Neighborhood at risk: Kew Gardens
Kew Gardens is one of seven planned communities developed in Queens
between 1870 and 1950. The homes in this garden suburb, designed
to make the best use of
fresh air, sunshine, and peace of the country, were built primarily
between 1910 and 1930.
Manhattan lawyer and developer Albon P. Mann (1811-1891)
purchased the farmland in 1868 and named it North Richmond Hill.
While the first house went up in 1872, the community was slow to
grow and remained a sleepy area with dirt roads for a number of
decades. The main attraction was the Richmond Hill Golf Course,
opened in 1895. It closed thirteen years later when the Long Island
Rail Road main line was electrified and its route modified, taking
it straight through the course.
In return for losing its golf course, the neighborhood
gained a train station that opened in 1910 and proved to be a huge
attraction for would-be residents. By this time, Mann’s sons
had inherited their father’s investment and renamed it Kew
Gardens, after the famous botanical gardens in England. In 1912
they formed the Kew Gardens Corporation and set about laying out
the street plan and developing the land. They also sold some parcels
of land but with restrictive covenants that ensured the quality
and style of new homes in the neighborhood.
the next two decades, a neo-Tudor village of small apartment buildings
with ground-floor stores above grew up immediately around the train
station. The Homestead, a neo-Georgian hotel, opened in 1921, providing
visitors and locals a fine restaurant, a ballroom, and an outdoor
roof terrace. A combination of private, freestanding homes for one
or two families, townhouses, and apartment complexes were built
around the town core. An abundance of greenery was planted providing
naturalistic settings for each building.
Homes of varying size, type, and style line winding
streets. Influenced by the Arts-and-Crafts movement, they were designed
in a number of revival styles including Tudor, Dutch Colonial, Spanish
Colonial, and Georgian. These homes exhibit the American post-Victorian
desire for a “comfortable” home, one that was more open
and informal than in the previous century.
In 1915, the neighborhood’s first large apartment
building, the Kew Bolmer, opened. Some homeowners protested, but
after World War I New Yorkers increasingly accepted apartment life
as a respectable alternative. By 1936 there were more than twenty
such structures in eclectic revival styles.
In addition to businessmen attracted by the 16-minute
train ride to Penn Station, Kew Gardens became the home of an artistic
and intellectual set. In the 1910's and 1920's, neighbors included
film and stage stars, writers, musicians, and artists such as Charlie
Chaplin, Will Rogers, Anais Nin, Dorothy Parker, Joseph Lhevinne,
and George Gershwin. United Nations diplomat and Nobel Prize winner
Ralph Bunche’s home is now an individual New York City landmark.
Like neighboring Richmond Hill, Kew Gardens is
threatened by out-of-scale development that ruins the carefully
planned proportions and open spaces of the neighborhood. Residents
have looked to rezoning as well as landmarking as a possible way
to alleviate this issue. Kew Gardens’ character is also jeopardized
by insensitive “improvements.” Oftentimes inappropriate
materials are used to replace original brick, stone, stucco, shingle,
tile, and wood, materials so important to the integrity of these
Arts-and-Crafts inspired homes.
For more information contact Murray Berger, Kew Gardens Council
for Recreation and the Arts, Inc. at 718-263-7180
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