What Happened to the Grecian Taste in Greek Astoria???…Bilquis Mansion, Greek Revival Edifice, 25-37 and 25-39 14th Street, Astoria, Queens, New York
In the 19th century the Grecian taste of Astoria, and the larger realm of Queens, that we know today, was a very different forte… In November 1850, Andrew Jackson Downing, the Father of American Horticulture and probably the first Arbiter of Taste, published several horticultural updates in his Horticulturist: Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste. In this particular issue, he featured a snippet about the Daphne Odora—a hardy shrub, which was growing near “Hurl Gate” in the garden of a one Robert Benner, Esq. Conditions of the plant were reported on my Benner’s gardener “D.D. Astoria, October 18, 1850.” Can you imagine a gentleman engaged in horticultural pursuits in a garden of Astoria today?
Studying first at Yale, later teaching at a Female Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland, Robert Benner (1819-1880s?) moved to New York City to study the law in July 1843. Admitted to the bar in 1845, Benner immediately began formal practice. And, finally, took at wife on October 16, 1848, marrying Miss Mary Van Antwerp Shaw. At this time he relocated to Long Island, where he acquired a fine Greek Revival mansion in what was then called either Hallet’s Cove or, more commonly by this time, Astoria. References to Queens were far fewer than simply referring to the greater area as Long Island. Yet even with this change of venue, he was almost always listed in employment at 75 Nassau Street in the environs of lower Manhattan.
Later known as Bilquis Mansion, the Brenner house saw five children—two of which, a boy and girl, died early and the other three, Charles, Franklin and Mary. These children were raised in the Greek Revival mansion in Astoria. At this point, Astoria was a small village with numerous large estates, home to wealthy Manhattan and Long Island professionals. The inelegant house shown the photographs below depict what is extant of the Greek Revival mansion formerly of the Benner family. Certainly, Benner’s association with the house represented a far more astute period, as the place has since been divided into smaller separate apartments and has also suffered a loss of its grounds to urban development.
Mansions like that of the Benners were not uncommon in the environs of what is now the Astoria we know today. This predates the great piano period of the small Long Island village when the Steinways opened their factory. Yet there were even more mansions by that time, accompanied by an engulfing number of middle class dwellings of a much more modest scale. Interestingly enough there is, of course, no relationship with the Greek Revival influence on the early architecture of Astoria. In fact, as we have previously noted, the Greek population, prevalent today in Queens, did not enter the area until after WWII on a whole. And, even more interestingly, their Grecian roots had not the same effect on the area as was the case in Astoria before the Civil War. To be very blunt, the Grecian taste had largely declined and the architectural beauty and interest of Astoria was obliterated by the new Greek, among others after the advent of inferior, yet more enduring building materials were developed as a result of industrial “progress”.
As for Bilquis, or the Robert Benner Mansion, the building has been desecrated by time and progress of the area. The beauty of the place has been overhauled by an extensive coat of metal siding, which includes the obscuring of wood columns; replacement of an important central, second floor aperture with Argus glass blocks; reconfiguration of the wood porch to a concrete version; obscuring of the frieze windows with vertical synthetic siding, and the addition of “colonial” light fixtures not in keeping with the architectural character of the original house. Among these changes to the integral features of the house, the building has lost all of its original grounds to development and what was left of this in the form of a front yard has been filled in to form a “commercial” style parking lot. Apparently it was simply easier to preserve the classical extant classical enfacements that surround each aperture of the façade. The enframement of the entrance is all that is left of what would have entailed a single or double door entry set in full transom light. Probably most amazing is that with all of the change, no one fucked with the elongated windows along the first floor of the façade. The wood panels beneath these windows would have opened providing access to the porch. All of the apertures aside from the front door have decorative crowns and enframement that give an almost Egyptian feeling…Yet most of this is lost in the disgusting mess of the place. Again, the architecture gem is swallowed by the contemporary materials and the lack of interest in the architectural merit of the edifice.
The Benners, even the Steinways, and certainly the Ancient Greeks would not in any way, form or fashion be at all amused….