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Queens Chronicle

Preserving the past in Richmond Hill

Historical society again looking for landmark status in the community

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Posted: Thursday, April 6, 2017 10:30 am

Take away the modern-day cars and stretches of 112th or 113th streets in Richmond Hill may look like they’ve been stuck in time since the late 19th century.

“On days when it’s alternate side of the street parking, it almost looks like you’re back in the 1870s,” said history aficionado and former Richmond Hill resident Carl Ballenas.

The large homes on the blocks still have an old-time charm to them — they are a mixture of Victorian and Tudor Revival houses with asymmetrical plans, circular porches and spacious front and backyards.

The community was one of the first planned suburbs in America and was known as a “railroad suburb.”

“Your family could live out in the suburbs while the man of the house went to work in the city,” Ballenas said.

The styles of homes in the historic area are rarely seen in New York City, and while many Richmond Hill homeowners are taking it upon themselves to preserve the character of the neighborhood, the houses are slowly being replaced by newer, brick ones often described as box-like.

“It’s an architectural period that’s disappearing,” Ballenas, who wrote a book on the history of the community, said. “It’s imperative that we save this community.”

The Richmond Hill Historical Society, of which Ballenas is a member, is looking to have part of the area designated as a historic district, preventing significant alterations to or demolitions of the structures.

It is also seeking to add the area to the National Register of Historic Places.

“It has some great whimsical architecture,” said the society’s president, Ivan Mrakovic. “I remember doing a walkaround with former Borough President Helen Marshall and she said, ‘Ivan, I knew about Richmond Hill, but I didn’t know about this Richmond Hill.’”

The society, along with the help of the Historic Districts Council, is studying which homes are best to be included in the historic district proposal.

The boundaries of the study area are north of Jamaica Avenue, south of Park Lane South, east of 104th Street and west of Lefferts Boulevard.

“We haven’t submitted an actual proposal yet,” said Mrakovic.

The proposal could be smaller than the study area, or split into three sections.

A petition on Change.org, titled “Proposal for a Richmond Hill Historic District,” has close to 500 supporters and has been endorsed by all city and state elected officials representing the study area.

“I think I only heard one person really raise hell about it,” Mrakovic said. “But there’s a broad sense of support for it.”

The Richmond Hill Historical Society has attempted to secure preservation in the past, under the leadership of its late ex-president Nancy Cataldi, but has been denied by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

“I think it was a little too large, a little too intimidating,” Mrakovic said of the previous proposals.

The latest push began when Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) told the historical society president he secured a grant to have a landmarking study conducted —which is now being used to fund the probe by the HDC.

“They’ve been a great mentor,” Mrakovic said of the HDC.

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the HDC, touted the study as “a lot more in depth” than prior ones and credited the historical society for conducting “a very extensive public outreach campaign.”

“They will be able to show there’s a lot of popular support for this,” Bankoff said.

The preservationist said the community is more than deserving of the historic status. Not only, he added, would it hike property values but would make the area attractive to future homeowners.

“Both the architecture and the history make it a place that is worthy of being preserved,” he said. “It’s very desirable. There’s no shortage of people who want to move into these areas.”

One land use expert argued the designation is necessary because the homes there are most at risk of being changed beyond recognition.

“The Landmarks Preservation Commission does not support free standing homes,” said Flushing resident Paul Graziano.

Graziano has been leading a similar struggle in Broadway-Flushing, which has been denied landmark status several times. In recent years, the older homes there have been torn down and replaced with modern ones.

“It’s beyond tragic what’s happening in Broadway-Flushing,” said Graziano, who is running against Councilman Paul Vallone (D-Bayside) in the Democratic primary. “It’s criminal.”

He doesn’t believe much will change with the commission’s views toward proposals from Queens until, “you get a commission that treats every borough equally.” Preservationists, not just Graziano, have accused the LPC throughout the years of snubbing Queens landmarks and being Manhattan-centric with its designations.

There are some historic districts in Queens, including Sunnyside Gardens, Ridgewood North and South, Jackson Heights, Douglaston Hill and Addisleigh Park. However, some are connected row houses and not free standing structures such as the ones in Richmond Hill and Broadway-Flushing.

“Only 10 percent of the historic districts in the city are suburban in nature,” Graziano said.

Still, Mrakovic and Ballenas said it’s necessary to advocate for the status to protect the history of the neighborhood.

“Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” Ballenas said.

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