The Fight To Save Tower Diner & Ohr Natan

By Michael Perlman

mperlman@queensledger.com

Last week, a demolition crew arrived in front of the historic Tower Diner Clock Tower Bank Building, and a construction fence was erected, extending around the Queens Boulevard and 99th Street small businesses.

Tower Diner has been a community anchor for generations, but its regal Colonial bank-inspired interior is being gutted first, and the demolition crew said it will be demolished possibly in two weeks, followed by the Art Deco 1939 World’s Fair-inspired Trylon Theater, later known as Ohr Natan Synagogue & Community Center.

Tower Diner Bank Building & shops surrounded with a fence

In 2010, it was a miracle how the block survived a major fire and was restored. Additionally, it survived the pandemic. Residents are calling for preservation and respect for architecture, culture, history, religious values, morals, and small businesses. On a few occasions in recent months, developers Rudy and Michael Abramov of RJ Capital Holdings/Trylon LLC stated at public hearings and a recent City Council committee meeting that they are willing to work with the community to acknowledge preservation requests and revise the 15-story condo renderings by incorporating the prominent facades, but residents are now saying that the developers are dishonest by planning to destroy historic community icons.

An engineer brought in by Rabbi Kaziev assessed the property and revealed that it can accommodate a harmonious development above, but the developers dismissed this preservation approach. The loss of this historic block would add to recent travesties including the historic Parkside Chapel.

Over 4,200 residents among preservationists signed an online petition (https://www.change.org/p/rj-capital-holdings-save-historic-trylon-theater-ohr-natan-tower-diner-small-businesses-from-demolition) and posted heartfelt comments, and others wrote letters to Councilwoman Lynn Schulman, Borough President Donovan Richards, and Community Board 6, as well as testified at hearings. Elected officials have been working with the developers, and the community is calling upon all parties to respect their wishes.

BP Richards stated in his advisory report, on January 7, “I hereby recommend disapproval of this application, unless all of the conditions are met,” and among them is “The proposed development should significantly incorporate prominent architectural features of the Trylon Theater and Tower Diner facades wherever possible.”

The majority of Bukharian congregants who worship at Ohr Natan and faced oppression in their native countries are now facing being exiled from their synagogue, an American Dream second home, shaped with much love. Congregants also feel it is a sin to demolish a synagogue, particularly against their will. Plans are underway to relocate to a $.99 cents store across the street after the developer pressured Ohr Natan for years.

“The fact that the developers are replacing our synagogue, in which many Bukharian Jews observe their religion, is very devastating to me,” Michael Yakubov said. “It was a very beautiful synagogue, which I went to learn Hebrew and listen to religious lectures. Ohr Natan brought our Jewish community closer to one another, especially on holidays. Forest Hills has definitely been evolving, but not in a good way. Our area is becoming more congested, and our community is falling apart.”

Inmaculada Gattas explained, “I felt terribly upset after seeing Tower Diner boarded up and knowing that Ohr Natan Synagogue/Trylon Theater will close, without given the respect that preservation gives to religious and historical buildings, and sites that have proven to be of great spiritual and physical importance.” She pinpointed the greater picture. “The buildings facing demolition and ones that we already lost, represent the soul and energy of the people that built them with blood, sweat, and tears. Their imminent destruction highlights the fact that nothing is sacred to these developers and the politicians who allowed it. I truly hope there’s still time to save at least some of the artwork and architectural elements.”

Residents feel that the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission is not applying the Landmarks Law equally between boroughs.

“We are losing yet another of our neighborhood’s cultural centers,” Theresa Doria said, citing the Elmwood, which is now a church, as an example of adaptive reuse, but it is still serving the community. “We’ve lost so many glorious movie and Vaudeville theaters, and trying to get any worthy site landmarked in Queens is just impossible! Both the Tower Diner and the Trylon should be landmarked based on their unique architecture.”

She also mourns the loss of the displaced mom-and-pop shops, where some did not reopen elsewhere. “We not only lose a large place to gather and worship, but we lose a place to gather and eat. We’re losing mom and pops left and right to overtaxing, and bus and bike lanes taking the parking away.”

Resident Sylvia Bloomfield, who has lived near the site for the last thirty years, feels depressed by the decision for the destruction of Tower Diner, a unique destination for her family and friends.

She said, “We knew the owner and employees by first names and enjoyed many laughs, and the clock tower is a historic site.” Furthermore, she said, “Ohr Natan is a place where the community gathered to worship our Creator. It was promised at a meeting and verified by an engineer that the building being erected can keep these historic buildings, but now our community will suffer a severe loss. Please be conscious enough to let these buildings stand and preserve the integrity of our community.”

Linda Creash recalled Emigrant Savings Bank, and how the diner cared to preserve its beautiful design. “Sadly, the developer has no regard for the preservation of historic facades, although he previously said he did. I think back to the destruction of Penn Station, a magnificent building lost to the wrecking ball, but to me and so many others, the imminent loss of the beloved Tower Diner and the Ohr Natan is immeasurable. Once again, we who live, shop, and vote here have no say. Greed and money speak louder. It’s a sad fact, and like Penn Station, regret will come too late.

“Rego Park is morphing into a glorified suburban hellscape on steroids, with the same stores you see everywhere, and like the Walking Dead, we are all becoming infected involuntarily by the blandness of it all,” said Alan Tompas. He called it “zombies to big-time commerce.”

He can never understand the lack of respect for architectural history New York has. “From the vandalism of Penn Station to the total ignorance of preserving anything that stood where old Yankee Stadium was, it just makes no sense,” he said. Being raised in Rego Park, he felt it was a genuine neighborhood with a feel of its own. “I never got the sense that a new business was only propped up for the sole purpose of making money. You knew the storeowners, loved the shops, and you played with all the kids you grew up with.”

As for Tower Diner, he said, “In its place, expensive condos with no sense of architectural aesthetics are being planned, but where are the stores, the diners, and the places people like to congregate? To add insult to injury, the old Trylon Theater won’t be saved either. It’s a holdover from the 1939 World’s Fair!”

Joshua Robert attributes this dilemma to political abuse. “I think our politicians do not care at all about what their constituents want. They deal in lies, and lies are a business. They deal in promises to those most likely to donate, rather than those most likely to vote, and if the public interest and their interest diverge, then it’s the public who loses,” he said. “We don’t need another faceless, soulless apartment building and yet another construction site. We don’t have the infrastructure to pack more people, but yet everyone seems to ignore that except for the residents left behind.”

“It feels like your religion can be sold to the highest bidder,” Loreena Lano, who is also concerned with an influx of people to an already overcrowded area, said. “There’s not enough schools, hospitals, infrastructure, and services. Even if they built above it and preserved the structures, it’s overdevelopment and all because money rules and all else suffers.”

Brooklyn projects honored with Lucys

Building 127 at the Navy Yard, 560 Second Street, and Endale Arch in Prospect Park were among the Brooklyn projects recognized at the 2021 Lucy G. Moses Preservation Awards virtual ceremony.
The Lucy G. Moses Preservation Awards are the New York Landmarks Conservancy highest honors for excellence in preservation.
“It’s wonderful to see this year’s winners of the Lucys, knowing that this great work was conducted during these most challenging times,” said conservancy president Peg Breen. “The projects demonstrate that preservation has provided jobs and helped the city throughout these difficult months.”

560 Second Street
Restoration of 560 Second Street represents the commitment of a longtime owner to her Park Slope neighborhood.
In 1967, she and her young family purchased the house. They had been priced out of Brooklyn Heights when they attended a Brownstone Advice Bureau open house.
They heard about the house from a local contractor, architect and representative of the Fifth Avenue Savings Bank, one of the few willing to finance purchases in this community.
The house was constructed in 1891 in the Romanesque Revival style, with orange Roman brick and robust brownstone decoration, but the façade had been painted white to resemble limestone, hiding intricate details.
It was divided into seven apartments. Over the next five decades, the couple raised their family, reclaimed some of the apartments, and became part of an enthusiastic if untrained movement of Brownstoners.
They retained and restored stained-glass windows, folding shutters, beautiful fireplaces and decorative plaster ceilings.
In 2018, the owner finally began to tackle the facade. LPE Engineering oversaw the project. The initial scope of work called for repairs and a new white acrylic coating. After work began, contractors discovered that the paint could be removed without damaging the masonry.
As the layers of coating were taken off, the façade’s rich color and decorative elements emerged. The scope changed to remove the coating entirely and restore the masonry.
The project also included a new roof, repointing and rebuilding the rear wall and foundation, new copper gutters and cornice at the rear, a new roof hatch and two new skylights.

Building 127
Building 127 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard joins other buildings at the historic complex that have been adapted for light industrial use, restoring the historic architecture and sustaining the complex’s industrial heritage.
The three-story industrial neoclassical-style brick structure was built in 1903 as a small boat construction and repair facility. By the time the most recent tenant left in 2017, Building 127 was in disrepair and much of its historic character lost.
The rehabilitation was spearheaded by the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, the not-for-profit that develops and manages the properties on behalf of the City. S9 Architecture and Engineering was the project architect, while Higgins Quasebarth & Partners served as preservation consultants.
At the exterior, brick, granite and ornamental steel lintels were repaired and restored. Concrete block infill was removed from window and door openings and they were restored to their historic sizes.
Historic wood windows were repaired and restored, and new wood doors and multi-light wood windows matching the historic were installed. New decorative multi-light roundel windows matching the historic were installed at the pediments. A fire stair was removed, revealing the historic rhythm of the north facade.
Partitions, enclosures, and mezzanines that obscured the interior were removed. The historic exposed structural systems were retained to reinstate an expansive, light-filled historic configuration.
Original interior elements, such as gantry cranes and associated rails, and riveted columns, girders, and trusses, were kept in place.

Endale Arch
Endale Arch in Prospect Park has undergone an enchanting renovation and proved to be a highlight of 2020, sparking joy and thousands of social media posts.
The Arch, completed in 1868, was the first permanent structure in Olmsted, Vaux & Co.’s Prospect Park. Within the passage, city sounds are muffled and ahead lies a framed view of pastoral Long Meadow.
It exemplifies Olmsted’s philosophy of blending architecture with landscape, in form, material, and purposeful views.
The project’s first phase was landscape restoration. Stone retaining walls were reset to secure the hillsides, and new plantings stabilized the slopes.
Next, drainage was overhauled to prevent flooding. The path through the arch was regraded and repaved using hex-block pavers.
Work inside the arch began with historic research and physical investigation. Prior to restoration, original woodwork had vanished under layers of dirt and thick green paint.
Cleaning revealed a pattern of alternating Eastern white pine and black walnut, not seen for decades. New wood paneling and trim, matching the historic planks, now lines the vault.
Original wood at the south cross vault was cleaned and sanded, revealing intricate details of the trefoil. The design team opted to leave the granite block wall of the north cross vault exposed to highlight the original craftsmanship.
At the entrances, the colors of the yellow Berea sandstone and New Jersey brownstone were brought out by low-pressure power washing and gentle sanding. Finally, LED lighting was integrated into the wood trim along the length of the arch ceiling.

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