Tolbert is the creator of “Queens Modern,” a website that largely chronicles a period from 1948 to 1970, when the Queens Chamber of Commerce recognized nearly 400 buildings through its annual building awards.
Sunday's tour explored developments from the 1930s to 1960s along Queens Boulevard, Yellowstone Boulevard and 71st Avenue.
Tolbert feels that many people may not consider Mid-Century Modern architecture as significant as some other forms, especially if they can remember it being built.
“Now that architecture from the 1960s is passing the 50-year mark, it is time to reevaluate what's worth preserving, especially in Queens which really had its heyday of development from the 1930s to the 1960s,” he said. “It’s also a good time to reevaluate the significance of earlier examples like Forest Hills Jewish Center, Forest Hills Post Office, and the former Metropolitan Industrial Bank.”
The tour was arranged in partnership with the Municipal Art Society as part of the Jane’s Walk NYC series, a festival of over 200 free tours bearing homage to Jane Jacobs, the tireless preservation advocate and author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”
Guests assembled at MacDonald Park, then walked to the landmarked Ridgewood Savings Bank.
“This was their first branch office due to growing population and the subway which opened a few years before,” Tolbert explained. “In 1940, mutual savings bank deposits were at an all-time high, and Halsey, McCormack & Helmer were known as bank architects. You see the streamlined eagles and concave and convex shapes on a triangular plot.
“They really wanted to make a statement on Queens Boulevard, since many of the surrounding buildings were not here,” he added.
The Kennedy House, developed by Alfred Kaskel and opened in 1966, was the tallest apartment building in Queens for 24 years.
“This glamorous building had one of the first rooftop swimming pools in the country and was designed by a prolific architect, Philip Birnbaum, who had a strong hand in Forest Hills,” said Tolbert.
He also discussed the Cord Meyer office building on Continental Avenue, completed in 1969.
“Cord Meyer chose an international-style office building, more in tune with Park Avenue office buildings in the late 1950s,” Tolbert said. “I would say this was one of the last ‘modern’ office buildings in Queens.”
The Forest Hills Library was completed in 1957 by architect Boak & Raad, mostly known for Art Deco/Moderne Manhattan apartment buildings. Tolbert pointed out Moderne elements like metal signage, window trims, and curved railings.
The terra-cotta-paneled Forest Hills Post Office is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was designed by Lorimer Rich in 1937.
“He got a job with the Architect of the Treasury during the WPA era and designed post offices around the country,” Tolbert said.
Above the entrance, the Spirit of Communication terra-cotta relief, designed by famed sculptor Sten Jacobsson, features a female figure, a carrier pigeon, and a clock. Tolbert shared a quote from Professor Andrew Dolkart of Columbia University.
“Forest Hills Station is a simple modern design,” he read. “It is basically two cubes that have collided. It’s a mystery how the government funded it at a time when most post offices were Colonial Revival.”
Joseph Furman designed the Forest Hills Jewish Center in 1949, which was his sole synagogue. Tolbert pointed out notable features like a crab-orchard rock façade and stained glass windows depicting the Burning Bush.
“A main focus of the inside is the Holy Ark by the Polish-born illustrator Arthur Szyk,” Tolbert said. “This is one of his only 3-D sculptures and his only work for a synagogue.”
Parker Towers, a three-building complex, was built around a courtyard with a large fountain that was recently demolished.
“It accommodated over 1,300 families and originally 750 cars, an underground beauty parlor, barber shop, drugstore, and a maid and valet service,” said Tolbert. “All the amenities, so you would never have to leave your complex.”
Tolbert called the former Metropolitan Industrial Bank Building at 99-01 Queens Boulevard a “neighborhood highlight.” It was designed by Philip Birnbaum under Alfred Kaskel.
“This was a showcase of industrial materials,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of Mid-Century metal banks anywhere, especially in New York City.”
Other stops included the Trylon Theater and Parkside Memorial Chapels, which was designed in 1961 by Viennese architect Henry Sandig.
“This is his most notable work,” Tolbert said. “Most other works listed in the AIA Guide are no longer extant, but this one is pretty unusual, consisting of star-patterned walls and concrete screens. There is a striking metal sculptural fountain near the entrance, and the design of the building is supposed to represent the Sinai Desert.”
Attendees also explored the sanctuary of Rego Park Jewish Center, erected in 1948 by Frank Grad & Sons. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. The façade’s mosaic mural, designed by the prominent artist A. Raymond Katz, features a Torah scroll and the Ten Commandments.
“The mosaic was fabricated by V. Foscato, a mosaic factory in Long Island City,” said Tolbert. “The mayor attended the dedication, and later, Eleanor Roosevelt visited and presented the congregation with a plaque.”