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33-16 81st Street

Jackson Heights Historic District, Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City, New York, United States

 

The Jackson Heights Historic District comprises the most cohesive part of an innovative residential development which was mostly built between the early 1910s and the early 1950s. This development reflects important changes in urban design and planning that took place in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Conceived, planned, built in part, and managed under the direction of a single real estate firm, the Queensboro Corporation, and its president Edward A. MacDougall, Jackson Heights is one of the earliest neighborhoods in New York to introduce two new building types, "garden apartments" and "garden homes." Commercial, institutional, recreational and transportation facilities were integrated with the residential buildings to create an alternative for middle-class residents to the then typical urban neighborhood.

 

Influenced in its planning and management by a number of sources including the "model tenement" or improved housing movement in New York City at the end of the nineteenth century and the "Garden City" movement at the beginning of this century, Jackson Heights generated both national and international interest.

 

Development of Jackson Heights was spurred by such transportation improvements as the opening of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909, the extension of the subway as far as Flushing (the elevated train line along Roosevelt Avenue opened in 1917), the construction of the Independent subway line in the 1930s, and the rapid growth of Long Island City as one of the city's largest manufacturing centers. Soon after acquiring an extensive tract of farmland in the Trains Meadow section of Newtown in northwest Queens in 1910, the Queensboro Corporation began to improve its property. The earliest projects located within the district are the row of houses (1911) by architect Charles Peck on the west side of 83rd Street just north of Roosevelt Avenue, and Laurel Court (1913-14, George H. Wells), the first apartment complex, located at the southeast corner of Jackson Avenue (now Northern Boulevard) and 82nd Street.

 

These buildings followed in the tradition of late nineteenth-century housing and provide the historical context for understanding the innovative nature of the Corporation's later work.

 

Following these early projects, the Queensboro Corporation initiated in Jackson Heights an important planning concept, developed from ideas and examples of the model housing movement of the nineteenth century, which involved the treatment of the rectangular block created by the street grid system as a single unit of planning and design, rather than as a collection of individual building lots to be developed independently. This design concept is seen in the area's "garden apartments" of the 1910s and 1920s, which are among New York's earliest examples of-this type of apartment house, and in the "garden homes," clusters of attached and semi-detached houses which were built after 1924.

 

Although a number of architects, worked for the Corporation, the two most influential in the evolution of the garden apartment type were George H. Wells and Andrew J. Thomas. The Greystone Apartments (1917-18) on 80th Street between 35th and 37th avenues, designed by Wells, mark a departure from the architect's earlier Laurel Court in the reduction of lot coverage and allocation of garden space. The buildings are arranged in rows on two facing blockfronts, creating uniform streetscapes of unbroken masonry facades along both sides of the street; continuous landscaped garden areas are provided at the rear of each blockfiront. A different planning scheme was introduced by Thomas with his design of Linden Court (1919-21), located on 84th and 85th streets between 37th and Roosevelt avenues. In this complex, the buildings are grouped into attached pairs; the building wall on the periphery of the block is interrupted at regular intervals by open 'space.

 

The interior of the block is an undivided landscaped space, held in common by means of easements and deed restrictions for the benefit of the residents. This type of plan creates cross ventilation, increased light, and views from the street to the landscaped garden, and encourages a sense of community. The idea of community was strengthened by the Corporation's introduction in 1919 of a plan for the cooperative ownership of the buildings in the garden apartment complexes. Other notable examples of this type of block treatment designed by Thomas include the Chateau (1922), on 80th and 81st streets south of 34th Avenue, and the Towers (1923), on the block directly to the north. Characteristic examples of Wells's garden apartment complexes include Hawthorne Court (1921-22), located on 76th and 77th streets between 35th and 37th avenues, and Cambridge Court (1922-23), located on 85th and 86th streets between 37th and Roosevelt avenues.

 

The garden apartment buildings in the district are executed in brick and are rendered in a number of architectural styles derived from French, English, Italian, and Spanish sources, generally combining simple facade treatments with such picturesque elements as loggias, belvederes, tile and slate roofs, and decorative brickwork. Their overall simplicity of design reflects the movement in the first decades of this century away from the extensive use of ornament which had been popular during the late nineteenth century. The apartment buildings were constructed with a number of features considered novel at the time such as automatic push-button elevators, sun porches, and, at Linden Court, ground-level garages.

 

With the exception of the group of houses built in 1911, the construction of single-family (and "convertible" two-family) houses in the district was begun in the 1924. The most prolific architects of houses within the district were Robert Tappan and C.F. & D.E. McAvoy, who applied some of the planning concepts of the "Garden City" movement to the design of homes in Jackson Heights. Based on English precedents from the beginning of the century, the ideas of the "Garden City" movement had been implemented in this country in such developments as Forest Hills Gardens (begun 1909, Grosvenor Atterbury and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.) and in government-sponsored developments of the World War I era. One result of these planning efforts was the "garden home," featuring an amalgam of up-to-date conveniences and traditional design.

 

The attached and semi-detached houses in Jackson Heights, whose design was derived largely from such English sources as Georgian and Tudor architecture, form picturesque ensembles distinguished by varied materials and roof treatments. The blocks containing the houses were, like the "garden apartments," treated as harmonious design units. The rows of attached houses are set back from the building line behind front yards and broken at regular intervals by broad open spaces into discrete groups of between four and eight houses each; the semi-detached houses are grouped into pairs. The open spaces provide a system for interior circulation and increased natural light similar to that of the garden apartment complexes. The spaces between the groups of houses also allow views from the street into the interior of the block, greatly increasing the sense of open space from the public street.

 

Garages were included either under the rear of the houses, allowing a block-long greensward at the interior of the block, or a paved alley was laid down the center of the block and lined with garages designed in the styles of the houses; the pairs of houses often have attached garages. Jackson Heights is one of New York's earliest communities in which residential buildings were designed with the automobile in mind.

 

Apartment buildings continued to be built in Jackson Heights during the 1930s and 1940s; many of the buildings from this period were constructed along 35th Avenue, terminating the ends of the street blocks. Largely six stories in height, these buildings are characterized by their consistent massing and demonstrate various planning schemes around lightcourts and courtyards. Like the earlier garden apartments, many of these buildings were designed with a modest application of traditional architectural features while others reflect more modernistic trends. Dunolly Gardens (Thomas, 1939), located on the block bounded by 34th and 35th avenues and 78th and 79th streets, is a later example of the characteristic garden apartment complex, yet given a modernistic architectural treatment. Following World War II, buildings were constructed on previously undeveloped lots within the district and these buildings show sensitivity to the existing community.

 

Siting, height, massing, scale, and materials of the post-war buildings harmonize with the earlier fabric of the area.

 

Institutional buildings such as houses of worship as well as commercial buildings were also built in Jackson Heights, enhancing the sense of a self-sufficient town within the larger city. The intersection of 37th Avenue, the commercial spine of the district, and 82nd Street, another important commercial street, is distinguished by a group of picturesque neo-Tudor style commercial buildings dating from between the World Wars. The district is among the earliest areas in the city in which the commercial thoroughfares were planned to complement and integrate with the residential buildings by using the same architectural styles or by incorporating features of adjoining residential buildings into their designs. Among the institutional buildings included within the district are a public school (P.S. 69, C.B.J. Snyder, 1924), a post office (Benjamin C. Flournoy, 1936-37), and a branch of the Queens Borough Public Library (S. Keller, 1949-52).

 

At one time, a broad mall was planted down the center of 34th Avenue which led to the community's country club, tennis courts, and golf course, all of which are no longer extant.

 

The Queensboro Corporation's planned community at Jackson Heights was recognized at the time of its development as one of New York's important centers of new housing concepts, particularly the "garden apartment," and many of the ideas and features explored there are now standard for middle-class housing. From the time of its development, Jackson Heights attracted middle-class families desiring a convenient, pleasant alternative to the typical urban neighborhood. Today, Jackson Heights continues to be a vibrant community which, because of its overall design, planning, and integration of open space, as well as its high degree of intactness, has a strongly defined sense of place.

 

PLANNING AND DEVELOPMENT OF JACKSON HEIGHTS

 

The Queensboro Corporation

 

During the years of economic expansion following World War I and the "boom" years of the 1920s, tracts of undeveloped land in the boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens were made easily accessible to Manhattan by the newly-completed, rapid transit facilities. The limitations which had hampered housing reformers, legislators, and developers in Manhattan no longer held in the undeveloped areas of the other boroughs, where some developers owned hundreds of acres of unimproved farmland. One of these development firms was the Queensboro Corporation.

 

After its formation in 1909 by a number of prominent Queens businessmen and realtors, including Edward A. MacDougall (1874-1944) who eventually assumed total control of the Corporation, and with the strong financial backing of the Weightman family of Philadelphia who were among the wealthiest and largest landowners in that city, the Queensboro Corporation assembled, between 1910 and 1914, approximately 350 acres of undeveloped land in the Trains Meadow section of Newtown in Queens, about five miles east of midtown Manhattan [Fig. 7]. The Corporation's land was considered ideal for profitable development because of recent transportation improvements in Queens and the growth of the manufacturing district in Long Island City (where the Corporation relocated its headquarters from midtown Manhattan after the opening of the Queensboro Bridge).

 

The Queensboro Corporation was deeply involved'in the extension of elevated rail service to the borough and in the municipal politics of the period. During the mayoralty campaign in 1917 between the incumbent Mayor John Purroy Mitchell and Judge John J. Hylan, Hylan charged that Mitchell, while he was President of the Board of Aldermen and therefore a voting member of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, was also the legal representative of the Queensboro Corporation and he personally put through the Board of Estimate the extension of the Corona subway so as to tap the Queensboro Corporation's property. He negotiated with other members of the Board to vote for the extension which had been opposed because it lay through a section practically uninhabited. Mr. Mitchell coralled enough votes to pass the extension and then, to keep the record straight so far as the minutes of the Board of Estimate were concerned, cast his vote against the extension.

 

Indeed, the Corporation's considerable political clout is evidenced by the five stations on or near the southern boundary of Queensboro's land. The syndicate proved to be successful not only in bringing the "subway to the cornfields" but also in the domain of promotion. In 1916, the Corporation began to publish the Jackson Heights News, a chronicle of local events which served as an advertising vehicle for Queensboro's developments and was primarily a promotional tool to lure prospective residents. The first broadcast of a radio commercial, aired on August 22, 1922, was one of four ten-minute advertisements for apartments in Jackson Heights.

 

Development History of Jackson Heights

 

The first few years of activity by the Queensboro Corporation concentrated on the construction of the infrastructure: grading the property; installing water, sewer, and electrical lines; and laying streets. In planning the streets through the property, the standard grid system used in Manhattan was adopted but the pitfall of the system — the long east-west orientation of the blocks - was avoided. At Jackson Heights, the long sides of the blocks are oriented on the north-south axis, which allows sunlight into both the front and rear of the buildings.

 

Initially, the Corporation intended to develop its property as a subdivision of concrete cottages, following a construction method proposed by Thomas A. Edison, but quickly abandoned this idea and began to sell its land in 100- by 100-foot parcels. The first speculative buildings in the district were the rowhouses, designed by Charles Peck and built in 1911 on 82nd and 83rd streets, just north of Roosevelt Avenue, by Charles E. Currier, president of the Jackson Heights Building Company. The rowhouses on 82nd Street have been demolished or altered for commercial purposes, but those on 83rd Street are still standing.

 

These two-story masonry buildings are examples of traditional rowhouse design and planning and indicate what the area might have looked like had the Corporation not shifted its efforts to apartment house construction, Queensboro was not directly involved in construction until 1913-14 when it erected a group of four five-story brick apartment houses, collectively known as Laurel Court, on the southeast corner of 82nd Street and Northern Boulevard near a stop on the then-existing trolley line to Manhattan [Fig. 9], Designed by George Henry Wells, who became one of the Corporation's principal apartment building architects, Laurel Court is a group of four multiple dwellings built according to die requirements of the 1901 Tenement House Act, which specified minimum dimensions for courtyards and rear yards and a maximum lot coverage of seventy percent.

 

Laurel Court was soon followed by Wells's Oban Court and Penrhyn Court (1914-15), Willow Court (1915), the Colonial Apartments (1915-16), and the Plymouth Apartments (1916), all of which were erected along 82nd Street, the main thoroughfare linking the trolley stop on Northern Boulevard and the elevated-line station on Roosevelt Avenue [Fig. 10]. Queensboro sought to capitalize on the need for housing for those commuting to work in the manufacturing concerns in Long Island City:

 

It was first thought that the majority of artisans [employed in Long Island City] would go back and forth to Manhattan, or else go to the older sections of Williamsburgh and Brooklyn. Up to the present time this has been the case, but last summer [in 1915] several new apartment houses were erected at Jackson Heights by the Queensboro Corporation, and so successful were the enterprises that six new buildings are now under construction and will be ready for the summer renting season. But this movement is only in its infancy and the present demand is far in excess of the supply, as was witnessed with the ease with which tenants were obtained for the structures as soon as completed.

 

As the 1910s progressed, the Corporation made some of its most important contributions to the planning, architecture, and development of the city by producing a new building type, the "garden apartment." With the Plymouth Apartments and Willow Court, Queensboro had proved that substantially reduced lot coverage (fifty-eight percent compared to the legal minimum of seventy percent) was a financially sound and profitable policy. Following this success, the Corporation began construction of Wells's Greystone Apartments in 1916, and, in 1917, announced plans for Linden Court, designed by Andrew Jackson Thomas, the second major architect to design apartment buildings for the corporation. With these two projects, Queensboro demonstrated the utility and profitability of whole-block designs featuring buildings with low lot coverage and incorporating a substantial amount of landscaped open space.

 

The new direction taken in Jackson Heights seems to have been at least partly influenced by similar work being done in Europe, and especially Germany, at about the same time. In 1914, members of the Corporation had traveled abroad to visit various housing developments and were said to have been particularly impressed by two projects in the Berlin suburb of Charlottenburg.14 Built between 1907 and 1909 to house civil servants, the projects were designed by Erich Kohn and Paul Mebes, the latter of whom became one of Germany's most influential architects between the two World Wars. Set in substantial open space, the contiguous "U"-shaped buildings have landscaped courtyards that alternately open to the north and south [Fig. 11].15

 

Queensboro pursued other innovations in the attempt to make its buildings desirable; it was among the first development firms in the city to make extensive use of the automatic push-button elevator in its low-rise apartments after the Building Code was changed in 1920 to permit them. At Linden Court, ground-level garages, a novelty at the time, were provided. In addition, beginning with Linden Court, Queensboro introduced a plan for cooperative ownership of apartments and converted existing rental units in Jackson Heights to cooperatives. In so doing, Queensboro established the legal precedent for such conversions, a move which has had a tremendous impact on the New York City real estate market in more recent years.16 The majority of the buildings which followed were sold under the Corporation's plan of cooperative ownership.

 

Subsequent to the construction of Linden Court, Queensboro initiated major projects each year to the designs of either George H. Wells or Andrew J. Thomas: Hampton Court (Wells, begun 1919); Elm Court, Hawthorne Court, and Laburnum Court (Wells, begun 1921); the Chateau and Hayes Court (Thomas, begun 1922) and Cambridge Court (Wells, begun 1922); the Towers (Thomas, begun 1923); and Ivy Court, Cedar Court, and the Spanish Gardens (Thomas, begun 1924). These yearly building campaigns were encouraged by the passage of state legislation in 1920 and 1923 which allowed ten-year real estate tax exemptions on new construction.17 Moreover, in 1922, the state legislature amended the State Insurance Code to allow insurance companies to invest in housing projects.

 

The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company was a strong lobbyist for this legislation and also one of the important financial backers of Queensboro's efforts at Jackson Heights. In 1921, it had loaned over $1,400,000 to the Corporation for the construction of Elm, Hawthorne, and Laburnum Courts.19 By the following year, Metropolitan Life had loaned Queensboro almost $8,000,000.

 

In 1924, the Queensboro Corporation redirected its efforts to building groups of single-family and convertible two-family houses; the firm's president, E.A. MacDougall, is said to have made this change in policy in response to the requests of the young veterans of World War I who wanted their own homes. At about the same time, with the completion of Ivy Court (1924), the Corporation responded to those who could not afford to buy their own apartments and began to rent the units rather than sell them as cooperatives. Another reason for the new policies was that Queensboro was being faced with resistance to the expensive prices of the units in its garden apartment complexes, which had become progressively more elaborate and more costly to build: Indeed, one project designed by Ernest Flagg, for the entire block between 35th and 37th avenues, 77th and 78th streets, was halted after the foundations were laid. It was over a decade before that block was developed with Berkeley Hall and Berkeley Gardens.21

 

In the 1920s Queensboro also started selling large parcels of . its undeveloped land to outside developers with the agreement that Queensboro would act as managing agent for the new buildings for the first ten years; there were also restrictions entered into the deeds governing use, materials, height, placement of fire escapes, entrance and egress over the properties, signage, awnings, and heights of ornamental hedges. Thus, Queensboro continued to exert considerable control over the development and maintenance of the area.

 

From the earliest years, Queensboro attempted to create a complete community, not just a residential enclave, and it actively encouraged the growth of religious, educational, commercial, social, and recreational life for the residents of the area. In 1920, architectural critic John Taylor Boyd, Jr., who was among the first to write about the development of the garden apartment, wrote about Jackson Heights: .

 

It is no less than a small city. In the process [of developing the area] a community center with a building is already established, churches are organized, community recreations, such as playgrounds, golf links, gardens, are in operation on the corporation's land, stores are provided for, and other needs of a little city are planned for as they will be required. This, truly, is city planning.22

 

This community foundation was enhanced and elaborated upon over the next thirty years.

 

During the Depression years of the 1930s Queensboro found it was no longer profitable to continue to build small houses as it had done in the late 1920s. In this changing economy, the Corporation turned to the development of six-story elevator apartment houses intended for rental, increasingly the most common building type erected throughout the city in those years. The reason for the shift was given by MacDougall in a New York Times interview:

 

Building lots which were purchased twenty years ago for two hundred dollars or less now bring from twenty to thirty thousand dollars each.

 

These increases have put an end to the possibility of more small _ dwellings in Jackson Heights so far as residential property is concerned, and that type of land is now reserved for apartment houses of not less than six stories.

 

Seemingly undaunted by the financial climate of the times, Queensboro pushed ahead with a number of building campaigns in 1931. One of the most ambitious called for the construction of twelve-,to fifteen-story buildings to cover three city blocks near the new station of the I.R.T. subway at the intersection of Broadway and 74th Street (outside the boundaries of the historic district). Rosario Candela, a prolific Manhattan apartment house architect, was commissioned to design the project. A second project was a mixed-use building — which was to include a 500-room hotel, forty stores, and a taxi and bus terminal — to occupy the blockfront on the north side of 37th Avenue between 82nd and 83rd Streets.

 

Though neither of these projects were built, more than a dozen large apartment complexes were completed during the 1930s, filling in some of the sites at the avenue ends of the garden apartment complexes and open spaces such as the golf course (Dunolly Gardens).

 

Little development took place within the area of the historic district during the wartime years of the 1940s. It was only with the end of the decade and the first few years of the 1950s that construction resumed on the remaining undeveloped parcels of land. Due to limited building activity since then, the area of the district retains much of the character it achieved at that time. The Corporation had become the insurance broker and managing agent for many of the apartment houses and continued in that role until its failure in 1989. During the 1980s, many of the rental buildings within the district were converted to cooperatives, recalling the plan begun by Queensboro sixty years before.

 

The buildings in the Jackson Heights Historic District were erected between 1911 and the present, the great majority of them dating from the four decades between the mid-1910s and the early 1950s. The unusual character of Jackson Heights owes much to its pioneering development as a community of block-plan garden apartments and house groups. These buildings are complemented by later end-block and mid-block apartment buildings, as well as by commercial, civic, and institutional buildings which were built over a wide span of years. ' .

 

The architecture of Jackson Heights is characterized by an overall simplicity of design, reflecting the movement away from the extensive use of ornament popular during the late nineteenth century. Generally, simple facade treatments are combined with such picturesque elements as loggias and belvederes (on the apartment buildings), entrance porches, gables, tile and slate roofs with various profiles, and decorative brickwork. The facades of the buildings in the district are largely executed in brick, and are rendered in historically-based styles, ranging from Georgian, Tudor, Gothic, Italian Renaissance, and Spanish Romanesque in the 1910s, '20s, and '30s, to Art Deco, Moderne, and International Style in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. As a rule, the architectural expression of the buildings in Jackson Heights tends toward the conservative.

 

The names of architectural styles by which buildings are identified in this report are generalizations based on references to historic sources. The architects who designed what are called "neo-Tudor" or "neo-Romanesque" buildings did not intend to produce archeologically correct recreations of historic styles. Instead, they attempted to evoke the flavor, or suggestion, of English, Spanish or Italian buildings, and the resulting work is best described as a free adaptation, often combining elements drawn from more than one source.

 

- From the 1993 NYCLPC Landmark Designation Report

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Taken on May 8, 2011