The shady quiet streets of Richmond Hill do not feel like they are in New York City. Though they are not far from the imposing apartment buildings of Kew Gardens and Forest Hills or the attached homes of Woodhaven and Glendale, the large Victorian homes that line the shady blocks of Richmond Hill between Forest Park and Jamaica Avenue are unique to most of Queens.
But as new arrivals come into the neighborhood, the character of these homes are often lost to modernizations and convenience. In many houses, the iconic wrap-around porches are being dismantled or closed in to provide more room. Rustic shingles are being replaced by stucco and brick. Uniquely-shaped windows are often eliminated or widened into standard rectangles.
One of the houses that has fallen victim to these alterations is one near and dear to the hearts of every Richmond Hill resident or preservationist trying to prevent these changes — the home of the former president of the Richmond Hill Historical Society, Nancy Cataldi.
Cataldi lived in a Victorian home at 86-22 109 St., while serving as head of the historical society from 1999 until her sudden death on Oct. 29, 2008. After her death, her estate sold the home through a realty company that Carl Ballenas, historian for the Richmond Hill Historical Society, said often matches the old Victorian homes with prospective buyers who want to buy and preserve the homes.
But that did not happen.
The new owners of Cataldi’s home renovated the house in 2010 and 2011, demolishing the front porch and building a new smaller one, covering the exterior of the first floor in brickface and, perhaps the most drastic change, paving over the lawn and garden area. When Cataldi lived in the house, the driveway only consisted of two small concrete paths for cars, leaving room for Cataldi to tend a garden, which Ballenas said she enjoyed.
The owners of the home did not respond to a request for comment but had said in the past that a carpenter ant infestation forced them to do work on the house.
But Ballenas did not place the blame on the new owners. He conceded that they had a right to do to the house what they wished. He did say that the house could have been protected if the city had declared nearly three dozen blocks between Jamaica Avenue and Forest Park from 104th Street to Lefferts Boulevard, a historic district, a battle that dates back to when Cataldi was president.
“Her block particularly could have been protected,” Ballenas said. “If it had been an historic district, it could’ve been saved.”
The RHHS has not given up the battle, although many homes like Cataldi’s have been altered drastically.
As for those who live on 109th Street, which was renamed Nancy Cataldi Way not long after her death, it was less about the renovations, which at least two neighbors praised, and more about the home they were done to.
“It’s not that what they did was bad, [the house] looks OK,” one neighbor, who lives in a Victorian home nearby and asked not to be named, said. “It’s just that it’s Nancy’s house.”