Voelker Orth Museum Set For Landmarking

Restored four years ago, a Victorian house museum in Flushing is on its way to receiving city landmark status.

The Voelker Orth Museum, bird sanctuary and Victorian garden at 140-19 38th Ave., is on the fast track to becoming a landmark following a positive hearing last week held by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Chuck Wade, museum president, testified and was thrilled at the reception from commission members.

“They seemed to like the house and that it is a unique representation of a Victorian house,” he said. “They especially loved the garden.”

The house was built in the 1890s and Conrad Voelker, a successful printer, bought it in 1899. The museum includes family furniture and memorabilia including certificates indicating that Voelker’s daughter, Theresa, married Dr. Rudolph Orth, who was a Police Department surgeon.

The Orth’s daughter, Elisabeth, was the last owner. A spinster school teacher, she spent most of her adult life caring for her mother, who passed away only two years before she did.

When Elisabeth Orth died in 1995, she left the house to the Queens Historical Society, Queens Botanical Garden and the Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary of the National Audubon Society in Oyster Bay, L.I.

The stipulation in her will was that the house and grounds were to be used to promote history, birds and nature. Members of those organizations were surprised to learn that Orth had left a sizeable amount of money to carry out her wishes.

Wade, a former executive director of the botanical garden, knew Orth from her days as a volunteer at the garden. “She wanted to preserve the 19th and 20th century way of life,” he said.

But by the time the three groups got control of the house, it was in poor condition because homeless people broke in and removed or damaged many of the furnishings. It took several years to renovate the house, turn the carriage house into a classroom for schoolchildren and landscape the yard.

The pink-painted museum opened to the public in 2003. It is open Saturdays and Sundays for tours and used for private catered events as well as special programs.

Lovingly restored, the first floor includes a grand piano in the parlor, a small but elegant library in the rear of the house, a dining room and kitchen.

Upstairs there is one bedroom furnished with Elisabeth Orth’s bed, dresser and accessories, including her beloved dolls. Another bedroom has been converted to a conference room that is rented out for meetings and a third area is now the caretaker’s apartment.

But the main eyecatcher this time of year is the garden, extending from the side yard, with a pergola, to the backyard with perennials and a goldfish pond. “We made 20 gallons of grape juice from the vines here last week, just as her family did in the old days,” Wade said.

He credits Orth with having the foresight to save the house. “What a treasure it can be.”

But Paul Graziano, of Flushing, president of the citywide Historic Districts Council, said the Orth house was not endangered. “I’m glad they restored it. It’s a beautiful house, but there are so many other things that are endangered and are not being considered for landmarking.”

He pointed to the nearby Broadway-Flushing district, where a large majority of homeowners favor landmarking. The area has been designated by the state and federal government, yet the city has failed to act.

“It’s been 1-1/2 years and no action by the Landmarks Preservation Commission,” Graziano said. “Meanwhile there have been several more tear downs in the neighborhood.”

He believes the Voelker Orth Museum was selected by the LPC because it was an easy choice “and it makes them look like they’re not ignoring Queens.”

Preservationists have complained for years that the LPC ignores the outer boroughs and as times goes on, more history is lost.

Graziano pointed to several houses in Flushing as well as St. John’s Episcopal Church that are in need of landmarking. Such designation prevents exterior changes and provides other protections.

Officials at the Voelker Orth Museum are hoping the landmark designation will be granted in a few weeks. They will be holding a wine fest fundraiser on Friday, Oct. 5 from 6-9 p.m. It will include food and music in the garden. Cost is $25. To reserve, call (718) 359-6227.

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