Local banks offer rich architectural history
by Michael Perlman
Apr 11, 2018 | 6793 views | 0 0 comments | 143 143 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Between the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs, Forest Hills, Rego Park, and Kew Gardens Hills experienced a boom in development. That included the creation of several financial institutions, some of which are still banks to this day.

“These banks tell the story of Queens as a rapidly growing borough in the mid-20th century, and the architects of these branches were among the most prominent designers of bank institutions in New York City at the time,” said architectural historian Frampton Tolbert, creator of the Queens Modern project. “Ridgewood Savings, Queens County Savings, and Long Island City Savings were among the first companies opening in the neighborhood, looking to provide much-needed services to the influx of new residents.”

Many were situated along Queens Boulevard, a short distance away from recently expanded subway lines.

“These were especially an opportunity for a show-stopping design, such as Metropolitan Industrial Bank,” said Tolbert.

A nearly faithful replica of Independence Hall, Queens County Savings Bank at 75-44 Main Street in Kew Gardens was designed by architect Harold O. Carlson and recognized by the Queens Chamber of Commerce in 1954.

Rising from its gabled wings is a 100-foot tower featuring clocks, cupola, and weathervane. The foyer includes a replica of the Liberty Bell, and the banking hall is graced with paintings of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and Washington crossing the Delaware River.

In 2005, the bank was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Banks were designed to evoke feelings of confidence and stability, and this would account for Classical elements such as columns,” said licensed NYC tour guide Linda Fisher. “This would have roots in Ancient Rome, where the Maison Carrée served as the model for government buildings, and though bank buildings are owned by private institutions, the architecture imbues the principles of solidity and democratic ideals.”

Tower Diner has been pleasing palates at 98-95 Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills since 1993, but the building originated as City Savings and Loan Association in the mid-1960s. The Colonial façade’s clock tower and pitched roof with columns and cornice detail continue to offer a stately presence.

The Colonial-style Long Island City Savings Bank at 97-27 Queens Boulevard in Rego Park was designed by Halsey, McCormack & Helmer, and recognized by the Queens Chamber of Commerce in 1952.

Notable features include a granite base, tall windows and roundels. The bank closed in the early 1990s, and today is home to a pharmacy and Tiger Schulmann's Karate.

Bank of America, which recently underwent a conversion for Mount Sinai Doctors at 99-01 Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills, opened in 1952 as the Metropolitan Industrial Bank, a Modernist building with industrial materials, which was considered revolutionary at a time of more traditional bank styles.

Notable artist Dara Birnbaum, daughter of the late award-winning architect Philip Birnbaum, who was raised around the corner in Birnbaum’s Howard Apartments, said, “I thought it was a real winner, and it did win a 1st prize award by the Queens Chamber of Commerce, as it certainly was more than deserving. In fact, it was one of the jewels of my father's designs through the years.”

Striking features include triple-height windows and a colonnade of Swedish granite and stainless steel fins that meet a rotunda entrance with curved glass. Although low-rise partitions have been installed, and the 22’ x 25’ mural commemorating Forest Hills’ growth is long-gone, the streamlined teakwood balcony and a whimsical terrazzo floor are retained.

The three-story Ridgewood Savings Bank, designed by Halsey, McCormack & Helmer, opened in 1940 on a triangular plot at 107-55 Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills. The Alabama Rockwood stone façade includes flat eagles, bronze windows, wave-like designs, and Moderne clocks.

Inside, Art Deco fixtures are suspended over a streamlined ceiling designed by famed muralist Angelo Magnanti, and travertine floors exist alongside buff pink Mansota stone walls on a wainscot of polished Rosato D’Or marble.

As neighborhoods continue to undergo development, many residents are realizing the value in buildings that offer historic character. On May 6 at 1 p.m., Tolbert will offer a free tour of the neighborhood, which will begin at MacDonald Park. Stops will include several of these local banks.

“These are the neighborhood landmarks that create a unique sense of place, but only the Ridgewood Savings Bank is currently landmarked,” he said. “With changes along Queens Boulevard others may disappear, so we must preserve our history while we still can, as it is a key piece of how our borough developed into the Queens we know today.”
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