Honoring Presidents  & Newcomers in Forest Hills

Visits: 25

 While much of the media is dominated by the presidential election, it is time to travel back in time and gain an appreciation for Forest Hills apartment buildings which commemorate the achievements of American presidents. These sites, which span the 1920s to the 1960s, are more than a numerical address, but a commitment to generations to come by their architects, builders, and owners.

   The neighborhood’s population boom was marked by integral developments including the completion of the IND subway line in 1936, the 1939 – 1940 World’s Fair, and the 1964 – 1965 World’s Fair, as well as a sense of hope that novelty residential architectural features and accommodations in a garden community would initiate confidence and comfort, after facing the Great Depression, two World Wars, and the impoverished nature of Lower East Side tenements.

   It was a unique opportunity for Forest Hills residents and newcomers to witness a partnership by award-winning architect Philip Birnbaum (1907 – 1996) and award-winning builder Alfred L. Kaskel (1901 – 1968), which resulted in the development of “presidential buildings,” a large section of Forest Hills along Yellowstone Boulevard and 108th Street, which remains a prime residence today.

      Dara Birnbaum, daughter of the late architect, explained, “There was a type of pride regarding immigrant families who came here, as did my father’s family. At that time, presidents were deemed worthy and prestigious and this pride would be carried over by naming buildings after famous leaders.”

         The majority were designed in a Colonial meets Art Moderne style and offered lush gardens. Developments completed between 1939 and 1942 were The Thomas Jefferson at 69-11 Yellowstone Blvd (3rd president, 1801 to 1809), The James Madison at 68-37 Yellowstone Blvd and 68-36 108th St (4th president, 1809 to 1817), and The Andrew Jackson at 68-64 Yellowstone Blvd (7th president, 1829 to 1837). An exception was The Benjamin Franklin at 68-38 Yellowstone Blvd, 103-26 68th Rd, 104-21 68th Dr, which memorializes one of seven “Founding Fathers” of the U.S. and the President of Pennsylvania.

    In 1949, the next wave of presidential buildings introduced The George Washington at 67-66 108th St (1st president, 1789 to 1797) and The Grover Cleveland at 67-38 108th St (22nd president, 1885 to 1889 and 24th president, 1893 to 1897). Between 1953 and 1955, success ensued with The Woodrow Wilson at 69-10 108th St (28th president, 1913 to 1921), The James Monroe at 104-20 68th Dr (5th president, 1817 to 1825), and The Van Buren at 102-21 63rd Rd (8th president, 1837 to 1841).

    Dara explained that in addition to the national pride, there was the feeling that Europe exhibited a more advanced culture, which encompassed a new town planning influencing her father, who directly related to England during his travels. “It was an allure to be able to have communal gardens, fountains, and central courtyards, which catered to the buildings themselves and not the street,” she said.  

     Her father’s early life motivated his accomplishments. She explained, “Having grown up in a tenement and lived in a basement apartment without light in his youth, my father felt it was necessary to give the then rising middle class the things he deemed luxurious, such as bright and airy exposures, and the details of facades with meticulously landscaped front lawns.” 

     Daniel Kaskel, great-grandson of the late builder commended Alfred’s drive and vision. He explained, “Despite the Great Depression, Alfred pursued his first large real estate deal in 1932, purchasing land against the prevailing trend, 10 miles east of New York in what were the empty wilds of Forest Hills and Kew Gardens.”

     Daniel felt most intrigued by the public-private partnerships Alfred formed with the Department of Defense to offer adequate and affordable housing for wartime veterans. He said, “The market rate for a six-room apartment was $177, but Alfred recognized the short supply of housing for soldiers and helped put an end to the monetary hardships many faced upon returning home. The going rate for war veterans was $150 for a six-room unit.”

    “The tenants’ welfare and happiness came first, the community second, and making money third,” said Daniel, referencing Alfred’s “building with a big heart.”

    In 1965, a crowning residence was the 34-story Kennedy House at 110-11 Queens Boulevard, which was an exception to the six-story garden apartment house trend, and paid tribute to John F. Kennedy, the 35th president whose term began in 1961, but was assassinated on November 22, 1963. Among its notable accommodations was the first elevated pool on the rooftop of an apartment building.

    Also north of Queens Boulevard, other architects and builders attempted to continue the trend of honoring presidents with the completion of the Roosevelt House at 102-40 67th Dr, The John Adams at 105-05 69th Ave, and the Buchanan at 67-40 Yellowstone Blvd.

    South of Queens Boulevard stands the Tudor-style Harding Court at 109-01 72nd Road (originally 15 Portsmouth Place), Forest Hills’ earliest building dedicated to a president. This development was underway in 1923 and bears homage to Warren G. Harding, the 29th U.S. President, whose term began in 1921, but passed away while in office in 1923. Designed by architect Rudolph C.P. Boehler and erected by the Stanhold Company, Inc, it would become one of the earliest multi-story “elevator apartment houses” in Forest Hills, with 2 to 7 rooms across from the LIRR. In May 1929, its appeal contributed to the development of the Forest Hills library, which became a tenant, attracting 500 subscribers in its first couple of weeks.  

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