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Our History: Historic Bayside home faces destruction

It is good to note in a petition I received recently that the movement for landmarking local sites is still an ongoing priority. I refer to the current effort of The New Property Civic Association to...

By Joan Brown Wettingfeld

Landmarking: A Priority For Queens Communities

It is good to note in a petition I received recently that the movement for landmarking local sites is still an ongoing priority. I refer to the current effort of The New Property Civic Association to preserve two existing homes of famous personalities who lived in Bayside, one of whom was Tad Dorgan, a well-known and beloved columnist . He was a friend of actor and pugilist Jim Corbett, who also lived here.

Queens is the forgotten orphan when landmarking is considered, and because of this and the building codes which need revision, we are losing our architectural heritage. We did recently hear that there is a proposed landmark designation for the unusual stone house on Bell and old Lamartine Avenue (or 36th Avenue), which was reportedly once owned by actress Maud Adams, although she is said not to have lived there.

In August 1967 the Bayside Historical Society had paved the way for the future when the city landmarked the then 300-year-old Lawrence Cemetery, which dated back to a grant given by Dutch Governor Kieft.

Later efforts assured our community of two other landmarks: The Battery at Fort Totten and the former Engineers’ Club, or “The Castle” as it is known at that fort. However, many years have passed and our area of Queens has been bypassed and is being pillaged by a building crisis which threatens our architectural heritage. The offices in charge of building permits and enforcement of the law continue to look the other way.

Our diversified architectural history, which reflects our community’s story, is being decimated. Towns throughout the United States have roadside signs and plaques heralding a landmark or two, proudly bringing them to the attention of travelers and passers-by. Bayside is fortunate to have three landmarks. Why don’t we acknowledge our status and mark our achievement in landmarking for the transient public, thus publicizing our dedication to the landmarking and preservation movement?

We are rapidly losing what New York City lost in the 300 years before the famous architect Le Corbusier was to remind us that “New York City is a provisional city ... A city which will be replaced by another city,” in other words, “a city its motion perpetual, its details a blurred collage.”

In the first three centuries of our city’s existence no thought was given to preserving many of our city’s fine buildings and consequently they were destroyed. We did not conserve architecturally, historically or culturally in our city until the 1960s. The Bayside Historical Society was a leader when in 1967 the movement to preserve our history began with the landmarking of the Lawrence Cemetery and we must continue that heritage.

What has happened to our perspective in this current decade that allows us to tolerate what is happening in Bayside and other towns in Queens?

A single case in point is the threat to the home of the late Tad Dorgan, one of Bayside’s famous inhabitants. As a youngster I grew up in the neighborhood in which his house still stands, but it is now facing destruction. Let me tell you his story.

Tad Dorgan, or Thomas Aloysius Dorgan, was probably the most interesting cartoonist and social commentator of his era. Born in San Francisco, he moved to New York in 1905 to work for William Randolph Hearst at the New York Journal. Later he was to share a desk with Damon Runyon, who became his lifelong friend. Nearby worked another artist, George Hermann, famed for creating a new cartoon called “Krazy Kat.” Ring Lardner was a feature writer in that same office and all appeared each Sunday in Hearst’s “City Life and Drama, Editorial Section.”

Dorgan’s work as a sports writer and columnist influenced the vernacular of the flapper and hip flask era early in the last century and his columns and cartoons helped established a permanent place for many slang expressions in the American language.

Before coming to New York and Bayside, where he lived for many years, he had been an established cartoonist for the San Francisco Bulletin. His boyhood friend from his San Francisco days was none other than Gentleman Jim Corbett, who was also to make his home in Bayside near 35th Avenue.

Dorgan coined a number of expressions which are remembered today: “twenty-three skidoo,” “yes, we have no bananas,” “dumb bell,” “drugstore cowboy,” and “Dumb Dora.” He also coined the expression “hard-boiled egg” and it became tagged to his friend Damon Runyon. Two song writers made a great deal of money by incorporating “Yes we have no bananas” in their musical composition.

In the way of legend there are conflicting stories about the origin of “hot dog,” and though Dorgan is often credited with the name there is still much debate. In 1906 Dorgan was in the press box at a baseball game and heard the cry, “get your red hot dachshund sausage,” and it is claimed he was inspired to coin the phrase, “hot dog.”

Tad Dorgan wrote a column about Bayside local doings called “Toby Types.” He knew the local townspeople well and spoke of them fondly. When he died in 1929, his desk mate, Damon Runyon, wrote a tribute saying, “The music has stopped. Tad is dead. A ray of sunshine has been turned to shadow. A peal of joyous laughter has been suddenly hushed.” The entire piece was republished 58 years later in 1987.

Tad Dorgan is buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery around the corner from his boyhood friend Jim Corbett. A page of our history will be lost if his home is destroyed.

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and free-lance writer. e-mail:

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