In recent years there has been plenty of talk about the proliferation of self-storage warehouses across the city, large boxy structures that provide few jobs, take up land and skyline, but in their defense, pay their taxes, provide a service to the public, and use otherwise neglected industrial properties. In Queens, no self-storage facility is as iconic as the downtown Flushing U-Haul with its clocktower that faces Flushing Creek.
Where it Flows
To get a good understanding of this section of Flushing Creek, I modified a DoITT NYCity Map to show the most visible structures along this reach. Historically underdeveloped in contrast to much of downtown Flushing, the 2011 completion of the retail and residential Sky View Parc complex signaled the arrival of high-rise developments on the right bank of the creek. to its north there are still a few unused and active industrial properties, the iconic U-Haul depot, and cement factories.
As it Was
The oldest depiction of the downtown section is this 1765 painting by Royal Artillery Lt. Capt. Thomas Davies, titled “A View Near Flushing on Long Island in the Province of New York North America.” It is kept at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.
The scene is looking north from the site of the present-day U-Haul depot. In the foreground is Town Dock (also called Flushing Landing), where today King Road meets College Point Boulevard, a block south of Flushing Bridge. Flushing Creek is making its sharp turn west before widening into Flushing Bay. The hills in the background are in the Bronx. The salt marsh on the left bank is today’s Willets Point district. Note the bale of hay harvested from this salt marsh. The walking trail in the foreground is today’s College Point Boulevard. In the 19th and early-20th centuries it was called Lawrence Street, in honor of the family that owned land along the this section of the creek.
I don’t often provide unpaid praise for large corporations but when it comes to local history, TD Bank deserves it. In every one of its New York City branches, there is an indoor mural of a historical site (existing or demolished) in that immediate neighborhood. The branch closest to my home has a colorized mural of a 1910 photo showing the Willow Bank mansion. The photo was taken by its resident Townsend Lawrence, a direct descendant of William Lawrence who received a patent for this property by Governor Willem Kieft in 1645. He named his estate Willow Bank after the numerous willow trees that he found on site.
William Lawrence (1623-1680) was born in St. Alban’s, Hertfordshire, England. A Puritan, he emigrated to the Plymouth Colony with his family in 1635. The harsh rule of the Puritan authorities inspired dissidents to leave and create new settlements in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Netherlands. Local examples include Lady Deborah Moody and Anne Hutchinson. Lawrence made the move in 1645 at age 22, with his brother John. Their reasons for leaving Plymouth were lost to history.
No pictures of William Lawrence survived but a 1680 inventory of his properties did, in the collection of the nearby Bowne House. An original patentee of Flushing, he owned land as far north as College Point, serving as the town’s magistrate under the Dutch and English authorities. Although a Quaker, he owned two slaves. It took time for this faith’s followers to fully disavow the “peculiar institution.” Following independence, Quakers became the leading voice for abolition. Lauren Brincat of the New-York Historical Society tells his life’s story in detail, including the economic activities that took place at Willow Bank.
In 1835, the original Lawrence home burned down. William’s great-grandson John W. Lawrence (1800-1888) commissioned the building of a new Willow Bank mansion. Like his ancestor, he played a major role in the affairs of Flushing, service as its Village President, Assemblyman and Congressman. In the private sector, he was a banker, which included 15 years as president of Queens County Savings Bank. Living in proximity to the famed Prince Nursery, Lawrence had an interest in horticulture. His mansion had a greenhouse next to it and it was filled with exotic plants from warmer climates.
John’s grandson Townsend Lawrence was born in 1871 and raised at Willow Bank. In his generation, Flushing Creek was no longer the province of colonial estates, as lumber and coal yards took up the waterfront. Nevertheless when he took photos of the property in 1910, the palm trees that his grandfather loved were still kept in good condition by staff gardeners. Another personal feature was the family crest on a window atop the grand staircase.
As the downtown Flushing shoreline became less desirable for residences, Townsend spent more of his time in Manhattan and had the property sold to a developer in 1924. In December 1926, it was unceremoniously demolished. Wood from the mansion that could not be sold was burned in a New Year’s Eve bonfire. In its place a factory would arise. The Lawrence name survives at Lawrence street and Lawrence Playground a mile to the south of this site.
Above is a rare photo of two historic structures briefly coexisting: the vacant Willow Bank and the newly completed W & J Sloane Furniture Company. It comes from Jason Antos’ book Flushing Then & Now. From 1942, it hosted the Serval Zipper factory before its present tenant, U-Haul took over in 1979.
Looking at at an 1875 postcard of Flushing Creek, we are looking east towards the George B. Roe lumber and coal yard. On the hill behind it are the trees of the old Prince Nursery. In the foreground is a rowing club dock, and on the far right is Flushing Bridge. A steamboat is carrying travelers from Manhattan. Roe’s business partner was Charles A. Willets, whose ancestors are the namesakes of nearby Willets Point.
The site of George B. Roe’s dock remains industrial to this day, with barges serving Best Concrete Mix Corp. On the far left in the background above is the Whitestone Expressway Bridge, the last bridge on Flushing Creek.
A Plan: Flushing Town Center
Between the demise of Willow Bank and the 1980s, this section of Flushing Creek received little attention from the city. Pollution seeped in and properties along the waterfront prevented the public from reaching the water’s edge.
In 1987, Queens Borough President Claire Shulman’s office proposed a master plan to redevelop downtown Flushing, which was already becoming unmanageable in terms of traffic flow. College Point Boulevard would have been transformed into a true boulevard with a green median, and land between this boulevard and Flushing Creek was given a neat street layout. the U-Haul clocktower was to be preserved (colored orange on map above), facing a decorative basin in Flushing Creek and a new town square-style park. Unfortunately this plan was shelved until I found it in the archives of the Queens Library’s central branch in Jamaica. Instead, the landscape remained as it was: industrial and underdeveloped along the waterfront and too dense along Main Street. See map below.
Another Plan: Flushing West
Sites with potential are a favorite among architecture and urban planning students, who are happy to provide colorful renderings of what could be here. What was envisioned as Flushing Town Center was rebranded after the turn of the millennium as Flushing West.
One would think that nearly three decades after the Flushing Town Center Plan was shelved, this new plan would have imaginative features such as a pedestrian bridge to the rezoned Willets Point across Flushing Creek, or an architecturally unique public space.
Nope, the folks at the Department of City Planning had another Battery Park City in mind here when they rolled out the Flushing West Plan in October 2015. Basically an extension of the street grid towards the river, but these would be private streets. Oh, some of the apartments in the glass box towers would be affordable and the water’s edge would be accessible to the public. Flushing City Councilman Peter Koo was not sold on the plan, fearing it would overburden public infrastructure, streets, and transportation. The plan was dead though developers have their renderings of boxy condo towers in place when the rezoning does happens.
For now the iconic U-Haul clocktower stands alone on the skyline. In 2014, the moving truck giant paid to have the clock restored in an expression of philanthropic power for a beloved timepiece on the Queens skyline.
Postscript on Willow Bank
As mentioned at the top of this photo essay, my local TD Bank branch has a mural of Willow Bank. It is perhaps an unintended irony that this TD Bank is across the street from a Queens County Savings Bank branch. Recall that the mansion’s owner was once the president of that bank. Although there is space in the U-Haul parking lot to build a replica of this historic mansion, I don’t expect it to happen. The least that could be done is a portrait or mural of the mansion on its former property.
Had Townsend Lawrence not sold it in 1924, would it have survived to the present day? Perhaps, when you have the Steinway Mansion, Onderdonk House, and Wyckoff House in mind. All three of these historic onetime-countryside homes are enveloped by industry and protected by landmark laws. The outdoor spaces of the latter two are designated as parkland.
The parking lot of U-Haul abuts the water’s edge can space on the property could be dedicated for a waterfront promenade, similar to what was done at the Astoria Costco. The redevelopment of the downtown Flushing waterfront is not a matter of if but when, and perhaps at that point the public can again walk along the water’s edge of Flushing Creek.
Among the waterways profiled in my book and companion blog, none have been given as much detail as Flushing Creek as it is the closest hidden waterway to my home. From mouth to source, here are my other articles on Flushing Creek:
- Northern Boulevard Bridge
- Roosevelt Avenue Bridge
- Tidal Gate Bridge
- Fountain of the Planets
- The World’s Capitol in Flushing
- Court of the States
- Strong’s Causeway
- Meadow Lake
- Jewel Avenue Bridge
- Source of Flushing Creek
- Source of Flushing Creek (historical photo)