Thanks to the dedication of historian Jeff Gottlieb, founder and president of Central Queens Historical Association, the 11th annual Downtown Forest Hills tour took place on October 14, and the public acquired some excerpts from this “walking encyclopedia.”
Gottlieb, a resident of Kew Gardens Hills, was raised in Crown Heights. He is a retired history teacher, who is currently employed by the Board of Elections. He graduated from Forest Hills High School and earned a BA and MS in Education at Queens College.
In the early 1980s, Gottlieb joined Community Board 6, and felt enriched by the history of Forest Hills. He visited the Long Island Room of Jamaica’s Central Library, which is home to historic newspapers, books, and vintage photos.
In 1986, he coordinated his first Forest Hills tour, which he admits he initially had minimal knowledge of. His followers increased when weeklies printed local history articles.
In the 1990s, he conducted lectures and additional tours, and submitted papers and slideshows to libraries. Some of his walking tours include Forest Hills Gardens, Rego Park, 108th Street, Cord Meyer, Kew Gardens, Kew Gardens Hills, Queens College, Downtown Jamaica, and Richmond Hill.
Some of his bus tours are Jewish Central Queens and “Jazz Trail: From Flushing Town Hall to Addisleigh Park.”
The Downtown Forest Hills tour encompasses Austin Street on the south, Ascan Avenue on the east, 70th Avenue on the west, and Queens Boulevard on the north, and contains commercial and residential developments, as well as religious buildings.
Notable sites reflect the Tudor, Georgian Colonial, Colonial, Art Moderne, Tudor Gothic, and Neo-Renaissance styles. Gottlieb explained historic patterns of the 20th century business district, distinctive architectural details, and skillful developers and architects such as Benjamin Braunstein and Theobald Engelhardt.
Memorable 20th century businesses include the Forest Hills Theatre, Sutton Hall Pharmacy (a soda-fountain spot), Beau Brummel, Woolworth’s, Addie Vallens, the Homestead, Cheeses of The World, and Buster Brown Shoes.
Some of Forest Hills' numerous notables are Helen Keller, Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, and Geraldine Ferraro. Non-existent alphabetical street names include DeKoven Street, Euclid Street, Fife Street, Windsor Place, and Roman Avenue.
Continental Avenue was a thoroughfare referred to as "The Village,” with sites designed in the 1920s as a complementary gateway to the nearby Forest Hills Gardens (1909), the country’s earliest planned garden community.
Continental Avenue and much of Austin Street retain an English village feel. For example, Tudor design is most prevalent at 1 Continental Avenue at Queens Boulevard, which features a steep slate roofline with wood spandrels, a two-tone brick and stone half-timber effect, a limestone entryway, and a shield at the climactic point of the central cross section with limestone quoins.
The glazed terracotta tiled brick and stone façade of the 1920s former Forest Hills Theatre once had an organ and screened silent films. The two-story Tudor-style building at Continental Ave and Austin Street is the earliest extant business site, which housed Horton’s Ice Cream circa 1911, a general shop, and then Cushman’s Bakery and King George in its more recent past.
Adjacent on Austin Street are Austin Hall and Tudor Hall, which are the street’s earliest apartment houses dating to the late teens. The 1920s former Corn Exchange Bank on the opposite corner now houses Boston Market, which features a pitched tiled roof and crops in ornamentation between windows, tying in with the bank’s theme of prosperity.
Another signature element of the tour was the site of Forest Hills' first firehouse, a humble wooden edifice on Austin Street. A temporary electrified LIRR station on the south side was built in close proximity to Forest Hills' first developed street in 1906, Roman Avenue, which is now 72nd Avenue.
Its few remaining elaborate Neo-Renaissance rowhouses were the earliest sites developed by Cord Meyer Development, which named Forest Hills. This was the site of Central Queens Historical Association’s 1991 and 2006 dedication ceremonies. Some rowhouses were demolished in recent years.
One of Forest Hills’ largest buildings of the 1920s is Sutton Hall, which spans Ascan Avenue. Benjamin Braunstein was a household architect, and it is one of the greatest examples of Tudor architecture and urban planning in Downtown Forest Hills, evident by its stepped entryway, Medieval wood doors with knight motifs on stained glass, a cupola, a mansard roof, a prominent half-timber effect, castle-like corners, and inner courtyards and recessed facades enabling light and air.
Another one of Forest Hills’ largest buildings is the predominantly built 1920s and 1930s-era Tudor Gothic-style Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church, which covers a square block, with a main entrance on Ascan Avenue.
It was designed by Maginnis & Walsh, and offers a soaring Indiana limestone sanctuary, numerous stained glass windows varying in design, and landscaped areas surrounding and between its buildings.
Erected in 1930, Georgian Court bears distinction as being Forest Hills’ first sole apartment house on Queens Boulevard, and features a Corinthian entryway, a heavily inlaid mosaic lobby, a mansard slate roof with balustrades, and a recessed planting area.
Further west on Queens Boulevard, the Art Moderne Midway Theatre, named after WWII’s Battle of Midway, was designed by the renowned Thomas Lamb and features a signature sweeping staircase.
When interviewed about how the Landmarks Preservation Commission can be improved, Gottlieb explained, “I would like to see more personnel and increased funding for research.
“I want them to provide the real reasons why Queens sites are rejected, rather than serving form letters to the public,” he added. “I also want more Queens landmarks, some public hearings in the evenings, and Queens properties to be heard in Queens.”
Gottlieb’s credentials extend to President of the Queens Jewish Historical Society, VP of Native New Yorkers Historical Society, Co-Chair of Queens College’s Polish-Jewish Dialogue Committee, and President of the Committee to Preserve Jamaica Architecture & History.
Gottlieb’s wisdom prospers with age. Now at 71, he foresees his future as historian. As the Central Queens Historical Association will be celebrating their 25th anniversary in 2013, he envisions future tours.
He also hopes to achieve city landmarking victories on the Queens College and St. John’s University campuses, landmark designations in Jamaica, as well as designations in Forest Hills, such as Eddie’s Sweet Shop, the Medical Society of Queens County, the former Metropolitan Industrial Bank (Bank of America), and Rego Park’s Lefrak Center.
Foremost leaders owe gratitude to others. Evident by his vision of presenting humanitarian awards, Gottlieb builds a legacy as a community historian and leader.