Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Big Old Houses: Astoria, Specifically

Astoria, Specifically
by John Foreman

Rumors of $4500/month one-bedroom rentals in Long Island City (and good heavens, they're true) have brought to mind Astoria, that pleasant Queens bedroom community located on LIC's northern border. In its day, Astoria attracted a much fancier class of customer than LIC's glass-boxed millenials. America's social dragoness herself, Mrs. Stuyvesand Fish, spent a spell in Astoria in the wake of her improvident father's death. No Suze Orman he, once dead his family found themselves harried out of high-priced Manhattan, debt colectors at their heels. Where to go? Well, Astoria was rather nice, still quite rural in the late 1860s, genteel and, importantly, not too expensive.

When Mamie and her family fled Manhattan, that old Astoria pensioner in the image above would have had crisp paint, manicured gardens, baustrades at the roofline and on the porch roof, and sat amidst anywhere from ten to thirty pleasant acres in the vicinity of Ditmars Blvd and 35th Street, or maybe 31st Avenue and 32nd Street. The countryside extending inland from old Astoria village, on the shore of Hallet's Cove, between 12th and 14th Streets and 30th Drive, was pleasant and extensive.

Certain houses speak with an architectural accent commonplace throughout Queens and Long Island, and Manhattan and Brooklyn — or for that matter, over most of the Eastern Seaboard. These are the country homes of America's Federal aristocracy. The specimen above looks remarkably like the one below, built in the Harlem Heights by Alexander Hamilton in 1802. The Grange, as he called it, was subsequently abused, neglected, moved three times and in 2011 anchored (somewhat unexpectedly) at the northern corner of St. Nicholas Park.
Here's another survivor from the Astoria countryside, a big bigger than the Grange but clarly the same breed of cat. There is an inherent delicacy to these old houses, an architectural fineness that speaks to a certain cultural modesty that went out the window with the Civil War.
Restore the shutters, replace the vanished balustrades, pull out the gimcrack screening on the (probably extended) porch, and you'd get a house that looks a lot like the one below which, of course, is Gracie Mansion. P.S. My vintage images come from all over the net, but mostly from the Greater Astoria Historical Society, a worthy group struggling bravely to preserve what's left of Astoria's fast diminishing architectural heritage.
Astoria today is a nice place, but it's not a charming place. It is a land of semi-detached two-story early- to mid-20th century brick houses smiling at each other across quiet leafy streets. Older house have, almost without exception, been "re-muddled" with inappropriate windows and siding. Compared to skyrocketing rents and home prices nearby, it remains comparatively reasonable. The wonderful architectural inventory that once characterized it, however, has been erradicated. A handful of nifty old places has miraculously survived, but when I say handful, I mean it literally — like 5. (Or maybe 8). Everything else is gone.The house in the image below stood on Shore Road opposite Roosevelt Island.
Astoria used to be called Hallet's Cove, a name still affixed to a small bay located on the Queens shore of the East River. Hallet's Cove was a popular destination for early 19th century day trippers, a place for women with parasols to serve picnic lunches from elaborate hampers. The gentlemen's farms further inland soon began to be augmented by smart country places closer to the water. The process was accelerted in the 1840s when a group of real estate speculators convinced John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) to lend them his name in order to essentially "re-brand" the place. For the next thirty-odd years — longer in areas further west — Astoria basked in its own Golden Athenian Period. The rapid pace of development was masked by abundant open space, the rural/surburban charm burnished by a growing collection of large and beautiful houses. It was, in its way, a Long Island Gold Coast before there was a Long Island Gold Coast.
Author's Educated Guess: The image below looks to me like a grand Dutch era farmhouse ttransformed into a country seat by descendants of the original owner. Greater Astoria Historical has a wealth of images on its website — astorialic.org — although few include location.
All of us in the northeast who own, or visit, or in my case rent places in the country are familiar with houses that look like this. This Astoria refugee appears to be in the last stages of holding off the inevitable. That brick building on the left is a harbinger of things to come. Buildings just like it probably cover the site today.

The past is so tender and perishable. A palpable sense of waiting for the end envelops this old Astoria farmhouse. Sad, true, but I do like the cyclists in front.
Astoria's later houses became quite grand, if no longer so modest or refined. This one was on Shore Road.
The very grandest of them, the famous Steinway mansion, is miraculously extant. The name commemorates the famous piano manufacturer who, while simultaneously constructing a company village in the area, occupied the house in the 1870s. Built in 1858 it originally stood in the middle of a vast and mysterious waterfront estate. The house may have remained in mint condition but the property has shrunk to half an acre, its former water views now obscured by factories, warehouses and a water treatment plant. After years on the market, unidentified buyers, described by the Daily News as "mystery Astoria raised investors," bought it in 2014 for $2.6 million.

According to the News, "(N)o one needs to be concerned about it beig torn down."
As the rural past faded, Astoria developed into an average 19th century suburban neighborhood.
Those days are long past.
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