We chose Elmhurst and Maspeth for our latest Forgotten Tour because a lot of history, both treasured and threatened, is located here in a 30-block area. The neighborhoods have lengthy and rich intertwined histories: early English colonists in Maspeth, who first arrived in 1642, were forced within two years by the objections of the local Native Americans to flee. Some moved back to Manhattan, and some settled further east, to about where Queens Boulevard meets Broadway today; the new town was logically named Newtown. By the mid-1800s, horse cars and eventually streetcars began to bring in people from all over, and when Cord Meyer developed the area in the 1890s, he lobbied for a higher-class name…Elmhurst. Strangely, the IND subway, which arrived in 1936, keeps the Newtown name at a station, and Newtown High School retains the old moniker, as do a pair of roads in Astoria that were formerly main thoroughfares leading to the town.
On our Forgotten New York Tour of November 19th, we went in the opposite direction than the colonists, due to the vagaries of the NYC subway system, which was extended to Elmhurst in the 1930s, but never to Maspeth; we began in the heart of Elmhurst, the confluence of Queens Boulevard, Broadway and Grand Avenue, and made our way west, stopping just shy of Maspeth’s westernmost limit.
In this article, we will focus on the architecture and history of Elmhurst, first settled as Newtown in 1644.
Old St. James Episcopal Church, Broadway and 51st Avenue
The old St. James Episcopal Church parish house at Broadway and 51st Avenue is a relic of colonial rule, having been chartered by George III and erected in 1734: it is Elmhurst's oldest remaining building. It enjoyed a renaissance in 2004 when city and state grants totaling $400,000 were employed to make over the exterior, complete with replicas of the hall's original adornments. Its clock tower, which blew down in a storm in 1883, has never been replaced, however. Its replacement, the “new” St. James, was built a block to the north in 1848, but it burned down long ago and an A-framed brick building has taken its place. Old St. James is now a community center, welcoming Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, as well as boy and girl scout troops.
Dutch Reformed Church of Newtown, Broadway and Corona Avenue
Directly across the street from Old St. James is the Georgian Greek Revival Dutch Reformed Church of Newtown, wedding-cake white with Tuscan-style columns. It has been here since 1831, but it replaced an earlier edifice dating to 1735, and the ancient stones in its churchyard attest to the age of this congregation. Here, Corona Avenue begins an almost comically zigzag route to Flushing Meadows. The Dutch Reformed Church is an official New York City Landmark.
Newtown High School, 48th Avenue and 90th Street
CBJ Snyder’s Flemish Renaissance Revival masterpiece with its 169-foot tall, 5-peaked tower seemingly lords over its low-rise neighbors like a castle in a medieval fiefdom. The school’s motto is “We tower above the rest.” It was completed in 1921. The high school itself was founded in 1894 and had a graduating class of one in 1900. Today the school educates as many as 4,500 students. It can also make a surprising view when you follow O’Connell Court, an L-shaped alley on 50th Avenue west of 90th Street. Newtown High School is an official New York City Landmark.
Horse Brook, Justice Avenue/56th Avenue
Horse Brook was once an over-ground stream running from Justice Avenue and 56th Avenue west to about Codwise Place and Grand Avenue. It has long been diverted underground since Elmhurst was built up. Justice Avenue runs along the path of an ancient railway, the White Line, which diverged from the Flushing and North Shore Railroad in the mid-1800s. The Flushing and North Shore was absorbed into the LIRR, while the White Line went extinct. A Victorian era home stands nearby that must have been here when horses watered in the brook, and trains rattled on long-vanished tracks.
Jamaica Savings Bank, Queens Boulevard at 55th Avenue
The arrival of the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows in 1964 was symbolic of the Swingin’ Sixties, space-race go-go attitude the country had at the time; the war in Vietnam had not yet become an albatross and there seemed to be a boundless enthusiasm about the future and the wonders it would produce. Architects seemed to get the message as well and it was then that several extraordinary buildings were produced along Queens Boulevard. George Jetson would feel at home zipping by the sweep-angled, glass-fronted Jamaica Savings Bank near 55th Avenue, which resembled a Stealth bomber on one side and a modern cathedral on the other. Its 43-foot height is attained by thin-shelled concrete that enables support without interior columns. At present it is a branch of North Fork and, alas, the City Council overturned the Landmarks Preservation Commission's decision to designate it. Rumor has it that some local Philistines would like it torn down in favor of a more conventionally designed building.
Elmwood Theatre, Hoffman Drive and 57th Avenue
Double alas, since the Elmwood Theatre’s current owner, the Rock Community Church, is stripping away the building’s former gorgeous terra cotta facing and replacing it with stucco. The theatre dates to 1928 when it was built in the golden age of cinema construction by architect John Schalditz as the Queensboro Theatre. In 1948, it was named for its neighborhood, Elmhurst, and nearby Woodhaven Boulevard. It showed its last feature in 2002. Similarly, Rego Park’s Trylon Theatre in 2005 suffered from similar treatment, as its mosaic renderings of the original Trylon, a symbol of the original 1939-40 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, were jack-hammered to oblivion; Queens is a borough that rewards its latter-day developers, not its rich history.
Town Burying Ground, 56th Avenue and 92nd Street
The site of this playground had been used as a cemetery from 1730 through the 19th century. Some of the earliest founders of Newtown are buried here, including members of the Moore and Fish families. The city converted the land into a park in 1935. In 1997, the park was redesigned, with open green spaces created over areas that contain remains, and the original cemetery wall was reconstructed with traditional materials. The ring of cherry and beech trees found here was planted to memorialize the townspeople buried in the lot who have no markers to identify them.
First Presbyterian Church of Newtown, Queens Boulevard at 54th Avenue
This congregation dates back to 1652. Rev. John Moore (whose descendant, Clement Clarke Moore, penned the poem, “The Night Before Christmas”) was the first minister of the congregation. The church was involved in the signing of the Flushing Remonstrance, which was instrumental in establishing freedom of religion in the colonies. The church building has had many incarnations. The current Gothic style brownstone and granite structure was built in 1895 with $70,000 left to the church in the will of one of its elders. The architect was Frank A. Collins. The cornerstone, laid in 1893, contains a time capsule.
Elks Lodge 878, Queens Blvd. and Simonson Street
This handsome brick building on Queens Boulevard near 51st Avenue was once the largest Elks Lodge on the East Coast, with 60 rooms, bowling alleys, billiards, a ladies’ lounge, and a 50 foot bar. The Elks don't own the old place any more: it's been sold to the New Life Fellowship, a Korean church organization, but the Elks remain as tenants. The Ballinger Company designed the granite, limestone and brick structure dominated by a now-verdigris-covered elk at the front entrance. For a couple of decades, Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) bouts have been held here featuring some of the legends of “sports entertainment” such as the Sandman and Mick Foley. The Elks Lodge is an official New York City Landmark.
St. Adalbert Church, 83rd Street south of Grand Avenue
St. Adalbert's was founded as a parish in November 1892 by a small group of Polish immigrants to respond to the needs of the Polish-speaking people of Elmhurst, Maspeth, and the surrounding areas. The church, at the peak of one of Elmhurst’s higher hills, can be seen from Woodside. The present-day church structure was erected in 1947.
Matthews Houses, Grand Avenue between 79th Street and Calamus Avenue
Where Maspeth meets Elmhurst is a large group of handsome yellow-brick 2 and 3 story buildings. These are the Mathews Company row houses built by Louis Allmendinger, a protegé of Gustave Mathews, who built block after block of row houses in nearby Ridgewood between 1900 and 1920. These houses went up in 1930 and use the same Kreischer brick the Ridgewood houses have.
Gas Tank Park and Rock, Grand Avenue west of 80th Street
For over eight decades, as first trolleys plied Grand Avenue and then cars drove along the LIE, commuters could always assure their location with the help of two gigantic red and white steel structures. After the tanks were taken apart piece by piece by 2001, Mayor Bloomberg purchased the site from Keyspan for $1 for use as a public park at the request of the Juniper Park Civic Association.
Two other huge gas tanks on Maspeth Avenue in Brooklyn just west of Newtown Creek were imploded dramatically in August 2001.
These were just some of the highlights – we visited 20 interesting Elmhurst locations during our Sunday stroll. The Maspeth segment of the tour will be featured in the next issue of the Juniper Berry.
Kevin Walsh is the creator of website Forgotten New York (www.forgotten-ny.com) and author of Forgotten New York, HarperCollins 2006, a distillation and continuation of the website.
Christina Wilkinson is the historian of the Juniper Park Civic Association and a Forgotten New York correspondent.