In two shocking revelations, both the NYS Office of Historic Preservation and the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission have admitted that the St. Saviour’s site contains the potential for recovery of archaeologically significant materials, including human remains.
Juniper Park Civic Association has long argued that the St. Saviour’s site is likely to contain historical artifacts and possibly burials. Both LPC and SHPO ignored those claims and quickly rejected the property.
However, archaeologist Linda Stone recently uncovered two key pieces of information during her research that prove that the LPC & SHPO knew that our claims were valid, yet withheld this evidence while repeatedly rejecting the civic association’s applications for landmark designation and listing on the state historic register.
Amanda Sutphin, an archaeologist for LPC, wrote in an Environmental Review letter dated August 3, 2006: “LPC review of archeological sensitivity models and historic maps indicates that there is potential for the recovery of remains from 19th Century occupation for the … borough, block and lot locations within the study area … Also, the question of the presence or absence of human burials on this portion of the property needs further investigation and resolution.”
A map obtained by Ms. Stone from the New York State Historic Preservation Office shows that the St. Saviour’s site sits within an area deemed by the state to have high archaeological potential.
Ms. Stone stated in a recent report to JPCA: “With the currently available information, it is not possible to eliminate the possibility of finding human remains. In addition to the previously mentioned potential buried resources, the property may also contain remains associated with Revolutionary War activity.”
Indeed, Maspeth and Middle Village were deeply involved in the American Revolution. Lucky American soldiers evaded capture by hiding in Juniper Swamp (now Juniper Valley Park) while those less lucky were kept prisoners of war in taverns along what is now Metropolitan Avenue. One of the entry points for the British invasion of Long Island was Newtown Landing, where the town dock stood. From here they raided nearby homes and businesses. The settlement of Maspeth at that time was concentrated around the headwaters of Newtown Creek. The summer home of Walter Franklin was taken over and used as British army headquarters. After the war, it became the summer home of Franklin’s daughter and her husband, Governor Dewitt Clinton. It was at this house that Clinton was believed to have come up with the plan for the Erie Canal. Clinton’s son-in-law, Judge David S. Jones, was a founder of St. Saviour’s Church and lived in the Clinton mansion in the mid-1800s. This house stood yards away from St. Saviour’s.
The Queens Head Tavern, at the intersection of Maurice Avenue and Old Flushing Avenue (Rust Street) was a hotel where British rank-and-file soldiers were known to have quartered themselves. This location was around the corner and down the street from the church. A British map from 1776 indicates that the Redcoat 1st division encamped to the north and south of Newtown Creek and converged at its head to set sail on September 15, 1776, under the command of General Henry Clinton.
“I lived across the street from where the Queens Head Tavern had been,” says James Marsilia, lifelong Maspeth resident and former St. Saviour’s parishioner. “In the mid-1960s, the father of my neighbor, Lenny Fecher, was doing some digging in his yard and unearthed a Revolutionary War cannon.” Fecher was one of the people responsible for rescuing items from the church during its unfortunate 1970 fire. There would not have been any homes between the Queens Head Tavern and the area where St. Saviour’s is now, and the church is on a high piece of land which would have had an unobstructed view of Newtown Creek and surrounding lands.
Therefore, it is very possible that the cannon had once sat atop Maspeth Hill. In fact Stephen P. Kelly of Maspeth, an expert treasure hunter, was given permission to search the St. Saviour’s property in the 1990’s and uncovered artifacts from the Revolutionary War including uniform buttons, buckles, coins, etc. Additionally, people who grew up in the vicinity of the church have recalled instances where Indian arrowheads were discovered on nearby properties.
This information further supports JPCA’s belief that St. Saviour’s and its surrounding land embodies the history of Queens’ oldest settlement, and therefore must be saved from development. Two questions remain: Why would two governmental agencies withhold this information from the public and why did they reject applications for designation when the case is clear that the buildings and land together comprise an intact cultural landscape that must be preserved for future generations?
In addition, a photo recently shared with JPCA by Mr. Marsilia shows that the site was used for recreation back in the 19th century. A group of parishioners dressed in white sits in the foreground, with a priest believed to be the rector, Reverend Frederick S. Griffin, standing to their left. A tennis or badminton net is set up to their right. And behind them is St. Saviour’s Church, designed by Trinity Church Wall Street architect, Richard Upjohn, before any alterations had taken place.
This photo shows all that this property once was, and the potential it has to be a crown jewel of Maspeth once again.
JPCA has asked the city to take over the entire site and convert the buildings into a community center and museum and the grounds into a park as part of the Mayor’s 2030 plan. At a January meeting held at the Clinton Diner, 30 immediate neighbors of St. Saviour’s were unanimous in their sentiments, and signed a petition asking for the city to save the entire site. Additionally, more than 1000 signatures, many with passionately written comments, now appear on JPCA’s online petition asking the mayor to do the same thing.
Despite the findings of historians, archeologists, city and state officials, and the wishes of civic associations and residents, Councilman Dennis P. Gallagher is working with the developer, Maspeth Development LLC, a foreign based company headed by Tomer Dafna, to permit a housing complex of at least 70 units. Gallagher’s plan is to save the small church and lobby for a zoning change for the developer to build on the remaining 1.5 acres. “If Councilman Gallagher’s plan succeeds we will lose our heritage, artifacts, and destroy sacred & historically significant ground forever,” says JPCA President Robert Holden.
“As of now, the church and land are for sale, and this is the perfect opportunity for Mayor Bloomberg to step in and save our history and demonstrate that he is serious about having every city resident within 10 minutes walking distance of a park,” says Holden. “Every year the city finds it has billions of dollars in income it didn’t expect. It’s time to spend some of that money in Maspeth, Queens and save a piece of our rapidly disappearing history.”