Historian Alexander Wood Chronicling Historic Building Boom

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Century-Old Rego Park To Be Recognized in New Book Seeing Citywide Neighborhoods in a New Light

Queens Blvd trolley line with 2 cars, Rego Construction Co ad, Real Good Homes, April 10, 1925, Courtesy of the late Marion Legler

Extra! Extra! “Building the Metropolis: Architecture, Construction, and Labor in New York City, 1880-1935” is bound to appear on your bookshelf as early as fall 2024. This valuable endeavor is underway by American historian Alexander Wood, who teaches as a lecturer at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. He received a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 2020, which was preceded by his architecture degree from Cooper Union. Currently, he and his wife reside in Boston.

“The period of 1880 to 1935 saw the growth of New York into one of the world’s largest cities, the development of the first skyscrapers, the creation of the rapid transit system, and the consolidation of the five boroughs,” said Wood, who feels inspired by history associated with architecture, construction, and building trades. “It was a period of extraordinary dynamism, change, and conflict at all levels of urban life,” Wood continued. He feels there are many important periods of New York history, but he has long been drawn to the eras between the Civil War and the Great Depression as a result.

Wood’s approximately 450-page book will feature numerous distinctive photos and potentially some maps, and will be published by The University of Chicago Press. He explained how his idea originated. Since many books were written about the city during this period, it motivated him to write a book about the development of the building industry, which is somewhat under-studied. He explained, “In the late 19th and early 20th century, the building industry was one of the city’s largest, most important, and dynamic industries. I have learned a lot about the business of construction, but also about the people who built New York. By my estimation, roughly ten percent of the working population was employed in construction in some fashion during one of the periodic building booms. Just as the garment industry provides an important window into New York’s social history, the construction sector achieves the same.”

“I wanted to be an architect as a child growing up in South Carolina, and I always loved visiting cities on vacations,” said Wood, who reminisced Charleston as a distinctive destination. After relocating to New York for college, he fell in love with urban history. “I was overwhelmed by the magnificence of the city and I’m still in awe of it. My education at Cooper Union played an important role in fostering my interests. That was where we studied the history of New York, but also the history of cities around the world,” he continued.

Wood’s project began as a dissertation at Columbia University, and then he decided to expand upon it substantially. He is hopeful that other scholars will value his unique work, while aiming to reach a large audience. “In my experience, New Yorkers are passionately interested in the history of their city, so it should appeal to anyone who wants to know more about what it was like to work in construction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” he said.

Booth St from Marion Ave, Rego Park, June 12, 1925, Courtesy of the late Marion Legler

For the past few years, Wood cultivated his vision toward researching and writing his book. In anticipation for the public, a few written works have been published online, such as “Charlton’s New York,” which offers insight into a draftsman who was employed by the famed firm McKim, Mead & White, which symbolized architectural practice, ideals of the American Renaissance, and urbanism. The Gotham Center Blog features his article on a strike at the landmarked Dakota Apartments. Shortly, he will have an article published in “Buildings & Landscapes,” the official publication of the Vernacular Architectural Forum, exploring the early history of New York’s structural ironworkers. 

For Wood’s upcoming book, he pinpointed which Queens neighborhoods readers can anticipate, in addition to encountering other historic standouts citywide. In his chapter spotlighting the 1920s, he focuses on Rego Park, Astoria, Jamaica, Hollis, and Ozone Park. He also addresses Forest Hills Gardens and Jackson Heights in an earlier chapter. Newtown Creek was the site of the major building material yards that serviced Queens and Brooklyn, and therefore it also made the cut. Citywide, readers can anticipate what evokes much sentiment, such as Lower Manhattan, Midtown, and the Upper West Side, downtown and southern Brooklyn, and the Bronx’s Grand Concourse.

Forest Hills was named by Cord Meyer Development Company in 1906, and Rego Park, an outgrowth, was named by “REal GOod” Construction Company in 1923. This year is the centennial of Rego Park, and Wood feels it embodies an optimistic era of city building and a critical moment in New York history. He explained, “New York had a rolling housing crisis since the early nineteenth century, but it became particularly bad during the First World War. Rego Park and similar neighborhoods built in the 1920s didn’t alleviate this crisis, as we know, but provided homes to people. Over a relatively short period of time, some farmland on Queens Boulevard was filled with houses, stores, churches and synagogues, and schools, and it ultimately became a classic New York neighborhood.” 

Bergen Hill Tunnels, Entrance to North River Tunnels, NJ, William Wirt Mills, Pennsylvania Railroad Tunnels & Terminals in NYC (New York- King’s

When Wood visualizes New York City, a mosaic of neighborhoods comes to mind, and as for Rego Park, it is a well-established aspect. As a historian, he is interested in what constitutes a neighborhood’s uniqueness, but simultaneously holds much interest in seeing how they fit into larger patterns of city building. “In my book, I look at the making of Rego Park in the 1920s, as part of a history of metropolitan suburban development. The Real Good Construction Company is an excellent example of a large-scale builder that flourished after the First World War, and Rego Park is a great example of the attractive communities they erected for middle class homebuyers near commuter rail lines and the rapid transit system,” said Wood.

When asked which architects, potentially linked to Rego Park and Forest Hills among other sections of Queens, are most inspirational, Wood replied that he views all architects, landscape architects, and planners involved with Forest Hills Gardens as superb, but the work of speculative builders personally holds greater interest. “The Real Good Construction Company was one of thousands of builders that ‘built up’ Greater New York in the 20th century, and I am amazed by their total output and the high quality of much of their work,” said Wood. As for a larger picture, not very much is known about all these builders. Looking ahead, he envisions assisting with the digitization of docket-books of the Department of Buildings, in order to acquire a better understanding of who they were. 

Wood plans to enable readers to explore construction methods and labor practices. In reference to the Real Good Construction Company flourishing in the 1920s, he explained, “Their homes were standardized and they used an economy of scale to purchase materials in bulk, but we can see that people tend to ‘customize’ their homes over time, so these neighborhoods don’t have a ‘tract housing’ look to them.” He continued, “I am interested in highlighting how suburban builders put together their workforces. Construction was a well-organized sector at the time, although the building trades unions were still finding their foothold in Queens. I suspect that most unionized tradesmen that worked on Rego Park came from the Corona or Jamaica Avenue locals.”  

Gas mains over the roof of IRT NY Subway Its Construction Equipment, New York, 1904-43

One may wonder what led to Wood’s decision to represent the period of 1880 to 1935. “To a large degree, New York’s physical development has been driven by private speculative enterprise, which has given it a ‘boom and bust’ quality. There were big building booms between 1880 and 1893, between 1898 and the First World War, and then in the 1920s. In order to emphasize the cyclical quality of urban development, my book has three sections which examine three ‘boom’ periods,” said Wood. He is partially in debt to Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, who stressed the volatile nature of New York’s development in their book, “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.”

There are various means of trying to understand New York’s physical development throughout centuries, but it is most significant to grasp the larger picture. Wood explained, “Between the 1880s and the 1930s, according to the Department of Buildings, more than 900,000 buildings were erected in the present-day city limits of New York. In the early 1930s, the city took a property inventory, and found that roughly 75 percent of the city’s building stock was erected since the 1870s. In other words, this was a tremendously productive period in the history of the building industry.” 

Wood feels that the development of Manhattan was quite dramatic, but the growth of the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens was in some respects additionally spectacular. “In 1944, a researcher named Herbert S. Swann published a study of the New York housing market and found something pretty fascinating. According to Swann, between 1920 and 1929, more dwelling units were built in Queens at 236,985, than what existed in the entire city of Boston at 211,528,” said Wood.

After his book’s publication, the public can anticipate events in major venues including the New-York Historical Society, Columbia University, and the Skyscraper Museum.   

Flatiron Building under construction, 1902 Library of Congress, Published by Detroit Publishing Co

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