LIMESTONE SHELL EVOKES FAR ROCKAWAY'S GATSBY ERA
BY CHRISTOPHER GRAY
The NY Times
August 4, 1996
Take a trip to the dreamy new Bayswater Point Park, a cool, leafy peninsula at the foot of Mott Avenue in Far Rockaway, Queens. The sun shimmers over the irregular prongs of Jamaica Bay, and distant jumbo jets taxi at Kennedy Airport far across the water, like elephants on the veldt, a mesmerizing sight.
Meandering over this silent 14-acre reserve, an explorer is brought up short by the limestone shell of a conservatory. This little fragment is all that is left of ''Breezy Point,'' the giant Heinsheimer mansion, built in 1907 when Far Rockaway wouldn't even sniff at the Hamptons.
The area around Far Rockaway was a fashionable resort in the mid-19th century, especially after the Civil War, when railroads opened the area to rich commuters from New York City. Big mansions went up in the 1880's, including several designed by McKim, Mead & White. It is not certain whether any of theirs remain, but a detour to nearby Point Breeze Place will reveal homes that display the educated taste and comfortable budgets of these early settlers.
By the 1890's Louis Bossert, the Brooklyn lumber magnate, had a Victorian-style house at the foot of Mott Avenue, which leads away from the village center of Far Rockaway to the bay.
Far Rockaway reached its apogee as an elite resort between 1900 and 1910, according to Vincent Seyfried, an expert on the history of Queens and Long Island. Working-class invasions of newly popular resorts like nearby Coney Island alarmed some of the gentry. In 1907 Bossert moved farther out, to Islip, and sold his estate to Louis A. Heinsheimer.
Heinsheimer was a partner at the banking house of Kuhn, Loeb & Company, where he worked for his uncle, Solomon Loeb, alongside the prominent financiers Jacob Schiff, Felix Warburg and Otto Kahn. Heinsheimer, who was living with his mother in a Manhattan rowhouse at 17 West 70th Street, demolished the Bossert house to build what may have been the biggest mansion to go up in Far Rockaway. Designed by Rodolphe Daus, a Mexican-born architect who trained in Berlin and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Breezy Point was a mix of Tudor and other English styles, 175 feet long -- ''like a palace,'' said The Brooklyn Eagle in 1908.
Original Heinsheimer Mansion
Heinsheimer, who was single, died in January 1910 and left Breezy Point to his brother, Alfred. The census for that year, taken in April, records Alfred in residence along with his mother, Nathalie, and 13 servants. Most of these were German-born, but the chauffeur, George Bucquet, was French, and the gardener, Ernest Stubbs, was English.
In 1925 Alfred Heinsheimer gave the house to the Hospital for Joint Diseases, along with a $500,000 endowment for maintenance, to be used as a home for disabled children.
By then Far Rockaway had lost most of its pretensions of grandeur. Smaller houses were springing up on the remaining open land, and beach crowds began to take over what had been a serene enclave. Alfred died in 1929 at a different summer house he had rented -- on Davenport Neck, in New Rochelle.
In later years Breezy Point was occupied by the Maimonides Institute as a home for retarded children, but in the 1980's the property came on the market. In 1986, the Trust for Public Land, a private, nonprofit organization acting on behalf of the New York State Office of Parks and Recreation, bought Breezy Point for $1.5 million.
The New York City Audubon Society viewed Breezy Point as a key element in its ''Buffer the Bay'' project, aimed at protecting 700 acres of natural wetlands on Jamaica Bay. In 1988 the state took title to Bayswater Point Park, and since that time the Audubon Society has served as property manager. It is about to conclude a three-year study of vegetation and wildlife to help it fine-tune the ecological system.
The park is about a mile from the last stop on the A-train. To get there bring a bike, or drive and park in the quiet neighborhood of manicured lawns. Once through the gates at the end of Mott Avenue, and beyond a slightly spooky defile through marsh grass, the vista is no less magnificent than the one that inspired Louis Heinsheimer, and just as dramatic as any million-dollar view in the Hamptons. So where is his house?
The Trust for Public Land demolished it in 1987.
That's not the way it's supposed to happen. For any public project, New York State requires certain measures before demolition of any building of possible historical significance.
The property has to be researched and recorded, and alternatives to demolition have to be explored. This often leads to the preservation of the property, and, in the worst case, a permanent record of what was demolished.
But by all accounts this was simply not done -- an article by J. D. Reed in Time Magazine in 1987 described a private salvage company stripping out ''carved moldings, gargoyles and anything else of architectural interest that can be pried loose and sold.''
Albert Appleton, a trustee of the New York City Audubon Society and from 1991 to 1993 the New York City Commissioner of Environmental Protection, said that reusing the house, which had been damaged by fire, ''was just not within our budget'' and that the money earned from the salvage sales lowered the cost of the demolition.
Mr. Appleton said he decided to save the conservatory, which survives with a ragged edge where it was attached to the house.
The inside, which is lined with Guastavino tiles, would have made a neat little shelter, but later vandalism has knocked out the windows, and now it is only a lonely fragment with a stupendous view.
Comment: When I (the graphic designer of this page) was a child in the 40s in Far Rockaway there was a parade on Memorial Day which began at the little playground next to the firehouse and we would march all the way up Mott Avenue to the very end of Bayswater to the "The Joint Disease Hospital." My mother was a Red Cross worker during WWII and I remember marching with her in her white uniform with me waving my little American flag. A couple of years later I marched with my Brownie troop, then the Girl Scouts.
The setting was magnificent and a fabulous picnic was always laid out for the "weary" marchers. I discovered how dry ice reacted with water for the first time at one picnic!
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