Let’s take a break from garbage, crooked Jamaica politicians getting arrested and people shooting and killing each other over a parking space. Let’s walk down memory lane, when Jamaica was actually a nice place to live, not the cesspool that it turned into because of low-class ghetto slobs, low-class third world immigrant slobs and crooked politicians.
From Brownstoner Queens:
Queenswalk: The Old Jamaica Savings Bank
Photos: Michael Caratzas for LPC.
Most people don’t think of Beaux-Arts architecture and Queens as having much to do with each other. This Classically inspired, highly ornamented and usually monumental style of architecture is best illustrated in NYC by great buildings such as Grand Central Station, the James Farley Post Office and the Brooklyn Museum, among others. It seems quite at odds with the more low-key, suburban, and much more mid-century or modern architecture that Queens has in abundance.
With that paucity of style in mind, you’d think that any example of Beaux-Arts architecture in the borough would be an automatic save. Especially if that building was a really fine example of the style, designed by an accomplished architect, and built for one of Queens’ most important institutions; the Jamaica Savings Bank. You’d think it would be easy, but of course, it’s not.
The building in question stands at 161-02 Jamaica Avenue, in the heart of Jamaica’s historic commercial and shopping district. As the county of Queens developed from a group of small towns rather artificially lumped together, into a more unified borough, Jamaica emerged as an important transportation and commercial hub; the gateway to greater Long Island.
The Jamaica Plank Road stretched from the Brooklyn waterfront to Queens, making transportation of produce and farm goods from Long Island to Manhattan possible, beginning in the early 1700s. Later, stage coaches, then horse drawn trolleys traveled the road, joined by the Long Island Railroad in 1834. Jamaica was the terminus for those lines. As the town grew, more roads, trains and surface transportation became available.
Since transportation to and from Jamaica was very convenient, Jamaica became a suburban retreat, home to wealthy Manhattanites and others who built large summer homes there. They were joined by those of lesser means, and more local concerns, so that by the 1870s, a good sized town with a flourishing downtown had been established. There was plenty of money to be made, and a place was needed to deposit it all, giving rise to the birth of the Jamaica Savings Bank.
The bank was established on April 20, 1866, making it the oldest banking institution in Queens. It opened in the basement of the County Clerk’s Office with fifteen customers who deposited a total of $2,675.00. The bank was started by a group of nineteen prominent local citizens, including John A. King and Aaron DeGrauw. King was the eldest son of Rufus King, one of Queens’ most distinguished and important citizens, and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. His home is a nearby national and city landmark.
John A. King was no slouch either. He trained in the law, but became a cavalry officer during the War of 1812. Following that, he became a State Assemblyman, State Senator, and a U.S. Congressman. A life-long Whig, he became one of the first to join the new Republican Party, in 1856, and went on to become the Governor of New York, in 1857. King probably would have become president of the new Jamaica Savings Bank, but he was struck with paralysis soon after the founding, and died the year after, in 1867.
The presidency of the bank went to Aaron DeGrauw, another prominent Jamaica citizen. He had been a Colonel during the Civil War, one with a distinguished record. His job as the first President of the Jamaica Savings Bank would last 33 years, ending in 1899. He was characterized as an “energetic capitalist,” a man who was also responsible for many transportation concerns, including operating several local turnpikes, as well as the East New York and Jamaica Railroad Company. He also was the president of the Village of Jamaica and was in charge of the commission that built the Jamaica Town Hall on the corner of Fulton Street (Jamaica Avenue) and Flushing Avenue, built in 1870.
The Jamaica Savings Bank began small, but soon grew with more and more depositors and customers. They moved into a small wood-framed building next door to the County Clerk’s Office, which happens to have once been right next door. The present day bank building sits on the location of their first bank. By the turn of the 20th century, it was evident that they needed to build a new building, one that was large enough for business. The buildings also needed to be impressive enough to show customers, would-be customers, and the rest of the banking and business establishment that the Jamaica Savings Bank had arrived and was a contender.
The new Beaux-Arts architecture was a perfect medium to convey that message. Banks had found it important to impress. A truly successful banking institution wanted to convey two important facts through its architecture. First, that your money was safe. In the days before the FDIC and other protections, a bank needed to show customers that their money would not be easily stolen. That is why so many older banks have huge vault doors or large safes so prominently displayed. Secondly, an impressive looking bank looked prosperous and successful. We have always been impressed by shows of wealth and power, and that is certainly true with banks.
Beaux-Arts design is based on the forms of Greek and Roman architecture, with a lot of Baroque extras. The City Beautiful Movement, which was best expressed in the recent 1893 Chicago World’s Exhibition, emphasized beautiful, gleaming, and highly ornamented architecture in limestone and marble, as the highest form of modern expression. Beauty, power, money, American success, this architecture for a powerful and rich society was what was needed to show that the Jamaica Savings Bank was a player. After all, what says “success” more than a Temple of Money?
They bank hired the firm of Hough and Duelle to design their fine new bank. Rather than squeeze a Classical temple bank building into the space, the firm designed an equally impressive bank building that resembles a prosperous private club or a fine townhouse. William C. Hough and Edgar Duelle, Jr. became partners just before getting this commission. Hough was an established architect who had been practicing since 1886.
In partnership with Halstead P. Fowler until 1897, they had been responsible for a number of impressive and large buildings in Brooklyn, including the 23rd Regiment Armory, on the corner of Bedford and Atlantic Avenues, and the Bushwick Congregational Church and Sunday School. Hough had gone on to design the Dudley Memorial Building for student nurses at Long Island College Hospital in Cobble Hill, in 1902.
Hough & Duelle’s bank was designed to quietly impress people in an old money European sort of way. Its scale is appropriate to the block and other buildings around it. They purposely complemented the building being built about the same time, next door, now the Jamaica Arts Center. The bank is made of white limestone, with a rusticated base. The entrance is almost austere, without the heavy columns and ornament usually associated with banks. Two ornamented oculus windows flank the opening, and all of the windows are protected by decorative wrought iron bars. The focus of the eye is instead drawn upwards, to the second and third stories, with more fine ironwork balconies and ornately carved ornament.
This is all pure Beaux-Arts ornamentation, in glorious French Baroque style, with garlands, baskets of fruit, acanthus leaves, pilasters, pediments, scrollwork, cartouches and tracery. Just below the exquisite third floor single balcony is a carved beehive, surrounded by more scrolls and leaves. The beehive is a classic motif for saving and thrift, the raison d’etre of a savings bank. All of this impressive work is just that, but also a non-verbal advertisement for the bank itself. “Bank here,” it says, “We have the wherewithal to keep your money safe, and make it grow.”
The bank opened with great fanfare in 1898, the same year Queens entered into the great merger that became modern New York City. The institution, as well as Jamaica, and the rest of Queens, continued to grow. By 1924, this stretch of Jamaica Avenue was called “Financial Row,” with “Bank of the Manhattan Company on the corner of Jamaica Avenue and Union Hall Street, two doors east of the Jamaica Savings Bank; the Title Guarantee & Trust Co. to the west of the Jamaica Savings Bank on the same block front; the Jamaica National Bank across the street at the corner of Herriman Avenue; and branches of the Corn Exchange Bank, the American Trust Company, and the First National Bank. In 1927 the National Title Guaranty Company erected a ten-story building adjacent to the Jamaica Savings Bank at 160-16 Jamaica Avenue (the Jamaica Savings Bank acquired that property in 1941).” (from LPC Designation Report, 2008)
Fast forwarding, in 1964, the Jamaica Savings bank moved into a new modern building across the street. In 1974, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the building a landmark, over the bank’s objections. They called it, rightly, one of the best Beaux-Arts buildings in the entire city. The local community board and the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce disagreed, and called the building “an eyesore.” The building’s new owner wanted to turn the ground floor into the same kind of retail shop now populate Jamaica Avenue, and said that the designation was causing him financial hardship. The designation was overturned.
The owner never touched the building, even though he could have, and left it empty for over ten years. He died in 1988. In 1989, an appraisal called the building unsound, with gaping holes in the roof. In 1990, the LPC tried again to landmark the building, and again, the Chamber of Commerce loudly objected, as did the Jamaica Savings Bank and the estate of the deceased owner. But surprisingly, the designation had the support of Chase Manhattan Bank, located a block away, and the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, a non-profit community organization. They felt it was a shame to have this great building rotting on Jamaica’s main street.
Meanwhile, the city deemed the building unsafe, and ordered it sealed up and stabilized. It was finally designated as a landmark in 2008. The building is now owned by the landlord of the building next door, in the also beautiful old Title Guarantee Building, who was not particularly thrilled by the designation. Hopefully, this magnificent structure can become a part of the Jamaica Arts Center, or be restored by another organization or individual who will give it the care it so rightly deserves. GMAP