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Flushing Town Hall show looks back at borough

The time...

By Daniel Arimborgo

A rare glimpse into the past awaits visitors at Flushing Town Hall this spring. In 1861 when Town Hall was built, a time capsule was inserted in the cornerstone and the contents of that capsule are now on exhibit at the Hall through July 29.

The time capsule lay entombed under the cornerstone until 1968, when it was expected the building would be demolished.

It was given to the city Real Estate Department, which in turn gave it to the Museum of the City of New York. Queens Borough President Claire Shulman recently secured its return.

The small lead box did an excellent job of preserving the 120 or so artifacts inside, with a copy of The New York Times and business cards showing virtually no marked deterioration, yellowing, or crumbling.

The cover of The Times has a report on the Civil War Battle of Corinth, which occurred in northeast Mississippi. In the same display case there is also a copy of the Flushing Times, a weekly newspaper. In another case lies a Harper’s Weekly, a newspaper touted as “The Journal of Civilization.” Lying next to it is a tattered clipping from an unknown paper, detailing the Town Hall Act, which called for the building of the structure.

Also on display is the building contractor’s manuscript for Town Hall, which lists all the contractors who worked on it.

A rare treat for coin lovers, there are a dozen coins from the era. Coin collectors prize such coins because they are hard to find. Many were melted down for bullets during the Civil War effort, Lucy Davidson, director of arts services at Town Hall said.

Next to the coin collection is an assortment of business cards from the period. One name that stands out, “Dr. BloodGood, Of Main St. Flushing, next to the Post Office,” belonged to a poet, Davidson said. “His poetry is extremely dour, much of it lamenting the Civil War, so we didn’t include it in the exhibit,” she said.

Another homemade one, “Segar [sic.] Store, From Wm. Burk,” showed that spelling was not everyone’s strong point back then.

“I think spelling, like history, was a matter of degrees back then, Davidson said.

“The exhibit is really more about Flushing than about the Civil War,” Davidson explained, although references to the war are inevitably evident, like a list of soldiers from the town of Flushing, LI (as it was part of Long Island back then), and a musical accompaniment to the exhibit, “Remembrances of Civil War Flushing,”with selections such as “Home Sweet Home” and “Hail to the Chief.” All the music is available on CDs in the gift shop.

A seed catalog contains selections for large horticultural projects. Frederick Law Olmstead, the architectural planner who oversaw the construction of Central Park and many other city parks, chose many exotic trees and seeds from the prominent Parsons family, who were in the horticulture business. Owned by Samuel D. Parsons, the family business was in Flushing, Davidson said.

The Parsons sold trees and seeds to states around the country, she said. Davidson pointed to Japanese maples growing in the Town Hall’s garden and lawns, offsprings of their earlier ancestors that were bought from the Parsons, an example of the exotic breeds the horticulture business supplied.

“In its busiest period, Parsons propagated from 1,000 to 5,000 specimens a year,” an exhibit plaque reads.

“We have photos of Town Hall surrounded by so many trees, you really have to look closely to see that it is Town Hall,” Davidson said.

Coincidentally, there is a related photo exhibit in the main corridor, “Urban Landscapes: Photographs of Queens County Parks,” by Paul Anthony.

Back in the Town Hall exhibit, a large, blown-up photo taken 25 years after Town Hall was built shows the village trustees of the time sitting in what looks like a beer garden on picnic tables. The men sport handlebar mustaches and bowler hats. There are no women in the photo, but it still gives a remarkable glimpse of the past.

Originally designed as the City Hall of Flushing, the building became a court house in 1898, serving in that capacity until 1960. For the next 15 years, the building was vacant and began deteriorating. Although Town Hall was given landmark status in 1967, it continued to deteriorate and be neglected.

In 1975 the city leased Town Hall to a dinner theater club for 30 years, but the business failed in a year and in 1989 Civil Court Judge Phyllis Flug returned Town Hall to New York. The following year the Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts was awarded stewardship.

The council began restoration work and in 1993 it reopened the building to the public, with jazz, classical music, and opera performances, ethnic festivals and fine art and historical exhibitions. Restoration work continued until 2000.

The free exhibit is open weekdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and weekends from noon to 5 p.m.

Reach reporter Daniel Arimborgo by e-mail at timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300 Ext. 141.

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