Frank Principe, an iconic and revered figure who laid the foundation, in more ways than one, for the prosperity of Maspeth over the past seven decades, has died at the age of 94.
Family members said he passed away Monday morning at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn due to complications from a recent stroke.
A legendary, larger-than-life figure, Principe leaves behind a legacy of unmatched civic activism and community dedication.
“He was a true legend who brought the ages together,” said Tony Nunziato, a longtime friend and fellow Community Board 5 member. “He was full of such vigor and stamina. And, he had such an undying love for Maspeth.”
The son of Italian immigrants, Francesco Principe was born in 1909 in East New York and reared in the Kensington section of Brooklyn.
Under the tutelage of his father, Louis, a mason contractor who rose to become the city’s Buildings Department commissioner under Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Principe took an interest in real estate and construction.
After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in civil engineering, the Principes moved to Maspeth in 1931 and built a highly successful concrete company, Principe-Danna, Inc.
For 45 years, the family-owned business built apartment buildings and homes throughout Maspeth, including in the area now known as the Ridgewood Plateau, and received the first Federal Housing Administration loan in the country.
During World War II, Principe helped build the Alcoa Aluminum plant in West Maspeth, which built military planes for the war effort. And, as a civil engineer for the Long Island Rail Road, the city and private firms, Principe built bridges, sewers and roads across the city and Long Island.
Throughout his career, Principe served as president, director, and soon became a lifetime fellow of the Concrete Industry Board of New York. He later earned the nickname “Mr. Concrete.”
Principe’s legacy, though, is far more than just bricks and mortar. As the years went on, he embarked on a second career, one which he would continue in for the remainder of his life: as a community activist.
He obtained funds for the construction of Maurice Park (the park’s playground was eventually renamed after Principe’s now deceased wife, Virginia) and for the reconstruction of Reft Street. He fought off a composting plant and two homeless shelters and wrote amendments to the building code.
However, Principe may best be remembered for helping defeat a plan to construct eight sludge processing plants across the city, including one in Maspeth.
Determined to uncover the potential medical repercussions, Principe and Community Board 5 District Manager Gary Giordano travelled to Silver Spring, Maryland, where a similar sludge plant had been in existence for several years. They discovered that the plant was responsible for the spread of aspergillus sores, which cause life-threatening breathing diseases. The pair returned home organized and armed to defeat the plan.
“Frank woke up every morning and said, ‘what good can I do today?,’” Giordano said. “He had the financial means to do anything he wanted. But, he wanted to help Maspeth.”
City Councilman Dennis Gallagher said he could spend hours with Principe, listening to stories about taking on LaGuardia and former Parks Commissioner Robert Moses.
“Every word out of his mouth was a treasure to hold on to,” Gallagher said. “He could teach so much to adults and to youths. He was a man of remarkable integrity and character.”
Young in spite of his years, Principe stayed active in virtually every civic association in Maspeth. He founded the West Maspeth Development Corp. at the age of 75, was president of the Ridgewood Plateau Civic Association and for more than two decades, served as a member of CB 5, eight as chairman.
“He was a role model for the entire community,” said Vincent Arcuri, who followed Principe as CB 5 chairman.
In January, as Principe’s health was beginning to fail, he was honored by Queens Borough President Helen Marshall with a lifetime achievement award at the State of the Borough address.
“It was a fitting time to say thank you to him for all that he accomplished in his lifetime,” Marshall said. “Although Frank enjoyed a long life, we could never have enough of him. Even at the age of 94, he was still active, still caring and still a powerful force in his community.”
Even to the very end, Principe commanded the utmost respect from his peers. During a heated debate at last month’s community board meeting regarding the development of an apartment building on Grand Avenue, Principe delivered an eloquent speech to a hushed audience. He urged the community to look toward the future of Maspeth and be proactive in developing new jobs and homes. Mindful of his words, the board approved the project.
“He inspired sparks in hundreds of people to pick up where he left off,” Nunziato said. “He left behind a living monument in everyone he met.”
Principe, though, never valued his own importance and stature the way others did. At his 90th birthday party in 2000, Principe was typically modest.
“I’m the luckiest guy in the whole town,” he told a room of more than 100 people. “You’ve all been a part of my life along the way, every one of you. And, that’s why I’m so lucky; because I’ve known the finest people in the world.”
A wake will be held on Thursday and Friday at Papavero Funeral Home, located at 72-27 Grand Avenue in Maspeth. Viewing hours are from 2 to 5 p.m. and from 7 to 9 p.m. each day. The funeral mass will take place at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday at St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church, 57-15 61st Street in Maspeth.
In lieu of flowers, Principe’s son, Lee, and daughter, Virginia, asked that donations be made in his name to Maspeth Town Hall, located at 53-37 72nd Street, Maspeth, N.Y. 11378.