With the coronavirus pandemic shutting down public life, one can stay at home or search for outdoor spaces where there are few other people and enjoy the natural sights. One can also do research from home on hidden urban waterways by comparing historical photos, aerial surveys, and maps.
On the corner of 108th Street and the Long Island Expressway, is a previously underdeveloped superblock where Horse Brook flowed. Construction is underway on a trio of affordable apartment towers to join the three that were built here in the 1970s. Block by block, the empty spaces where Horse Brook flowed are filling up with buildings, leaving fewer traces of this phantom waterway.
Where it Flowed
A map from 1873 shows House Brook in its natural state flowing towards Flushing Creek. The roads from this map that are in use today include Queens Boulevard, running from the Palmer house diagonally towards the southeast. It is paralleled by the main line of the Long Island Railroad. On the south side of the stream is the crooked route of North Hempstead Plank Road, which can be followed today with 62nd Road, Apex Place, 62nd Drive, and Colonial Avenue. At the Lott farmhouse, the road turned north, crossed Horse Brook and merged with Corona Avenue into Strong’s Causeway, which crossed Flushing Creek.
The railroad here was the short-lived Newtown and Flushing Railroad, also known as the White Line, which was in operation only from 1873 through 1876. The line followed Horse Brook as it offered a nearly flat grade that enabled trains to travel fast between these two early Queens communities.
The 1901 G. W. Bromley atlas shows the historic heart of Newtown, renamed Elmhurst in 1897, with Horse Brook flowing through the center of the former town. The large circle that I added is the Queens Place mall and the smaller circle is the former Georgia Diner, which closed in March 2018. The cemetery next to this circle belonged to the First Presbyterian Church of Newtown. It was sold to an apartment developer in 1958 with the bodies transferred to Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn.
The diner building was demolished shortly after its last meal was served and the site is presently vacant. A rendering of the four-story medical facility on the diner’s site also shows the apartment tower behind on on what used to be the diner’s parking lot. The phantom brook’s course flowed between the medical facility and the apartment tower.
The corner of Justice Avenue and 55th Avenue shows the diner’s parking lot in 2013, an undeveloped lot atop the former stream, and in 2018 with the apartment tower under construction.
The next Horse Brook-related historic site that’s no longer with us was 90-11 56th Avenue, an old house dating to at least 1852 that was the last of its kind in the neighborhood. Above is a photo of me with my infant daughter paying our respects to the house in 2016, shortly before its demolition.
When it was built, one could see the stream from the front porch of this house and its 40-acre farm that began operating during the colonial period. In 2015 the house was purchased by a developer, suffered a mysterious fire, failed to secure landmarks designation, and was then quickly demolished. A nondescript row of brick apartments now stands on this site.
Across the city there are parks and playgrounds built atop former cemeteries whose bodies were relocated. The cemeteries were often old enough that descendants of the interred could not be located, and some graves lost their markers, resulting in the discovery of human remains long after the transformation of such sites into parks. Newtown Playground at 56th Avenue and 92nd Street also offered views of Horse Brook when it operated as the town’s cemetery for poor individuals. It ceased operating by 1980 and was acquired by the city for park purposes in 1917. A recent renovation transformed the field into a mounded lawn with additional trees, but without any memorials for the site’s past use.
Across the street from Newtown Playground is the athletic field of Newtown High School which is the largest open space on the stream’s course.
Taking a trip back to 1924, we are looking north from the intersection of Queens Boulevard and Woodhaven Boulevard towards 56th Avenue. The photo caption mentions the Col. Bloom House, which is 90-11 56th Avenue. Imagining this scene a half century earlier the White Line running past those homes overlooking the meadow. For now the athletic field does not appear in danger of development.
LeFrak City Superblock
Continuing downstream we advance to 1957 when Getty Images surveyed the site of LeFrak City, which was then a vacant plain separating Corona and Rego Park. In the middle of this plain is Horace Harding Boulevard, which would shortly be upgraded as the Long Island Expressway. The six apartment towers in the foreground are Park City Estates on 63rd Road, the former North Hempstead Plank Road. In the lower right corner are the Anita Terrace apartments.
The unpaved roads on the plain are the remnant of temporary veterans housing that stood here in the years after World War Two through 1952. Today there isn’t a single empty block left in this scene.
Rego Center Mall
Another image from the course of Horse Brook is the flat superblock on Junction Boulevard at 62nd Drive as seen in 1961, two years after the massive Alexander’s department store opened its Rego Park branch. Atop the landfill where Horse Brook flowed was the store’s parking lot. The store went out of business in 1992, the year when my family immigrated to Rego Park. Alexander’s kept its property as a real estate investment trust.
The parking lot block would be developed only around 2009, nearly a half century after every block around it was developed. First came the reopening of the former Alexander’s building with Sears as the anchor tenant. It will soon be replaced by IKEA. Then came the expansion atop the parking lot, titled Rego Center, with Century 21 and Costco taking up the lion’s share of this mall.
In 2016 a 27-story luxury apartment tower was completed atop the expanded shopping center, named The Alexander in memory of the popular department store. Imagine dwelling in a tower with a rooftop playground, a shopping mall downstairs, and a parking garage. The black office building on the right is 95-25 Queens Boulevard, site of that grand Howard Johnson’s. On the horizon, Junction Boulevard merges with Queens Boulevard, the borough’s defining road.
The palatial structure across the street from Alexander’s was the Howard Johnson’s of Rego Park. When it opened in 1940, it was dubbed “the largest roadside restaurant in the world,” with seating for 600 people, two kitchens, three floors, two wedding halls, French chef Pierre Franey, and murals by Andre Durenceau. At that time, most of the land between the restaurant and the World’s Fair site at Flushing Meadows was undeveloped on account of Horse Brook. From the windows of this restaurants one could see the Trylon and Perisphere. This iconic HoJo closed around 1974 and then unceremoniously demolished in favor of a black glass box office tower.
At Coe’s Mill
I’ve documented Coe’s Mill using multiple photos and maps in previous posts and I cannot get enough of this historic mill on Horse Brook that stood here between 1652 and 1930. In this 1928 photo looking east from Long Island Expressway, we see the swampy superblock from our title photo where apartments are now being built. The house on the hilltop is the farmhouse of Abraham Van Sicklen Lott, a descendant of Dutch colonial settlers. The building stood until around 1960 when it was replaced with nondescript 6-story apartment buildings.
The NYPL collection has a set of photos from 1930 described as the “former site of the Coe farmhouse.” Shortly afterward Horace Harding Boulevard was extended through this site. Harding died in the previous year and was an advocate for an east-west road across Long Island.
End of Horse Brook
A 1937 aerial survey for Horace Harding Boulevard shows the site of Coe’s Mill bisected by the highway, its sandy fill covering the wetland. On the right side of the highway next to Horse Brook is De La Corte Inn. Built in 1883, it was now joined by a gas station that is still there today. The inn was demolished by 1950 in favor of attached houses, which in turn were razed in favor of a private swimming pool club.
The cloverleaf interchange of Grand Central Parkway and Horace Harding Boulevard appears under construction in 1937. Horse Brook is seen flowing into the recently completed Meadow Lake. Next to the “Horace” in this photo is Strong’s Causeway running above dry land. The natural course of Flushing Creek has been filled and the stream rerouted on the left of this photo.
The final photo which appears to have water on the historic course of Horse Brook is from 1946, from the New York State Archives. The segment of water on the bottom of this photo was developed in 1957 for Public School 220 and Playground Sixty Two. The straight line running along the bottom third of this photo is 108th street, a nearly straight line that made it a major road between Forest Hills and Corona. On the right side of Horace Harding boulevard is Forest Hills. The Lott farm has been subdivided into a grid of streets and by 1950 will be developed into row houses. The diagonal grid of streets on the left side of the highway is the 1850s grid of Corona Park, once an isolated village now surrounded to its left and right by the borough-wide numbered street grid.
108th Street at Horse Brook
The construction of 108th Street in the 1920s was part of a trunk sewer project that drained the Horse Brook wetlands and channeled runoff from the surrounding streets.
In this 1928 photo from the Municipal Archives we see 108th Street and its sewer blocking Horse Brook. The scene is looking downstream towards Flushing Meadows. The old village of Corona Park is on the left and the hill in the background is Mount Hebron Cemetery, formerly Spring Hill, the estate of colonial governor Cadwallader Colden, and judge Benjamin Woodhull Strong, the causeway’s namesake.
Another scene from 1928 is at the present-day corner of 62nd Drive (North Hempstead Plank Road, aka Old Mill Road) and 108th Street, looking north at Horse Brook. In the background is Corona Park with its Dutch-named streets: Van Doren and Van Cleef.
The only structure in this photo that is identifiable today is on the hilltop on the far left, Public School 14 which stands near the site of Shady Lake that I documented earlier. The same scene today would have the valley of Horse Brook reversed topographically with the Long Island Expressway running on an embankment atop the phantom stream bed, crossing 108th Street with an overpass.
The northeast corner of 108th Street at the Long Island Expressway has FDNY Engine Company 324, a firehouse dating to 1939, when it stood alone at this corner facing the wetlands of Horse Brook.
Next to it is a DEP pumping station. As I’ve written before, many of the city’s pumping station were built next to historical streams, and this one was likely built here because of Horse Brook. This one dates to 1935 and for readers who appreciate engineering and hydrology, here’s a photo of the well at this pumping station.
More on Horse Brook:
Previously, I documented the history of Horse Brook by focusing on:
- Horse Brook on Forgotten-NY, my first detailed survey of this stream.
- Coe’s Mill. The detailed story of this demolished structure.
- Demolition of the Horse Brook House in Elmhurst.
- The gas station near the site of Coe’s Mill that’s still there today.
- Final scenes of Horse Brook flowing into Meadow Lake shortly before the 1939 World’s Fair.
Living on Horse Brook:
Why am I so obsessed with a brook that is entirely gone? There’s a personal connection here.
In 2001, my parents purchased a house that was built directly on top of the phantom creek. Not to worry, the foundation is strong and the house is in excellent condition. My family put the house on the market earlier this year but then the pandemic froze the stream (pun intended) of potential buyers. Eventually life will return to normal and a new owner will be standing atop the phantom stream in this beautiful three-bedroom house.
But until then, I’m thinking perhaps the empty walls can be decorated with maps and historical photos of Horse Brook. A pop-up museum for this very obscure waterway. I always wanted to work in a museum.