Periodically, I visit Astoria Village in Queens. Though its streets were once populated with dozens of jewel box Victorian-era houses along 12th and 14th Sts. and 27th Ave. south of Astoria Park for the most part, short sightedness on behalf of local politicians and the Landmarks Preservation Commission have failed to save most of them. As older residents moved out, newer arrivals found the buildings insufficient for their needs both in space and electrical wiring and other necessities, and down the houses have come, replaced by much blander construction from the late-20th and early-21st centuries. It’s a never-ending struggle between the values of the past and present.
Astoria Village is a small part of the larger neighborhood named Astoria, located west of 21st St., north of Astoria Blvd. and south of Astoria Park. Its pedigree dates to the mid-1600s, when William Hallett received a grant for the area surrounding what is now Hallett’s Cove by Peter Stuyvesant. However, the oldest structures in the region date to the mid-1800s, after fur merchant Stephen Ailing Halsey incorporated the village in 1839. It was named for a man who apparently never set foot in it. A bitter battle for naming the village was finally won by supporters and friends of John Jacob Astor (1763-1848). Astor, entrepreneur and real estate tycoon, was the wealthiest man in America by 1840 with a net worth of over $40 million. (As it turns out, Astor did live in “Astoria”—his summer home, built on what is now E. 87th St. near York Ave.—from which he could see the new Long Island Village named for him.) Halsey was trying to induce Astor to invest in a local seminary, but Astor donated just $500.
Wealthy businessmen built homes on what are now 12th and 14th Sts., some cozy boxes, others large, ornate mansions; most of those that remain have been altered nearly beyond recognizability.
After getting off the N train at 30th Ave., you’re met at 30th St. with a reminder of Astoria’s 20th-century status as a haven for Greek immigrants, at Athens Square. In 1998, Athens mayor Demetris Avramopoulos presented the city with a replica of the Piraeus Athena (originally sculpted about 350 BC). It depicts the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom and patroness of the arts. The park also features Anthony Frudakis’ bronze of the philosopher Socrates; other ancient philosophers, and granite Doric columns, can also be found.
Though the casual observer thinks of Astoria as primarily a Greek enclave, the neighborhood’s Greek population has decreased in recent years. To repeat a cliché, Astoria is one of the city’s truest “melting pots” with Greeks, other Eastern European nationalities such as Albanians, Bulgarians, and Bosnians, Jews, Brazilians, Maltese, Spanish and Bangladeshis all sharing the stage with run-of-the-mill Irish, like me.
L-shaped Welling Court runs from Main Ave. south and east to 12th St. Welling and Main Ave. alone follow Astoria Village’s original 17th-century street plan, as well as the zigzagging 12th St. These streets were originally located on the Hallet farm, for which Hallet’s Cove, an indentation in the East River, is named. Main Ave. and Welling Court define the outline of the Hallet vegetable garden. The Hallet barn was at the end of Welling Court. About 1837, the Hallet farm was cut up into lots. The property was divided into 100/200 ft plots that sold for $150 each. Welling Court has survived for over 300 years.
For the past decade the buildings on Welling Court have been livened by colorful installations from local street artists.
The Hallet’s Cove area today, the region in Astoria just south of Astoria Park and west of 21st St., is a mixture of handsome houses, ancient churches and graveyards, as well as forbidding, utilitarian housing projects and industrial buildings. The area near Astoria Park, as well as Ditmars to the north, feature views of the Hell Gate (1910) and Triborough (1936) bridges.
Now a Greek Orthodox church, the Robert Blackwell house was constructed at the NE corner of 12th St. and 27th Ave. in the 1840s. The Blackwell family left its mark on western Long Island and on the island now known as Roosevelt Island. Native-Americans called the island Minnehanak (“a great place to live”), but it has gone under a variety of names in English. The Dutch called it Varkens, or Hog Island. Its first permanent resident was Captain John Manning, a disgraced British naval officer who allowed Fort Amsterdam (on Governor’s Island) to fall to the Dutch in 1673.
Upon Manning’s death the island was passed on to his stepdaughter Mary and her husband, Robert Blackwell, and the island stayed in the Blackwell family until 1823, retaining the name “Blackwell’s Island” for years after that. Blackwell’s Island became Welfare Island in 1921, and finally, since 1973, Roosevelt Island; a substantial memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt was supposed to occupy the island’s southern tip, but the plans were delayed when architect Louis Kahn passed away. The memorial was finally dedicated in Four Freedoms Park on the island’s southern edge in 2012.
What was once known as Rosemont, a mansion on 25-37 14th St., is pretty much buried under aluminum siding, but it used to be a beautiful two-level Doric-columned country house. In 1852 the mansion was built in a grand Southern-plantation style by varnish moguls Smith & Stratton, who operated in Astoria Village until 1856; they then decamped further down the east Riverside to Hunter’s Point. In the 1990s, it was converted to the wreck you see today at 25-37 14th St., “raped and ravaged” in the words of the AIA Guide to NYC. Its ancient copper beech tree has long been chopped down, and the exterior converted to something considered more appropriate to the times by its current owner, or at least a recent one.
In many ways the stately brick edifice, St. George Episcopal Church, is the centerpiece of Astoria Village. There has been a St. George Episcopal parish in Astoria since 1825 when its site was donated by landowner Robert Blackwell; its original church was on Franklin St., today’s Astoria Blvd. After that edifice burned down in 1894, the present brick church at 27th Ave. and 14th St. was raised in 1903-1904.
St. George’s isn’t the only item of interest here. Before the 20th century, churches of all denominations maintained cemeteries for their congregants. If you know where to look, St. George’s churchyard is still there, but you need to walk up a driveway and peer over a fence alongside a dumpster to see it. The historic cemetery contains remains of early settlers in the area, the Blackwells and Trowbridges. It used to be attainable from 14th St., but after a senior center was built alongside St. George’s, the decision was made to make the entrance more hidden. Until recently I was able to enter the churchyard but the gate is kept locked now.
Astoria Village’s handsome library building at Astoria Blvd. and 14th St. occupies the spot of the original St. George’s Church. It was constructed after a generous grant from industrialist/philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and was finished by 1904. Carnegie’s largesse allowed 1689 libraries to be built across the USA. Dozens of Carnegie libraries still stand in NYC.
—Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013)