In Bayside, Queens, the American Martyrs Roman-Catholic church sits proudly on a street corner, standing in high relief compared to the single-family homes nearby. It’s circular and covered in yellow bricks, with a folded-plate copper roof that’s aged into a mossy shade of green. Parishioners enter the church by first walking up a grand staircase then passing through monumental doors decorated with ruby-red hexagons.
It’s a fine building designed by John O’Malley, one of the most prolific ecclesiastical architects in Brooklyn and Queens. You won’t find the church in most history books about modern architecture, but it is included in Queens Modern, a digital archive composed of adaptations of the movement in New York City’s largest borough, which was updated at the end of December to include deeper dives into over a dozen firms active during the mid-20th-century.
When someone says “modern architecture,” what comes to mind? It might be a Miesian glass box, a picturesque midcentury dream home, or a world heritage site. But while those ambitious icons come to represent stylistic movements, it’s the regular banks, churches, schools, and apartment buildings that impact daily lives. Sadly, their origins are usually under-documented—if they’re recorded at all. Queens Modern demystifies many of these buildings, and is part of a broader reorientation of architectural history and criticism that looks beyond the elite buildings and celebrates the quotidian.
Frampton Tolbert—the site’s founder, an historian, and deputy director of the Center for Urban Pedagogy—didn’t study Modernism’s greats and obsess over their bodies of work. More fascinating to him is how local architects took the grand principles permeating through architecture schools and pop culture, made them their own, and applied them to projects in regular neighborhoods that are overlooked and under-explored in scholarship.
“In my work, I look at neighborhoods and I was seeing all of these buildings from midcentury and post-war era and wondering, ‘Why are they there? Why is this modern bank or school or government building here?” he says.
For years, Tolbert highlighted many of these “midcentury mundane” buildings on a blog of the same name. Through his research, he realized that there was an especially large disparity in how Modernism in New York City was discussed. While Manhattan is well-documented and world-renowned for its modern architecture, Queens had more midcentury buildings but was “largely unheralded.”
“There’s just such a vast archive outside of Manhattan no one is looking at,” Tolbert says. “Going to neighborhoods gives you a better understanding of midcentury architecture in the context of how people live.”
Beginning with projects that received nods in the Queens Chamber of Commerce Building Awards program, Tolbert began meticulously cataloguing structures and collecting histories from surviving architects, people who commissioned the buildings, and those who use them today. Since many of the architects and offices are long gone, Tolbert often relied on family members of the practitioners who sometimes saved blueprints and documentation related to the projects, much of which had never been catalogued or recorded elsewhere.
This includes the work of Coffey, Levine & Blumberg, a landscape architecture firm active from 1957 to 1970 and, notably, founded and managed by a woman, Clara Stimson Coffey. The firm worked extensively with the New York City Parks & Recreation department and was one of the first to use modern design principles in their work, which included 30 parks, 24 playgrounds, and 10 public housing campuses.
“They were designing parks on a budget but using innovative equipment and interesting shapes,” says Tolbert, who discovered most of Coffey’s work through papers her son squirreled away. “I’ve really been excited about these unsung architects whose stories haven’t been told, and they’re stores about Jewish architects, women, and people who were not at the ‘top’ of the field for whatever reason.”
Another architect who hasn’t received much attention, but significantly impacted Queens, is Jerome Perlstein. He had a longstanding relationship with a developer in Long Island City and designed many one-story warehouses, like the tile mosaic-covered Walter Lippmann Building.
Midcenutry design like John O’Malley’s churches, Coffey’s parks, and Perlstein’s warehouses have been hiding in plain sight. With closer inspection, you’ll also come across the work of Philip Birnbaum who, with developer Alfred Kaskel, designed and built over 800 apartments in Queens and filled Rego Park and Forest Hills with red-brick multi-family buildings. There’s also the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, in Whitestone, which looks like a spaceship taking off, and Prairie-style funeral homes in Rego Park by A.F. Meisner.
“These buildings are everywhere tucked away—a church here a synagogue there—they’re hidden among older structures,” Tolbert says. “A lot of times you realize you’ve been looking at them all of the time.”
While many of these buildings are extant, that might not be the case for long.
Today, the rapid clip of New York City redevelopment threatens many Queens’s modernist buildings. As the city looks for ways to build taller and more densely, these modest one- and two-story structures by unknown architects are perceived as disposable and aren’t candidates for preservation. Tolbert hopes that by sharing the stories of the buildings and the people who designed them, he’s creating a record before they’re lost forever—and potentially rallying more people to give a damn about them. Queens Modern and Queens Modern: Architects are more about appreciating history than making a strong case for preservation.
“There’s so much more out there and I hope more people ask, ‘Why aren’t we looking at this more modest vernacular and local modernism and how it shapes our neighborhoods?’” he says. “I don’t want to be the only person. I hope other people take up this mantle.”