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A History of Jackson Heights

From farms to garden city

This article was adapted from Jackson Heights: A Garden in the City, by Daniel Karatzas.

To purchase a copy of the book from the JHBG, please contact us or send a note to our mailing address, along with a check for $15, made out to the Jackson Heights Beautification Group. Dan’s book may be also purchased at Espresso 77 (35-57 77th Street).

You may also enjoy joining some events during the Annual Historic Weekend, including tours led by Dan, a JHBG board member.

Farms and Fields: Before 1900

Jackson Heights does not appear on any map of Queens county prior to 1900 because it simply did not exist. The area we call Jackson Heights was, before the turn of the century, known as the Trains Meadow section of Newtown (which was later rechristened Elmhurst).

Prior to any twentieth-century development, Jackson Heights was farms and fields. An article published in the Jackson Heights News paints a picture of “barns and bee hives, carriage-houses and corn-cribs…dirt roads, packed hard by years of iron-shod hooves.” According to the article, a large racetrack along Northern Boulevard in the vicinity of 72nd and 74th Streets was built by the Barclays, for whom Barclay Street in lower Manhattan was named.

Speculative Frenzy: 1900–1909

Just as the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 precipitated immediate and explosive growth in Brooklyn, the decision to build the Queensboro Bridge, connecting 59th Street in Manhattan with Long Island City, sparked a real estate boom in northern Queens. In 1899 a general plan for the Queensboro Bridge was delivered, and in 1901 building commenced. The decade prior to the 1909 opening of the bridge was marked by intense speculative land purchases.

The Queensboro Corporation, headed by President Edward Archibald MacDougall, eventually spent a total of $3.8 million buying area farms. During the decade from 1910 to 1920 Queensboro claimed to have spent in excess of $400,00 to upgrade the property—pave and grade streets, and install new sewers and sidewalks. The area developed by the corporation stretched from 70th Street to 92nd Street, between Roosevelt Avenue and Northern Boulevard.

To distinguish its property from the rest of Elmhurst, the community was christened Jackson Heights. An article in the January 1924 issue of Queens Borough Magazine on the origin of the names of Queens neighborhoods indicated that Jackson Heights was named for John Jackson, the president of the Hunters Point and Flushing Turnpike Company (which operated the Jackson Avenue trolley). The word “Heights” was no doubt added because the parcel of land rose above adjacent acreage, and because it was seen as adding some well-needed cachet.

MacDougall Makes His Mark: 1910–1919

In 1911, the first buildings in Jackson Heights went up—a series of about 24 two-story row houses along 82nd and 83rd Streets, just north of Roosevelt Avenue. These buildings were speculative construction, similar to row houses Queensboro built in Elmhurst and Woodside, and were torn down or remodeled around 1930. They are the site of an important vital statistic: On October 30, 1911, the first baby born in Jackson Heights, Katherine Brace, was delivered at 55 26th (now known as 83rd) Street.

In 1914 Laurel Court was completed, making it the first apartment building in Jackson Heights. Later that year Laurel Court was joined by Oban and Penrhyn Courts. In what is probably the first advertisement for the brand-new community called Jackson Heights, circa 1915, a drawing of Oban and Penrhyn Courts gives no indication that these buildings were surrounded by empty lots. The early buildings—all located along 80th, 82nd, and 83rd Streets—were purposely located close to Northern Boulevard because it was the only transportation artery serving the neighborhood.

In 1915 and 1916 three other apartment complexes—Plymouth Court, Willow Court, and the Colonials—were added along 82nd Street from 37th to 34th Avenues. In 1916, four- and five-room apartments in these buildings were advertised as renting from $24 to $45 per month and were modestly described as “Equal to the best in Manhattan.”

The arrival of the elevated subway along Roosevelt Avenue in 1917 proved to be a turning point for Jackson Heights. With Grand Central Station now only about 20 minutes away, Queensboro sought to maximize its investment and more intensively develop the new community.

MacDougall’s vision for this development was formulated during the years 1912 to 1916 and inspired by his 1914 trip to Europe. MacDougall was influenced by the “Garden City” movement, a popular response to the dirt and congestion often found in tenement-filled urban areas at the turn of the century. Queensboro’s decision to embrace the Garden City movement was also influenced by the Tenement Act of 1901 and the New York Zoning Resolution of 1916, which separated industrial zones from residential ones.

In 1917 the Queensboro Corporation built its first major apartment complex, naming it the Garden Apartments (thus coining the term “garden apartment”). It was renamed the Greystone Apartments in 1925, since garden apartment had by then become the generic name for this kind of building, and MacDougall wanted to distinguish this complex from his others.

MacDougall later declared “the essentials of good planning of multiple-family houses to be few and comparatively simple:

1) Comprehensive [full block] development….

2) Maximum of sunlight and ventilation…with an interior garden, the interior garden taking the entire length of the block….

3) Buildings are set back from the lot lines in order to provide distance between buildings and an opportunity for lawns and planting in the front of the houses….

4) The erection of detached or free-standing apartment buildings, which gives an opportunity for many corner rooms and consequent corner ventilation in most of the apartments.

5) The silhouette produced through a picturesque arrangement of roofs and dormers, towers and other features adds a great deal to the attractiveness of the new type of apartment.”

MacDougall wanted Jackson Heights to be a city within the city, a cohesive people-oriented community. He donated land for churches, carefully planned the main commercial district along 82nd Street and 37th Avenue, and built tennis courts and a golf course. The first motion picture theater, the Jackson Heights Airdrome, opened in 1919, at the corner of 82nd Street and Roosevelt Avenue. The Casino (later christened the Community Clubhouse), located on 78th Street and Northern Boulevard, was the site for such community activities as dancing, bowling, and club meetings.

Restrictions placed on building during World War I caused a severe blow to the aggressive plans of the Queensboro Corporation. By 1920, though, full-scale development of Jackson Heights had begun. At this time, Queensboro introduced the “Cooperative Ownership Plan,” one of the first cooperative housing plans in the United States. Was selling cooperatives a means of generating higher profits for Queensboro because of the post-World War I housing shortage? Or was MacDougall so inspired by European precedents—beginning with their architecture and urban planning concepts—that offering cooperatives was the next logical step? The answer is probably a combination of both.

In May 1919 the Queensboro Corporation announced that Linden Court, its new apartment complex under construction, would be the first building offered under the Cooperative Ownership Plan. Linden Court (84th to 85th Streets, between Roosevelt and 37th Avenues) is considered to be Queensboro’s first true garden apartment complex. Much was written about Linden Court at the time (including a rave review in the August 1920 issue of Architectural Record) because of its innovative features: detached buildings allowing for more light and air, interior sunrooms, block-long interior gardens, and garages.

It was also announced that the Colonial Apartments, built in 1915, would be converted to cooperative ownership—probably the first cooperative conversion in the United States.

Onward and Upward: 1920–1929

With a fast-growing postwar housing market, MacDougall suddenly needed more new buildings to meet the strong demand he had waited over 10 years to fill. In the space of five years, from 1920 to 1925, Queensboro built eight block-long garden apartment complexes. Joining the Greystones and Linden Court were (in order): Hampton Court, Elm Court, Hawthorne Court, Laburnum Court, Cambridge Court, The Chateau, The Towers, and Spanish Gardens. In addition, three smaller end-block garden apartments were built during this period—Hayes, Ivy, and Cedar Courts. All of the new block-long complexes, with the exception of Spanish Gardens, were sold as cooperatives. The rather daring concept of cooperative ownership was declared a success.

During this hectic building boom MacDougall relied on two architects: George H. Wells and Andrew J. Thomas. In addition to all of the pre-1919 Queensboro buildings, Wells was responsible for the much more elaborate Hampton, Hawthorne, Laburnum, Elm, and Cambridge Courts. All of these complexes are attached four- or five-story buildings that line side streets, have a distinct English or Georgian feel, and surround a huge interior garden. All apartments completed through 1921 were walk-ups. Starting with Elm Court in 1922, Queensboro became the first builder in New York to use the newly legalized button-control automatic elevator.

Thomas’s contributions during this period included The Chateau, The Towers, and Spanish Gardens. Like his Linden Court, the buildings in these complexes are detached and have an interior landscaped garden. The Chateau, with its sumptuous garden, slate mansard roofs, and elegant carved limestone entranceways, was the epitome of Jackson Heights style when it opened in 1923. But just one year late The Towers outdid The Chateau. This complex so embodied MacDougall’s garden apartment dream that he moved his own family from their Flushing home and took up residence in a top-floor 14-room duplex at the corner of 80th Street and 34th Avenue.

Prices for apartments ranged from $18,000 to $25,000, with monthly charges of $265 for a seven-room, three-bathroom apartment. MacDougall boasted about this new “model that has all the advantages of the Park Avenue apartment without its weakness [density].” However, with the Towers complex costing over $2.5 million to build, selling the 96 apartments for below $26,000 each was, from the start, a losing proposition.

MacDougall soon focused his attention in a new, more profitable direction—the construction of private homes. In 1924 Queensboro began construction of private homes, the first of which appeared on the then eastern edge of the neighborhood, 87th Street. In the next four years, over 15 streets were filled in with what the Queensboro Corporation called English Garden Homes. The homes were relatively expensive ($20,000 to $38,500), with high-quality construction and amenities that included a generous front and rear garden, solid brick construction, rear garages, fireplaces, and slate or tile roofs.

MacDougall was able to fill Jackson Heights with an affluent professional class. The prices MacDougall charged for his houses and apartments removed the vast majority of New Yorkers from the pool of potential residents. In addition, the community was advertised as “restricted.” Though not explicitly stated in promotional material, it was widely known at the time that only white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were welcome in Jackson Heights, as was the case with such other middle-class suburban developments as Forest Hills Gardens and Garden City.

Spurred on by success after success, each Queensboro building—both apartments and private homes—outdid its predecessor. With land appreciating and demand strong, prices rose accordingly. The resale market was buoyant, with some sellers more than doubling their money in just a few years. Rents also more than doubled in just a few years.

In this atmosphere, the Queensboro Corporation commissioned a building befitting its place. The result, which stands at the corner of 82nd Street and 37th Avenue, cost a hefty $500,000. When it opened in May 1929, Queensboro’s 250 employees occupied all three floors. Little did Queensboro know that the stock market would crash before the year was out, plunging the United States into the worst depression in its history. The new headquarters building would become a white elephant, and the frenzied and speculative financial and real estate deals would soon come to an end.

Depression: 1930–1939

In early 1930 the full economic effects of the Wall Street crash were still one or two years away. The Queensboro Corporation proudly proclaimed that the population of Jackson Heights had increased by 1,300% during the 1920s, rising from 3,800 in 1923 to 44,500 in 1930. Queensboro announced the construction of its largest apartment house, Fillmore Hall, with 132 units. Three more buildings were soon announced: Georgian Hall, Beech Court, and Maple Court. These rental buildings would provide the smaller three- and four-room suites that had risen in demand. By the end of the year two more buildings, Oak Halls East and West, were announced, raising the number of apartments under construction to just over 500.

After Oak Hall opened in 1931, though, it would be four years before another apartment building was erected. Financial problems began to mount. Some apartments were divided into smaller units, and Queensboro began offering some rentals as furnished rooms. While a good number of Jackson Heights residents had already paid off their mortgage, others were in dire financial straits. As prices fell, a good deal of animosity was generated between tenant-owners and the Queensboro Corporation. Between 1932 and 1934 the fragile economic environment caused three Queensboro cooperatives (The Towers, Laburnum Court, and Cambridge Court) to fail and the apartments to revert to rentals.

Financial difficulties lingered until World War II, but the tide began to turn by the mid-1930s. In 1935 the first apartment buildings to be built since Oak Hall opened were announced as being under construction. These two—Buckingham Hall and the Mount Vernon—were followed, in quick succession, by numerous other apartment buildings. By the end of the decade ground had been broken on well over a dozen buildings, including Berkeley Gardens and the Colton, Saybrook, Belvedere, and Griswold apartments.

The Jackson Heights Merchants Association was formed in 1931, in an effort to help revive the local economy. The Jackson Heights Post Office, with a WPA-sponsored mural depicting the growth of the neighborhood, opened in 1937. During the 1930s seven major new transportation elements were developed in around Jackson Heights: the Municipal 8th Avenue/53rd Street subway (now known as the E line), the Triboro Bridge, the Midtown Tunnel, Grand Central Parkway, the Whitestone Bridge, the Brooklyn/Queens Expressway, and LaGuardia Airport.

Plans for the New York World’s Fair were announced in 1935. Credit for the idea of the fair was given to Joseph F. Shadgen, a Jackson Heights resident who had immigrated from Luxembourg in 1915. One benefit of the fair was that the 1,000-acre Flushing Meadows ash dump, which MacDougall had joined others in lobbying against for years, was shut down and replaced by parkland.

During this newfound period of optimism, the Queensboro Corporation began to chart a new course for Jackson Heights. In 1938, Queensboro announced the construction of its first block-long apartment complex in 13 years, Dunnolly Gardens. Designed by Andrew J. Thomas, the buildings were detached, enclosed a large central garden, and covered only 45% of the land. Dunnolly Gardens in some ways also signaled the end of “old Jackson Heights,” though, since it was built on one of MacDougall’s original highly touted amenities: the golf course. With the housing market rebounding after a near decade-long hiatus, development pressure was intensifying.

The War Years to the Modern Era: 1940–1990

In September 1944, the Jackson Heights News announced the death of Edward Archibald MacDougall, the man who 35 years earlier had virtually singlehandedly created Jackson Heights, at the age of 70. He was succeeded by his son A.E. MacDougall, who in the same issue got right down to business, editorializing: “As soon as [wartime] restrictions are lifted by the Government, Jackson Heights will be ready to provide the most attractive types of garden apartments in close proximity to the center of Manhattan.”

With construction all but halted during the war years, there was tremendous pent-up demand for housing after the war ended. At first Queensboro mulled whether to resume building cooperative apartments. The last cooperative apartment it built, The Towers, was completed almost 25 years earlier. In 1947, the luxurious Carlton House, located on 85th Street from 35th to 34th Avenues, was introduced as Jackson Heights’s newest cooperative. Unfortunately, the concept of cooperative apartments did not ignite the imaginations of potential residents as it had almost 30 years earlier. Queensboro withdrew its plan to sell apartments and instead offered them on a rental basis.

Surprisingly, Queensboro did not give up in its effort to build cooperative apartments. Two years later, Queensboro introduced the Greenbrier as its newest cooperative venture. Located on 84th Street between 37th and 35th Avenues, the Greenbrier remained a coop, but it was the last one that Queensboro had responsible for selling (though the Queensboro cooperatives were joined in the early 1950s by Southridge, Northridge, and Roosevelt Terrace complexes, with hundreds of units).

By the late 1940s, the building boom gathered steam. With many plots of land sold to outside developers, earth-moving equipment and construction crews became common sights in Jackson Heights. Thirty-eight new apartment buildings were completed in 1950 alone. This wave of construction obliterated many end-block gardens along 35th and 34th Avenues. By 1954 virtually every plot of ground had been used for residential construction.

The Jackson Heights Community Federation became active in the late 1940s. It lobbied aggressively for a number of causes vital to the quality of life in the community: the construction of a park (now known as Travers Park, running most of the block between 77th and 78th Streets from 34th Avenue to Northern Boulevard), a junior high school (I.S. 145, which was built on what had been tennis courts on 80th Street between 34th Avenue and Northern Boulevard), a library (81st Street just north of 37th Avenue), and a huge community campus, which was to include a gym, pool, and 2,000-seat concert hall and did not come to pass (the Bulova complex is on a portion of this land).

Many young families came to Jackson Heights in the 1950s, repeating a pattern that had started over thirty years earlier. Although far more crowded than it was a generation earlier, Jackson Heights still had a small-town feel. Beginning in the 1960s, as immigration quotas were overturned, immigrants from all over the world settled in Jackson Heights.

By the 1970s the future of New York City and of Jackson Heights was uncertain. New York City’s fiscal crisis, combined with rising inflation and interest rates that reached a high of 20%, resulted in widespread severe problems for the city. Interest rates began to drop in 1982, though, and a time of economic expansion began. The result of rapid inflation in residential rents helped create a cooperative conversion boom of huge magnitude. In Queens, 639 buildings (with 76,900 apartments) were converted to cooperatives or condominiums.

In Jackson Heights at least 60 buildings were converted during the 1980s. The 5,000-plus new tenant-owned units added to an existing base of at least 5,000 cooperative apartments. Seventy years after the Cooperative Ownership Plan was introduced in Jackson Heights, Edward MacDougall’s vision was, in some ways, restored.

In 1988 the Jackson Heights Beautification Group (JHBG) was formed, rekindling community spirit and working to improve the quality of life in Jackson Heights. The JHBG also spearheaded the effort to win recognition of Jackson Heights as a historic district. In 1993 the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to designate roughly 36 blocks of Jackson Heights as a historic district.

At the time, Jackson Heights was just the second historic district in Queens, and one of the largest in the city. The district is irregularly shaped, bounded by 76th Street on the west, 88th Street on the east, Roosevelt Avenue on the south, and Northern Boulevard on the north. An even larger portion of the community is included in the historic district recognized by New York State and the federal government.

The Historic District designation was a catalyst in improving quality of life in Jackson Heights. Very few communities can boast the combination of Jackson Heights’s great diversity and its architectural legacy. Our planned, and now multicultural, community will remain a desirable place to live, work, and shop so long as we reach out to one another to foster the common good.

Postscript: 1990–

The attitude toward landmark designation over the last ten years has shifted considerably. Residents of other communities watch helplessly while attractive old housing stock is torn down in favor of out-of-character complexes and “McMansions.” Communities have seen the success of landmarking in Jackson Heights and elsewhere—the retention of character and quality leads to a more pleasant and steadily improving community, with rising home values (as a recent study by the New York City Independent Budget Office showed).

At the same time, Jackson Heights has continued its role as a magnet for people from an incredibly wide variety of backgrounds. Jackson Heights is today widely known as one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country. It’s not uncommon to hear four or five languages (English and Spanish, but also Russian, Bangla, Korean, and others) in the course of a walk.

For many of these residents, Jackson Heights continues to play the role it has since its inception: as a place to live within easy commuting distance of jobs yet enjoy, as architect Robert A.M. Stern, Dean of the Yale School of Architecture, has said, “the mix of urbane apartment and row houses…a model urban suburbia that demonstrates, as none have since, what high-density housing in the city could be.”