Public art abounds in Forest Hills, Rego Park
by Michael Perlman
Nov 08, 2016 | 9940 views | 0 0 comments | 197 197 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Mosaic mural of Forest Hills by Richard Haas, 1989 on TD Bank facade, Photo by Michael Perlman
Mosaic mural of Forest Hills by Richard Haas, 1989 on TD Bank facade, Photo by Michael Perlman
Spirit of Communication, Forest Hills Post Office, Photo by Michael Perlman
Spirit of Communication, Forest Hills Post Office, Photo by Michael Perlman
Thorneycroft Apartments mural on 99th St, west of 66th Rd, Photo by Michael Perlman
Thorneycroft Apartments mural on 99th St, west of 66th Rd, Photo by Michael Perlman
Forest Hills and Rego Park are home to some classic examples of public art, which foster a neighborhood’s distinctive identity.

Without educating property owners about their value and applying for city landmark and National Register status, however, artistic works are being altered or demolished rather than restored.

Rego Park resident Pat Morgan is a regular on walking tours through the neighborhoods.

“The design on our architecture was accomplished usually by hand, as computers were not available in the 30s and 40s for design, and relied upon the mechanical engineering of architects and their engineers,” he explained. “We have proof that those designers and workers were truly artisans creating works, that with proper care and maintenance, can last for more than a century.”

Take as an example the International-style façade of the Forest Hills Post Officer embellished with the “Spirit of Communication,” which is a terra-cotta relief designed in 1938 by famed sculptor Sten Jacobsson.

It features a female figurine holding a carrier pigeon and a clock, relating to timely services. It was commissioned by the Treasury Department Section of Fine Arts to enhance the public’s experience with art during the Great Depression, while assisting impoverished local to national artists. The building earned National Register status in 1988 and the sculpture is part of the New Deal Art Registry.

Places of worship often become a showcase for religious art one can appreciate regardless of faith. The Art Deco and Bauhaus-inspired Rego Park Jewish Center, completed in 1948, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2009 thanks to local advocacy.

The façade displays a massive mosaic mural depicting Old Testament scenes and symbols, which was designed by the notable 20th century Hungarian-born artist Alexander Raymond Katz.

Banks were often designed on an elaborate scale to instill confidence while demonstrating commitment. The mosaic mural on the façade of Home Savings Bank of America at 108-36 Queens Boulevard (now TD Bank) was designed by Richard Haas, an internationally recognized architectural muralist.

It was completed in Spilimbergo, Italy, and features views of Forest Hills Gardens with Forest Hills Stadium and the Twin Towers in the backdrop. It was nearly demolished before owner Cord Meyer ceased lease negotiations with a prospective tenant that would not preserve it.

Bank of America at 99-01 Queens Boulevard, which opened in 1952 as the Metropolitan Industrial Bank, has been vacant since 2015. A 22-by-25-foot mural illustrating the growth of Forest Hills was a focal point of the main lobby, but may have been covered over decades ago.

It was situated in an International-style building designed by the award-winning architect, Philip Birnbaum, which consists of triple-height windows, a rotunda, and a colonnade of granite columns with stainless steel fins.

When community residents picked up a copy of The Forest Hills-Kew Gardens Post on September 18, 1942, they came across an ad for the soon-to-open Art Moderne-style Midway Theatre designed by Thomas Lamb and S. Charles Lee.

It was intended as a tribute to the victory at Midway Island. That victory was captured in the “Battle of Midway” mural, which today could be rediscovered under layers of paint.

“Public art is a gift to the masses that should be celebrated and treated with the utmost level of respect,” said architect Matthew Ferraro, president of the board of directors of Chatwick Gardens, an Elizabethan and Tudor cooperative from 1929 in Forest Hills that is overseeing a façade restoration. “Previous renovations may have eliminated some historic features, but capital improvements provide a unique opportunity for owners to explore the history of their property in order to evaluate how and if particular elements should be maintained or restored.”

Four Art Deco murals once accentuated the facades of the Thorneycroft Apartments complex, completed during the 1939 World’s Fair along 99th Street and 66th Road. Today, only one 99th Street mural remains intact, while the others have been concealed or removed.

“The image of a man and woman sitting under a tree with a dog on one side and a cat on the other adds a personal touch,” said resident Carol Hagarty. “Over the past 30 years, my husband and I had several cats and dogs as companions, so the building’s rooftop artwork came to symbolize my own little family within those buildings. I hope that other neighbors know to look up and appreciate it, since artwork adds meaning to our lives.”

Former Rego Park resident David Kalfus recalls seeing the murals as a child.

“I was puzzled by those murals when we passed them in our explorations, and I would tell my gullible brothers they were ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics,” he said.

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