Our area is steeped in history. Maspeth was the first settlement in Queens and Middle Village was once part of the land chartered as Newtown. Many vestiges of our past survived for centuries, only to be torn down during the real estate boom that took place over the last two decades. These treasures had been familiar sights to most of us, but present and future children of Maspeth and Middle Village will only be able to gaze upon them in photos. Presented is a sample of what we've lost to the bulldozer:
Major James Cating served in the Union army during the Civil War and received a battlefield promotion for bravery. In 1865, the war hero settled in Maspeth and established Cating Rope Works, which became one of the area's major employers. He was also a master builder. Among the houses he constructed were three along 69th Street north of 53rd Avenue ‒ one for himself, one for his brother and one for his sister. Two of these houses are pictured above.
In 1998, the three one-family houses were knocked down and a dozen cookie-cutter two-family houses were built in their place, ruining both the history and character of that part of Maspeth, not to mention eliminating your chances of finding a place to park around there.
The Brinkerhoff House, built around 1850, once stood at the fork of two roads that can be traced back to the colonial era ‒ The Upper Ferry Road (later to be named Grand Street, and finally Grand Avenue) and North Hempstead Plank Road (now 57th Avenue). The Brinkerhoffs were original settlers in Queens and eventually owned property all over the county.
During the late 1800's, Judge William T. Monteverde purchased the Brinkerhoff house, which he lived in for the rest of his life. Besides serving as a judge, he owned Monteverde's Grand Street Park, one of the large picnic parks that Maspeth was known for at the turn of the century.
Renowned Maspeth pharmacist, Walter Fluhr, lived in this house for many decades during the 20th century. He is pictured standing on the steps of the house in this 1970s-era photo.
Mr. Fluhr had taken good care of the house until his passing. In 1990, the house was demolished, and what replaced it is this ugly, squat commercial property. Just what is the purpose of that shed next to the sidewalk, and who thought it a good idea to put it there? Note that half the building sits below ground level. No other structure along Grand Avenue is built this way.
The American Saltbox architectural design dates back to the colonial era. It was popular throughout the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries and its style was purely functional. The houses were built no higher than two floors with an attic and central chimney, and were small in area in order to conserve heat in the winter. The roof would slope down almost to the ground on the north side to serve as a windbreak, which created a shed-like structure where the kitchen would usually be located. The name "saltbox" comes from the asymmetrical shape of the house, which was said to resemble that of receptacles of the time period that were used to store salt. This house stood on the north side of Metropolitan Avenue at the corner of Pleasantview Street.
Once again, a relic of our community's past was demolished in the name of progress. In 1986, a 49-unit condominium, which looks more like a prison with balconies, was erected in place of the saltbox house and some of its neighbors. This is one of the most extreme examples of over-development in our neighborhood.
These houses stood on the northeast corner of 77th Place and Furmanville Avenue. They were built during the post-Civil War era, circa 1870s-1880s and were two well-preserved examples of the type of homes built in our area throughout the 19th century.
The two detached one-family homes were replaced by four two-family attached homes in 1996.
Thomas Morrell was one of the first settlers in the area. He came from the landed gentry of England and hoped to find a fortune here in America in 1663. He built this house, in the saltbox style, in 1719 along what is today Juniper Valley Road. It was the last original house left standing along the old colonial path.
Nine generations of Morrells had lived in the house. It was then well taken care of by its subsequent owners, the last being long-time Middle Village resident, Mr. Ecco Waltz.
In an oft-repeated outer-borough tragedy, the Manhattan-centric NYC Landmarks Commission rejected pleas from the community to preserve it, even though it was verifiably one of the oldest structures in the entire city. This hideous, out-of-character, twelve-unit dwelling took the historic home's place in 1985.
Built by Henry Schumacher in 1854, this building became John Niederstein's Hotel and Restaurant in 1888. It originally served as a rest stop patronized by those hauling their goods between Jamaica and Williamsburgh via Metropolitan Avenue (which prior to 1873 was a toll road called Williamsburgh-Jamaica Turnpike). In recent years, German fare was offered to thousands of travel weary cemetery visitors as well as to many funeral and wedding parties.
In the 1970s, its new owners modernized it by removing the porch and carriage sheds to make way for small parking lots. It ceased functioning as a hotel many years prior. The restaurant closed in February of 2005 after being in business continuously for more than 150 years ‒ longer than any other restaurant on Long Island. It was sold to the fast food franchisee, Arby's, who revealed their plan to tear it down rather than preserve it.
Niederstein's was demolished as threatened by Arby's in September 2005 despite JPCA's fight to save it. Our landmarking request was rejected, and the new owner did not save one piece of the restaurant as requested. When torn down, a prison structure was found in a sealed off part of the basement ‒ captured Rebel soldiers likely were quartered here during the Civil War. Business establishments along Metropolitan Avenue having been turned into makeshift jails during the war was a known fact, but Niederstein's had not been documented as one of those locations until this discovery. A water well and original flagpoles dating back to 1854 were also lost. This was a truly sad, undignified end for Long Island's oldest restaurant, and a slap in the face to a community trying to preserve one of its most significant pieces of history.
The drive-thru and parking lot entrances and exits at this already busy intersection are sure to create commuter chaos. And as for their food ‒ loaded with fat, salt and calories ‒ three things we could use less of in our diets, not more!
What can be done to prevent these types of travesties in the future?
The downzoning process that JPCA is working on is critical to preventing further over-development. A loophole in the current zoning law known as the "infill provision" is being phased out. This will eliminate the replacement of one- and two-family homes with multi-unit dwellings. It will also require that new homes be constructed so as to conform to the style of surrounding buildings, preserving the character of our neighborhood.
It is also important to demand recognition from the NYC Landmarks Commission. Queens County has the fewest number of designated landmarks although it is the largest of the five boroughs. And despite our deep historical roots, Maspeth and Middle Village have no landmarks whatsoever. An ugly Williamsburg warehouse built in 1915 was recently deemed landmark-worthy by the commission, while they rejected the request to grant the same status to our beloved pre-Civil War stagecoach stop. There is something seriously wrong here!
Over the next few months, I will be requesting protected status for several structures in our neighborhood, and will write a follow-up article detailing the Landmarks Commission's response. To continue to allow unscrupulous development to run roughshod over our heritage would be a shame.
Color photos by Christina Wilkinson
B&W photos and Middle Village info from Our Communities: It's History and People, Greater Ridgewood Historical Society, 1976.
Maspeth info from Maspeth, Our Town, Barbara Stankowski, Maspeth Federal Savings and Loan Association, 1977