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Queens Chronicle

17th Annual Celebration of Queens HISTORY SET IN WOOD & STONE

Queens Village architecture a window to neighborhood’s past

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Posted: Wednesday, June 18, 2014 10:30 am | Updated: 10:59 am, Wed Jun 18, 2014.

The architecture of a city or a neighborhood can be like the rings of a tree to the trained eye.

A close examination can uncover history preserved in wood and stone like an insect trapped in amber.

It tells a story.

The design, materials and ornamentation on a structure can show that a house, church, theater or set of row stores is not just a building, but a window looking back in time.

It can tell about the architects, craftsmen, artisans and laborers who created them, back in the days before form-follows-function became a prominent and popular school of thought. It can bespeak of the people who worked, lived and shopped there.

One good example is the Long Island Rail Road station in Queens Village.

The station last year was renovated after years of neglect, and restored as much as modern building and fire safety codes would allow to remain faithful to the appearance of the original, which was constructed in 1924.

Lettering on the side of the refurbished building designated the station as Queens Village “Little Plains.”

The latter name hearkens back to a term that has not been used for the area since 1824, long before the LIRR even set up a station in the neighborhood in 1881.

But the former is believed to have been coined by the railroad itself.

Several published sources state that in the 1850s, residents of the area elected to change the name from Brushville (after a successful local businessman) to Queens.

Trouble was, once the LIRR established a regular stop and built a station, it seems some riders were confused between the neighborhood and the enormous county in which it was situated.

Some enterprising person in the LIRR offices came up with the idea of adding “Village” to the signage at the station, and the name eventually stuck.

Pop culture fans, movie buffs and journalism students might know of the tie Queens Village has to cinema history, based on the 1927 murder of Albert Snyder by his wife, Ruth, and her lover Judd Gray.

The poorly conceived plot led to a sensational, well-publicized murder trial which led to both Snyder and Gray being executed in the electric chair in 1928.

The Daily News made news itself with its coverage, publishing on its front page a photograph of a bound, hooded Snyder being electrocuted; a News reporter covering her death had sneaked a small camera with a cable-release shutter into the witness area strapped to his leg.

More successful than the murder scheme was a subsequent novel based on the plot titled “Double Indemnity.”

The resultant movie in 1944, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray as lovers intent on murder, became an instant classic.

It was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and a Best Actress nomination for Stanwyck.

Starting in the 1840s, New York City began hosting waves of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Italy and eastern Europe.

Decades later came two world wars.

And there always have been people journeying east from the big city, people wanting to settle down in an affordable house of their own in a quieter, greener, less hectic and less expensive setting, often to raise a family.

Houses, blocks and neighborhoods would spring up at every interval to meet the area’s growing population.

So would churches, stores and small shops, many with decorative eaves, dormers, turrets and cornices with elaborate and distinctive wood- and brickwork.

The black population steadily increased. And with more recent waves, what might have been a German butcher shop or an Italian green grocer or a cobbler with turrets generations ago now is an ethnic restaurant, an electronics store or a grocery shop with far different fare and proprietors who are Hispanic, Filipino, or hailing from the Caribbean or southern Asia.

More recently Queens Village has been in the news for the goings-on in and about a massive structure of 1955 vintage — Martin Van Buren High School, a sprawling multi-story complex with facades of masonry and glass.

Starting in September, the building named for the eighth President of the United States, will house a decidedly modern high school program.

Business Technology Early College High School is a charter school with ties to SAP, a multinational corporation based in Germany.

Students who attend will do so with the intent of pursuing studies in either computer programming or software design. Upon graduation they will head to Queensborough Community College to get their two-year associate’s degree.

The school first was controversial, with students, parents, alumni and teachers saying that Van Buren, rallying under a new principal after a decade of neglect from the Department of Education, deserved a chance to continue its turnaround; then many said the B-Tech programs would be a great benefit to current Van Buren students.

Afterward, many who supported the charter felt aggrieved that the notification and enrollment process appeared to be tilted against local children who were interested in applying.

No word from the DOE as to whether either school will have courses in architecture.

Welcome to the discussion.