Queens Modern: The Architects

Project Description

Queens Modern: The Architects builds upon the Queens Modern project, launched in 2014. My original exposure to these firms was through the Queens Chamber of Commerce Building Awards, an annual boroughwide recognition. Beginning in the 1920s and still active, the program honored more than 400 projects at its height from the late 1940s until 1970. A previous phase of this project included surveying all 400 projects, documenting extant examples, and creating a searchable database at queensmodern.com. You can read more about the original project here and the Chamber of Commerce Awards here.

There were a number of architects that stood out from that initial list, in terms of the uniqueness of their designs and the number of commissions they completed in Queens. These formed the basis of the firms for Phase II of the project. Only one of the firms had a biographical statement online (created by family members) and none had a comprehensive list of commissions. This step alone constituted the bulk of the output of Queens Modern: The Architects, especially given the obscure nature of the majority of the firms. I’d like to extend special thanks to Nancy Hadley, Director of Archives & Records at the American Institute of Architects for her invaluable assistance in placing individual architect’s membership applications online for my review. Other research venues included Avery Library at Columbia University, New-York Historical Society, Brooklyn Historical Society, and Queens Public Library. This project was made possible through the James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation’s Mid Career Fellowship.

Queens Modern: The Architects includes comprehensive research on more than two dozen architectural firms working in Queens and the surrounding region during the mid-century. I examined the bodies of work from each of these architectural practices through several avenues: interviews with former firm staff and principals’ family members; further archival research on each practice; and site visits to a selection of significant buildings. The end result of the full project is in-depth documentation on each firm including biographical web pages for each practice with a list of selected significant works and accompanying photographic documentation.

A secondary element of the project became the opportunity to document other nearby vernacular modern buildings of interest and to explore how and why vernacular architecture should be documented. A list of modern buildings identified during the survey is available, which can be used as a resource for historians and advocates to understand the larger context of the region. This list will be updated regularly with more modern sites.

Overall the findings for the project have shifted my thinking about individual firms working in Queens. After an extensive study, it appears that the Queens Chamber of Commerce program did largely identify the most significant projects of the majority of these firms in the borough. However, 60% of the firms had a significant amount of commissions outside of Queens in other boroughs, Westchester, and Long Island; while just over 10% of the firms worked almost exclusively in Queens.

A quarter of the firms did not have demonstratively larger bodies of significant work. For these firms, any other significant extant works were documented where possible. For the other two categories, more research was done into the firm histories and extant works. Interviews were completed with family members for six of the firms and with former employees for three firms. Limited archival information was available for four of the firms.

In summary, the project findings verified that the importance of these firms is in creating the landscape of Queens we know today, regardless of their individual histories, which are limited. While there were definite histories worth exploring, the fact is collectively these architects were responsible for shaping post war architecture in Queens, Brooklyn, and Long Island–especially in the areas of religious, civic, and commercial design. While many of these architects did not attend the most prominent institutions where this was being taught by leading practitioners, they still designed in a completely modern idiom and put their own unique touch on it. Modest projects in suburban environments allowed in some cases for more experimentation.

Today a significant quantity of this architecture remains, although it is disappearing in the face of continued development. And although the intact quality of interior architecture is largely limited to houses of worship, original exteriors exist for commercial establishments such as banks and office buildings, and some large scale residential projects. Small scale residential projects also maintain some integrity but as most of the projects by these architects ranged in size from dozens to hundreds of units within each development, the cohesiveness of the housing developments has largely been lost or is difficult to pinpoint in this project’s scope.

In regards to residential architecture, firms such as Samuel Paul & Seymour Jarmul and Brown & Guenther changed the face of middle class housing in Queens and beyond with medium and large scale apartment complexes. While their designs may be less innovative, conservatively I estimate that several of these architects, principly A. H. Salkowitz, Philip Birnbaum, and the two aforementioned firms were responsible for more than 10,000 units of new housing in Queens alone from 1940-1970, almost all of it for middle and lower income individuals.

For ecclesiastical architecture this was also a time of tremendous expansion. The Queens Chamber of Commerce Building Awards honored more than 50 churches, synagogues, Jewish centers, convents, and rectories in the mid-century and that was just in one borough. The expansion of facilities for Catholics began with architects like A. F. Meissner and Joseph Mathieu, working in deco and proto modern styles, and extending to the late 1960s with prolific architect John O’Malley who pushed for more contemporary design through a lens of Vatican II. For the Jewish faith, synagogues tended to be designed by more varied architects and yet firms such as Hausman & Rosenberg and Schuman & Lichtenstein focused large parts of their firms’ work on temples and yeshivas in the region, designing more than two dozen synagogues between them.

Most of these firms became specialists in a type of architecture, with 40% of those firms studied specializing in architecture for organized religions. Two firms focused almost exclusively on large-scale residential architecture, 27% focused in other areas (banks, hospitals, prisons, landscape), while 25% had no definitive speciality, usually because their bodies of work are too small.

Overall, I discovered that these architects were almost exclusively regional, with their work concentrated in New York City, Lower Westchester County and Long Island. There is a line that follows Interstate 287 across Westchester with no known examples of these firm’s work above the line, except for one or two examples in other states. At this scale of more modest projects, we have to assume that New York City-based architects were competing with architects in Connecticut or in mid-sized towns further upstate, such as the popular Robert A. Green, who was based in Tarrytown. Only two of the firms have much of a body of work outside of this range. For LaPierre, Litchfield & Partners it was because of their speciality, prisons and hospitals–which they advised on nationally and internationally. Kelly & Gruzen had offices in New Jersey and Washington, DC, and also did work as far away as Iran.

Many of these architects knew each other as the field was not so expansive in the 1950s and 60s. Many of them served on the Queens Chamber of Commerce Building Awards jury, which presents issues in itself, as several also received a high number of commendations from their peers. In interviews with two architects and two family members, knowledge of members of other firms was expressed. Additionally, several of the individual architects apprenticed around the same time in the offices of nationally renowned firms and most likely knew each other. Experience was gained in firms like the Office of John Russell Pope, Skidmore Owings & Merrill, Rosario Candela, and York & Sawyer.

Once they set out on their own, in many ways they were flying under the radar of what was being featured nationally and instead took details and trends they saw and made them their own. Besides the major firm of Kelly & Gruzen (the largest of firms studied), few of them received other significant awards for their work. Besides the archive of Stanley Rosenberg at New-York Historical Society, no other firm’s archives have survived. Even the largest of the firms have been lost including Kelly & Gruzen’s which was destroyed in their offices on September 11, 2001. So their buildings must tell the story.

But these buildings are disappearing. Changes in demographics make certain typologies threatened, including the closing and demolition of synagogues in Queens and Long Island, the consolidation of bank branches, and the the erosion of single family homes for larger residences. For the body of work in Queens Modern: The Architects, the best options are education and awareness. The vast majority of these properties are not eligible for formal preservation but should continue to exist to give their communities a unique sense of place and help tell the story of development in Queens and beyond.