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Our History: City’s landscape always reflected passage of time

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In prior years, organizations such as the Bayside Historical Society could sponsor house tours that would provide a chance for the public to view a variety of early older homes, a living look at the past, but this is no longer possible - there are so few left. We have lost the Tribuno House and the home of famed newspaper cartoonist and newspaper man Tad Dorgan recently.We have been invaded by "cookie cutter" designed mini-mansions, which reflect no architectural philosophy at all. Three hundred years of history is being replaced with boring, look-alike and inappropriate residences which lack creativity and design, to say nothing of the small plots of land which impact privacy and affect horticulture and trees in an area which once fostered the most famous nurseries in the nation. Where are the creative architects who for 300 years designed homes with a philosophy they believed in?Lewis Mumford once said, "In the city, time becomes visible." This is a phrase which can be applied to our neighborhood as well. Conserving our cultural heritage is a case in point for, like leading preservationists in large cities, we in our smaller enclave also feel that a sense of some things lasting beyond our short time on earth is important. It is to many people a city or town's most important function.In looking back over our architectural history, a fascinating story of forces that impact on architecture reveals itself. An early visitor to our nation struck by our diversity wrote, "Fire and water are not more heterogeneous than the different colonies of America." He was correct, for isolated populations led the colonial experience to temper the building tradition brought to our shores by the English settlers, the Flemish, the Dutch, Huguenots, Swedes, Germans, French and Spanish.As different as they were, it was the colonial lifestyle and the state of technology as well as their economy that tempered their architecture: Similar, modest of scale and without difficult detailing. The colonists made pragmatic decisions based on regional characteristics such as climate.By the 18th century, somewhat of a mastery of essentials occurred and attention was turned to the art of living. Two things prompted demand for architecture with style. By now a carpenter would likely own a copy of "Langley's City and Country Buildings" (1740) and an influx of carpenters and artisans entered the country during a mid-century wave of immigration.It was observed by travelers that in cities, merchants, followed by ship captains, occupied the highest social positions, followed by self-made bankers, traders and ship builders, who were conservative and were identified as members of the Federalist party. They looked to England for cultural leadership.The resulting goal for American architecture became "comfort, dignity and quality" for all classes in the construction of townhouses, farmhouses and cottages on the frontier. Jefferson held that "architecture is worth great attention," calling it among the most important arts, saying it was "desirable to introduce taste into an art which shows so much." In this period the Federal style was born.By mid-19th century we find the early Victorian period, with Gothic Revival, Italian Villa and Romanesque styles. Important during this period was the influence of Andrew Jackson Downing, landscape artist and author of "Architecture of Country Houses," which became a very influential pattern book of the time. He described the proper characteristic of a rural residence in the following terms: "The harmonious union of buildings and scenery, utility, expressive of purpose, a style marked by irregularity of form and outline, a variety of effect, boldness and composition." Thus emerged the complicated outline of the early Victorian house and the Italianate Villa and the Romanesque style.From 1860 to the beginning of the 20th century (referred to as the "golden age") was a time when housing needed to accommodate an expanding population. The volume of construction grew with the advent of mass-produced components and was aided by the newly developed rail system which could transport material great distances.Inspired by the centennial celebration in Philadelphia, the colonial dwelling known as the Queen Anne style, also known as Eastlake, was introduced. As the 19th century approached its end, our famous industrialists wished to mimic the French or Italian Renaissance style, building stone chateaus, marble palaces or manor houses, while in the suburbs builders satisfied their need for revision in a classical revival of the American Colonial home.Original examples of colonial homes are rare but since the centennial celebration of 1876 they have been copied in revival form. From the early 1900s to the 1940s, along with the bungalow, the moderne and the multi-family dwelling we find some period revivals. Frank Lloyd Wright's "organic architecture," epitomized by the work of the Prairie School in the early 1900s, did not continue after World War I.Today Queens county and its environs has few examples of the homes of yesteryear. We are witnessing unnecessary demolition of viable Victorian and early 20th century colonial homes as well as other examples of period architecture. With the diminished land per house, we are losing our horticultural history as well at an alarming rate. There is very little left for us to landmark.How will our era be defined in the published annals of American architecture? Will we go down as an era of bad taste and poor judgment? Or will a real solution be offered to save the heritage of our towns, which have a history that goes back more than 300 years to the Dutch, who discovered Manhattan and made the earliest grants to our towns in the 17th century?Despite recent zoning revisions, which for some appeared to be a solution, I remain concerned and alert and urge you to be the same. As I ride through our neighborhoods, I see many buildings fenced off awaiting destruction and wonder what their status is.Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and free-lance writer.

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