Modern architecture has gained increasing visibility through exhibitions, publications, preservation campaigns, and even television. However, the subset of locally and regionally significant mid-century architecture has been less explored, yet is potentially a rich historic resource. In New York City, while Manhattan includes a wealth of high-profile modern buildings by nationally and internationally significant architects, the other boroughs remain undiscovered. Of all the boroughs, Queens showcases one of the most significant collections of regional mid-century design but is largely unheralded. This project seeks to remedy the lack of knowledge about Queens Modernism and promote its history and significance.
In order to find a body of work with which to start, the Queens Modern project takes as its basis the Queens Chamber of Commerce Building Awards program, an annual presentation for excellence in design and construction. The Chamber honored almost 400 individual properties from the years 1948-1970, encompassing a wide range of building use, location, construction and materials, and scale. This body of work is am appropriate lens with which to look at modern architecture for many reasons, including that the works chosen tended to be representative of the era and typified rational and practical design. The jurors were local architects and developers generally responding to submissions from local and regional architects or building owners. Therefore it stands to reason that those submitting and choosing the award winners were not identifying those buildings of incredible significance in a larger way, but rather that which fit into the borough of Queens at the time. To read more about the history of the awards program, click here.
The project’s immediate goal was to survey and document these 400 award-winning structures, looking at what has been lost and what remains. Today this landscape is quickly changing with increased development in most Queens neighborhoods. Almost 20% of the building surveyed for this project, have previously been lost or heavily altered, some very recently. Vacant lots are sprouting up in Long Island City, replacing smaller industrial buildings; smaller residences that were honored are being replaced by McMansions; and more than half of the award-winning building at LaGuardia and JFK Airports are gone. Hopefully, the survey and documentation helps capture some of these structures that otherwise would have vanished without a trace. This website is just the first piece of this project and we are happy to launch our effort publicly with the first 150 buildings featured.
This project focuses on many themes: major architects and their singular Queens commissions, prolific Queens-based architects who are largely unknown today, new materials and construction techniques, and a boom in the construction of apartment houses, religious sites, bank branches, airline terminals and other services that catered to an increasingly suburban county. Our first separate story is on the Brooklyn Diocese’s 1961 capital campaign to build five new high schools in Queens (and Brooklyn). We look forward to sharing more stories like this with you.
Why is modern architecture in Queens largely unknown? We have not answered this question yet but hope to remedy the situation by sharing information on the sheer amount of architecture that exists. As David Fixler, architect and president of DOCOMOMO-US/New England said in his influential 2006 article, “Preserving Modern Architecture in a Postmodern World” and also quoted in Jay M. Price’s recent book Temples for a Modern God:
“As a force that shaped our environment on an unprecedented scale, there are many sound economic and cultural reasons for the preservation of modern architecture. In the first place, there is simply too much of it – hundreds of millions of square feet in many thousands of buildings – for anyone to suggest that most of it should simply be destroyed and rebuilt in other styles, this solution is neither pragmatic nor ecologically sustainable.”
We believe that this project is urgent and timely as there is a danger than this architecture will disappear before we fully appreciate what we have. Thanks for reading and please send stories, memories, photos, and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org. More to come!