For those who aren’t familiar with my work on Brownstoner.com, I’m Suzanne Spellen, and I write under the pen name “Montrose Morris.” Mr. Morris was an important late 19th century architect who worked almost entirely in Brooklyn. He was especially prolific in Central Brooklyn – in Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, where I lived for close to twenty-five years. I took his name as a log-in name well before I started writing for the blog, and it just stuck. I write about architectural history, neighborhood history, and the people who lived, worked and walked in our streets. I’ll be doing the same here, and I hope to do Queens proud.
I have a Queens connection as well as a Brooklyn connection; I spent the first five years of my life in Queens. Not impressive street cred, but it’s what I’ve got. My family lived in St. Albans until I was six, when we moved to upstate New York. I went to pre-school in a park in St. Albans, and went to kindergarten at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic School, on Riverton Street, near Farmers and Baisley Boulevards. I still have very vivid memories of the school, and the house I lived in, even though it wasn’t for all that long, and was long ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the streets.
I was asked to write about Queens and its history and buildings, so I thought I would start with an area that is not on the radar for hip and happening colonization anytime soon, thankfully. This first post about Queens is going to be personal, and hopefully informational. As many have said, and will continue to say, Queens is a multi-cultural melting pot, with more cultures and ethnicities than any other part of New York City. Queens is so much more than just Long Island City, Forest Hills, Astoria and Ridgewood. Today, the first Queenswalk is going to look at my old hometown of St. Albans.
St. Albans is a part of the larger historic town of Jamaica. Contrary to popular belief, and my own childhood confusion, Jamaica Queens was not named after the island of Jamaica. The name is the Anglicization of the Lenape Indian word “yameco,” which means “beaver.”(I remember my parents talking about someone who had moved to Jamaica, which I knew was an island far away, and was always confused when we went to visit them, and we didn’t cross water, and it didn’t take long to get there. It’s not right to confound children!) Jamaica, like the rest of what became Queens, saw its first Europeans when the Dutch settled in the mid 1600’s. They called the area “Rustdorp.”
In 1664, New Netherlands, which included most of what is now New York City, the Dutch parts of upstate, as well as Long Island, became British territory. They renamed Queens and the rest of Long Island, excluding Brooklyn, “Yorkshire.” Queens was one of the original twelve counties in New York State, established in 1683. It was named after Catherine of Braganza, who was Queen of England at the time, married to King Charles II, from whom we get Kings County. Staten Island was named after Charles’ illegitimate son, the Duke of Richmond. Queens originally included all of Nassau County, as well, but was divided in 1899, after Queens became part of Greater New York City.
Like Brooklyn, many of the neighborhoods of Queens were once towns and villages, and some of them were created later by developers and land speculators. St. Albans was one of the latter. The area was, like most of Long Island, farmland until the end of the 19th century. The St. Albans area belonged to several families; the Remsens, (they get around) the Hendricksons, Everetts, Francis’ and Ludlums. The Long Island Railroad cut through the area as early as 1872, but there were no stops yet. In 1892, some Manhattan developers bought the old Francis farm and prepared the land for development. Francis Lewis Boulevard, named after a branch of the same family, is the eastern border of St. Albans. The other borders are Farmers, Linden and Foch Boulevards.
The developers began building roads, and Linden Boulevard became a main street, with a store run by August Everett the only building on Linden for years. There were about six hundred people living in the area. Then in 1899, a year after the consolidation of New York City, a post office was built, and was named St. Albans, after the British town in Hertfordshire, England. It wouldn’t be the first, or last time a neighborhood was named for somewhere in Britain in an attempt to invoke class or wealth, or at least a sense of bucolic borrowed place. Soon after, an LIRR station was named “St. Albans,” as was an avenue.
The neighborhood didn’t really take off for development until the late ‘teens and 1920s. The first big development was the St. Albans Golf Course, which was built in 1915. It attracted rich and famous golfers to the area, and boasted Babe Ruth as one of its members. He also had a home here. The real surge in housing occurred in the 1920s, with developers building hundreds of small, free standing “English style” houses. Many were built by Frank Droesch, Inc., a Long Island builder responsible for hundreds of homes in the area. Most of them were small brick and stucco or stone cottages, with tiled roofs, six rooms, a breakfast nook and an attached garage. Droesch also built most of the homes in Addisleigh Park, a micro-neighborhood in St. Albans that was more upscale. Here, his houses were a bit larger, but were still English style homes, Tudors and some Colonial Revivals, all free-standing and very charming.
In 1931, the New York Times reported that the Addisleigh Park houses were almost complete, and that Droesch expected those houses to sell as fast as his last group in greater St. Albans. His last group of homes, 91 in total, had completely sold out in 63 days. St. Albans was hot! Not hot enough for the golf course, though. The Great Depression bankrupted the course, and its investors tried to sell the land for private development, but no one was taking such big chances. In 1942, the government seized the land and built the St. Albans Naval Hospital for the wounded of World War II. They didn’t actually finish it until 1950, and in 1974, it became part of the Veterans Administration’s Primary and Extended Care facility.
And then the unexpected happened – St. Albans became home to a group of people hitherto fore unremarked upon or noticed in American society: the black upper and middle class. Although Addisleigh Park was developed as a restricted, all-white enclave, with rules against selling to blacks, it didn’t last long. A 1948 Supreme Court decision changed that, and the wealthy musicians, sports figures and entertainers moved right in. By the end of the 1940s, St. Albans and Addisleigh Park became known for the famous African Americans living there. Count Basie, Lena Horne and Jackie Robinson were among the first, but so many more followed, it must have been like the Walk of Fame on St. Albans’ streets.
Miles Davis, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, John Coltrane, Mercer Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Illinois Jacquet, Fats Waller, Lester Young, Bill Kenney of the Ink Spots, classical composer William Grant Still, musicologist Eileen Southern, James Brown and Milt Hinton. Famous athletes also lived here, including Roy Campanella, Joe Lewis, Floyd Patterson, Bob Cousy, Jackie Robinson, Will Poole, and Eddie Sweat, groom to the famous horse, Secretariat. W.E.B. Du Bois lived here, as did Roger Wilkins, the NAACP leader; Al Roker, television meteorologist; and more recently, rapper and actor LL Cool J, and the members of the rap group A Tribe Called Quest, grew up here, among many others.
These well-known people may have put St. Albans on the map, but it was ordinary middle class black folks who kept the neighborhood the envy and aspiration of many would-be homeowners. People like my parents. These teachers, postal workers, secretaries, accountants, sanitation men, nurses, city and government workers, along with African American doctors, lawyers, and other professionals cherished these houses and the neighborhood, and made it black middle class heaven. It was a sign that you were successful and had made it if you could live here. St. Albans and Addisleigh Park have always been the solid and successful heart of Queens’ African American community, along with Hollis and parts of Jamaica.
There is much more to this story. Changes, both good and bad came to St. Albans. But that’s a tale for another day. Today, Addisleigh Park is one of the few historic districts in Queens, designated by the LPC in 2011. We’ll be revisiting it and many other neighborhoods as we get to know Queens from an historic and architectural prospective. GMAP
(Above: 114-28 172nd St. St. Albans. Photo: Christopher Bride for Property Shark)