Once bustling, roof gardens long forgotten
by Michael Perlman
Aug 16, 2017 | 5004 views | 4 4 comments | 109 109 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Some Forest Hills and Rego Park buildings designed from 1920 to the 1940s offered roof gardens, which were ahead of their time as roof gardens are now making a comeback in new developments, particularly in Long Island City and Manhattan.

Roof gardens were traditionally a place for tenants to socialize, sunbath, and keep cool in the summer, as well as commune with nature. However, these once marketable resources have been sealed off or eliminated over the past few decades ago, likely due to security and insurance issues.

Roof gardens once existed at The Leslie Apartments at 159 Greenway Terrace, Holland House at 73-37 Austin Street, New Hampshire Apartments at 110-31 73rd Road, The Kelvin Apartments at 69-40 108th Street, Livingston Apartments at 68-60 108th Street, and The Lexington House at 68-10 108th Street.

In Rego Park, Marion Court at 62-98 Saunders Street and the Saunders Gardens complex both featured roof gardens.

With the opening of the IND subway line and the attention brought by the 1939 World’s Fair, architects and builders saw potential. Many pre-war and early post-war apartment houses were designed with distinctive architectural features and modern accommodations.

Buildings overlooked landscaped lawns and open fields, and maximized light and fresh air, drawing residents into a developing community. Families recognized an opportunity to live the American Dream away from the impoverished conditions of their native country or in a crowded Manhattan tenement.

“We were guided by the firm belief that the renting public has just as keen an appreciation for beauty in design, soundness of construction and intelligent layout in apartments, as has the man or woman buying a single-family residence,” said George Meyer of Cord Meyer Development in 1931. “We have backed this belief with thousands of dollars, providing features that we believe will add much to the comfort and ease of all residents.”

Today, The Contour and The Alexander in Rego Park represent new construction that offers sun terraces, which Forest Hills resident Ari Silverstein praises.

“Many landlords and co-op boards need to see the roof not as a liability, but a valuable amenity that enhances their property, adds value, and a great aesthetic and sense of community,” said Forest Hills resident Ari Silverstein.

After viewing old photos of The Leslie’s rooftop garden, he hoped to see its restoration.

“I would love to see a rooftop promenade in period costume,” he said. “There are covered areas where society bands probably played, as residents held picnics. Add parasols and seersucker suits, and it would be a swell affair.”

Forest Hills resident David Schantz said it would be ideal to see rooftop gardens restored just simply for the savings they provide in energy costs.

“We could experience the countryside in an urban setting,” he said. “It could feature plants, flowers, and small electric waterfalls. I visualize meet and greets among owners and renters and rooftop parties.”

“The roof has not been used for recreational purposes since I have been here, but has magnificent remnants of a life past,” said Robert Paquette, a 22-year resident of The Leslie. “There were platforms likely used as sitting areas for views and sunning, and open towers with balconies facing north and south for viewing.

Given the area’s desirability, the vacancy rate is very low, which provides the owner with no incentive to maintain and restore such amenities,” he added. “It’s unfortunately a lack of pride and integrity.”

Jane Rosen and her family lived in The Kelvin Apartments from the 1950s until 1993.

“There were two wings, and on each the sixth floor had two apartments with access to their own roof gardens,” she recalled. “Our unit was a three-bedroom, and our roof garden was the roof of a two-bedroom apartment below. We had lots of flowers and trees on the periphery, a lounge chair, tables and chairs, and a barbecue grill. It was unusual, and we felt as if we were living in a house with our very own backyard.”

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Mark Bender
August 18, 2017
I lived at 63-15 Saunders St (The Douglas I believe, though there was no signage) from '81-'91. My older neighbors lamented the building's decline pointing out that there was a roof garden at one point. When I moved in there were two atriums in the intercom lobby that were empty. Eventually management covered the glass with sheetrock. What was a tufted leather wall running the length of the lobby was painted over. Heartbreaking, and I had hoped it would have gone co-op, but by '91 it didn't and I moved.
Mark Bender
August 18, 2017
Ooops...63-25 Saunders

Ira Jaffe
August 19, 2017
Hi Mark. I was your neighbor in Apt 6B from 1967 until I moved out in 1989. My mother lived there until she passed in 1997. Yes, I remember my parents talking about the amenities that dissapeared. The entry glass atriums once contained a floral arrangement and like the doorman disappeared before I was born. The lobby furniture was removed in the mid 80s as well.
August 18, 2017
Living on the top floor is ideal and sought out by many Renters and coop buyers. In the older buildings at least, people walking around the roof can be incredibly noisy and would make top floor living a lot less desirable.