Landmark-worthy Trylon Theater Overwhelmed by Political Baggage - JuniperCivic.com
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Originally published in the June 2006 Juniper Berry Magazine

Landmark-worthy Trylon Theater Overwhelmed by Political Baggage

Trylon Theater by Doug Leblang

The Trylon Theater, located at 98-81 Queens Blvd. in Forest Hills, opened its doors on Dec. 26, 1939. It was erected by NY's-own architect Joseph Unger, and attracted movie-goers for six decades. It boasted classic films such as The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind. Throughout the decades, lines were occasionally down the block. The Trylon lost its lease in late Dec. 1999, shortly after celebrating its 60th anniversary. Sony was abandoning theaters borough-wide in the mid 1990's, which was one of the reasons Loews was in such a sorry state. In addition to that, poor upper management and business decisions, contributed to the theater's decline. Upon its closing, it was noted as one of the last single screen theaters in the boroughs, and mostly intact architecturally.

The Trylon Theater has cultural, architectural, and historical significance to the 1939 World's Fair, which was held in Flushing Meadows, and was categorized by the 700-foot (spire) Trylon & (globular) Perisphere monuments. The theme of the '39 World's Fair was the World of Tomorrow, where exhibits were intended to emphasize how technology would make life better for everyone. The Fair also fostered social and cultural change, which led to new waves of immigrants to make America their home.

The Trylon Theater epitomizes Art Deco and Art Moderne styles, which first evolved during the mid 20's, but were redefined as a result of the '39 World's Fair. Unique attributes of the Trylon Theater include a streamlined Art Moderne facade, and an elliptical marquee & glass block projection tower which illuminated Queens Blvd. The glass block projection tower is Joseph Unger's variation of the globular Perisphere. The entrance pavilion's floor is composed of terrazzo and bears a 3-D mirror image of the Trylon monument, which is then accompanied by a delightfully colorful array of inlaid mosaic tiles on both sides, situated in an Art Deco chevron pattern. In July 2005, the ticket booth which also memorialized the Trylon monument in its mosaic tiles, was shamefully jackhammered. Dominant interior elements have also been destroyed, which include the Trylon fountain and hand-painted World of Tomorrow cloth murals. The entrance pavilion's floor is now in jeopardy. The only present features are the elliptical marquee, streamlined facade, and glass block projection tower which illuminated Queens Boulevard.

The Committee To Save The Trylon Theater was organized in summer 2005 by Chairman Michael Perlman, in response to the jackhammering of its noteworthy ticket booth. Preservation groups, including the Historic Districts Council, Modern Architecture Working Group, Art Deco Society of NY, and Landmarks Conservancy, amongst others, have attempted to gain landmark status for the Trylon Theater since 2003-2004, but to no avail. They have been locked out by Councilwoman Melinda Katz of District 29. Numerous borough-wide preservationists, historical societies, civic and community groups, and concerned local residents, have since joined this cause. Our mission is to encourage landmark status, a restoration to its original splendor, and adaptive re-use. It is commendable that the building will be reused by the Educational Center for Russian Jewry, but what need is there to destroy the Trylon's highly significant features?

Chairman Robert Tierney of the Landmarks Preservation Commission had intentions of granting a hearing for the Trylon Theater as early as 2003. However, Councilwoman Katz's inactivity and opposition to its possible landmarking, prolonged Mr. Tierney's decision to grant it a hearing, since the LPC is hesitant to act without sufficient political support. As a committee, we have organized a petition drive presently up to 1,600 signatures, 2 letter campaigns to Councilwoman Melinda Katz & Chairman Tierney, sponsored preservation gatherings, and held a rally in October 2005. Our effort has been complemented by a tremendous amount of press coverage. Even without the ticket booth in place, the remaining exterior features are distinctive enough to merit landmark status.

Upon a few phone conversations between Michael Perlman & the LPC, and according to the Forest Hills Ledger (Jan 26, 2006), when emphasizing the Trylon's rare attributes, Chairman Tierney states: I agree that the Trylon qualifies under all conditions as a NYC landmark. I request a note from Councilwoman Katz's office, indicating her consent of a hearing and that she supports my landmarking notions, since Katz opposed from the very beginning. Since Councilmember Katz is Chair of Land Use, she would have to sign off on the Trylon, and her role in City Council gives her the power to overturn such designations by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

CM Katz's opposition is further documented as follows. The NY Times (9/18/05): CM Katz said, I'm just not sure at this time if landmarking just the front of the building would be the best for the community. Being able to renovate the theater without restrictions, would save both time and money. Queens Chronicle (8/18/05): John Jurayj, Historic Districts Council board member/Co-chair of Modern Architecture Working Group, said The HDC & Modern Architecture has been asking for it to be landmarked for 2 years, and accused Katz of not supporting landmarking. Mitchell Grubler, Exec. Dir. Of the Queens Historical Society, wrote a letter to the editor, stating he was outraged that Katz let it be known to the LPC that she opposed landmark protection, and they have thus taken a hands-off stand. Forest Hills Ledger (9/8/05): Katz questioned whether the theater in its current condition should be landmarked. The outside would need so much work to make it look even half as nice as it did originally. Forest Hills Ledger (9/8/05): An LPC spokeswoman said A building rarely gets landmarked without the local councilmember's blessing. On 10/27/05, another LPC official commented once again, Rarely do buildings get landmarked without first acquiring the approval of the City Council representative.

CM Katz's press secretary in a Dec 23, 2005 interview with the Daily News commented, The councilwoman neither supports nor opposes efforts to landmark the theater. After years into the Trylon effort, how is it possible that she and her office suddenly have no stance, and better yet just want to remain neutral?

The Feb 2, 2006 Queens Gazette article, Trylon Landmarking: Unnecessary Confusion? states the following: "Councilwoman Katz made it abundantly clear that she is in favor of landmarking the Trylon, which is agreed by all parties concerned, would include the building facade, its crystal tower, the theater marquee, and retain the Trylon name. She then states The Committee To Save The Trylon's members have great respect for the community. We want to work with them, to have a discussion with them, rather than have them in the community with a lot of tension between us. I believe they want to do the right thing. I don't want to put the community at risk. There's no need for that. In fact, I don't know what we've both been fighting about. We both want the same thing. After 35 articles, Councilwoman Katz stated that she supports landmarking and values the Trylon's significance. What took her so long?

CM Katz's constituency was amazed at her reversal, in which some maintained their skepticism. She has failed to respond to a series of letters and phone calls from the Committee To Save The Trylon requesting a meeting since summer 2005 and from other preservationists prior to that date. She has spoken briefly with constituents who met her by accident, and they reported to the committee her explanation of the Trylon's exterior being restored and the donation of noteworthy interior elements to historical societies and museums. However, news photos prove the entrance pavilion (which is technically part of the exterior) was modified, and the interior elements she spoke of, were still present during early stages of construction and then destroyed. In addition, when informed of work being conducted at the site despite stop work orders, construction violations, insufficient permits, and marquee renovations without scaffolding, she ceased to take action.

What's more, CM Katz misused her power by sending out a mass distribution letter in January 2006 addressed to Michael Perlman, attempting to cast him as a wrongdoer, when it was he who was trying to protect the local community's interests. Melinda Katz wrongly attempted to paint him as a detractor of civic construction, as she sent out false accusations to all of the people working with him to protect historical elements of the Trylon Theater. These people included over 1,000 petitioners aiming to save the Trylon.

Melinda Katz's letter states, I have always been concerned with the preservation of the historical significance of the Trylon Theater. I am dismayed that protests and the dissemination of false information have obscured the fact that the preservation of the Trylon has always been a component of building the new Education Center for Russian Jewry. Then she accused the committee of creating an unnecessary atmosphere of community turmoil, followed by staging a rally and never contacted her office to discuss the Trylon. Her letter also refers to meetings with the project leaders to discuss the Trylon proposal.

According to media references, she has allocated $280,000 in public funding for renovations at the site in 2003 and the center was expected to raise the remainder of the funds themselves. In her letter, she denies that any penny has been dispersed towards demolition and building costs. James McClelland, Katz's community affairs representative stated that the funds will be oriented towards development of programming for the center. In our reply, we commented that we were perplexed as to why she would consider allocating funds of any type to a center, but fail to safeguard the Trylon's most significant architectural elements when meeting with them. That should have been her first priority. We then questioned why she opposed landmarking from the start, which would have ensured its preservation, and stated that this whole scenario could have been avoided. By not meeting with her constituents who attempted to use proper channels to save the Trylon, not responding to individual pleas, and sending out mass letters with false accusations, she devalued her citizens by using her office against them. In short, she worked on behalf of her own interests and that of the developers.

According to the March 31, 2006 article in the N.Y. Daily News entitled, Theater Landmark Bid Gets Thumbs Down, Chairman Tierney faxed a letter to Councilwoman Melinda Katz stating that the Trylon "does not meet its criteria for landmarking, and will not be recommended to the full commission for further consideration as an individual landmark. Katz responded, I never thought that this was a building suitable for landmarking. I guess I'm just happy that Tierney made a decision, and now we move on. Then she thanked Chairman Tierney for taking a very careful look. Even though landmark proceedings start with the Landmarks Preservation Commission as pursuant to the City Charter, CM Katz, as chair of Land Use, has the power to influence the LPC to calendar the Trylon for a public hearing. Calendaring protects the facade features until the results of a hearing are finalized. To our knowledge, she has never made such an attempt.

We are also dismayed that the LPC has chosen to disregard a highly significant landmark, confirming a consensus among preservationists that Queens continues to get the backdoor. The LPC didn't value a petition of 1,600 signers in addition to two letter campaigns. We are in the process of obtaining a copy of the LPC's minutes, by means of the Freedom Of Information Law (FOIL), to see how they determined the Trylon ineligible. Our request was filed on April 27th, but they have not set up an appointment. We requested access to all records (including correspondence, telephone records, internal memos, minutes, computer-generated emails, records, memoranda and/or correspondence) sent, received or prepared by any Commissioner or Commission staff member to date, relating or referring to the Trylon. According to architectural critics, the Trylon fulfills every definition of a landmark, and the failure to grant it a hearing, undermines the integrity of the Landmarks Law in terms of its architectural, cultural, and historical provisions.

Title 25, chapter 3 of the Landmarks Law's administrative code regarding landmarks preservation and historic districts states that part of the definition of a landmark is any improvement, any part which is thirty years or older, which has a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage or cultural characteristics of the city, state or nation.

According to an April 6, 2006 Forest Hills Ledger article, a spokeswoman for the commission said The inside of the Trylon had been altered too much from its original state to qualify it. Only exteriors of buildings qualify for individual landmark status, since interior landmarks are independently filed for, according to the LPC's book, A Guide To NYC Landmarks. Furthermore, the Landmarks Law states nothing about any alterations making a building ineligible for landmarking. Alterations in the Trylon's entrance pavilion are minimal since the terrazzo/mosaic-inlaid floor is still present, and the existing Art Deco facade features are distinctive enough to merit landmark status. Almost all landmarks, whether designated individually or as part of a historic district, were altered, some of which were completely rebuilt. They include Fraunces Tavern, Theodore Roosevelt's birthplace, the Old Stone House at Gowanus, the Onderdonk House, Wyckoff House, and Weeksville. Historic Districts such as Greenwich Village and Fifth Avenue are fragmented and altered.

To this day, the LPC has never defined what their criteria for landmarking is, causing controversy in several neighborhoods. It would make sense if their criteria were aligned with the Landmarks Law. The LPC's behavior on the Trylon ties into designation of other potential individual landmarks and historic districts in Queens that are consistently being ignored. Some include the 1847 St. Saviour's Church in Maspeth, and districts of Richmond Hill, Astoria, Sunnyside, etc. This is only a sample of great representations of Queens, and if they don't meet the LPC's criteria for landmarking, it makes one wonder what does.

It isn't fair that historic theaters such as this must be at the mercy of politicians & the LPC as to whether they should receive landmark status. The question becomes Who should have the power? True architectural critics: The Art Deco Society, Historic Districts Council, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Modern Architecture Working Group, Queens Historical Society, Theater Historical Society, National Terrazzo Mosaic Association, NY Landmarks Conservancy, & the Four Borough Preservation Alliance, etc. Councilwoman Katz of Land Use & Chairman Tierney of the LPC must acknowledge that the people who inhabit their communities understand them best, since a landmark is in the eyes of the majority. Immediate intervention by the LPC will regain trust, and put a smile on the face on numerous enthusiasts. Landmarks contribute to the longevity of neighborhoods, as they foster community pride and inspire future generations. Without it, Queens is missing chapters of its history. The story of our borough is yet to be told.

Faith in Councilwoman Katz has diminished as a result of her landmark-related contradictions and behavior. Her campaign finance contributions read as a journal which indicates how heavily-funded she is by the developers. With overdevelopment throughout Queens as a result of such developer-friendly politicians, greedy developers, a change in demographics, and reluctance by the LPC to dedicate an equal amount of time to Queens, there is uncertainty that potential landmarks such as the Trylon Theater will be standing in years to come. The Committee To Save The Trylon Theater vows to continue drumming up support, and doing everything in our power to keep a true neighborhood icon of Queens and a representation of World's Fair history alive. In the coming months, a plan is underway to evoke a visual memory and further document its history thanks to a noteworthy source. We will continue to encourage the Landmarks Preservation Commission. A landmarked and restored Trylon Theater would be meaningful for the community, and commemorate Forest Hills' 100th anniversary this year. The Committee To Save The Trylon Theater appreciates the support of concerned citizens. Please continue to lend your support in the following ways:

I. Online petition:

www.petitiononline.com/Trylon/petition.html

II. Write our elected officials and the LPC. Urge the LPC to reconsider the Trylon and calendar it for a hearing.

1. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg

City Hall

New York, N.Y. 10007

Email: www.nyc.gov/html/mail/html/mayor.html

Fax #: (212) 788-2460

2. Chairman Robert Tierney

c/o NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission

1 Centre St, 9th Floor

New York, N.Y. 10007

Email: rtierney@lpc.nyc.gov & cc Mary Beth Betts at MBetts@lpc.nyc.gov

Fax #: (212) 669-7797 & (212) 669-7960

3. Councilwoman Melinda Katz

104-01 Metropolitan Ave

Forest Hills, N.Y. 11375

Email: katz@council.nyc.ny.us & cc James McClelland at m29mccle@council.nyc.ny.us

Fax #: (718) 544-4452

III. Write letters to the editor of the following papers:

Queens Chronicle: mailbox@qchron.com

Queens Tribune: editor@queenstribune.com

Queens Courier: editorial@queenscourier.com

Queens Gazette: QGazette@aol.com

Queens Ledger: news@queensledger.com

Forest Hills Ledger: timesledger.com

NY Times: letters@nytimes.com

Daily News: voicers@edit.nydailynews.com

NY Post: letters@nypost.com

NY Metro: letters@metro.us

Times NewsWeekly: info@timesnewsweekly.com

NY Newsday: letters@newsday.com

AM-New York: am-letters@am-ny.com

***On all correspondences & letters to the editor, carbon copy Committee To Save The Trylon Theater at unlockthevault@hotmail.com