Another great story on Jamaica’s rich history. Too bad for decades Jamaica has gone to shit, while no one did anything about it. I love the line in the article “They formed committees to aid in bringing better streets, schools and other municipal necessities to Jamaica.” Well, we certainly do not have any aid of betterment like that today, not from our community board or our useless elected leaders.
From Queens Browntowner:
Every city has a Chamber of Commerce, or at least they used to. The name doesn’t seem to be in as much use as it once was, although commercial interests certainly make their presence and power known today. The name has an almost nostalgic connotation, and for me, brings to mind a group of middle-aged business men in suits and fedoras who look like a central casting call for a Jimmy Stewart movie. That’s totally inaccurate today, where such organizations are now made up of all manner of folk, and include minorities, women, and business people of many different ages, professions and persuasions.
The Chambers of Commerce across the country can look back to the medieval European guilds as their forefathers. Then, as now, people have found it advantageous to organize as a united front in protecting the needs of their members and their larger business goals. While some may be very rich and powerful on their own, it still made sense to have a formal organization, so that business interests are protected and represented in the halls of government, whether that be under a king or Congress.
Here in the United States, the first Chamber of Commerce was organized, appropriately, in New York, in 1770, chartered by King George III. The United States Chamber of Commerce was organized in 1912 by President Taft, in part as a countermeasure to the labor movement. It is a lobbying group, a very powerful one, but is not directly affiliated with local Chambers. But about the same time the national group organized, local business groups were springing up in cities large and small, all calling themselves “Chambers of Commerce.”
New York, being a consolidated city made up of smaller municipalities and cities, with different needs and populations, has several local Chambers of Commerce. In Jamaica, that organization started out as the Jamaica Board of Trade, founded by 17 civic-minded businessmen in 1919. Their first meeting place was the Butler Building, on the corner of Parsons Boulevard and Jamaica Avenue. They formed committees to aid in bringing better streets, schools and other municipal necessities to Jamaica.
Jamaica, at that time, was growing fast, with a growing shopping and civic district along Jamaica Avenue, with important stores, banks and government buildings on its length. Jamaica had become the financial center of Long Island, with major banks, trusts and insurance companies along Jamaica Avenue. The LIRR had made the area a transportation hub, and the easy commute into Penn Station or Brooklyn made Jamaica one of the fastest growing neighborhoods in Queens. The Jamaica Board of Trade was going to make sure that continued.
But growth meant they needed a larger meeting space. In 1927, the Board of Trade changed its name to the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce. A committee was formed and it was decided to build a building that would suit their needs and would be a powerful physical representation of the Chamber and its work. To raise money for the building, members were able to buy into 5,000 shares of preferred stock, at $100 a share. Rules were established so that no member could buy a controlling interest. A plot of land on 161st Street was purchased in 1928.
The committee chose the designs of architect George W. Conable for their building. He was a Jamaica resident, and a member of the Chamber. He designed a ten story office building that had a commercial ground floor and seven stories of rentable office space. The storefronts and office rentals would give the COC more operating capital for its programs. Two stories would be reserved for the Chamber’s offices, meeting rooms and dining/banquet rooms. Ground was broken in 1928 and the building was dedicated a year later, with great fanfare and praise for its design and function.
George Conable, as a member of the COC may have had a leg up on any competition for the commission, but he was a skilled and talented architect, and worthy of the job. He had attended Cortland State Normal School (now SUNY Cortland) and went on to get a degree in architecture from Cornell University. He then came to NYC and worked in the offices of C.P.H. Gilbert, Barney & Chapman and Ernest Flagg. He had prepared the drawings for Flagg’s famous Singer Building, once the tallest building in NYC, sadly long gone.
In 1908, he struck out on his own, and designed Trinity Lutheran Church on 100th Street, in Manhattan. That commission led to a partnership with Hobart Upjohn, the son and grandson of famed architects Richard and Richard M. Upjohn, both best known for their churches. Upjohn & Conable were in partnership from 1908 to 1914, during which time they designed many churches. Back on his own after 1914, Conable specialized in churches, schools and hospitals. In the NYC area he designed St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in the Bronx, Main Hall of Wagner College in Staten Island, and the Central Queens Branch of the YMCA. That building was one of the influences for his choice of the Colonial Revival style for the Chamber of Commerce Building.
The COC Building is inspired by the symmetry and style of Georgian architecture, a part of the great Colonial Revival style that was popular from the turn of the 20th century well into the 1930s. This was “America’s architecture,” based, often rather freely, on the colonial styles of America in the 18th century. The building is in many ways, a typical late 1920s office building, with a tripartite massing, that is, Conable designed the building in three parts. The verticality is realized in the lower base, slightly projecting middle section three stories up, and the top pavilion above the seventh floor.
The materials are good old Colonial American red brick and cast stone. The white stone quoins at the sides and paired lines up the front help guide the eye upward to the setback on the top two floors, accented by the pedimented temple at the top, complete with pilasters and a large center cartouche flanked by two pairs of Georgian style ornamental urns. Downstairs, the entrance is designed as a triumphal arch. “Jamaica Chamber of Commerce” is carved into the frieze, announcing to all the strength of Jamaica’s business interests and the organization’s civic interests.
The building is really an interesting combination of Art Deco style setback office buildings and a Colonial Revival school or hospital building. It works, especially for the times. Jamaica continued to grow, especially after the construction of the Grand Central Parkway and the extension of the IND line to 168th Street. But the area was not immune from change. After World War II, the suburbanization of Queens began taking place. Suburban white flight, changing demographics and the popularity of suburban shopping malls changed the Jamaica shopping district for good.
In the 1980s, the city began investing in government projects designed to revitalize the Jamaica Avenue hub. The construction of the Archer Avenue station was the lynchpin of the effort. The Jamaica Chamber of Commerce instituted the Greater Jamaica Redevelopment Corporation and set up smaller Business Improvement Districts to spark business creation and growth. In 2010, a new Jamaica Chamber of Commerce building opened on Rockaway Boulevard, the building also housing a business incubator for eight start-up minority and women-owned businesses. This building was sold in 1999, and remains an active office building. Its address is 89-31 161st Street, between Jamaica and 89th Avenues. The building was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 and was designated a New York City landmark in 2010. GMAP
(Photograph:Jim Henderson for Wikipedia)