Dec. 3, 2015 By Laura A Shepard
An old farmhouse in Elmhurst, the last of its kind, is at risk of being bulldozed and forgotten.
Demolition plans have been filed for the farmhouse, which is located at 90-11 56th Ave.
The developers, 90-56 L&Z Realty LLC, purchased the house and adjacent properties this summer for $2 million.
With demolition looming, local advocates are scrambling to find a way to save the historic house.
The house was occupied until just one year ago, but its past is steeped in history dating back to the colonial era.
Queens, like the rest of New York City, was settled by the Dutch in the mid 1600’s. Records show that the house was lived in by three prominent Dutch settler families: the Brinkerhoffs, Blooms, and Suydams, whose names appear on streets and institutions throughout the borough.
Bernardous Bloom, who became a colonel in George Washington’s Army during the American Revolution, purchased the house in 1742. The Suydams, who are related to the Riker family, lived in the house in the 1860s and altered it to add Victorian details.
Now a family of black squirrels and several cats inhabit the property.
Marialena Giampino, a member of the Newtown Civic Association, is spearheading an effort to save the house, and turn it into a museum where the community can learn about local history.
“Elmhurst has a lot of history, but not a lot of people know about it and a lot of it is disappearing,” Giampino said. “This would be the perfect house museum and garden for Elmhurst. It would be great to get all the children from all these different cultures together under one roof to learn how Queens all began.”
The Newtown Civic Association has launched a change.org petition that has already garnered about 850 signatures.
The petition states, “this is extremely important to our beginnings and how far we have come to becoming one of the most cultural and diverse neighborhoods in the U.S.”
On Sept. 4, the home sustained minor damage from a suspicious fire, which is still under investigation. The Department of Buildings promptly issued a full vacate order as a result. There was also a fire at another abandoned house on the same block, shortly after.
The City’s Landmark Preservation Commission denied the farmhouse landmark status, or even a hearing, on Oct. 26, much to the dismay of residents and local elected officials who support the initiative to preserve it. LPC research director Mary Beth Betts cited the fire damage in her rejection letter.
“Although we acknowledge that the property has important ties to the history and development of Newtown and Elmhurst, the property will not be presented to the full Commission for consideration as New York City Landmark due to the extent of the damage caused by the recent fire.”
“Some architectural details were destroyed, but there’s still a lot there,” Giampino responded. “There’s nothing that can’t be restored.”
Several community members have complained that the LPC doesn’t value Queens history and consistently prioritizes sites in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
“The LPC is not here for Queens,” Giampino said. “A lot of people want to see this done and not lose another piece of history. Communities want to see their neighborhoods preserved. We don’t want more apartments and more stores.”
She noted that the LPC rejected the Old St. James Parish hall and two recent bids to landmark historic houses in Corona, as well as countless others throughout the borough.
Meanwhile, Giampino and other community advocates are swiftly pursuing other strategies to save the house.
One idea is to ask the National Trust for Historic Preservation to acquire the house and set up a “Newtown Preservation Society,” a nonprofit, similar to the one in Newport, Rhode Island, which maintains the Gilded Era mansions of the Vanderbilts and Astors.
The Newtown Civic Association is also looking into asking the Parks Department to acquire the property and manage the land as a park. Giampino noted the community’s previous success in pushing the City to acquire the former site of the Elmhurst gas tanks from KeySpan. The land was remediated and opened to the community as Elmhurst Park in 2011.
Most of Giampino’s research about the farmhouse’s history comes from Vincent Seyfried’s book, “Elmhurst: From Town Seat to Mega-Suburb,” and library records.
“We keep finding more importance, more facts,” she said. “This is even more amazing than we originally thought.”
Aside from its own past, the farmhouse is also located in a historic corner of Elmhurst.
The 40-acre Brinkerhoff estate that the house sits on was pivotal to the development of the farming community in Queens, said Robert Valdes-Clausell with the Newtown Civic Association.
Elmhurst does not have any landmarked homes, but some churches and various relics of the past remain.
A triangular greenstreet in front of the house, between 90th Street, Justice Avenue and 56th Avenue is named “Horsebrook Island,” after the Horsebrook Stream, which ran through the neighborhood, but was obliterated by developers. Now it runs underground.
The Newtown Athletic Field, across the street from the house, and the Newtown Playground were once the Old Newtown Cemetery, which dates back to at least the 1730s, according to the Parks Department.
“Elmhurst residents are coming out of the woodwork to support this,” Valdes-Clausell said. “Vintage structures are being demolished wholesale and replaced by block structures. We’re losing the character of what made this area unique.”
The property owner is listed at the DOB as Tu Kang Yang. Architect Steve Kuo filed the demolition application.
Neither Yang nor Kuo could be reached for comment on this story.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly implied that the DOB has green-lit demolition for the house. Though the application is marked “approved,” a plan exam still needs to take place.
Sad. The developers purchased this home and surrounding homes. A month after the purchase the home was on fire. They’re making way for new buildings.
November 24, 2015
Ms. Marialena Giampino
Newtown Civic Association
Elmhurst, NY 11373
As Catholic school teacher, I am compelled and challenged every day to teach as Jesus did to many different children, of many different religions, backgrounds, and cultures. As a history teacher, I delivered a common message and my students most certainly received it when they produced their own DVD, “Woodhaven: Diverse Backgrounds United in One History”.
Today, I can attest to several things.
No. 1 Children are tolerant.
No. 2 Children are generous.
No. 3 Children are curious.
No. 4 Children are smart.
No. 5 Children learn by living and doing.
Just like we “experts” know; but they also learn a lot more than we test them on, or give them credit for.
I grew up in Jackson Heights and was impressed by the Horse Brook house for many years during the 1970’s and 1980’s especially. I continued to be impressed to this day, visiting it by a drive-by or a walk-by when visiting the Queens Center in recent years. I was totally devastated in October when I saw fire damage.
As founder and moderator of the STA Woodhaven History Club I have had the time of my life! I have had the honor and privilege of assisting sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students choose a history project and “go with it”. All the work that these students have performed has been during their free time, recess, after school and weekends. They have learned research skills, video recording and editing skills, public speaking, writing, etc. Most importantly they have learned self-confidence, social justice, team work, American Identity, and how NOT to use their cell phone.
If you watch the beginning of their movie, you are touched by the voice over of children that are 11-14 years of age and are of so many shapes, sizes, and colors….
“We are Americans. We are New Yorkers. We are Woodhavenites. Why do we live here? Why did our parents and grandparents move here? We have different backgrounds from each other. We have different backgrounds from other people that live here. We have different backgrounds from the people that lived here in the past. Some of our parents grew up here. Some of our parents grew up in other countries. What unites us? What separates us?
Our parents chose to educate us in the Catholic Faith, in a Catholic environment, yet we are not all Catholic. We are Catholic, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim. We are friends! We are citizens! We are the future! We walk the halls of St. Thomas and the streets of Woodhaven…together…as one. Are we important to the community, the city, the country, the world? Yes! We are the citizens of tomorrow. We must learn and understand. We must respect the past, we must form the future. This is what we learned…”
These words can be the words of any child in Queens County, in New York City, in the United States of America.
The equalizing factors in this very turbulent world…
• the opportunity to learn
The children of the STA History Club, which now touts members from outside Saint Thomas the Apostle Catholic Academy and Fifth Graders, has voluntarily researched the pedigrees of their founding fathers all the way back to the West India Company. Many historians quote passages from the American Revolution where these people are labeled as Tories, Loyalists, etc. How many people realize that the real cause of their loyalty to the Crown of Britain goes back to the French and Indian War? How many people realize that Faith played an important part of the founding of NYC, as strongly as the cities of Philadelphia and Boston? How many people realize the Underground Railroad was very prominent in the Borough of Queens, long before the City of New York was incorporated?
Ask the kids of the STA Woodhaven History Club what commitment means after you tour the Wyckoff-Snedicker Cemetery and talk to the President of the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society! Ask them the importance of history and its place in their lives as immigrants and children of immigrants!
Save the Horse Brook house and other Historical Landmarks in Queens so that they do not have to travel to other boroughs to experience what happened in their own borough almost four hundred years ago. They will give you an education!