April 20, 2021 By Christina Santucci
What do the homes of Louis Armstrong, William Steinway, Jackie Robinson, Malcolm X, Ella Fitzgerald and Rufus King have in common?
All are featured in the new book, Historic Houses of Queens, scheduled for publication next month.
The book – written by Rob MacKay, Director of Public Relations, Tourism & Marketing for the Queens Economic Development Corporation – showcases more than 50 farmsteads, mansions, seaside escapes and architecturally significant dwellings around the borough, as well as several historic districts in Queens.
Historic Houses of Queens describes the architecture, owners, surrounding neighborhoods and peculiarities of the residences. The book also lets readers know the fate of each home – as some are no longer still standing.
“Queens is such a fascinating place,” MacKay, a resident of Sunnyside Gardens, said. “Just the way that the borough is diverse with people right now, it’s diverse with its houses.”
Some of the homes gained their notoriety from the famous figures who once lived in them.
King – a senator, signer of the Constitution and vocal critic of slavery – resided in a large family farm in Jamaica. The property has since been turned into the King Manor Museum.
Louis Armstrong’s house in Corona has also become a museum about his life, music and legacy. And less than 1.5 miles away – in East Elmhurst – is the seafoam green-hued former residence of civil rights leader Malcolm X, which was firebombed with two Molotov cocktails in 1965.
The oldest house featured in the book – the Lent-Riker-Smith Homestead, which historians believe is the oldest home in the city still used as a private residence – dates back to the mid 1700s. MacKay toured the home with its current owner as part of his research.
“The history of the United States and of New York is told through the houses,” MacKay said.
The historic district of Addisleigh Park in St. Albans was home to many historical figures. Among them were jazz star Ella Fitzgerald, civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois and singer James Brown, otherwise known as “The Godfather of Soul” – as well as Robinson, the first African American player in Major League Baseball.
The book also features Parkway Village in Briarwood, which was constructed for United Nations staff, and the Kew Gardens home of Ralph Bunche, the first African American person to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Bunche received the award in 1950 for his work as a peace negotiator in the Middle East.
Meanwhile the Steinway Manson in Astoria – an Italianate villa where the famed piano maker once lived – boasted 27 rooms. The interior of the mansion included a library with floor-to-ceiling carved bookshelves, five Italian marble fireplaces and a two-story domed rotunda with a stained-glass skylight, MacKay said.
“It’s still standing, but it’s nothing like what it was in its former glory,” he said.
MacKay researched and obtained photos of the homes from the U.S. Library of Congress, Queens Public Library, the New York City Municipal Archives, the New-York Historical Society and other archives. Carl Ballenas from the Richmond Hill Historical Society and Bob Singleton from Greater Astoria Historical Society also helped in the quest for historic images, MacKay said.
The book features about 200 photos – in its 210 pages.
The idea for the book began at the start of the pandemic – when MacKay, who runs the Queens Tourism Council, realized that the local tourist industry was about to suffer.
“Last March, when it appeared that COVID was here to stay, I knew that tourism was going to take a hit,” he said.
So, he developed and pitched the idea for his book to Arcadia Publishing, with the goal of highlighting the borough’s history and encouraging people to explore Queens, once it was safe to do so again.
“It was a labor of love. I learned a lot,” MacKay said. “I spent a lot of Saturdays and Sundays to get it done…but I’m really happy about it.”
Historic Houses of Queens is scheduled to be published May 10, and MacKay plans to speak about the book at several historical societies and bookshops starting next month. The dates of those talks are still being finalized.
Arcadia Publishing also has several other titles detailing the borough’s history. These include books about the neighborhoods of Douglaston-Little Neck, Jamaica Estates, Broad Channel, St. Albans and Bayside – as well as ones about Queens landmarks like the Queensboro Bridge.
To purchase Historic Houses of Queens, click here