If you hear Northeast Queens residents discussing “the White House” with a slightly defiant tone, chances are they’re not referring to the President’s residence. More likely, they’re talking about the 1901 structure at the top of Douglaston Hill which, ever since being sold to developers with rumored plans to demolish it, has become the rallying point for the area’s mounting anti-overbuilding movement.
On Monday, nearly 60 residents of the Hill gathered in front of the house at 240-35 43rd Avenue to denounce the city Landmarks Preservation Commission’s decision not to put Douglaston Hill’s application for city historic district status on the calendar last month—a move that effectively shut the door on any legal way to preserve the historic house.
But for Bill Sievers, who, as vice president of the Douglaston Hill-Little Neck Historical Society, has been working through the application process for 14 years, the commission’s decision signalled much more than the loss of one house.
“Structures like the one behind us will slowly disappear from Northeast Queens,” he said. “This severely threatens our quality of life.”
Thirty-five properties in Douglaston Hill have already been designated parts of an historic district by the state and federal historic registers in 2000, but only the city’s designation can prevent demolition.
Tearing down the old houses is a great temptation for developers in the R1 zone because the ample lots can legally be subdivided into as many as four properties, resulting in massive profits. But, residents say, the cost to the community is equally massive.
“You’re just ripping out another page of history,” said Debra Stuart, who lives several properties down on 43rd Avenue, in a historic house built by her husband’s great uncle. “It also destroys the community’s spirit.”
The “White House,” built on an original 1853 lot that has been subdivided only once, holds special significance for the neighborhood. According to neighbor Joan Hellman, its largely intact “Free Classic” Queen Anne architecture has been featured over the years in postcards advertising the area. “This is a red-letter house,” she said.
When rumors began to circulate five weeks ago that the house, formerly owned by Sang Chun Kang, had been sold to developers with intentions to knock it down, the community swung into action to try to expedite the landmarking process. Councilman Tony Avella, who organized Monday’s rally, put in a call to Landmarks Commissioner Robert Tierney, and discovered that the commission had no plans to calendar the district’s application.
“This (house) is the cornerstone of what was to be the Douglaston Hill Historic District,” Avella said. He had long supported the idea of the historic district, and was shocked to hear that the commission wasn’t going to go forward with the process.
He cited “Manhattan elitism” as the reason, and called on the protesters to channel their anger into handwritten letters addressed to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Department of City Planning and Commissioner Tierney.
Paul Graziano, a city planner who recently completed a zoning study for Avella’s office, which included recommendations for 24 possible additional historic districts for the 19th Council District, agreed that there was “an imbalance.” Out of 80 historic districts in the city, only 5 are in Queens, and of those, 2 are only a block long and one is in Fort Totten, where no one lives.
Elliot Socci, president of the Douglaston Civic Association, urged the protesters not to underestimate the effectiveness of letter-writing campaigns. “Every official has a threshold of pain, and that pain is measured by the number of letters that come in on a single issue,” he said.
Avella noted that the letters written so far had apparently worked because the mayor mentioned overbuilding in his State of the City address.
Several neighbors commented that it was a shame that, although the centerpiece of their neighborhood might help in the general fight against overdevelopment in the area, it was unlikely to be saved without a major change of heart from the LPC.The commission did not return calls for comment.
“Architecturally, this is the most beautiful house in Douglaston Hill, bar none,” said Cynthia Strauss, a resident of 240-17 43rd Avenue. She understood all too well what current building laws allowed, saying, “It’s legal, but it’s immoral.”