Last September, city officials announced that a former pool hall at the corner of 48th Street and Barnett Avenue will be replaced with a school. The School Construction Authority (SCA) planned to tear down the original building to build a new structure.
But members of the Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Alliance want the city to preserve the building, restore its original facade, and build the middle school on top instead.
“Destruction should be out of the question because it’s not the way we’re going to be able to sustain the earth moving forward,” said Herbert Reynolds, the advocacy group’s president. “Preserve the facade, bring it back to the way it used to look, and then build within.”
The preservation organization braved the cold last Saturday to discuss the building’s history. According to Reynolds, it was built in 1927 originally as the community’s garage. Reynolds said it was cheap in the 1920s, but by the 30s, many people lost their homes and their money.
The building then became a cosmetics factory and later a typewriter ribbon factory, which survived well into the 1980s. A fire in the 1940s burned down the building’s original tower.
In the last decade, the building was used as a pool hall with a gym on the second floor. It has been abandoned for the last two years.
“Here, at last, is the perfect chance to have this building restored,” Reynolds said to dozens of community members.
The residents also spoke about Clarence Stein, an architect who planned and designed the entire neighborhood, which is now on the State and National Register of Historic Places. The garden community went on to inspire other similar neighborhoods across the country, Reynolds said.
“Clarence Stein was a heroic figure who put together the whole corporation that bought the land here and built this neighborhood,” Reynolds said. “He worked with a group of planners, architects and landscape architects to create Sunnyside Gardens as a model community where people could, for the first time in history, buy a home of their own.”
Reynolds said Stein never put his name on buildings because he was a “modest man.” But the former garage won a Queens Chamber of Commerce award that garnered attention, so that’s how preservationists associate it with Stein today.
“It warms our heart to know that is one building that we can definitely say was designed by the most heroic architect of the 20th century for us,” Reynolds said.
Resident Liz Reynolds said the building could serve as a school “beautifully,” but suggested renovating the structure to keep “a piece of history.” She said officials can build an addition on top of the building and set it back.
“I would hope it would be set back from the facades going higher, so on the street level you’d still appreciate the building as it was built,” she said.
Reynolds said reusing the building would be cheaper, greener and faster for the project. She added that demolition would be unsafe and unpleasant for the homeowners who live right next to the building.
“What you see now is an eyesore,” she said. “Because I love the neighborhood and know the history of the neighborhood, I see what it could be, [which] is a beautiful, historic building and possibly, with a larger space going vertically inside those walls, a school. Right now it looks sad.
“In today’s world, I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t see the wisdom of saving an important building by an important architect,” Reynolds added. “It’s a win-win situation.”
Assemblyman Brian Barnwell said he supports building a school and restoring the facade. He also wants the school to be facing away from the nearby homes.
“Architects are saying it could be done,” Barnwell said. “I know that the School Construction Authority is going back and forth, and I look forward to them doing the right thing.”
The newly elected assemblyman said he wants the SCA to alert the community and elected officials should they decide demolition is the best route for the building.
“It’s so important to give notice to the community and let them speak their piece,” Barnwell said.
Last November, Community Board 2 voted in favor of the project but with stipulations. The board asked the SCA to incorporate the historic building into its design, as well as consider proposals that include historic preservation.
In a statement, Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer said he looks forward to working with the SCA and the community to develop a plan that “ultimately makes sense for the neighborhood and our students.”
“I have asked the SCA to look into the possibility of preserving the current building,” Van Bramer said, “and I look forward to hearing the results as they go through the design process.”