Houses of the Wedge

84-37 113th Street c. 1900
84-11 112th Street c. 1900

The full range of Richmond Hill’s architectural styles is on display in the triangle-shaped wedge of residential blocks between Myrtle Avenue and the former South Side Railroad line (elevated above Bessemer and Babbage Streets since 1924). Most of neighborhood’s houses date to the period of Academic Eclecticism in architecture. Many use highly irregular massing—often including corner turrets, projecting bay windows and complex rooflines—enabled by new technologies and building techniques. The use of applied ornament also reflects the increasing industrialization of the building trades. As factories began mass production of architectural components such as doors, windows, siding and decorative detailing, domestic architectural styles became much more flamboyant. Nominally based on medieval European precedents, these “Victorian” architectural styles were in fact a loose interpretation of both medieval and Classical models, and architects frequently mixed and matched elements in highly individualized components. One of the most individual houses is the unusual Japanese-inspired design at 84-37 113th Street. Some of Richmond Hill’s houses reflect post-Victorian architectural styles, which were more formal and rigorous in their use of historic precedents. Perhaps the most popular of these styles was the Colonial Revival, which favored symmetrical house forms more clearly. An impressive example of this style is found at 84-11 112th Street.

85th Avenue and 117th Street

The blocks near this intersection feature some of the oldest houses in Richmond Hill, erected at the very beginning of the neighborhood’s building boom. In 1884, Albon Platt Man himself commissioned five houses to jump-start the neighborhood’s development. Of these, 116-03 85th Avenue is likely the only surviving example. At least two other houses in the area were built by the early 1890s, at 116-12 85th Avenue and 85-14 117th Street (which was listed on an 1891 map as the residence of architect Henry E. Haugaard). The area also contains a noteworthy cluster of Shingle Style residences, including the similar turreted examples at 117-03 85th Avenue and 84-48 118th Street, both constructed around 1900 by local architect-builders Wade & Cullingford.

Church of the Resurrection

85-09 118th Street
Nathaniel W. Vickers
National Register of Historic Places

The Church of the Resurrection, founded in the late 1860s as a mission of Grace Episcopal Church of Jamaica, was the first religious organization established in Richmond Hill. It built its first home on this site in 1874 when the surrounding suburban neighborhood was still mostly made up of unoccupied lots. A series of subsequent alterations culminated in 1904 with the construction of an entirely new stone and half-timbered structure around the existing church building, resulting in its present form and appearance. Like many Episcopal churches, the design takes its inspiration from the medieval parish churches of England, with its picturesque rooflines, asymmetrical massing and rustic materials palette of quarry stone, stucco and half-timbering. One of its most noted congregants was Jacob Riis, who donated the stained glass triptych in the north wall of the church in memory of his wife Elizabeth in 1905. The rectory building, constructed in 1888 on the corner lot directly to the north, has been known informally as “Riis House,” although there is no record that the family ever lived there. The Church of the Resurrection is still an active congregation and its building was placed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places in 2003.

Richmond Hill Republican Club

86-15 Lefferts Boulevard
Henry E. Haugaard
NYC Individual Landmark

While local architect Haugaard was known primarily for his residential designs, this building shows his equal fluency with civic architecture. Its Classical style ornament and orange brick façade nicely complement the nearby library. Like other social clubs, whether Democratic or Republican, the Richmond Hill Republican Club (RHRC) served as a locus of community activity for the neighborhood, organizing and hosting public lectures, rallies, parades, picnics, dances and dinners. The main floor contained meeting rooms and a billiards parlor, while the basement housed a bowling alley (a large auditorium was planned for the second floor but was never constructed). Beyond its role as a local social institution, the RHRC participated in national politics by inviting prominent political figures to speak; notable appearances were made by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. The RHRC closed in the 1980s, and the building has since been adaptively reused as a catering hall and event space.

Queens Public Library, Richmond Hill Branch

118-14 Hillside Avenue
Tuthill & Higgins

The Richmond Hill branch was one of six public libraries in Queens funded by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. It traces its origins to a lending library established c. 1899 by local resident Ella J. Flanders (prominent local resident Jacob Riis served as an early trustee). Unlike earlier libraries, which typically occupied space in other buildings, the Carnegie branches were designed to stand out. Most, including the Richmond Hill branch, employ a classical architectural vocabulary; in the outer boroughs, they were also typically sited on larger lots, and were usually one-story, freestanding buildings with horizontally oriented floor plans. In 1929, a sympathetically designed addition to the Richmond Hill Branch was constructed in the rear to house the Children’s Library. The main reading room features a Works Progress Administration-sponsored mural titled “The Story of Richmond Hill,” painted in 1936-37 by artist Philip Evergood, which contrasts the pastoral pleasures of suburban Queens on the left against a bleak industrial urban landscape on the right.

RKO Keith’s Theatre

117-09 Hillside Avenue
R. Thomas Short

Richmond Hill once had a number of movie theaters, most located in small storefronts along Jamaica Avenue. By far the largest was the RKO Keith’s Theatre, which in comparison to others was a true motion picture palace. It originally featured both Vaudeville acts and movies on its roster of entertainment. Designed in the neo-Classical Revival style, the building’s prominent street façade is clad in buff brick with white terra cotta trim and features the original marquee. Architect R. Thomas Short was known for his theater designs, among them The Grand in Astoria, and The Rialto, The Shubert and The Midwood in Brooklyn. The L-shaped RKO Keith’s theater maintains its impressive architectural presence on Hillside Avenue; the large auditorium block is visible from Bessemer Street, and on its interior, the theater’s lobby, lounge and auditorium spaces remain largely intact.

The Richmond

116-23 Jamaica Avenue

Jamaica Avenue is considered the oldest continually used road on Long Island, originally opened in 1703 as the King’s Highway and later privatized under the Jamaica & Brooklyn Plank Road Company. In the early 20th century, around the same time as the blocks north were filling with stately houses, the avenue began its transformation into an important local commercial corridor (eventually given a huge boost with the arrival of the elevated train in 1917). One of the largest and most ornate commercial structures in the neighborhood, the Richmond was also the first poured-concrete structure on Jamaica Avenue. Its solid Renaissance-inspired design includes a modillioned cornice broken by two arched parapets, one of which is inscribed with the building’s name and date of construction.

Charles Paulson/Jacob L. Van Wicklen Store

117-19 Jamaica Avenue
c. 1868

1868 was an exciting year for Richmond Hill. Man and Richmond began their suburban development that June and the South Side Railroad commenced commuter service to Brooklyn and Manhattan in July. Hoping to capitalize on this energy, Charles Paulson purchased a lot on “The Triangle” opposite the train depot in September, erecting this small commercial building that he leased to Jacob L. Van Wicklen as a grocery store and post office. In subsequent decades it went through many different owners and uses, including hotel, restaurant and saloon, as well as names, including the Wheelman’s Restaurant (a reference to the increasingly popular bicycle), Doyle’s Triangle Hotel and the Triangle Hofbrau Haus. Composer Ernest Ball wrote “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” (1912) in one of the hotel rooms, and celebrities such as Babe Ruth and Mae West are rumored to have frequented the restaurant in the 1910s-30s. The Tudor Revival style storefront extension is a 20th century addition, but the bones of Richmond Hill’s most famous commercial building are intact and visible above the ground floor.

Lefferts Farm Cottage

86-20 115th Street
c. early 19th century

This modest house is the oldest and arguably one of the most historically significant in Richmond Hill, dating from the period when the surrounding area was still occupied by working farms. It originally stood around the corner on Jamaica Avenue and was moved to its present location in the early 20th century. It was built by the Lefferts family, whose farm was one of five purchased by Albon Platt Man in 1868 for his suburban development. By the early 1870s, Man’s agent, Oliver B. Fowler, was living in the “Farm Cottage” and using it as a real estate office for the Richmond Hill Estate. In the late 19th century, it was owned by Clara Riis Fiske, daughter of Jacob Riis.

Richmond Hill, Queens

Like much of Queens, Richmond Hill remained farmland well into the 19th century. Its transformation into a prosperous residential suburb began in 1868 when businessmen Albon Platt Man and Edward Richmond selected this particular location for a new neighborhood. According to local legend, Man first became aware of the bucolic location during a drive to his country estate on Long Island, although it is more likely that Man was actually attracted not by the picturesque landscape but by the area’s lucrative potential, based primarily on the opening of the South Side Railroad that same year, offering commuter service to Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The original plan for Richmond Hill consisted of two sections. The southern section, encompassing most of present-day Richmond Hill, was laid out with a regular grid of streets (the northern section, comprising what is now Kew Gardens, wasn’t developed until later and didn’t follow Man and Richmond’s plans). Expecting a flood of buyers, Man and Richmond quickly set about getting their lots ready for sale. They paved roads and planted thousands of shade trees. By 1870, twenty houses were under construction and in 1872 Man held the first auction of building lots. Local advertisements called the neighborhood a “Suburban Chef D’Ouevre” (masterpiece) and the “most magnificent suburban enterprise on Long Island.” Though slowed by the Panic of 1873 and the subsequent economic depression, Man’s confidence in the neighborhood eventually paid off. By the 1890s, Richmond Hill was starting to fill in with large residences and the area was developing its own identity. One of its earliest residents—and most famous to this day—was Jacob Riis: journalist, photographer, social reformer and author of How the Other Half Lives. The home at 84-41 120th Street, where he lived with his family from 1888 to 1913, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1968, but because such a designation does not confer legal protection, the house was demolished in 1973.

The short-lived Village of Richmond Hill formed in 1895 (also encompassing the neighboring communities of Morris Park and Clarenceville), before being subsumed into Greater New York City in 1898. At that time, there were so many houses under construction that the press claimed, “Richmond Hill seems more like a Western boom town than a staid Eastern community.” The distinct look of Richmond Hill’s houses was guided by a series of restrictive covenants that prohibited certain uses, including the broad category of “nuisances” and the sale of alcohol, and made design recommendations, namely that all houses should occupy large lots and be set back 20 feet from the street. Most of the residences were developed speculatively, constructed not for a specific client but for the general market. Many were designed, built and sold by a small group of architect-builders who lived in the neighborhood. The most prolific, and by far the best remembered, was Henry E. Haugaard; with his brothers, he operated a lumber mill, designed numerous houses in the neighborhood and maintained a sales office on Jamaica Avenue. Advertisements from the period often called these houses “Queen Anne,” although in reality a wide variety of architectural styles were used, including Colonial Revival, Shingle and Tudor Revival.
Richmond Hill remained an exclusive railroad suburb until the mid-1910s, when the subway finally arrived in the area (the Liberty Avenue elevated opened in 1915 and the Jamaica Avenue elevated arrived in 1917). The neighborhood is now a diverse and vibrant community of native New Yorkers and immigrants alike, though its housing stock remains little changed from its turn-of-the-century building boom.