Most NYC guidebooks, magazines like Time Out NY, and websites like curbed.com are seemingly entranced by Long Island City when they deign to pay attention to Queens at all; they ignore Elmhurst and Maspeth, busy, stable neighborhoods in western Queens -- but if they'd venture in once in awhile they'd see that both threatened and treasured history is located here in a 30-block area, as well as a proud, vibrant community passionately involved with its lengthy and historic past.
The neighborhoods have a lengthy and rich pedigree: early British 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 to Manhattan, and some settled further east, to about where Queens Boulevard meets Broadway today. The new town was prosaically named ... Newtown.
Even though De Witt Clinton summered in Maspeth and planned the Erie Canal here in the 1830s, Maspeth didn't enjoy popularity until Mount Olivet Cemetery was opened in 1850 (cemeteries had been instituted in western Queens beginning in the 1850s, after the prohibition of new ones in Manhattan, and attracted Sunday strollers). Fertilizer and lumber works, rope and linoleum manufacturers soon followed along Newtown Creek, and Maspeth soon became the model of a company town for America's swift 19th-Century period of industrialization. By the mid-1800s, horse cars and eventually streetcars began to bring in people from all over. When Cord Meyer developed the area in the vicinity of the intersection of Broadway and Queens Boulevard 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.
Kevin Walsh, who has chronicled the ignored and overlooked aspects of New York City for eight years via his website Forgotten New York, joined Juniper Park Civic Association historian Christina Wilkinson on a 3-hour tour of Elmhurst and Maspeth on November 19, 2006.
In this article, we will pick up where the first part of our tour left off in the last issue of the Juniper Berry. We will focus on the architecture and history of Maspeth, Queens' oldest settlement.
Garlinger Triangle, Grand and 57th Avenues at 72nd Street
At the center of this sitting area is a monument honoring all the servicemen from the neighborhood who died in WWI combat. It was designed by architect Paul C. Hunder and constructed in 1931. The triangle was named in memory of Walter A. Garlinger, the first resident of Maspeth to fall during the war.
Maspeth Town Hall, 72nd Street, north of Grand Avenue
This building was a one-room schoolhouse, having been built in 1897 and closing in 1932. Subsequently, a local girls' club and the Works Progress Administration sporadically used it until 1936, when it became the 112th police precinct. It was used as such until 1971. It became abandoned and fell into disrepair until a coalition of concerned citizens saved it in 1972 and turned it into a community center, which it still is today. Under the presidency of Tony Nunziato, Maspeth Town Hall was completely renovated so that it may continue to serve the needs of the people of Maspeth for decades to come.
Maspeth Movie Theater, Grand Avenue and 69th Place
This 1,200-seat theater was built ca 1924 and showed movies until 1965 when its use as a movie house came to an end. Judy Garland performed there live before becoming a star of the screen. The theater's lobby was adapted for retail use and the auditorium was converted into a bingo hall.
9/11 War Memorials and Manhattan View, Grand Avenue at 69th Street
This intersection is considered to be the center of town; therefore, it is a fitting site for Maspeth Memorial Square. The square contains war memorials, the town Christmas tree, a huge American flag and a memorial to 9/11 victims from Maspeth. Engine Company 288/Haz Mat 1, located just north of the square, lost 19 men on 9/11/01, the most of any firehouse in the city. The town gathered to watch the horror unfold from this site on that horrible day. The site offers a commanding view of almost the entire Manhattan skyline.
Haflinger House, Brown Place and 58th Avenue
Gustav Haflinger, Maspeth's town butcher, built this house in the 1880s. Subsequent owners of his house have taken great care to keep it in good condition, down to the paint detailing on the railings. Several houses along Brown Place and 58th Avenue exhibit one-of-a-kind wooden craftsmanship.
Griff's Hardware, Grand Avenue and Hamilton Place
This location was once Wielback's Grocery, one of the town's first supermarkets, before it became Griff's Hardware more than 90 years ago. They recycled their classic neon sign when they converted the store into a laundering business in 2000. The laundromat closed earlier this year and the property is in the process of demolition to make way for a financial institution. When the siding was removed, the original wooden structure was revealed.
Queens County Hotel, Grand Avenue and Remsen Place
The building now housing the Grand Florist at ground level was once the Queens County Hotel. It was built in 1851 along what was then Grand Street, an old colonial road. Farmers and tradesmen would rest here when hauling goods between Williamsburg and towns further east in Queens.
Mount Olivet Cemetery, Grand Avenue and Remsen Place
This garden cemetery was founded as an Episcopal Cemetery in 1850 and opened to all faiths the following year. One of the founders, James Maurice, was a U.S. Congressman, Maspeth landholder and founder of St. Saviour's Church. He is buried here along with his 2 brothers and 3 sisters, none of which ever married. Prince Matchabelli and Helena Rubenstein of cosmetic fame are also buried here, as is gangster Jack "Legs" Diamond.
We stopped for a few minutes at Enchanted Florist, located on Grand Avenue just west of Mount Olivet Cemetery. Tony Nunziato is the owner of this establishment and he provided refreshments for the Forgotten Tourists, including freshly made apple cider, soda, coffee, donuts, cake, pretzels, chips, fresh fruit, and cookies. A lover of local history, Mr. Nunziato allowed the group to view his collection of artifacts from the Maspeth area, including a belt belonging to a 19th century volunteer firefighter, a ticket to a fair at a local picnic park and authentic old maps and history books. Participants got a kick out of Tony's antique cash register and greenhouse. The store has always been a flower shop; a German immigrant who was forced to move from Manhattan due to discrimination during the height of WWI originally owned it.
Trolley Sign, intersection of Grand and Flushing Avenues at 64th Street
Making our way back to Grand Avenue along the "road to refreshment," we passed two signs erected by the Maspeth Chamber of Commerce. One welcomes to Maspeth those coming from Ridgewood and Brooklyn. The other sign depicts a trolley, with arrows made of tracks directing traffic to either Flushing or Grand Avenues. Both were colonial roads and trolleys traveled upon them decades ago.
Transfiguration Church and Lithuanian Wayside Cross shrine, Perry Avenue east of 64th Street
This replica of a Lithuanian roadside shrine sits in the churchyard of Transfiguration R.C. Church. The first church was built in 1909 to serve the swelling population of Lithuanian immigrants. The present structure dates from 1962. Lithuanian folk art elements adorn the inside of the church. The Lithuanian phrase above the doors, Mano Namai Maldos Namai means "My house is a house of prayer." Multiple masses are still celebrated in the Lithuanian language each weekend.
Polish-American National Hall, Clinton Avenue and 64st Street
As early as 1890, Polish immigrants chose Maspeth in which to settle. In 1921, the Polish National Home (or in Polish, "Polski Dom Narodowy") was founded in order to teach younger generations about their Polish heritage. This building was erected in 1934. Members of this organization opened the 1939 World's Fair, dedicated Maurice Park and participated in the opening of the Kosciuszko Bridge. Christina's maternal grandparents and great-grandparents were very active in the organization. Maspeth has welcomed a new wave of Polish immigrants over the last decade. Storefronts along Grand and Maspeth Avenues reveal that the Polish tongue is the most popular foreign language in town, and their food may be the most popular cuisine.
Clinton Hall, 58th Street and 56th Road
In the first half of the 20th century, Maspeth residents danced their cares away at Clinton Hall. Its wrap-around interior balconies and grand chandelier are seared into the minds of older generations. It was built in the 1920s and is being used now as a laboratory and for industrial purposes. Judge Joseph Sackett built a two-story wood frame mansion with porches around both levels in the area behind Clinton Hall in 1750. Governor DeWitt Clinton, who held every important office in New York State at one time or another in the early 1800s, planned the Erie Canal from this Maspeth waterside retreat, which he had inherited from his father-in-law, wealthy Manhattan merchant, Walter Franklin. Citizens converted the grounds of the Sackett-Clinton House into a park around 1910, but could not keep the house from burning down in 1933. The dance hall is the house's namesake. The entire area is now covered with industry, revealing no trace of the mansion that was once there.
Maurice Family home, Rust Street and 57th Road
The Maurice family home, after James' time, still stands, missing its original ornamental pond. Its former address was 1 Hill Street. A lovely old bluestone sidewalk sits in front of the house. James Maurice's brother and two surviving sisters lived in this house; distant relatives sold the house after the death of the last surviving sibling, Sarah Maurice, in 1909.
Grade crossing, Rust Street and Maspeth Avenue
Until mid-1998, a couple of LIRR locals from Jamaica to Long Island traveled here on the "Montauk branch", so-called since it is the western extension of the line to Long Island's South Fork) and made stops at Fresh Pond, Haberman and Penny Bridge. The stations were, for the most part, dry patches in the grass, and when the old MP5 diesel cars were retired, new double-decked cars were employed which required high-level platforms. The LIRR decided not to construct new platforms for stations that served between 0 and 5 daily passengers, and the "stations" were finally abandoned. But once per morning and again in the late afternoon, a passenger train can be seen scooting through here, though the Montauk Branch is now almost entirely given over to freight runs.
St. Saviour's Church, Rust Street and 57th Drive
Built by renowned architect Richard Upjohn in 1847, St. Saviour's Church is one of Maspeth's last ties to its rural past. Prior to the industrial revolution, this area was considered to be "the country," and many wealthy Manhattanites owned summer homes here. Congressman James Maurice, local farmer John Van Cott, Garrit Furman, author of "The Maspeth Poems" and Judge David S. Jones, son-in-law of De Witt Clinton, were founders of the church, which ministered to the community until 1995 when dwindling church membership forced it to close. The Episcopal Church sold it to a Korean Methodist congregation who worshipped there for 8 years before selling it to a foreign developer who has a plan to demolish the entire property and erect homes upon it. JPCA is fighting to save the church and turn it into a cultural complex, as was done at Maspeth Town Hall.
Clinton Diner, Maurice and Maspeth Avenues
We concluded our Forgotten Tour at the Clinton Diner at Maspeth and Maurice Avenues, a local truckers' favorite that has been around since 1935; it has appeared in more than one motion picture, most famously, Goodfellas. The diner is near the site of a former historic dwelling: the Queens Head Tavern, in use during the Revolutionary War and later a stagecoach stop.
These were just some of the highlights – we visited over 40 interesting locations during our Sunday stroll. JPCA and Forgotten-NY look forward to presenting a walking tour of Middle Village sometime in the near future. Check Juniper Civic and forgotten-ny.com for exact time and place.
Kevin Walsh is the creator of website Forgotten New York (www.forgotten-ny.com) and author of Forgotten New York, Harper Collins 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.