In 1907, Ernestus Gulick and Felix Imsman purchased 500 acres of wooded land north of the village of Jamaica bounded by Union Turnpike on the north, 188th Street on the east, Hillside Avenue on the south and Utopia Parkway- Homelawn Street on the west and established an affluent planned community that became known as Jamaica Estates. A century later, Carl Ballenas, a history and science teacher at one of the neighborhood’s more substantial institutions, Immaculate Conception School, and the students who make up the school’s Aquinas Society compiled a history of their neighborhood. Jamaica Estates has been released by Arcadia Publishing in time for a book signing March 14 at the King Manor Museum. A trip to the historic homestead to meet the students and teacher who put together such a work would be time well spent.
Jamaica Estates features an introduction by City Councilmember James Gennaro, who provided the funding for the book, that furnishes an encapsulated version of the community’s history and notes that the area, especially given the caliber of the young people who took part in the project and who call it home, is assured of a bright future. We would agree.
In five chapters, The Mother Village: Jamaica; The Daughter Village: Jamaica Estates; The Passionist Parish: Immaculate Conception; People, Places and Events: Making Jamaica Estates Unique, and The Guardians: Civic Responsibility, Ballenas and the members of the Immaculate Conception School Aquinas Honor Society, all of whom are named in the Acknowledgments, take the reader through the history of the village of Jamaica and the “spinoff” development that became Jamaica Estates. As has been the case with many Arcadia Publishing works, the narrative is carried through the captions accompanying each photograph, all of which are sufficiently thorough as to make such introductions unnecessary.
The Mother Village: Jamaica holds a wealth of vintage graphics and photographs giving the history of Jamaica from the time the first European settlers arrived in 1644 to the early 20th century. Brief biographical sketches of a number of individuals who played significant roles in the development of the community are provided and provide some insights as to why certain features of the present day landscape bear the names they do. The Daughter Village: Jamaica Estates, details how Jamaica Estates was formed from Jamaica, beginning with descriptions of the landscape formed when the glacier that covered much of the present-day northern United States retreated some 10,000 years ago. The topography, “on the high ridge equal in altitude to Washington Heights in New York City”, according to a 1912 New York Times article, was an attraction for Gulick and Isman, who envisioned a version of upstate Tuxedo Park, a quasigated community for wealthy blue-blood individuals. A pseudo-Elizabethan gate lodge was built at the Hillside Avenue entrance to the community in the fashion of the lodge at Tuxedo Park; the lodge was razed a number of years ago, but the gate house remains and holds a memorial to men of Jamaica Estates who died in World War II. A number of noted architects, including Michael Degnon, designer and builder of several sections of the New York City subway system, built homes in Jamaica Estates. Degnon sold his 16-acre property and the mansion that stood on it to the Passionist Fathers for a monastery and retreat house in 1924, a move that led to the founding of Immaculate Conception Parish.
The Passionist Parish: Immaculate Conception begins with the sale of Degnon’s property to the Passionists and the growth of Immaculate Conception Parish. As has been the case with many such parishes in New York and across the country, the monastery and retreat house grew into a complex that included a church, school and appurtenant buildings. Immaculate Conception Church worship services at one time were held in the monastery basement; the Romanesque Revival church was dedicated in 1962. Classes were first held in Immaculate Conception School in September 1938; Nuns belonging to the Order of the Sisters of St. Joseph traveled from Flushing to the school to teach the first classes. A new convent was built in 1954. The retreat house was added to in 1952. The complex, bordered by Wexford Terrace, Dalny Road, Midland Parkway and Edgerton Road, today includes a convent, a monastery, retreat house, the expanded Immaculate Conception school and grounds including a grotto and private cemetery.
Among the People, Places and Events: Making Jamaica Estates Unique in the fourth chapter so titled, are the founders of another Jamaica Estates religious and educational institution, the Mary Louis Academy. St. John’s University also played a part in the history of the community; it bought the golf course, which became part of the campus. The Hillcrest Jewish Center, Anshei Shalom, the only Afghan-Jewish synagogue in America, and St, Nicholas Orthodox Church, of the Albanian Archdiocese, are also part of the Jamaica Estates landscape, as are Utopia Lanes, a bowling alley, and the Utopia movie theater.
Lawyer, politician and railroad man Chauncey Depew, evangelist J. Wilbur Chapman, Michael J.“King Kullen” Cullen, founder of America’s first supermarket, songwriters James “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” Kendris and Richard Gerard Husch, who wrote the lyrics to “Sweet Adeline” under the pseudonym Richard H. Gerard, and real estate developer Donald Trump are among those who have called Jamaica Estates home.
The Aquinas Honor Society of Immaculate Conception School takes an active role in preserving and maintaining the community’s history, and a photo of the students leads the final chapter, The Guardians: Civic Responsibility. Also noted are City Councilmember James Gennaro, then Assemblymember Mark Weprin, state Senator Frank Padavan and Congressmember Gary Ackerman. Also noted are the officers and members of Community Board 8. When the Jamaica Estates Corporation went bankrupt in 1929, concerned residents formed the Jamaica Estates Property Owners’ Association to ensure that the restrictive covenants governing building in the community would remain in effect. Today named the Jamaica Estates Association, its members serve as the overseers of the rules and regulations that keep the community of Jamaica Estates much as its founders envisioned it a century ago.
The caption of the last photograph in the book acknowledges the businesses and organizations, public and private schools and religious institutions that have played a part in the formation and continued growth of the Jamaica Estates community. “Last but not least are the citizens who call Jamaica Estates home, who have created a vital, diverse and harmonious community,” reads the penultimate sentence of the caption of the last photograph in the book, acknowledging that the heart of the community is the people who reside in it.
Jamaica Estates is a remarkable effort on the part of Ballenas and his students in depicting the history and development of the community they call home and a worthy addition to Arcadia Publications’ “Images of America” series. Anyone who peruses works of local history or who seeks knowledge of local communities will find this book a welcome addition to a collection of works on local history.