Push to preserve historic buildings
by Michael Perlman
Jan 29, 2021 | 1602 views | 0 0 comments | 140 140 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Forest Hills Jewish Center
Forest Hills Jewish Center
Ohr Natan Synagogue
Ohr Natan Synagogue
Parkside Chapel
Parkside Chapel
Preservationists in Forest Hills and Rego Park are advocating for the protection of historically significant sites that are facing demolition.

Community cornerstones include the 1939 World’s Fair-inspired Art Deco Trylon Theater at 98-81 Queens Boulevard, which is home to Ohr Natan Synagogue and Community Center, and the adjacent Colonial-style Tower Diner at 98-95 Queens Boulevard with its unique clock tower from its days as a bank.

Also endangered are the Forest Hills Jewish Center at 106-06 Queens Boulevard and Parkside Chapel at 98-60 Queens Boulevard.

All bear architectural, cultural, and artistic significance, but are at risk of being redeveloped and lost forever.

Recently, RJ Capital Holdings filed an application to rezone and erect a 16-story condo that would result in the demolition of Tower Diner and adjacent small businesses. Community Board 6’s Land Use & Housing Committee recently met to discuss the request.

“There appears to be no overall vision on a balance between preservation of our heritage and ad-hoc development along Queens Boulevard,” said local resident John O’Reilly. “We need a pause on development to come up with a sensible plan.”

Rego Park resident Michael Conigliaro created an online petition at change.org to preserve Tower Diner and other significant sites. It has already garnered over 2,060 signatures.

“Besides demolishing classic architecture and historic sites, a 16-story development would increase congestion, kill trees, block sunlight, and lead to a domino effect of demolition and overdevelopment nearby,” Conigliaro said.

“Growing up in Kew Gardens, I was able to appreciate my home being on the same block as a pre-war apartment houses, but I look at that block and others today and they unfortunately no longer have that close-knit neighborhood aura,” he added.

Conigliaro, who is also running for City Council, emphasized the need for transparency and reform.

“We need to enable community residents to have a voice in what transpires around them, rather than being dictated to, which is what we are seeing now,” he said. “Otherwise, we will continue to undergo significant unwanted upheavals based on selfishness and greed.”

Elina Kari explained that people utilize Ohr Natan not just for religious purposes, but as “a community outlet that offers a multitude of other services for the youth and elderly.”

“Tower Diner is a beloved diner by everyone in the community, and to demolish it is to kill the very essence of Forest Hills,” she said.

Forest Hills Jewish Center was placed on the market for $50 million after its board told members that redevelopment was the only option to shore up finances.

But congregants were not informed about available preservation grants and preservation-friendly alternatives that would involve restoration and historically sensitive upgrades, as well as a residential addition above the back recreation, school, and senior center building.

The sanctuary building, designed by Joseph J. Furman in 1947, features majestic stained-glass windows depicting the Burning Bush and a limestone and crab-orchard rock façade bearing resemblance to the stone pattern of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The over 20-foot ornate Holy Ark resembles a Torah breastplate and was designed by the famed artist Arthur Szyk. It is considered by critics to be one of the greatest 20th century Judaic works of art.

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said the architecturally rich synagogue embodies the spirit, design and social philosophies of mid-century Judaism.

“In the late 1940s, the horrors of the Holocaust were raw in Americans’ lives and consciousness, and resulted in a renewed faith in religion in many Jews” he said. “The Forest Hills Jewish Center is a physical example of this renewed, community-oriented faith. Modernism, as well as new building technologies in the postwar era, allowed for the first time synagogues to own a style distinctly of their own.”

Parkside Memorial Chapel was designed in 1961 by noteworthy architects Henry Sandig and Robert I. Kasindorf, and earned listings in the American Institute of Architects Guide to New York City.

The façade consists of thousands of Jewish star-patterned walls and concrete screens with exposed steel beams, which lead to a bronze sculptural fountain of floating leaves that spans nearly two stories.

There is a plan to demolish a tributary building for low-income housing.

“Post-war modernism has been an especially vulnerable architectural category,” said Glen Leiner, former executive director of the Art Deco Society of New York. “There is no question that the extraordinary site-specific art and architecture of Parkside Chapel merit preservation.

“This is an important and defining local landmark that is unique, and lavishly conveys spirituality and comfort,” he added. “It could be creatively adapted for a new use.”

Frampton Tolbert is architectural historian and founder of the Queens Modern project explained,

“Preservation would help celebrate its design and showcase one of Rego Park’s Modern landmarks, all of which are under threat by development,” said Tolbert. “Queens deserves more of its Modern heritage protected through landmark designation.”
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