Modern legal decision at heart of Douglaston house tour

Modern legal decision at heart of Douglaston house tour
Photo by Christina Santucci
By Joe Anuta

The most significant moment in history discussed Saturday on a guided tour of early 20th-century homes in Douglaston Manor was June 24, 1997 — about half a century after the last residences were built on the verdant northeast Queens peninsula.

On that day, the city officially declared most of Douglaston Manor a historic district, differentiating it from other turn-of-the century Queens suburban communities.

Kevin Wolfe, from The Douglaston and Little Neck Historical Society, walked at a clip, leading about 50 people along a Pac-Man-like route through the enclave’s tree-lined streets.

Along the way, he stopped to describe the architecture of certain houses, like the baroque touches on a Queen Ann home, popular in the late 19th century, the Greek columns supporting the long porch of a colonial revival and the wooden accents of Tudor revivals, which took the country by storm in the 1920s.

“The history of this place and its architecture are my passions,” he said.

Wolfe, along with the society, fought to keep the architecture regulated.

Manhattan and Brooklyn, with their dense housing stock, have about 30 and 50 historic districts, respectively. But Queens was a harder sell, according to Wolfe, and has 10 historic districts, the second-fewest of the five boroughs.

In the late 1980s, Douglaston Manor residents began arguing their case before the city Landmarks Preservation Committee, a body in charge of conferring historical status.

“At the time, no one in the preservation world was interested in designating single-family homes,” he said.

A decade later, the historical society finally won them over. Regulations ensured that new development conformed with the historical aesthetics of the landmarked buildings. Meanwhile, in other century-old neighborhoods, urban development continued unfettered.

“If we didn’t have designation 15 years ago, this neighborhood would look like Malba,” Wolfe said, referring to an area near College Point that is home to expensive waterfront property and historic homes of its own, but is also known for its “McMansions,” a derogatory term for palatial houses built as cheaply as possible to the limit of zoning regulations, often in a Mediterranean style replete with turrets and open-air balconies.

“It’s not about taste. It’s about greed,” he said.

Wolfe prefers to see architecture as a physical reminder of history.

“It’s what makes life rich. It’s a connection to your past that continues to change and grow,” Wolfe contended. “Historic districts are not places that are frozen in amber.”

The homes can be modernized in an organic way that allows them to age into the 21st century.

“You can do that in a graceful way or you can do it like a barbarian,” he said.

One of the arguments against historical preservation is that homeowners should have the right to make “barbaric” additions to their houses, meaning historic districts stymie the freedom of the homeowner. Historic renovations can also be costly, since they must adhere to certain aesthetic specifications.

But Wolfe not only believes it is worth it, but also hopes other neighborhoods in Queens can follow Douglaston Manor’s lead.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4566.