One of the most unique Modernist buildings is the former Jamaica Savings Bank at 89-01 Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst. It was built from 1966 to 1968, and was experimental and revolutionary in style, evocative of the spirit of a 1964 World’s Fair pavilion.
In 1968, the Queens Chamber of Commerce awarded the bank a bronze plaque for “outstanding excellence.” Today it serves the community as a branch of Bank of America.
After the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) designated the building a landmark on June 28, 2005, the City Council voted to overturn its designation four months later, a rare move. A majority of City Council members were persuaded by the owner’s claim that the bank faced flooding issues, and Landmarks Subcommittee chair Simcha Felder and Councilwoman Helen Sears did not support its landmark status.
Nearly 15 years later, there is renewed hope and determination by preservationists to see LPC re-designate a unique architectural work.
Councilman Daniel Dromm, who serves in the post once occupied by Sears, supports landmarking, according to Marialena Giampino, president of the Elmhurst History & Cemeteries Preservation Society.
“Our organization firmly believes this building is one of a kind with its cutting edge, innovative and unique design,” she said. “It resembles something out of the future. It truly is deserving of landmark status.”
The LPC’s 2005 report called the bank “one of the most unique and memorable structures on this busy multi-lane thoroughfare.”
Local resident Debby Dip compared the bank’s style to the World’s Fair experience.
“That was instrumental in placing our lovely borough on the map as a look to the future,” she said. “These non-designated buildings and structures deserve an equal place of honor and integrity, which only landmark status will achieve.”
It was designed by the William F. Cann Company, part of the Bank Building and Equipment Corporation of America, based in St. Louis, Missouri. It opened its doors in March 1968.
“To create this distinctive form, Cann used reinforced concrete and bronze glass, cladding the 116-foot-long roof with copper panels,” read the LPC’s report. “This unusual design solution created not only a column-free banking hall, but a visually distinctive form that stands out from neighboring structures.”
“The bank was designated by the LPC, the body charged with the responsibility for surveying, researching and determining the significance of buildings and districts that require designation in order to ensure the protection of our architectural, historical and cultural patrimony,” said Mitchell Grubler, president of the Queens Preservation Council. “The problem is that the designation goes to the City Council, a political body, lacking the scholarly expertise of the commission and its staff.
“Its hyperbolic paraboloid form is not only unique, but reflective of its time and represents the optimism for a modernist future in post-World’s Fair Queens and the nation,” he added. “We need to do more to educate the public and the members of the City Council that the best of Modernist architecture is as worthy of designation as the classical banks and Victorian houses that are so venerated.”
Architectural historian Frampton Tolbert founded Queens Modern with the aim of recognizing and preserving unappreciated Modernist treasures.
“While there is a significant amount of Modern architecture in Queens, most is done by regional architects,” he said. “This bank is unique as it was designed by an architect known nationally for cutting-edge bank design. Other Modern buildings in Queens designed by architects of this caliber were typically major projects for airports, and many have been demolished or badly altered.
“Its eye-catching design was to attract drivers and pedestrians along Queens Boulevard, and is evocative of how bank construction and design of the era embraced Modernism,” he added.
Utah resident Kirk Huffaker, a consultant for Kirk Huffaker Preservation Strategies, came across the building during his research. He believes that history does not stop in a certain year.
“The modern styles of architecture that became prevalent in America after WWII are no less significant to preserve than the more traditional styles,” he said.
Licensed tour guide Linda Fisher says the bank stands as a reminder of the days when Queens was standing on the edge of the future. She feels it is essential to remember what principles were valued by a community.
“Each style celebrates and incorporates a guiding value, whether it is the democratic values of the Greeks and Romans or the minimalist values of Brutalism,” Fisher said. “Modernist architecture tells the story of man’s reach in the modern age, which is a story worth remembering.”