Flushing is one of the three oldest settlements in the borough of Queens. It was founded by English settlers who established a town with the permission and patent of New Amsterdam governor Pieter Stuyvesant, in 1654. In the early 1700s, the town became a major horticulture center, thanks to French Huguenots who settled here, bringing non-native species to cultivate. By the mid 1800’s, one of Flushing’s major nurseries, owned by a man named Samuel Parsons, introduced the United States to the Asiatic rhododendron, the Japanese maple and the Valencia orange. Parson’s nursery was one of the suppliers of trees and plants to both Central and Prospect Parks. Wide open spaces and verdant fields were this community’s wealth and pride.
Seeing Flushing today, as overbuilt as parts of it are, it’s hard to believe that it was once a town of country clubs and gracious homes, a true suburb. As with all cities, Flushing was helped in its development by transportation, in this case, the railroad, in 1854. The Civil War held things up for a while, but when it was over, wealthy people began building in Queens, and by the turn of the 20th century, an electrified railroad meant that Flushing could become a bedroom community for commuters. When Queens was annexed to the city in 1898, a man could easily commute to work in Manhattan and come back home to his palatial home in the quiet of the suburbs of Flushing. The openings of the Queensborough Bridge, in 1909, and the subway a few years later, were the final factors in Queens’ growth, as the population grew by 750% in the first twenty years of the 20th century. More than just the rich were settling down in Queens.
Flushing, during these years, advertised itself as a place of homes, lawns and healthy living. Part of that appeal was the abundance of recreational facilities in Flushing. Tennis courts, golf courses, sailing and water sports, even polo; all of these were offered up as reasons to live in Queens. The new century also brought into focus the new popular sport among the upper crust, and that was golf. It was the ideal sport: you didn’t have to be a great athlete to play it, it was a very social sport, with a lot of time for networking and talk, it had specialized equipment that identified you as a golfer, it required a jaunty wardrobe, and the best courses were in restricted and private country clubs. It was the perfect sport for wealthy people.
Before World War I, Queens had more country clubs than any part of New York City. It was called the “Businessman’s Playground,” and “The Golfer’s Paradise.” During that time, the largest golf course in Queens was the Old Country Club, in Flushing. The club was established in 1887, making it one of the oldest country clubs in the country. By 1902, golf was the sport du jour, and the club built a nine-hole course and changed their name to the Flushing Country Club. Nine holes were soon not big enough, and the club expanded again, in 1922, acquiring land from a nearby estate. A year later, their new 18 hole golf course was open for an enlarged membership.
The land the club bought for expansion was part of the Mitchell estate. Just before that sale was finalized, the Mitchell’s sold a 100 x200 foot plot to Charles and Florence Fitzgerald that abutted the country club parcel. The Mitchell’s were a far-seeing clan, and put covenants and restrictions against development in the country club sale, as well as in the Fitzgerald sale. Only two houses were permitted on the Fitzgerald land, and other restrictions as to use, out buildings, establishment of businesses, etc, were placed on the land for fifty years. The Fitzgerald’s were amenable, and in fact, only built one house on the property, and that was the large house we know today as the Fitzgerald-Ginsberg Mansion. The address is 145-15 Bayside Avenue.
The mansion was designed by architect John Oakman, in 1926. Oakman joined the ranks of elite New York based architects by studying at the famous L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, alma mater to such architectural luminaries such as Stanford White, Richard Morris Hunt, Charles Follen McKim, both Carrére and Hastings, Cass Gilbert, Julia Morgan, and many, many more. Upon returning to New York, in 1906, he joined Carrére and Hastings as a draftsman, and then went into business on his own with a partner, W. Powell Robins. Their biggest commission was a job for the Hudson and Manhattan Railway, now the PATH line. The Christopher Street station of the PATH train, in the Village, is their design.
He left for Europe again, this time for World War I, and on his return, set up practice on his own. Oakman soon had a resume with mostly institutional and civic work, with several hospitals, orphanages, power stations and college buildings to his credit. He also designed suburban homes, and personally favored his homes above all his other work.
Home building at this time in America’s history is a study all to itself, and is as much about the changing role of home in a rapidly modernizing, and increasingly suburban society, as it is about architecture and design. The styles of the day, all revivals of the past, modernized and vaguely referenced in the present, are indicative of that changing role. People found comfort and security in recognizable styles, even though a real Tudor house had never even been seen by most, and certainly not lived in. Yet the suburban “Stockbroker’s Tudors” were among the most popular of house styles, especially in the new upscale suburbs around many of America’s major cities.
Oakman designed a Stockbroker’s Tudor for the Fitzgerald’s. It’s a large two story and basement stone mansion on a winding driveway, set back from the street. The house is a fine example of Tudor Revival style and has all of the requisites: the massing, the gables, pitched roof with slate shingles, French doors, multiple entry, rambling rooms, and grouped series of windows, most with small diamond panes of leaded glass. It’s a house that says comfort and wealth; the perfect upscale suburban house of the 1920s. Some might argue they haven’t built them this well since.
For unknown reasons, the Fitzgerald’s sold the house after only two years. The new owners were the Ginsberg family. They would live in the house for the next seventy years. Morris and Ethel Ginsberg bought the house in 1926. Morris Ginsberg’s father was the owner of D. Ginsberg & Sons, a prominent Queens manufacturer of sash, door and trim. Who knows, he might have supplied elements to this house. They were one of the largest such building suppliers in all of Long Island, and Morris was the youngest son, and also the business genius of the family. He was also a Vice President of the Woodside Savings Bank. The family was comfortably wealthy, and was active in community and philanthropic activities in Flushing and the greater city.
As the Ginsberg’s enjoyed living in their home, Flushing was changing around it. The Flushing Country Club’s land was sold to developers in 1936, for housing. By the end of World War II, the entire neighborhood had changed to residential streets with homes and apartment buildings, and a bourgeoning commercial district. By the end of the 20th century, Flushing had become home to a growing Chinese and Asian community.
In 2003, the executors of the Ginsberg estate sold the house. The new owner in turn, sold it four years later to the Assembly of God Jesus Grace Church, which changed its status from a single family house to a house of worship and assembly. Meanwhile, the house had been landmarked in 2005, a process that took several years, and coincided with the ownership of the third owner. William Ginsberg, son of Morris and Ethel, who now lived on the Upper West Side, was in favor of the designation.
Unfortunately, landmarking has its restrictions. It has no authority to regulate the inside of the house. Thank goodness it protects the façade, however. In 2006, a year after designation, the church had an architect submit plans to Community Board 7 to add a large extension to the back of the house. The work was deemed inappropriate, and the plans were rejected. Members of the landmarks committee of CB 7 toured the house at that time, and were dismayed at how much damage had been done by a leaking roof and other ravages of time.
In 2007, the house was in the news again, when Rev. Myung Ok Kim, the owner, and pastor of the church, cut down seven stately trees on the property, which were as old, or older than the house. He said that they were blocking sunlight from the house, which was encouraging mildew on the slate roof, and rot to the wooden window frames. Community preservationists argued that he did not have permission, as the entire estate was landmarked, not just the house. He had also erected a six foot fence around the perimeter, for which he also did not ask permission of Landmarks. The fence may have had to be taken down.
Today, the Fitzgerald-Ginsberg house is celebrated in Flushing as one of the neighborhood’s great landmarks. It is mentioned in all of the guides and tourist sites as an example of Flushing’s by-gone wealthy suburban past. The house next door to the mansion is now a Buddhist temple, and many of Flushing’s other large homes having also been appropriated as houses of worship. Thanks to landmarking, the façade of the mansion has to be preserved, and now, the remaining grounds will also not be further altered. Although it is no longer a single family home, hopefully, the Fitzgerald-Ginsberg mansion will remain as beautiful as it appears in photographs, an important part of Queen’s heritage. GMAP
(All photos by urstruely13, on photobucket)