When I was a little kid, seeing two abandoned buildings like these would have set my imagination racing. I would have killed to go inside and explore their secrets.
What would I find on the other side of boarded up doorways, broken windows, and crumbling brick walls? What sort of decaying furniture and forgotten relics would be waiting inside?
Who lived here? Who died here? Who still remains?
Some of you native New Yorker readers have probably identified the above as buildings located in Fort Totten park in Queens. Fort Totten is an old army base that dates back to 1850’s, located on a peninsula near Bayside. Its original purpose was to protect the East River approach to New York Harbor. It’s certainly no secret, but its distance from Manhattan, along with limited public transportation, make it something that might come as a suprise to many New Yorkers.
The park grounds were opened to the public in 2005, and you can now go and explore the 49.5 acre property, which features beautiful historic buildings, great expanses of open grass, and fantastic views of Long Island Sound and the Throg’s Neck Bridge. In the summer, you can even go on tours of the old stone battery (a mandatory field trip for every single elementary school student in all five boroughs of New York City).
Over the past few weeks, I have had the rare opportunity to visit a number of abandoned buildings that are normally off-limits to the public, including some beautiful old science laboratories and hospitals, and I think my love for abandoned property has been completely beaten away. I don’t see hidden secrets and mysteries when I visit these places. I see them for what they really are: once beautiful, vibrant buildings that have been left forgotten to die a slow, painful death. I’m beginning to find it hard to stomach.
Take, for example, the old Willet Farmhouse (which I assume dates back to before the fort was built).
That’s right – there’s a fucking farmhouse in Queens. A big sign on the other side of this house reads “Please Excuse My Appearance! I Am A Candidate For Historical Preservation.” A candidate? How is there even a question?? When this is gone – when ANY of these buildings are gone – they are gone forever. They’re not coming back. You can always build another fifty-story glass-curtain high-rise, or a box-shaped three-story condo. But when the Willet Farmhouse finally collapses, that’s it. It’s a ghost.
Don’t get me wrong – I realize the financial realities that plague historical preservation (as the owner of an abandoned hospital outside of the city recently put it, “We can fix it up for $30 Million, or bulldoze it for $1 Million”). But there is an inherent timeless aspect of these properties that is priceless, which is why I was so uplifted when I saw Fort Totten’s former Officer’s Club, which was restored by the Bayside Historical Society:
You simply can’t argue with it. This is what every building in the park should look like. Or check out the Parks Department headquarters:
There is so much beauty to this building, from the columns and second floor balcony to the sunroom on the right and fantastic design in the glass above the doorway:
This is the Bachelor Officer’s quarters, which has also been restored:
Can you imagine sitting on that porch on a warm summer evening?
There are some people in this world who get it, and the Parks Department control of these properties essentially guarantees that they are all safe from the bulldozer, a big Step 1 in keeping them around. I find this to be incredibly relieving after my recent trips to abandoned sites that will all probably suffer a mysterious fire at some future date.
Step 2, restoration, unfortunately requires money, and right now, it’s not a good time to be using the city funds for old, decrepit buildings. You can see the current projects on their capital page here. Among others, $65,000 has been allotted for Structural Investigation of the Willet Farmhouse, which is really good news (especially as other Queens farmhouses get covered in stucco siding by fucking idiots).
Anyway, I had a fantastic time walking around Fort Totten, and I really recommend it for a Saturday afternoon activity, especially for you photographers who love abandoned, decaying properties (don’t worry, I don’t hold it against you!). While the summer is probably better, there’s something wonderful about it on a snowy winter day.
More information can be found on the Parks Department website here, but you can take either the Q13 or Q16 bus to the end of the line (Fort Totten Stop – might want to study the Queens bus map for a better idea). I know it gets tiring to hear, but there’s a really good change that some of this won’t be there when you go to visit.
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