Hidden In Plain Sight By Amy Bentley

History Hidden in Plain Sight

195 Rockaway Avenue

May 1, 2018

Amy Bentley

       It would be unjust to chronicle the history of 195 Rockaway Avenue, or the village for that matter, without first highlighting the impact that the railroad played in its development. Prior to 1867, the nucleus of Valley Stream was in two locations: first, the corner of Hendrickson Avenue and Henry Street, where Robert Pagan opened his general store and post office; second, the newly-planked Merrick Road and Central Avenue. A third location, however, would soon come into play. Between 1867 and 1870, three rail routes were established: Jamaica to Babylon, Valley Stream to Far Rockaway, and Valley Stream to Hempstead. These routes, in turn, started a slow but steady migration south. The railroad was the catalyst that created the Village of Valley Stream.

       In the fall of 1868, Electus Backus Litchfield (1813-1889), a wealthy railroad magnate, purchased an 80-acre farm in Valley Stream. Litchfield’s family owned land in Brooklyn, including what is now Prospect Park (“Litchfield Villa,” his brother Edwin’s 1853 estate, still stands in the park). In 1870, Litchfield filed a map with the County of Queens entitled “Plan of Property at Valley Stream, owned by E.B. Litchfield, by Olmstead & Fosgate, 50 Wall Street, N.Y.” Litchfield hired the renowned architect William Belden Olmstead (1808-1880) who laid out the streets and designed the “French-roof cottages” in the newborn village. Olmstead (who also spelled his name Olmsted), was a cousin of Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), the landscape architect of Central and Prospect parks. In 1871, Litchfield sold his land, and although his tenure in Valley Stream was brief, his connection to the village has endured – his name still appears on property deeds and maps.

       In 1910, George Schramm moved to Valley Stream where he opened a bakery in a two-and-a-half story wood-frame house with a gracious wrap-around porch that stood on the northeast corner of Rockaway and East Jamaica avenues. The bakery was in a prime location, as the Long Island Traction Company trolley ran from Jamaica to Freeport along Jamaica Avenue (hence the avenue’s name). The railroad too, was only two blocks south of the bake shop.

       The Bank of Valley Stream was founded in 1925, and in 1926, the bank purchased the land that E. B. Litchfield once owned – the same land that was also home to Schramm’s Bakery (which was torn down as a result of the sale). Joseph J. Gunther (1887-1951), a local architect, designed a two-and-a-half story, 35 foot wide by 100 foot deep, twentieth century Neoclassical building. The decorative exterior finish on the façades facing Rockaway and East Jamaica avenues is composition stone, finely cast with black and white aggregate. Four shallow pilasters with Tuscan capitals separate each vertical row of windows on the building’s main entry façade. A traditional crosshead pediment with dentil molding and scroll brackets made of plaster grace the entrance, the same molding also trims the roofline. A cornerstone engraved with the year 1926, and two decorative vent grills, one made of bronze the other of notched composition stone, add distinction to the building. In addition to having two full floors, the building also includes two mezzanines, one in front, the other towards the back of the building. Each mezzanine once had a balcony that overlooked the first floor, as it was customary in those days for bank management to literally oversee their business. Craftex, heavily-textured high-end plasterwork, covered the walls, many of which had marble wainscoting. The floors were oak, pine, terrazzo, and linoleum.

       The new bank building opened for business in 1927. Most local banks at that time were controlled by local businessmen – many of whom had no previous banking experience. The timing of the bank’s opening was unfortunate; the Depression was a mere two years away. During the early months of 1933, the Bank of Valley Stream closed its doors due to insolvency and never reopened. The Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank, who held the bank’s mortgage, took back the building.

       In 1925, the Village of Valley Stream was incorporated and opened its first office at 26 West Merrick Road. From there the village’s respective departments split up and moved to various locations. In 1930, all the village departments moved to the second floor of the Valley Stream Theater at 69 Rockaway Avenue. In December 1936, the village leased 195 Rockaway Avenue from The Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank, and in 1940, the village bought the building. During World War II, an air raid siren was secured to the roof of the building as the location was central enough to reach many worried ears if necessary. In 1955, Frederick P. Wiedersum built a new Village Hall on the Village Green.

       Temple Judea, a reform synagogue, was founded by Saul and Celia (Cyl) Levy, residents of Mill Brook. Initially, the congregants met informally in each other’s homes, but in 1958, the members leased 195 Rockaway Avenue. Located on the first floor was the sanctuary; the rabbi’s study and a classroom were on the mezzanine; three classrooms, a library, and a social hall were on the second floor. In 1963, the congregation purchased the building. A dwindling membership caused the shul to shutter in 1972.

       In 1937, Jules Rabin and his family moved to Valley Stream; twenty years later Rabin Associates, a full-service advertising agency, opened. In 1973, Rabin purchased 195 Rockaway Avenue and moved his business to the second floor. Home Federal Savings and Loan Association (HFSLA) leased the first floor and rear mezzanine. Temple Judea’s sanctuary reverted back into a bank lobby, the original vault was re-commissioned, and teller stations were once again put in place. In 1998, North Fork Bank acquired HFSLA, and in 2006, Capital One Bank acquired North Fork Bank. Rabin sold the building in the mid-aughts. A resident of Valley Stream for 81 years, Rabin and his wife Sylvia reside in Mill Brook.

       In 2012, the Village of Valley Stream purchased, for the second time, 195 Rockaway Avenue via eminent domain. All law enforcement departments moved back “home.” In 2014, Kate Sherwood, an architect with Gensler, a global architecture, design, and planning firm, was selected to design the first floor and back mezzanine. Kate’s wealth of historic building experience helped create an interior that authentically replicates a courtroom from the 1920s. The grandness of the space revealed itself once the suspended ceiling was taken down – the first floor is a column-free double-height room with classical ceiling-exposed plaster beam, and original dentil cornice work. New cornice was added, creating a seamless restoration. Panels that covered the tops of the stately double-height windows on the south side of the building were removed, allowing more natural light to stream into the courtroom. Custom millwork, light fixtures, furniture, fabrics, flooring, and paint were carefully chosen to reflect the era of the building. The benches and the wainscoting that surround the room are made of richly-stained mahogany. Two conference rooms are also located on the first floor, the judge’s chambers and another conference room are on the back mezzanine, and all law enforcement departments are housed on the second floor.

       The opportunity to purchase 195 Rockaway Avenue was a rare, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But buildings, even beautiful ones, are vessels. Their intrinsic beauty comes not from brick and mortar but from the people that fill them – with life, art, culture, and humanity. The same could also be said of villages.