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Queens Chronicle

A triple word score in Jackson Heights

Sign honoring Scrabble inventor finally restored to its rightful place

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Posted: Thursday, October 27, 2011 12:00 pm | Updated: 1:03 pm, Thu Dec 8, 2011.

The corner of 81st Street and 35th Avenue in Jackson Heights is back in the game.

On Saturday, the iconic terra cotta Scrabble sign, which is worth 14 points — 35T1H4 A1V4E1N1U1E1, as the sign reads — was brought back to the game’s birthplace. The sign had originally been placed on the corner in 1995, but in a real life whodunit, it vanished in 2008 — and the corner ceased to be a triple word score.

But due to the efforts of Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), a replica of the pre-existing sign was erected for the community to celebrate in the local history of the crisscrossing game of letters.

“The sign has become a neighborhood landmark of its own. The creator of Scrabble and the residents of Jackson Heights share certain traits: They are creative, persistent and unwilling to give up easily,” said Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, chairwoman of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Center.

Diamonstein-Spielvogel was responsible for the 1995 Scrabble-izing of the Jackson Heights street; it was part of a larger historic street sign program she had established. But, the Department of Transportation had no record of the original sign, and though the agency does take down unauthorized signage, officials had previously said they were not responsible for removing the first sign.

Jackson Heights resident Alfred Butts invented the beloved board game in the midst of the Great Depression after being laid off from his architecture job. Through a series of trial and error, as well as meticulous research into the frequency of letters appearing in the English language, he created the 15-by-15 grid and cut 100 wooden letter tiles by hand.

Butts tested the game’s rules with his friends and family at the Methodist Community Church, which stands just behind where the street sign now exists.

Giovanna Reid, Community Board 3 chairwoman, said people voyaged “across the ocean” to pay homage to where the first double word score was crafted and played. Jackson Heights guidebooks and maps noted the historic significance of the corner and the existence of the sign.

“The history elevates the way we feel about being members of Community Board 3,” Reid said. “It is part of Community Board 3’s traditions and culture.”

And when the sign disappeared from its home, the community felt a loss — they were losing this game.

Laura Cadorette has lived a block from the sign’s location since 1992. She said she immediately noticed when it was gone in 2008, and she, among numerous other residents, approached Dromm about replacing the sign.

Dromm said he took great concern in the missing sign. Many constituents felt the replacement of the sign was more necessary than most other community issues, he said.

Dromm made getting a new Scrabble sign one of his campaign promises in 2009 when running for the Council. Upon being elected, he got the ball rolling on passing legislation and appealing to the Department of Transportation to approve the sign’s placement.

The legislation was signed into law July 11 by Mayor Bloomberg as a part of 55 other street renamings across the five boroughs.

“The Scrabble sign was ingenious and added a special historical charm to the neighborhood,” said Dromm on Saturday, to a crowd of more than 100. “Scrabble is celebrating its 62nd anniversary this year, and Alfred Butts’s achievement in Jackson Heights should be recognized.”

Whether the original sign was stolen by a Scrabble scoundrel or blown away by the wind, the residents of Jackson Heights refused to let this game be over.

“It’s the most unique street sign in all of the city,” said Cadorette (who owns three separate versions of the board game). “The sign is keeping history alive for the next generation.”

And this history can’t be measured in points — though Butts might argue it’s worth 13 (H4I1S1T1O1R1Y4).

Welcome to the discussion.