May 1, 2013, will mark 101 years since the Forest Hills Inn opened its doors and greeted guests and passersby at the gate of Forest Hills Gardens. In our country’s earliest planned garden community, the Forest Hills Inn towers, with its Tudor and Arts & Crafts charm over Station Square, is analogous to how the Empire State Building towers triumphantly over Manhattan.
Both symbols echo the first of their kind in regard to their lofty height and architecture, and cast countless social associations for generations. In May 2012, residents and visitors attended a 100th anniversary ceremony in the Forest Hills Inn’s elegantly appointed lobby, which featured historic presentations by the Inn board’s Historic Committee. Nearly a year later, a controversy is brewing.
The Forest Hills Inn’s One Station Square co-op board is at odds with Reiner & Kaiser Associates, the commercial landlord of the Forest Hills Inn and its accompanying Tudor buildings along Station Square.
The board learned that the company has plans to erect a concrete wall in the Forest Hills Inn’s historic lobby between the three centrally-located pillars for the intent of commercial conversion. The proposal would likely downsize the residential lobby by 75 percent
The plans may include the removal of historic woodwork from the wall separating the Inn's lobby and the neighboring Jade Eatery and Lounge at 1 Station Square. Plans are also rumored to involve the demolition of other English wood-paneled walls, wooden doors, a fireplace, ceilings, chandeliers, and sconces.
“This is defacing history,” said one board member. “Once you knock down a historic wall or details, you cannot put it back.”
At a board meeting, members were told that building manager AnnMarie Ferrelli was taken by surprise on March 20 when she saw a construction crew taking measurements for the installation of a concrete wall, blueprints in hand. First she asked who sent them and was told it was a sponsor. Then they presented a printed email with requests from Ray Kaiser of Reiner & Kaiser.
The board is set to fight the proposal.
“We already contacted the Department of Buildings to call attention to this matter,” said a representative of the One Station Square board. “As far as we can tell, it would be illegal to convert a portion of our lobby into a commercial space. It’s not zoned for anything other than residential use.”
“We learned that Kaiser plans to rent out the Forest Hills Inn’s basement and lobby for a split-level nightclub, so we made an offer for the lobby space to block a nightclub,” said Raymond Taylor, manager of Jade Eatery and Lounge. “Our offer has not been accepted, yet.”
When asked what Jade’s plans would be for the lobby, Taylor responded, “We have not put any energy into plans, since our main focus now is making an investment to stop what would attract the wrong element to the Forest Hills Inn and Station Square.”
“In Jade, we restored many original elements from the Inn’s earlier restaurants, such as the original wooden bar,” said Taylor. “We have done a lot to maintain class, and we’re also working towards the restoration of the abandoned Tea Garden, which our restaurant overlooks.”
The properties within Forest Hills Gardens are subject to “restrictive covenants,” which are upheld by the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation, to maintain the aesthetic beauty of period architecture and landscapes. One Station Square, Inc. emphasized prior frustrations with Reiner & Kaiser Associates for not being a team player and, in their opinion, allowing commercial facades along Station Square to decay. The co-op board is continuing to fund façade restoration work through shareholder assessments.
Residents have also had problems with tenants in the past. Bartinis Lounge once occupied the basement, and it became notorious for the fatal beating of a patron in November 2010. Board members recalled wild functions that would last until 4 a.m., compromising Station Square’s quality of life. In spring 2012, the former nightclub’s entryway was padlocked.
“If the co-op can take over the basement and make it into something to benefit the Inn, then we won’t have to worry about Kaiser opening another nightclub,” said one board member.
As of press time, Reiner & Kaiser Associates has not responded to a request for comments.
The Forest Hills Inn was once the center of a classy social life in Forest Hills. When tennis championships and music festivals took place at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, notable figures stayed at the Forest Hills Inn. The Tea Garden featured afternoon teas, string music, plays, and dancing under the stars. The Windsor Room hosted dancing on weekends and dinner music evenings. Much preceded the Inn’s residential conversion in 1967.
“The Forest Hills Inn will always be our jewel in an architectural crown,” said a board member.