SWING THROUGH SUNNYSIDE

In 2005 FNY correspondent Christina Wilkinson wrote FNY’s flagship Sunnyside entry, but I’ve revisited the western Queens neighborhood repeatedly for lamppost stylings, forgotten roadways, its many languages, and business signs. In the spring of 2017 I took a brief walk in hopes of catching up on some things not previously covered. I’ve done one of these before, a decade ago, but there are always new things to discover… 

GOOGLE MAP: SUNNYSIDE STROLL

Purists take note. The first few pages of this essay will be of places in Woodside–a necessity, since I took the Long Island Rail Road to Woodside for this walk. Having gotten that out of the way, here’s the Ottomanelli butcher shop, a venerable presence in Woodside, now offering a subway-style sandwich shop. Its well-regarded hamburger restaurant (by me at least) is a few doors down, both shops on Woodside Avenue either side of 61st Street. 

This is a branch of the Ottomanelli Greenwich Village shop on Bleecker just east of 6th Avenue. The shop is well-known for its game selections as well as its more conventional offerings. The butcher has been in business since the 1930s.

Known for its freshly ground meat, grass-fed beef, poultry, and game, Ottomanelli’s operates five butcher shops and restaurants in the city. Nicolo Ottomanelli, who with his brother Joseph is chairman of the company, said his grandfather founded the business in 1900 with a pushcart on Delancey Street. NY Sun

 

The distinguished Corinthian-pilastered Chase Bank at Woodside Avenue and 60th Street was constructed in 1927 as the Woodside National Bank of New York. After a series of mergers it eventually became JP Morgan Chase which is still there now. 

 

The north side of Woodside Avenue, and the east side of 60th Street, feature relatively new construction. The reason for this is that a railroad used to cross Woodside Avenue at about this spot. 

 

Here’s a 1909 Bromley Atlas map of Woodside in 1909. I’ve circled the corner of Woodside Avenue and Schroeder Place (now 60th Street) and, you can see that the main branch of the Long Island Railroad, which at this time still terminated in Long Island City, ran just past the intersection. It preceded the street grid and forced Schroeder Place to be laid out at an angle, which even today explains the slight diagonal route 60th street takes. 

In 1915, the main branch was elevated along its present course, while the originally-Corona-bound IRT/BMT elevated was also arising over Roosevelt Avenue. The result is a pair of stacked elevateds, one bound for Flushing and the other bound for eastern Long Island or Penn Station (some go to LIC/Hunters Point). 

Woodside and Roosevelt Avenues make an X at 59th Street, where Woodside Memorial Park was built in 1971  (renamed Woodside Plaza in 1998). The renaming is odd, since there remains a plinth dedicated to Woodsiders who have served in the wars of the 20th Century. I’m not sure if the rock formation, more frequently found in Manhattan and the Bronx, was original to the area or installed when the plaza was built.

 

Here the el runs high over Roosevelt Avenue as Woodside Avenue runs through a valley. Roosevelt Avenue, named for the still-living President Theodore Roosevelt in 1914– was built as a right of way for the el in 1915; see the FNY feature from early 2017, the Flushing Line Centennial. The Roosevelt family has a lengthy New York history — there was a now-eliminated Roosevelt Street in the City Hall area as early as the mid-19th Century.

 

One of the many honorific streets in Woodside; Martin Trainor (1924-2009), an attorney, co-founded Woodside on the Move. His law practice focused on fighting for rights of union members and their families. He was active in the Anoroc Democratic Club and St. Sebastian’s Church and a member of Community Board 2. [NYC Honorary Street Names]

 

Heading west on Skillman Avenue, walking amidst one of the largest collections of Gustave X. Mathews apartments featuring yellow brick manufactured in Staten Island. Mathews built acres of such housing between 1915 and 1930 in Astoria, Woodside, Ridgewood and Elmhurst. 

These Skillman Avenue units were produced for $8000 in 1915 by Gustave X. Mathews, who is virtually unknown today but responsible for much classic residential architecture in Queens. The distinctive yellow bricks were produced in the kilns of Balthazar Kreischer’s brick works in the far reaches of Staten Island. (The Kriescher and Long Island City stalwarts, the Steinways, were linked by marriage.) By 1917, Mathews flats were in such demand that it’s said that if laid side by side the entire string of houses would reach 4.5 miles.

Mathews mass-produced these multi-unit houses for about $8,000 and sold them for $11,000. They did not have central heating or hot water systems. The only heat came from coal in the stove and a kerosene heater in the living room. Despite this, the U.S. Government gave special recognition to Matthews’ concept in 1915 when an exhibit was opened at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. It showed the world how efficiently these type of apartments met housing needs for a surging population.

 

Yet another collection of distinctive houses is reached further west on Skillman, Sunnyside Gardens, one of whose buildings is shown here at 46th Street. 

The turn-of-the-century English Garden City movement of Sir Ebenezer Howard and Sir Raymond Unwin served as the inspiration for Sunnyside Gardens, built from 1924-1928. This housing experiment was aimed at showing civic leaders that they could solve social problems and beautify the city, all while making a small profit. The City Housing Corporation, whose founders were then-schoolteacher and future first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, ethicist Felix Adler, attorney and housing developer Alexander Bing, urban planner Lewis Mumford, architects Clarence S. Stein, Henry Wright, and Frederick Lee Ackerman and landscape architect Marjorie S. Cautley, was responsible for the project. Co-founder Lewis Mumford [the long-time architecture critic at The New Yorker] was also one of the Garden’s first residents. The part of Skillman Avenue that runs through Sunnyside Gardens has been renamed in his honor.

The design of the Gardens was novel in that large areas of open space were included in the plan. Construction costs were minimized, which allowed those with limited means the opportunity to afford their own homes. Rows of one- to three-family private houses with co-op and rental apartment buildings were mixed together and arranged around common gardens, with stores and garages placed around the edges of the neighborhood. Just about every interior window in the Gardens offers a view of a landscaped commons. A typical price for a two-story attached brick house in the development cost $9,500 in 1927!

Artists and writers were also attracted to the amenities of Sunnyside Gardens; in fact, the development in its early years was sometimes referred to as the ‘Greenwich Village annex’.” Artistic residents of the Gardens included painter Raphael Soyer, singer Perry Como and actress Judy Holliday. Crooner Rudy Vallee, NYPD Blue actress Justine Miceli, “Rhoda’s mom” Nancy Walker, and tough-guy actor James Caan also lived in Sunnyside. 

I had always admired the Gardens, but never lived here. I did, however, move into a smaller facsimile, Westmoreland Gardens in Little Neck in 2007. 

 

Seen here is one of many Skillman Avenue watering holes and restaurants (tangentially, Woodside and Sunnyside have been home to many Irish immigrants the past few decades). I have visited Copper Kettle at 51st Street and Aubergine Cafe at 50th.  

 

Sunnyside seems to have the borough’s largest concentration of multiunit apartment buildings, with Jackson Heights and Flushing hot on its heels. No doubt, the apartments were built to house commuters using the convenient Flushing El. I found this unusual object next to a lamppost outside 41-11 46th Streets. Other than a bird feeder I have no idea what it could be. Your suggestions are welcome in Comments.

I’d hoped to find some architectural details on All Saints Episcopal Church, 46th Avenue south of 43rd Avenue, but like many churches, its website is not forthcoming about that information. It’s a handsome brick church with an A frame and multiple dormers on its south side.

This grand apartment building at 43-30 46th Street  is similar to others along this particular stretch of 46th Street and doesn’t stand out. But it holds a secret…

A wall plaque honors the memory of Leon Bismark “Bix” Beiderbecke, jazz cornetist extraordinaire, who lived briefly and died here of alcoholism and pneumonia on August 6, 1931 at the tender age of 28. The plaque was installed in 2003 at a candlelight vigil dedicated to his memory.

During his seven or so years of playing and recording, he left a scintillating oeuvre, unlike that of any other leading horn player of the time, even, in some instances, his contemporary Armstrong. The best of this can be found on a four-CD collection, The Bix Beiderbecke Story (Proper Records Ltd, www.propermusic.com), which presents nearly all the 100 sides he recorded; another is The Bix Beiderbecke Story — Bix and His Gang (Colombia). [The Guardian]

 

The Sunnyside Arch needs no introduction for western Queens residents but I have always been fascinated by it. No other New York City neighborhood really has an artifact like it. It can be found on the short stretch of 46th Street between Queens Boulevard and Greenpoint Avenue. The Arch was built in 1983 by a defunct community group and has had its fortunes rise and fall over the decades, at times falling into disrepair, its nighttime lights broken. Its last renovation, which has held up to date, was in 2011.

 

Luke Adams Way, named for a local personality who worked with the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce, Sunnyside/Woodside Lions Club and SunnysideArtists, has been the subname of this stretch of 46th Street from shortly after Adams’ death in 2014.

I have always been conflicted about the practice of naming streets for people after their death. Why not bestow these names while their honorees are alive and can enjoy the moment? Sorry you’re on your last legs, Kev, but we’re naming Marathon Parkway for you as soon as you’re gone!

 

Ditto for US Representative Tom Manton (1932-2006), who ruled the political roost in western Queens for decades, elected seven times from his district. After serving with the NYPD, he worked for IBM and then as an attorney, and then was elected to the NY City Council for one term between 1970 and 1973. He was defeated by Geraldine Ferraro in  a bid for the Congressional seat in the 9th District in 1978, but ran for it again and won after Ferraro was tapped for the Vice Presidential bid in 1984. He was a US Representative until 1998; his chosen successor, Joe Crowley, still has the seat. 

 

Replacing the Type B park post in some areas is the Department of Transportation’s “Flushing Meadows” pole, first introduced in 2004. It’s 12 feet tall and fitted with Light Emitting Diode bulbs. 

 

Intermediate School 125, 47th Avenue and 46th Street, was one of the many massive public schools built in the pre-World War II era when neighborhood populations were increasing rapidly. The Thomas J. McCann School was named for a local firefighter who perished on 9/11/01.

 

They’re not as famed as Sunnyside Gardens or even the Mathews flats, but the Cosmopolitan Houses have been a big part of the Sunnyside scene since they were built in 1922, comprising large parts of blocks between Queens Boulevard and 48th Avenue between 48th and 49th Street (this os one of those Queens areas where all the numbers are similar). Another large block can be found 48th and 50th avenues between 46th and 47th Streets.

The houses were originally built by Metropolitan Life Insurance for low-income families. It was renamed when MetLife sold the property. Part of it continues to serve as federally subsidized housing, though most apartments have been converted to pricey condos.

 

One of the interesting aspects of the Cosmopolitan Houses to me is the presence of a Type B post, usually employed in parks, lighting every entranceway. The luminaires are of a relatively rare type not seen in the parks.

 

Facing the Cosmopolitan Houses on 48th Street is a stretch of these attached brick dwellings, with stepped rooflines reminiscent of early New Netherland Dutch architecture of which this is likely in homage. 

 

Looking west on 47th Avenue, which provides a view on its Sunnyside stretch of the King of All Buildings. I should do an FNY page on good vantage points to see the ESB such as north on Seneca and Cypress Avenues in Ridgewood, or across Calvary Cemetery (cf. below). You can also write about unexpected views of it; I once glimpsed it from an angle at Avenue M and Ocean Parkway in Midwood. Those views are better had in winter when the trees are defoliated.

I notice I seem to click the camera in time to get the yellow on traffic signals, which lasts about a second.

 

There’s a little piece of 47th Avenue that runs along Calvary Cemetery between 50th and 51st Streets, and I never knew what was there till now. First there’s Edmar, founded in 1972, which sells janitorial supplies..

 

…but the real find was Astron Candle Manufacturing, which makes candles used in Greek Orthodox services, specializing in beeswax  (bees produce it to line the compartments in which the larvae develop in the hive and also to produce honeycombs). For humans it is used in food production, cosmetics and skin care, and in candles. Since bee populations have been decreasing, both the multimillion dollar honey and beeswax businesses as well as several major food crop pollination is in jeopardy unless honeybees can make a recovery.

 

47th Avenue and 51st Street where both people and streets meet their ends, at Calvary Cemetery.

From FNY’s Calvary Cemetery page:

In the mid-19th Century Manhattan was getting so crowded (by 1845 the island was fully built up south of about 42nd Street) that it was running out of cemetery space. The two largest cemeteries had been developed by Trinity Cemetery, in the churchyard adjacent to its ancient Broadway and Wall Street location, and uptown in the furthest reaches of civilized Manhattan territory, the wild north of 155th and Broadway.

By the 1840s Brooklyn’s largest cemeteries, Green-Wood and Most Holy Trinity, and Woodlawn in the Bronx were accepting interments; and in Staten Island there was Moravian, developed in the 1760s, and myriads of smaller cemeteries.

Queens, too, had dozens of tiny burial grounds scattered around, many dating to the mid-1600s. In 1847 the Rural Cemetery Act was passed, prohibiting any new burial grounds from being established on the island of Manhattan. Presciently anticipating the legislation, trustees of the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street in what is today known as Little Italy began buying up property in western Queens. Calvary Cemetery, named for the hill where Christ was crucified, opened in 1848. The original acreage had been nearly filled by the late 1860s, so additional surrounding acreage was later purchased to the east.

The King of Calvary is Newtown Penticleer Mitch Waxman who has indefatigably chronicled the Cemetery Where All Roads Lead. 

 

Traditions die hard

 

51st Street is sidewalk-free north to Queens Boulevard. Ahead is the 1975 Korean Presbyterian Church of Southern New York.

 

Bike lanes were installed at considerable expense on the “Boulevard of Death” a few years ago, but have yet to see many takers. 

 

Going north on 55th, I found this house with a wide lawn on a hill, unusual for Sunnyside, sort of a hint of the original topography of the region.

 

More from 55th. The house on the left is curiously bereft of aluminum siding. 

 

…but not this house. It’s curiously tilted at an angle away from 55th Street, but older maps show no railroads or older roads running through this spot, so it must have been done to either gain or lose direct sun. It must have looked considerably different before the siding.

 

Once more, I’m drawn to the elevated train — I will walk from here to Woodside and my LIRR ride home, marking the end to another in tens of thousands of Forgotten NY walks.

Check out the ForgottenBook, take a look at the gift shop, and as always, “comment…as you see fit.”

7/9/17

 


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5 Responses to SWING THROUGH SUNNYSIDE

  1. Punto says:

    Jonathan Lethem’s book “Dissident Gardens” is a roman a clef mostly about life in Sunnyside Gardens and several generations of “red diaper babies” other lefties that made up a large portion of the population there. My wife’s father grew up there, so I have heard a bit about the place and I sometimes wander by there on lunch breaks since now work near the intersection of Van Dam Street and Queens Boulevard.

  2. BobK says:

    Many thanks for yet another charming FNY summertime stroll.

  3. John Tambini says:

    I was raised on 55th street as shown in the photos. Although the article is on Sunnyside, this street is clearly in Woodside.

    • Kevin Walsh says:

      Please. Enough nitpicking. It gets tiring. The article clearly states:

      Purists take note. The first few pages of this essay will be of places in Woodside–a necessity, since I took the Long Island Rail Road to Woodside for this walk. Having gotten that out of the way

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