2016-03-09 / Front Page

Historical Society Pushes For Preservation Of LIC Elks Lodge

By Thomas Cogan
At a meeting on the last day of February at the Greater Astoria Historical Society, 35-20 Broadway, on the fourth floor of the Quinn Funeral Home, an audience of about two dozen attended a crisis call under the rubric, Save the Elks Building!

On 44th Drive in Long Island City, between 23rd and 21st Streets, in the direction of the East River, are three vacant lots behind two plywood fences and a chain link fence.  Combined, the lots run two-thirds the length of the block. At one end of the lots, near 23rd Street, is an old, three-story building that until recently was the home of Local 137 of the Sheet Metal Workers Union, before it moved to Fifth Street in Hunters Point, near Newtown Creek.  The building, its front built largely of glazed bricks of orange and yellow, might not strike everyone as truly distinguishable from several other old low-rise buildings in the vicinity, but something setting it apart is a panel above the door and the windows on the first floor that contains ornate terra cotta decorations running across the width of the building and to either side of the centerpiece, an elk’s head and antlers.

The panel was an alteration to the building, rendered by the distinguished New York architect, Harold Van Buren Magonigle, in 1914, when it had already housed Elks Lodge Number 878 for a few years.  The long building, which goes nearly to the back yard fences of the residences on 45th Street, had a lot of room for the use and enjoyment of the mercantile and financial men who typically populated an Elks lodge, but within a few years a new home was built on Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst and they all departed.  Much later, that new home would become a New York City Landmark building, but the former lodge on 44th Drive would not.  Now that it stands empty, its lack of a landmark designation leaves it subject to the whim of its owner, which at present is a limited legal corporation (LLC) that seems inclined to tear it down. 

As the vacant lots demonstrate, much has already been torn down, though what is to be built there has not up to now been proposed to the public.  At the abandoned Elks lodge/union hall, the situation is suspenseful.  Mandana Limbert, who lives on 45th Street, where she is able to get a good look at the old building, told the meeting that she had seen activities dwindle to the vanishing point inside it and started checking online city documents to see if a demolition permit had been issued to the LLC.  She found that indeed one had been issued and now worries that the building might be razed before she and the other preservationists can raise a protest.  One man said he’d heard the building might be replaced by an eight-story homeless shelter for men.  Another said Local 137 got $8 million from the sale of the building.

Rumors such as these don’t address the cause that brought about the meeting:  how to save the Elks Lodge.  Debbie Van Cura, an architecture teacher at La Guardia Community College, said there’s peril even in trying, since the realization that preservationists are organizing can drive the holder of an endangered building to tear it down quickly.  Also, applying to the Landmarks Commission to consider the case of the lodge will likely just get it put on a docket, where it might stay until demolition obviates the case.  And yet, what can they do but try? 

It was generally agreed that City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer’s support is necessary, since he is majority leader in the council and head of the cultural affairs, libraries and international intergroup relations committee.  Some meeting attendees, including Richard Mazda, who runs the Secret Theatre in Hunters Point, were less than warm about Van Bramer, saying he ducked the issue of 5 Pointz, the graffiti-covered building at Jackson Avenue and Davis Street in Hunters Point that was demolished by a developer for a residential site that is slowly being built.  Mazda said that to hold the idealistic high ground, a group of preservationists should confer with the development group to see if the latter is even willing to deal with them.  One skeptic doubted the possibility of that, saying developers tend to disdain meetings with concerned local folks, mainly because they’re able to.  Bob Singleton of GAHS didn’t like Mazda’s implication that the meeting be private, saying that community issues should always be in the open.     

Van Cura wanted Van Bramer consulted immediately and somebody suggested State Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan too, since she has opened an office on 21st Street.  Van Cura and others said they should make it an issue on social media, something that Singleton supported.  He observed that the lodge is close to transportation, mainly from the 21st Street/Van Alst stop on the G subway line and the 45th Road/Court Square stop on the elevated No. 7 line.  That would allow access to the building, which has capacity to be a community center and several other things.  At the same time, Mazda said any publicity copy, whether online or in print (such as postcards, which he said can be cheaply produced in volume) should emphasize community distress before listing facts about and possibilities for the building.

He also said that the owners of the Court Square Diner, across Jackson Avenue from where 5 Pointz used to be, are cooperative, so it would be a good drop-off and pick-up point for material that is to be mailed or otherwise distributed during the campaign they are trying to start. 

The effectiveness of bringing the 44th Drive and Hunters Point/Court Square neighborhoods together, to save the Elks Lodge by activating artists and creative people for a cause many of them hadn’t been aware of, remains to be proven.  But if those who vowed to create material beginning the night of the meeting have carried through on their promises, it has begun.  Perhaps a watchword, another of Richard Mazda’s strong suggestions, is being used:  Save the Elks, Save LIC.

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