Photo: Rafael Herrin-Ferri, courtesy of Jovis
When Rafael Herrin-Ferri and his wife moved to Sunnyside from Manhattan about 12 years ago, he began to notice how eccentric the buildings were as he walked through his new neighborhood: a boxy apartment turned 45 degrees from the deli on the ground floor, Tudors styled like gingerbread houses with candies, and a two-story baby blue house crammed between two brick warehouses. The more he saw, the more curious he became, until he swapped his iPhone camera for a Fujifilm point-and-shoot camera and methodically documented the houses that caught his eye. He traveled every street in the 108 square kilometer town, mostly by bicycle and skateboard, but occasionally using Google Street View. “My friends said to me, ‘You’re on an urban reconnaissance mission,’ but I don’t think it’s that militaristic,” says Herrin-Ferri. It’s almost the opposite: a loving archive of the idiosyncratic, mundane, often completely enchanting houses of a district that doesn’t get enough appreciation from the design world.
Herrin-Ferri’s hobby, turned obsession, is now a book, All Queens Houses, which is available from the German publisher Jovis. Like a guidebook, it’s divided into neighborhoods and offers what Herrin-Ferri calls “an architectural portrait of New York’s largest and most diverse borough.”
What exactly, is Queen architecture? As Herrin-Ferri learned in his search for the most interesting houses in Queens, it is an almost impossible feat to call a “Queens language”. These homes—often single-family and duplexes—display an eclecticism that cannot be easily categorized. There is no Queens equivalent of a San Francisco Victorian, a Brooklyn Brownstone, or a Chicago Graystone. This is partly due to the fact that Queens was never a single city, as Brooklyn once was. As Joseph Heathcott, a New School professor, writes in the book’s introduction, the history of settler colonialism, immigration, and real estate development has shaped the housing stock in a unique way compared to the rest of New York.
When Queens merged with New York City in the late 1800s, it was mostly rural farms and villages. In 1900, only 150,000 people lived there, compared to more than 1 million in Kings County. Then the rise of Robert Moses’ highway system, plus the declaration by the Queens Chamber of Commerce, in 1920, that it would become “the neighborhood of houses,” laid the foundation for its present character. While some housing reformers built large-scale projects such as Sunnyside Gardens and Jackson Heights’ Garden City-inspired co-ops, the neighborhood is mostly single-family homes. The developers who bought up small tracts of land for planned communities like Rego Park, or who quickly built a few houses on a single block, have really made the community what it is. “It is precisely this characteristic of Queens – the humble home – that has been key to its rapid growth and enormous social diversity,” writes Heathcott.
Over time, the modesty of the Queens home lent itself to customization, personalization, and even large-scale rebuilding. This is what Herrin-Ferri most liked about the houses he encountered. “It’s kind of an acquired taste,” he says. “I am a professional architect and have worked with design firms all my life. These houses are the flip side of all those aesthetic rules. You see breaking the rules or vice versa, but what’s behind it is the basic instinct to animate a home that you are proud of and that fits your lifestyle. These are very honest expressions.” He walked us through some of his favorite recurring typologies from the book.