On November 7, 2014, the New York City Council passed legislation to reduce the speed limit on city streets to 25 miles per hour. Generally, drivers are adhering to the new law, but on a quarter-mile stretch of Jewel Avenue between Van Wyck Expressway and Grand Central Parkway, the road widens as it travels through parkland and drivers push the pedal as they travel atop the isthmus separating Willow Lake from Meadow Lake.
The Photo of the Week below comes from the New York Public Library collection, a series of aerial surveys taken between 1937 and 1939 that recorded the construction of the city’s largest freshwater lake.
The shaping of Willow and Meadow lakes was a massive public works project that transformed more than a thousand acres of freshwater marshland into two lakes and creating a new transportation route across central Queens. The mansion at the bottom of the photo no longer stands but for four summers, it was the executive center of the city.
Looking at the Fairchild Aerial Survey of 1924, Jewel Avenue was developed for only a couple of blocks in Forest Hills and I highlighted its eventual path across Flushing Meadows. At the time, the park’s two lakes did not exist and the property was still an undeveloped freshwater wetland. On the eastern side of Flushing Creek, Mount Hebron and Maple Grove cemeteries lie on the northeast corner of the survey, and on the southeast, the Arrowbrook and Queens Valley golf clubs occupied what would become the Kew Gardens Hills neighborhood.
When it was announced in 1934 that Flushing Meadows would host the 1939-1940 World’s Fair, development of the bucolic eastern side quickly followed. In December 1935, Arrowbrook Golf & Country Club’s 92-acre property was put up for sale. It was purchased in January 1937 for $750,000.
Summer City Hall
In the four years between the club’s purchase and its development, it briefly served as the political center of the city, thanks to mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia. In his effort to truly represent the entire city, he ordered his staff to spend summers in the outer boroughs, setting up the Summer City Hall. In 1936, it was the Bartow-Pell Mansion in the Bronx. In 1937, the mayor held court at the Chisholm Mansion in College Point. For the summers of 1938 to 1941, Arrowbrook served as the mayor’s office.
At the time, the location was so distant from the actual center of government that the Brooklyn Daily Eagle compared it to Tibet and Patagonia. Perhaps the comparison also refers to its hilltop location from which LaGuardia observed the construction of the lakes and the 1939 World’s Fair. Not only did his staff have to find rides to a location where the buses and subways did not yet reach, but so did Rear Admiral Wilson Brown and his wife.
Perhaps the busiest day at for the “summer” mayor was May 3, 1939, when the World’s Fair opened. On that day alone, the building hosted Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Ingrid of Denmark. The cost of traveling to the “summer palace” was on the taxpayer, while the lease of the facility was generously paid for by Queens watchmaker Andre Bulova.
Above the Lake-in-progress
Now let’s imagine ourselves in that Fairchild Aerial Surveys plane flying above the lake under construction. Photographer Rudy Arnold is snapping away as we observe the transformation of Flushing Meadows.
Looking north at Flushing Meadows, we see Jewel Avenue highlighted at the bottom of our photo and the Arrowbrook clubhouse. Jewel Avenue significantly made the commute easier for the mayor and his staffers. The thinner highlighted line is World’s Fair Boulevard, the temporary name bestowed on what would become the Long Island Expressway. To the north of the boulevard is the ash dump described so famously in the Great Gatsby.
My Parents’ Home
When asked about my motivations behind the book, I already mentioned my childhood in Latvia as one, but here in New York my parents’ home on 62nd Drive and 110th Street in Forest Hills also has a connection to a hidden waterway.
Prior to the World’s Fair, Horse Brook flowed across the property on its way to meeting Flushing Creek. With the construction of World’s Fair Boulevard and Grand Central Parkway (they meet at the cloverleaf interchange above), fill was dumped into Horse Brook, gradually erasing it from the landscape. The triangle marks my family’s property.
In the third photo above, the road to the left of the triangle is Colonial Avenue, an ancient path that connected the settlement of Newtown to Coe’s Mill on Horse Brook. The historic mill, which deserves a blog post of its own, was unceremoniously demolished to make way for World’s Fair Boulevard. To the right of the triangle, the Grand Central Parkway service road dutifully follows the parkway. The shoulder strip between the service road and the parkway was later developed as World’s Fair Playground.
Flying to the center of Flushing Meadows, the foundation of the Trylon and Perisphere, and the present-day location of the Unisphere was undergoing preparation. In the background, a rerouted Flushing Creek is seen flowing straight to the north.
In the scene below, the eastern bank of Meadow Lake is a very swampy terrain. Today, it is the site of the Meadow Lake Boathouse and Van Wyck Expressway runs along the edge of Mount Hebron Cemetery.
A subway to Kew Gardens Hills
Imagine taking a subway from Meadow Lake to Manhattan. For two glorious summers, it was possible.
During the 1939-1940 World’s Fair, the fairgrounds were served by a dedicated subway line that departed from 71st-Continental Avenue, descending to a lower set of tracks, running through Jamaica Yard and along a right-of-way that later became Van Wyck Expressway. The trains ran beneath the Jewel Avenue bridge than today crosses over the highway and Flushing Creek. Imagine if the subway line was not torn up following the fair. Residents of Kew Gardens Hills could have had their own one-seat ride to Manhattan. The two-mile spur was gone by December 1941.
What could have been
Meadow Lake has seen plenty of unusual proposals over the decades, such as a proposed Grand Prix racetrack in the 1980s. At the turn of the millennium, proponents of bringing the 2012 Summer Olympic Games to New York City sought to redesign the two lakes to accommodate long-distance boat racing.
Had the plan succeeded, the isthmus and its softball fields would have been erased in favor of a 2,000-meter lake and a sweeping arch bridge for Jewel Avenue. As a local resident living less than a block from Meadow Lake, I opposed the plan to alter the landscape. Thankfully, it did not succeed.
Returning to Arrowbrook
The isthmus that was developed along with Meadow and Willow lakes had trees planted on it, baseball fields laid out, and in 1961 the Jewel Avenue bridge above Flushing Creek was reconstructed to accommodate the Van Wyck Expressway.
Looking east, Jewel Avenue rises towards Kew Gardens Hills. The site of the Arrowbrook clubhouse is today’s Regent’s Park Gardens, a housing cooperative designed by William Sambur. On the left is its twin, Hyde Park Gardens.
Looking north from the Jewel Avenue bridge is a section of Flushing Creek that connects the lakes, with Meadow Lake in the background.
Looking south from the on-ramp onto the southbound Van Wyck Expressway, we see Willow Lake. A nature preserve in contrast to its larger twin that is ringed by softball fields, playgrounds, and plied by boaters.
Looking west at the isthmus, Jewel Avenue dips to the level of the lakes and then rises again as it approaches the Forest Hills neighborhood. Every morning I commute from my home to the subway aboard the Q64 bus, which travels along Jewel Avenue. How many riders on the bus know that they are traveling past a site that briefly served as our city’s administrative center?