Nicole Javorsky is an editorial fellow at Mother Jones, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab.
It’s time to look beyond Manhattan, according to architectural historian Frampton Tolbert. His new project documents the overlooked postwar buildings of Queens.
When it comes to highlighting New York’s great postwar architecture, Manhattan always gets the attention. But the outer boroughs have plenty to boost as well.
“It’s the narrative of Manhattan being the center of the highest of high-style architecture and where wealth was based, where influence was based,” architectural historian Frampton Tolbert recently told CityLab. Tolbert’s project, Queens Modern, surveys, documents, researches, and promotes mid-century, modern architecture in Queens, New York. Featuring a database of Modernist buildings in the borough, Queens Modern draws from the Queens Chamber of Commerce Building Awards program, first organized in 1926 to honor excellence in design and construction.
The funding for the initial phase of Queens Modern came from the New York State Council on the Arts, and the funding for the second phase came from the James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation. Tolbert is interested in presenting Queens Modern in other formats, potentially as a book and/or exhibit, in the future.
As Tolbert contextualizes Modernism with the history of New York City, it becomes clear why there would be such an abundance of Modernist architecture in Queens, specifically. That’s why Tolbert, who lives in Brooklyn, decided to focus on Queens in particular. “Because of how New York developed, there was a significant amount of postwar construction in Queens,” he said. “Not all of the architecture was truly modern, some of it was just built in the mid-century and was more along the lines of Colonial, Georgian, and Tudor Revival styles.”
He continued, “Queens had a lot of large sites—farmland, country clubs, race tracks, etc. that were able to be developed as whole new neighborhoods and communities like Rochdale Village, Electchester, and Fresh Meadows.”
After all, the Modernist movement in architecture didn’t take shape and flourish until the early and mid-20th century. By then, Manhattan had already undergone much development; Queens, on the other hand, was really just getting started.
The Long Island Railroad, Queensboro Bridge, and the New York City Subway system all connected Queens to Manhattan in the first two decades of the 20th century. According to a 1940s Queens Chamber of Commerce pamphlet, 61 percent of all buildings constructed in New York City from 1930 to 1943 were in Queens. The population of Queens also rose an average of 20 percent each decade from 1940 to 1970, while Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn’s populations declined or remained steady.
In many cases, award-winning buildings from those years had been largely ignored since. “I realized there were a lot of these buildings in Queens and I wondered, why are these buildings here? No one’s talking about them. There’s no documentation on them,” Tolbert said.
One of Tolbert’s favorites is an industrial building in Long Island City, designed by Ulrich Franzen and built in 1958. Industrial buildings, particularly common in the Queens neighborhood of Long Island City, and religious buildings are among the types of Modernist structures that are particularly vulnerable. For example, one Long Island City industrial building in the Queens Modern database was demolished to be replaced by a large hotel.
Mid-century hotels in Queens have also been destroyed. “A lot of the hotels that were built around the airport have been lost over time just as tastes have change,” Tolbert said. “So a lot of those really space age—and at the time very cool, hip hotels—have long been been lost.”
On the Queens Modern website, Tolbert also describes the Church of the Transfiguration as “one of the most unique and striking structures honored by the Chamber of Commerce during this era.” The church was built in 1962. “Nestled within a compact residential part of Maspeth, the A-frame church incorporates traditional Lithuanian symbols into a definitively modern structure,” Tolbert writes.
Besides architects and general fans of Modernism, Tolbert has received positive feedback from Queens residents eager to learn about the history of buildings in their neighborhoods. Over the past two years, he has led tours of modern architecture in Forest Hills and Rego Park. People who live in these neighborhoods showed up and said they wanted to know more about the buildings on their home turfs.
Tolbert said that residents often mention to him that they recognize the buildings—sometimes since childhood—and always wondered about them. “Part of my work,” Tolbert said, “is to make people aware, both documenting these buildings before they’re lost and then… hopefully get people to be interested and appreciate these buildings before they’re gone.”