Astoria group gets ownership of doorway to the past

Robert Clark (l.−r.), an FDR Presidential Library archivist; David Blackwell, a descendant of the Blackwells, who lived in a historic Astoria house; and Greater Astoria Historical Society President Richard Melnick stand in front of a 233−year−old door the society acquired. Photo by Christina Santucci
By Jeremy Walsh

Those who call the Greater Astoria Historical Society the doorway to western Queens history got one more literal justification Monday night as the society officially took ownership of a 233−year−old door with ties to the Revolutionary War.

“We are absolutely ecstatic to have something like this,” said Bob Singleton, former president of the historical society, who helped track down the door from the Old Blackwell House. “It’s a real privilege to be this community’s collective memory.”

The house was built sometime around 1700 and the door was installed in 1765, said Richard Melnick, the historical society president. The home stood at the foot of what is now 37th Avenue, just west of Vernon Boulevard, now the site of the former Con Edison power plant known as Big Allis.

Inscribed on the door’s panels is the mark of a British officer who confiscated the property after Col. Jacob Blackwell, a trainer of local militiamen, was forced to flee when the British invaded Long Island in August 1776.

The house was torn down in 1901 after being deserted and falling into disrepair. The door was salvaged, however, and was installed at a mansion in Jamaica before being acquired by a private owner in Flushing.

The door was donated to the Brooklyn Museum in 1951 by Flushing resident John Tisdale, said Liz Reynolds, chief registrar for the Brooklyn Museum. While the museum has several rooms paneled and decorated entirely in period−correct style, the door was never used and kept in storage.

Melnick and Singleton located the door a year and a half ago with the help of Reynolds, a Sunnyside Gardens resident and historical society member.

“When you find the right place to transfer property like that, it’s really terrific,” she said.

Melnick said he was nervous when they went to retrieve the 200−pound pine door.

“The door was bigger than the van,” he said. “It was signed over to me. I thought, ‘Now that it’s in my possession, I’m going to turn it into dust.’ ”

The door’s knocker has led a more illustrious life. It was separated from the door and given to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. “The president so enjoyed the knocker that he insisted it be on display in the library,” said Robert Clark, an archivist for Roosevelt’s Presidential Library in Hyde Park, N.Y. who brought the knocker to the ceremony.

David Blackwell, a descendant of the original owners of the house, praised the society for its efforts.

“I really appreciate the fact that you folks have done so much with Astoria history,” he said.

David Blackwell also believes the home was once used by legendary author James Fennimore Cooper, who included a chase between a pirate ship and a Royal Navy vessel along Roosevelt Island in his story “The Water Witch.”

“Certainly he looked out that doorway and saw a mass of ships going up that island,” Blackwell said.

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e−mail at jwalsh@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 154.

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