Forest Hills Gardens is full of Tudor-style houses with terracotta roofing and European-style archways decorated with overgrown ivy. It is significantly different from surrounding areas. But more than that, Forest Hills Gardens has a history, one that Nicholas Hirshon has dedicated countless hours to discover.
At the Queens Historical Society in Flushing, Hirshon, a former reporter for the Daily News and newly published author, lectured Queens residents on the history and significance of Forest Hills Gardens, a topic he has written about in his new book: “Images of America: Forest Hills.”
Hirshon addressed a group of a dozen or so Queens residents, using photographs to help tell the story of one of the most unique residential areas in Queens.
“It is alarming how little this area has changed,” he said, “It just shows you how important the town is even though it isn’t technically a historical landmark.”
Over a hundred years ago, the town of Forest Hills Gardens was originally called White Pot and was mostly farmland. There are a number of theories as to the origin of the name but the one most historians agree on is that the town was named for the white clay deposits found at the base of a large stream.
Chord Meyer, a company still in existence, purchased the land in 1906 and changed the name to Forest Hills Gardens, in honor of Forest Park.
Soon after, Margaret Sage, wife of Wall Street financier Russell Sage after whom Russell Sage Junior High School is named, purchased 142 acres from Chord Meyer.
“Margaret Sage used money left from her husband to create a foundation for charitable purposes, philanthropic purposes,” Hirshon said. “A lot of New York at this time is very dirty and poor environment with a lot of tenements, just people living on top of one another.”
Sage's response was to build a model utopia, where young, successful couples looking to start a family would come to live. The struggle would be to get people to invest in Forest Hills Gardens, as similar projects across the country commonly ended in failure.
The first step in making Forest Hills Gardens appealing was to make it accessible.
“It was important to have an easy way for people to get to Manhattan,” Hirshon said. “Who's going to want to live in Forest Hills if there's no way to get to the city?”
To have that accessibility, the Forest Hills Long Island Railroad station was built almost immediately, in 1911. To promote the idea of a “utopian society” of wealth and success in Forest Hills, the Russell Sage Foundation pitched a $30,000 train station with a grandiose support structure for the station
To design the station and surrounding neighborhood, Grosvenor Atterbury, who also designed the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was brought in. Atterbury was heavily influenced in European and Medieval infrastructure and applied that throughout Forest Hills Gardens. Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., son of the famed Central Park designer, was brought in for landscaping.
Through the years, Forest Hills Gardens has continued to develop by hosting social events and inviting notable speakers to visit. But it was the West Side Tennis Club that made the town internationally known. The club was moved to Forest Hills in 1913.
Having the West Side Tennis Club, which would eventually become the home for the US Open, attracted a number of icons to Queens, including presidents Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
The area has changed very little since the mid-twentieth century. Forest Hills Gardens is still considered a private community under the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation.
“Forest Hills truly does have a history unlike any other neighborhood in Queens,” Hirshon said. “Going into this project, I knew certain aspects since I was born and raised in Forest Hills, but I certainly learned a lot.”
Hirshon will be lecturing twice more this year on Forest Hills. On March 29 at 7 p.m., he will be speaking on the portrayal of Forest Hills in the movies. The event will be held at Cinemart Cinemas on Metropolitan Avenue and 72nd Avenue. A lecture on public housing is set for late April.