Downtown Jam. Session

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    Jamaica’s name has nothing to do with the Caribbean island country. The avenue, the neighborhood and the bay are instead named for the Jameco Indians, an Algonquian tribe that occupied the center and southern sections of what is today’s Queens County, for hundreds of years before the colonial era.

    The Jameco name was Algonquian for beaver, which had been plentiful in the region; a remnant of this is Beaver Road, which ran beside the now-filled Beaver Pond south of the Long Island Rail Road. Native Americans used the trail, which connects to original trails that run from the East River to eastern Long Island, for trade with tribes spanning from the east coast to the midwest. After the Dutch settled the present day downtown area, known before 1664 as Rustdorp (“rest town”), Jamaica Avenue (as the Jamaica Plank Road) became a tolled highway for much of its length. The tolls were removed by the time of Queens’ consolidation with New York City in 1898.

    Downtown Jamaica Avenue passes several buildings that went up during or just after the colonial period. It’s just north of Prospect Cemetery, which was established in 1668 immediately following the end of Dutch rule.

    Today, though, I’m going to concentrate on a couple of buildings and items from the late 1800s into the early 1900s, known as the Beaux Arts period for its rococo architecture…


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    Jamaica Savings Bank, 161-02 Jamaica, is a NYC building on the NYC Register of Historic Places. The bank itself was founded by John Alsop King (see above) in 1866 and occupied property in this location since 1874, when a small frame building was constructed. The present Beaux-Arts structure (Hough and Deuell, architects) went up in 1898. The building is maked by pilasters (half-columns on a building exterior) and two ornamental balconies. The building’s future is uncertain — the bank moved across the street in 1964.

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    Next door at 161-04 is the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, built in 1898 (A.S. Macgregor, Architect). It’s a NYC Landmark, originally the Jamaica Register Building. The Italian Renaissance building is a somewhat somber companion for the more exuberant Jamaica Savings Bank.

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    Many neighborhoods now have new street clocks constructed in a classic style, but this one at Jamaica Avenue and Union Hall Street is the real McCoy. It originally stood at 161-11 Jamaica Avenue and was likely built around 1900. It was restored and moved to its present location in 1989, directly across the street from the former site of Gertz, one of Jamaica’s largest department stores. It too was declared a NYC Landmark in 1981, so it can’t be legally removed.

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    Union Hall Street today is one of the few streets in downtown Jamaica that has retained its old name — here on a Beers Atlas plate in 1873 — to the present day. I had previously suspected that the name was retained because of the prevalence of trade unions in New York City, but I was incorrect. As the map indicates, it preserves the name of the Union Hall Academy, which opened in 1792. The Academy occupied property on the street close to the Long Island Rail Road, which in 1873 ran on the surface at the present day Archer Avenue.

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    This photo, from the Queensborough Public Library, shows former buildings of the Academy, which had by then moved to the locale shown on the atlas plate.

    From Kathleen Lonetto, in Long Island Heritage:

    In 1791, the prestigious Union Hall Academy was built in Jamaica Township by residents of the three towns of Queens. An amount of $2,000 was pledged for the construction of the academy and it was an immediate educational success. Within four years after the original construction of the academy, it required expansion. At that time, in addition to a regular staff, there were five assistants to the principal as well as a library and research facilities. Some of the educators were well known such as Henry Onderdonk, the famous Long Island historian who taught at Union Hall between 1832 and 1865.

    In 1841, a fire nearly destroyed the academy while Walt Whitman was on the staff. As early as 1816, it became so popular that a female school was added to the standard academy. However, the rise of the public school system provided too much competition for the fashionable educational establishment. Although other schools were being built such as the Maple Hall Institute, a private boarding school for boys, the Union Hall Academy was closed in 1873.

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