The urban row house or town house has been with us since medieval Europe. Over the centuries, they’ve changed width, height, materials and facades, depending on time period, location, economic status and geography. Shared party walls and similar or complementing styles make for a recognizable streetscape, and a way to create a low-density, but efficient and very livable urban environment. We don’t usually think of Queens when we think of row houses, but there are neighborhoods in the borough with a long-standing architectural legacy of row houses, most of which were built in the last decade of the 19th century on to the first decades of the 20th.
Ridgewood has the largest concentration of row houses in Queens. They were, for the most part, built by the Mathews Building Company. The founder of the company was Gustave X. Mathews, a German immigrant who came to Brooklyn in 1886. He married the daughter of a builder and learned the trade, soon surpassing his father-in-law’s wildest expectations. He was one of the first developers to start building in Ridgewood in the early 20th century, when that neighborhood still hadn’t decided if it was part of Brooklyn or Queens. The borders were finally set, and Ridgewood chose Queens.
His company built row houses and his signature “Mathews Model Flats;” small apartment buildings for the working class. By the time World War I rolled around, he had filled Ridgewood with his buildings and was looking to expand. He moved his offices to Long Island City in 1919, and then to Woodside, in 1924. He began building his Mathews Model Flats in Astoria, Woodhaven, Corona and Long Island City. Moving over to Woodside, by 1924 he had completed over 300 buildings in that neighborhood alone, including model flats, smaller two-story apartment buildings, and one and two-family houses. He advertised that his rates were good, and that he had “never a single foreclosure.”
Gustave Mathews was getting older, but he wasn’t slowing down. His four sons were in the family business, and even though the Great Depression put a crimp on their activities, it didn’t stop the building. During the 1930s, the Mathews Company built 250 one-family brick townhouses with garages in Elmhurst, then another 150 two-family houses in
Maspeth the same neighborhood. These are today’s buildings; the Mathews Company Row Houses.
The architect of the Mathews Row houses was Louis Allmendinger. He was the Brooklyn-born son of a German brewer, born in 1878. Allmendinger studied architecture at Cooper Union, and began practicing in 1901. He worked for several different firms in his career before putting out his own shingle in 1922. During the ‘teens, he was quite busy designing for Gustave Mathews in what is now the Ridgewood South Historic District. There, he designed 149 of 167 Model Tenements built by Mathews in that neighborhood between 1909 and 1915.
Allmendinger had talent. He was well-versed in all kinds of styles and was good at adapting them to meet budget restraints without sacrificing style, a lesson lost on many of today’s architects who skimp of beauty in order to make their bottom line. In Ridgewood, he designed very attractive tenements that do not betray the fact that they were the “affordable housing” of their day; cold-water flats without central heating, but with a bathroom in every apartment. Part of their beauty is in their elegant Romanesque and Renaissance Revival styling. But the most striking thing about all of the Mathews houses, no matter who designed them, was their use of golden orange Kreischer bricks.
The hundreds of Mathews Company tenements, row houses and mixed use storefront/ tenements are made with these same Kreischer bricks. They give Ridgewood a most distinctive look found nowhere else in Brooklyn or Queens on that scale. These amber and pale blonde bricks were made by the Kreischer Brick Manufacturing Company in Staten Island. The company made many kinds of bricks, but these shades of golden and blonde bricks, along with a special rock faced brick used for trim, were used on all of the Mathews buildings.
After completing the Ridgewood Mathews tenements, Allmendinger continued with his growing career. He showed he was a church architect of great talent in his design for the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Lord in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He also designed the Glenwood Theater in Richwood and the Gobel mansion in Highland Park, Brooklyn.
In 1926 he went into partnership with M. Allen Schlendorf, another Cooper Union grad; a partnership that lasted until Allmendinger’s death in 1937. The pair specialized in industrial, institutional and commercial design, producing the designs for the J. Kurtz & Son Store Building in Jamaica, the German Masonic Temple in Manhattan, and the Liebmann Brewery, North American Brewery and Ehler Coffee Plant, all in Brooklyn.
In 1930, Gustave Mathews called Allmendinger back for one last job. He was developing and building single and two-family houses in Elmhurst. The houses were for the same market as all of the Mathews houses; working class people who needed affordable housing. The styles had changed a great deal since Allmendinger had designed the Ridgewood buildings. Today, as the Art Deco and Art Moderne styles were sweeping through architecture, Mathews wanted houses that would utilize those cleaner, less ornamented lines in his affordable housing.
Allmendinger gave him the streamlined modern lines of the Bauhaus. His
MaspethElmhurst houses are cubes made of Kreischer brick and concrete; minimalist homes for increasingly lean times. The Ridgewood tenements had decorative pressed metal cornices and ornamented entryways. These houses were plain; their only ornamentation coming from the way the architect manipulated the colors of the brick around the bodies of the houses. Like Mondrian Cubist art, he uses different colored brick to make squares and rectangles on the houses, often using the chimneys to add height and variation to the facades.
The houses make up their own distinctive neighborhood, a triangle bordered by 79th Street, Calamus Avenue and Grand Avenue, with Elks Road and Ankener Avenue within that border. Within those confines, Allmendinger designed several variations of his Cubist houses, some single family, but most two-family and a few three-family houses. Some originally had casement windows, awnings above terraces, and ocean liner-like railings. The most ornate had Mediterranean style overhanging roof lines and larger picture windows. One small group, on Elks Road, was made up of one family houses, with decorative brick inserts and Mediterranean roofs.
Since the houses are very plain, good landscaping goes a long way to individualizing and warming up the houses. Those houses that are well landscaped with shrubs, trees and flowers are the most attractive buildings on these blocks. That was probably the original intent. The basic design of these houses, like many other Mathews homes, would become a template for affordable housing in Queens and elsewhere for decades to come.
Much of the literature regarding these houses puts their dates in the early 1930s, and I have newspaper evidence that shows the last of them finished in 1942. The records are murky on this, and perhaps they went up in stages. Allmendinger was not around to see his 1942 houses, he died in 1937. Gustave Mathews died at the age of 88 in 1958. The newspapers called his houses and small multi-family buildings “low rent.” That may have been so, but they provided necessary and welcome housing during the Great Depression and the early years of World War II. He built over 3,000 buildings in Queens alone, throughout his career. That’s quite a legacy. GMAP
(Photo: 82-24 Ankener Ave. Scott Bintner for Property Shark)