By BOB SINGLETON
Executive Director, Greater Astoria Historical Society
“Every picture tells a story,” sang Rod Stewart in 1971. With Long Island City it seems every building has a story of someone’s dream – perhaps delivering a unique commodity, revolutionizing a new industrial process, or simply making an old hat into an item new and wonderful. When someone said “a city is not gauged by its length and width, but by the broadness of its vision and the height of its dreams,” my guess is that they were thinking of Long Island City.
Recently a building owner contacted the Greater Astoria Historical Society to assist him in finding the back story of his property. His thinking was that he may be able to promote its future by gleaming something unique from its past. “It was once a match factory,” he told us. From that little nugget tumbled out the fascinating story of a clever man and the humble matchbook.
The property, once at the fringes of Burden’s Marsh, was rebranded as Queens Plaza when the Queensboro Bridge was rammed through its center. A worthless patch of bog was suddenly the most sought after land in Queens. Almost immediately the Queensboro Elevated connected the area to the rest of the city and commercial loft buildings arose just south of Bridge Plaza. Starting in the 1920s and continuing for the next decade, the Lion Match Company built and expanded a factory at 22-15 43 Avenue. It is, in a sense, a monument to one man’s dream. Meet Leo Greenbaum.
His 1950 New York Times obituary explored the path of a 13-year-old German immigrant who, over the course of the next six decades was to be a bootblack, dishwasher, waiter, restaurant owner, and, when he died aged 74, a resident of Central Park West, a member of the Elks, Masons, Harmony, and Metropolis Country Club. His son, Monroe, was a graduate of the Ivy League’s Dartmouth College.
In 1917 Leo started manufacturing paper matches with on one second-hand machine on the Lower East Side. He later moved his factory to Brooklyn, and in 1924, to Long Island City where it ultimately expanded into three large buildings. Leo was a mover and a shaker within the matchbook industry with 21 patents. Not afraid to gamble on new lines and new ideas, he was called the ‘Match King’ by admirers and competitors alike.
Among matchbook collectors (called “phillumenists”) the company’s name is legendary. ‘The Matchcover Vault’, a resource for matchbook book collectors, sums up Lion’s place in history: “There’s nothing like holding an old Lion full-book “Feature” in the palm of your hand. You notice right away that it’s not like any other cover. It’s heavier; it’s thicker; and you know when you open it up that it’s going to be a veritable feast for the eyes (sigh!).”
When son Monroe took over in the 1950s the world began to change: on the horizon was both the Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking as well as disposable lighters. By the 1960s Monroe sold Lion and moved into the advertising part of the business. Ultimately Lion Match moved to Chicago, and in 1988, rebranding itself as Lion Circle, got into promotional products. Its manufacturing equipment was purchased by a firm in Honduras.
And the Lion Match Building? Long Island City seems to move in ever ascending cycles. Will the 2020s be a repeat of the boundless optimism of the 1920s? Now owned by the Werwaiss Family, its future seems as limitless as when it was owned by the Match King himself, Mr. Greenbaum.
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