Open House New York: Richmond Hill

October 7, 2007

I spent this, the final day of OpenHouseNewYork, in Richmond Hill, Queens.

Located more or less in the center of the borough, in many ways Richmond Hill seems more like a suburban community than a part of the city of New York. The streets are filled with single homes, many with driveways and garages. The residents spend sunny days washing cars, mowing lawns and puttering in vegetable gardens.

There is a small business district cluttered with store-front lawyers and tax preparers, family-run candy shops and discount stores, fast food joints and Latin American restaurants. Richmond Hills also contains a handful of notable churches, a few neighborhood institutions and more than its share of boarded up buildings, including a train station abandoned by the Long Island Railroad.

The most remarkable aspect of the area, however, is the way it has been divided into two camps: the long-time residents who want to preserve its past and, far outnumbering them, the newcomers who have come here to build.

Not long ago, Richmond Hill was best known for its stock of century-old wooden Victorian  houses, many with large yards. But, unlike many areas where such buildings are protected, the residents here have never been able to rouse the city into giving the structures here protected landmark status.

As a result, the newcomers tend to treat the houses either as tear-downs (the house is demolished and a new structure built in its place) or remodels (original features are destroyed and replaced by incongruous, often gaudy elements).

Trees are ripped out and buildings extended to the very edges of their lots. Fishscale shingles are covered with vinyl siding, cedar shakes are hidden behind asbestos tiles and brick veneer. Wrought-iron gates are replaced by chrome, wooden millwork is stripped off, gilded plaster hidden behind suspended tile ceilings. Satellite dishes replace privet hedges and lawns are turned into parking lots.

A walking tour through the district is accompanied by a sad litany of vanished treasures. But the long-time residents are fighting back. They’ve organized the Richmond Hill Historical Society and are working to preserve and protect their neighborhood’s heritage.

Richmond Hill still contains architectural treasures including the remaining Victorians, the public library (an original Carnegie library), the Catholic and Episcopal churches and Jahn’s, an ice cream parlor founded in 1897 which still contains its original fountain, player piano, hanging lamps and furnishings.

While the majority of the newer residents have no interest in historic preservation, other newcomers are busily painting, plastering, re-pointing and restoring their historic homes to their former glory. Clearly, the final chapter in the battle for the character of Richmond Hill has yet to be written.

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Victorian home with stained glass windows and wooden trim

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Syrup dispenser in Jahn’s

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Jahn’s soda fountain and amber light fixtures

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Restored Victorian features several types of shingles

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Sleeping balconies were used on hot summer nights

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Another type of sleeping balcony

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A homeowner lovingly paints his Victorian

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A “Painted Lady”-style paint job

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Experimenting with contrasting shades and colors

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The roof lines were inspired by pagodas

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Painted terra-cotta on old apartment building

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Crumbling remains of a community center

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Entryway to former RKO Keith’s movie theater, now a flea market

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The theater’s grandeur hidden behind florescent lights

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Wooden Victorian “improved” with plaster columns and circular marble staircase

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When these remodelers ran out of vinyl siding, they continued in a different color

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Victorian house “improved” with columns and bricked-over windows

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Wooden Victorian “improved” with asbestos shingles

openhousenewyork weekend
Richmond Hill Historical Society Archive Museum
Historic Richmond Hill Walking Tour
The Richmond Hill Historical Society
Forgotten NY: Richmond Hill
richmondhillny.com
The Food Section: Jahn’s, the Best Way to Travel Back in Time
Wikipedia: Carnegie Libraries

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