the laws, rules, and regulations which will govern how the property is to be disposed of, (d) the appropriate uses for the property, or (e) the appropriate methods of developing and presenting proposals for the use of the property.

They have established a "Fort Totten Redevelopment Authority" ("FTRA") — a 15 member board — which has the duty to determine to what use the property should be put. Riddled with conflicts of interest, and acting under the advice of a retiring Fort Totten army officer who is himself subject to conflicts of interest, the FTRA has met five times behind closed doors, despite public protest, to determine what to do with Fort Totten.

They have also sought to establish an "Advisory Committee," also composed of members hand-picked by Congressman Ackerman and his cronies, also to meet in secret, to "advise." This "advisory" committee like its puppet-like FTRA sister committee, is a rubber stamp meant to lull the community into a false sense of security that someone is watching, and that the community is being represented in the decision-making process. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It has become obvious to me what Congressman Ackerman and Borough President Shulman are planning: private real estate development.

Under the Freedom of Information Law, I have obtained a letter addressed to Claire Shulman's office, from private real estate developers who have teamed up with a major Wall Street investment firm, in order to put together a $500,000,000.00 investment pool, the sole purpose of which is to buy up closing military bases such as Fort Totten.

When the Bayside Historical Society hosted a panel discussion on May 16th, a distinguished panel, composed of 5 FTPA members, and 5 other persons, all of whom professed to be "concerned" with "preservation" of Fort Totten and with preserving open space and parkland, only one of the ten was willing to go on record as being opposed to private real estate development, and that one indicated that she was not necessarily opposed to privatization of the property so long as it was without new construction.

It should be obvious that when an organization like the Bayside Historical- Society — which is no doubt sincerely interested in preservation — cannot find a single person to sit on its panel who is opposed to privatization of Fort Totten, something is seriously wrong.

What is about to happen to Fort Totten — if the community is not vigilant, vocal, and resolute — is the same thing that is happening to The Presidio in San Francisco. The Presidio — like Fort Totten — is a closed army base which has beautiful historical and environmental treasures. It is now, thanks to the efforts of backroom deals among a number of unscrupulous politicians, about to be "privatized," due to a slumbering Bay Area community which thought that public revelation of the scandal was enough to stop it. They did not count on the arrogance of many of our elected officials, who — even when caught in the act — will keep their "backroom" commitments unless the public rises up and stops them.

Witness the giving away of 30 acres of Flushing Meadow Park to the United Tennis Association, and the ongoing destruction of the Flushing Meadows Aquacade, both decided in secret, and carried out with swift dispatch by Borough President Shulman.

Now the biggest land grab of them all is about to take place

And unless the citizens of Queens stand up to be counted, the beautiful treasure of Fort Totten will be "privatized" and put in the hands of a few, and diverted from its natural and highest and best use — that of public parkland.

The Battle of Fort Totten: Historical Background

The land of Fort Totten was first deeded to William Thorne in 1640. It was later called "Willet's Point" after Charles Willet, who died in 1832. His grave is just inside the Fort.

In 1821, a coastal defense survey concluded that the property would be useful. On March 3, 1857, moneys were appropriated for its purchase as a military base. The $200,000 price tag was controversial. Congress even considered an investigation. Work began during the Civil War, from a design by Chief Engineer, Colonel Joseph Totten. The design was a five sided star fort with five tiers of cannon. The walls were granite. The magazine was connected to the Fort by a 600 foot tunnel, the first vehicular tunnel in New York. New weapons developed in the Civil War made the Fort obsolete even before it was completed. Work stopped; it was never finished.

After the Civil War, the Fort became a school for the Army Corps of Engineers. It was a depot for sapping, pontoon equipment, and underwater mining "torpedoes." The garrison was described as "a busy, energetic, soldierly body of men." The Engineering School moved in 1903, and the facility was taken over by the Coast Artillery. During W.W.II, it was headquarters for various commands.

The first radar used on the East Coast was installed at Fort Totten. The Nike missile was developed on its grounds.

The Fort is currently home to the 77th Army Reserve Command which occupies 23 of the 140 acres at the facility. Organizations using the Fort include the Bayside Historical Society, US. Coast Guard, NYC Police Department Canine Unit, NYC Fire Marshall, Eastern Paralyzed Veteran Association, and local baseball and soccer little leagues.

The Queensborough Preservation League's "Historic Preservation in Queens" describes Fort Totten: a 1869 army hospital, the 1882 non-commissioned officers quarters, the 1892 old guard house and fire house, and the 1867 Greek Revival frame commandant's residence (the latter in a dilapidated condition.) The Fort and the 1870 Officer's Club (home of Bayside Historical Society) are New York City Landmarks.

In 1977, Fort Totten was declared surplus property, and during the 1980s there were moves to sell it to the highest bidder. Fort Totten represents the unusual opportunity to preserve historic structures in their own magnificent setting for public use.

The Army Corp of Engineers Insignia

— echoed by the Fort Totten Officer's Club.

"Fort Totten ... there is not a comparable site in all Queens."
from "Historic Preservation in Queens"

Why We Need to "Hold the Fort" for All!

by Geraldine Spinella, President of the Bayside Historical Society

Fort Totten holds great significance in our nation's history both as protection for New York City's harbor during the Civil War and for the accomplishments of the Army Corps of Engineers who were stationed there at the time. The stone fortifications were state of the art with the newest innovations for their day. They still inspire awe that such a feat could be accomplished without benefit of mechanical assistance.

With the many " firsts" at Fort Totten as well as the unusual plantings such as the "largest" American Basswood Tree on Long Island. We can't imagine any other use for Fort Totten than an historic park for the enjoyment and education of everyone.

The grounds can't be closed to the public. All preservation and historical groups need to add their voices to those of the Bayside Historical Society to make this park theme a reality.

The original BHS Charter mandated the preservation of the Civil War Battlements and The Castle. We have not yet been successful in becoming caretakers of the Battlements, but fortunately, the Castle is in the process of being restored and is currently our headquarters. The changing photo, document and artifact exhibits are open to all. Lectures and slide shows are usual fare at general meetings. Membership is open to all

We need you !!

June 29, 1996, the Queensborough Preservation League sponsored a tour of Fort Totten. The Bayside Historical Society hosted the event. Dozens of preservationists took advantage of this opportunity and spent an informative morning. After meeting at the Officer's Club, Bayside Historical Society President Geraldine Spinella conducted the group on a tour of the facility. Photo by Dorothy Morehead.

Bayside Historical Society

The Bayside Historical Society elected a new slate of officers They were recently sworn in by Lt. Col. Gerald Hopkins, senior advisor and mayor of Fort Totten. The Society is planning an active program for the coming year .

Geraldine Spinella is president. Other board members are Ira Chernick, Danial Donahue, Bernice Berman, Louis Theiss, Jr., Justin Dambinskas, Dorothy Newton, and Ed Russo. "We have attracted dedicated historians, professionals and volunteers who will carry the Society toward the 21st century."

Bayside Avenue Estates Aboretum

by Paul Graziano, of the Flushing Historic Trust for Preservation and Education

If preservation is to work in Queens, it must be pursued in tandem with creating stability in neighborhoods around the borough. This means reaching civic and neighborhood associations. These groups, bound by a common purpose of retaining a high quality-of-life are involved in issues within "their own backyard."

Proposed Botanical Garden: 146th Street and Bayside Avenue

Two groups, the Bayside Avenue Estates Civic Association in north Flushing and the newly-formed Flushing Historic Trust for Preservation and Education have an opportunity to work with one of the largest undeveloped properties in Flushing (more than two acres.) This site, surrounded by housing on all sides, is the last remnant of the Old Country Club golf course, formerly the second oldest private country club in the United States. When the Old Country Club was sold, this was part of a large open space dividing Flushing from Whitestone. Although it was subdivided in the 1930s, it was only developed about 1960. A contractor tried to build housing on the site — but was pressured by the surrounding residents not to build. Since then, there have been at least five different sets of developers — with plans ranging from single-family homes to apartment houses — who have tried, and failed, to build on this land.

Last year, yet another developer tried to get all of the necessary approvals to build ten houses on the site. Not only has he failed to receive these approvals, but due to a series of 'red flags,' or potential building, sewer, and public safety violations, he was slapped with a 'stop-work order.' This information is in the property files at the New York City Board of Standards and Appeals. Alleged intimidation of the home-owners by the construction company further alienated the community.

The neighborhood's defenders are examining the possibility that the property may be acquired, in trust, by a private foundation that wishes to, with the civic association's assistance, restore a 250 year tradition of Flushing: a working botanical nursery. Well before the American Revolution, Flushing's Prince, King, and Parsons farms created this nation's largest concentration of nurseries. Two hundred year old plantings from these nurseries grace the streets of Flushing to this day.

The proposed plan creates a space which will be both visually diverse and accessible to the public. This includes a miniature apple orchard, a tree nursery, an informal shade garden with a meditation glade, a formal English garden with plantings reflecting the original species propagated by the colonial families, and an international garden reflecting the cultural diversity of the residents in the north Flushing area today.

There is one structure on the property, built c.1850. Some believe it was an Underground Railroad site, and it is possible that there may be evidence on location of this usage. In the plan under discussion, that structure would be restored and the first floor turned into an education center concentrating on history (in general), and on botany and the former nurseries in Flushing. A greenhouse addition would be built to the rear of the structure to propagate plants and trees for both educational and beautification purposes.

This idea has solidified opposition to speculative development by residents in this area, many of whom live in historic structures that have survived wave after wave of development. Hopefully, this will finally put to rest the question of the last never built-on open space in Flushing.

The Trees of Flushing

Flushing's Weeping Beech Tree Parson's Nursery: 1847
New York's first Living Landmark
Flushing's Cedar of Lebanon
Parson's Farm c. 1710
Destroyed by lightning c. 1930

Control, Stability, Renewal

by Jeffrey Saunders, Architecture Department, Jackson Heights Beautification Group

In the prior edition of the "Telegraph." Part 1 of this article discussed the negative changes being forced on a community by many forces.

If the neighborhood is eligible‚ landmarking by the NYC Landmark Preservation Commission changes this downward‚ lowest common denominator dynamic.

Under LPC landmark designation‚ where these changes have already happened‚ much of it will gradually be upgraded during the ensuing decade and new instances stopped. Wrought-iron style lampposts can be restored. Softness can be renewed where coarseness has crept in. The attitudes of residents and visitors changes. Upgrade replaces degrade as an expectation. Appropriateness replaces cheapness as a right.

What do we give up in exchange? The right to make out-of-character alterations to the exterior facades of our co-ops‚ homes and stores without prior consideration of the effect upon our neighbors.

All around us‚ other people's brainstorms don't have to become our real-estate‚ lifestyle‚ and (in the case of shopkeepers) income devaluing problems or nagging visual disappointments. People must begin to pay attention to the impact of exterior changes on their neighbors by filing an LPC application for change.

By mutually accepting this fair deal‚ we can largely put an end to others repeatedly forcing their random negative changes "down our throats" with no recourse. For these and other reasons‚ where a community is eligible‚ LPC Landmark designation is one of the most constructive things which can happen to a neighborhood in New York City.

Designation of an eligible community as an historic landmark district, returns control back to it's residents over their future. Finally‚ neighborhoods‚ blocks‚ we can regain control of our heritage‚ achieve stability of value‚ and again experience renewal and upgrade as a way of life.

Queens Borough Public Library History Project

As part of the Queens Borough Public Library's centennial celebration, the Long Island Collection, founded in 1912, is seeking materials related to the history of Queens.

The Long Island Collection welcomes the donation or long-term loan of historical materials. All material will become part of the collection of the library. If donation is not possible, the Library may copy the original and include a reproduction in the collection.

Please call the Long Island Division at the Central Library 718-990-0770 for further details.

The LPC Listens:
Jackson Heights Rules Upgraded

by Adrienne Sumowicz, President of the Jackson Heights Beautification Group

What has seasoned Manhattan-based preservation insiders stunned? Answer: Jackson Heights in Queens received a dramatic upgrade of its proposed written rules, even after "insiders" thought the weak rules were a "done deal." Jackson Heights remains admirers and strong supporters of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

What went right? Jackson Heights accomplished what its friends in Manhattan thought was mostly un-doable based on four key elements:

Integrity: The Landmarks Preservation Commission's (LPC) Preservation Staff has it, and used it. They abandoned the old proposal and did a complete upgrade to get the rules right. The Director of Preservation — Alex Herrera — personally rewrote the Jackson Heights rules.

Responsiveness: The Giuliani administration together with the Chairperson of the LPC — Jennifer J. Raab — realized the Jackson Heights community had turned the expected reaction upside down. Rather than being pleased, we were alarmed at the prospect of rules which were vague and weak, Representatives of the business and residential communities wanted the rules to be strong, detailed, and clear. The administration responded with exactly that.

Alliance: A coalition of informed, responsible organizations was forged including business, residents, minorities, and preservationists within Jackson Heights, allied with the Society for the Preservation of Architecture, Historic Districts Council, Queensborough Preservation League, and the Queens Historical Society. They were a potent force with a consistent message. In fact, the handful of testimony that the vague rules were "about right" was marginalized by the outcry from informed quarters in favor of strong, specific, detailed, clear rules.

Patience: Undergirding the passion of the debate was a thoughtful, detailed list of changes sought by the community. These were organized and articulated in a way helpful to LPC staff. This was met with patient efforts to understand the problem by the LPC's staff.

Most outstanding differences were bridged, clarified, or dropped. For example, Jackson Heights, in keeping with its heritage, is now the only large commercial area under LPC oversight in which no signage will be allowed on the slopes of awnings, except in rare situations. Jackson Heights will not have red storefronts, or signs on bulkheads (below display windows), or garish awning colors.

The outcome is a renewal of our faith in the LPC. The Commissioners have long been fair, open-minded, and frequently tough, with the businesses and residents of Jackson Heights, and the rules now affirm their intent to continue. This is exactly what we wanted. Merchants can now know — in plain English — what is expected of them, saving significant time, frustration, and cost.

Our advice to Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx: Provided you are prepared to work hard to effect the changes you need, when LPC staffers show up with proposed rules, embrace the idea. The Jackson Heights rules are clear, specific, and detailed — just as originally requested by business and residents. They are good business, preservation, and social policy made possible because of the LPC's willingness to listen and change.

Return to The Telegraph, Summer 96 Table of Contents

Go to The Telegraph, 1996 Part 2

Go to Preserve & Protect

last rev. 7/6/97
by David Goldfarb