History Hiding in plain sight

'New' Valley Stream courthouse has storied history

Posted

The history of Valley Stream and its development cannot be tracked without first highlighting the part played by the railroad. Before the Civil War, what was to become Valley Stream had two hubs. The first was at the corner of Hendrickson and Central avenues, where Robert Pagan opened his general store and post office. The second was along the newly planked Merrick Road and Central Avenue.

Between 1867 and 1870, the railroad established three routes: from Jamaica to Babylon; from Valley Stream to Far Rockaway; and from Valley Stream to Hempstead. These routes started a slow but steady migration southward. The railroad was the catalyst that created the Village of Valley Stream.

In 1868, Electus Litchfield, a wealthy railroad magnate and land speculator, bought an 80-acre farm in Valley Stream. The Litchfield family already had land in Brooklyn. Edwin, Electus’ brother, owned Litchfield Villa in what would later become Prospect Park. The villa, built in 1853, still stands in the park. Electus’ goal was to capitalize on the three rail routes in developing the surrounding area. His purchases of property included Rockaway Avenue north of the train tracks. Litchfield hired the architect William Belden Olmstead, a cousin of Frederick Law Olmsted of Central and Prospect Park fame, to lay out streets and design French-roof cottages for the new community.

In 1910, George Schramm moved to Valley Stream and opened a bakery in a two-and-a-half story wood-frame house with wrap-around porch on the northeast corner of Rockaway and East Jamaica avenues. In 1926, the Bank of Valley Stream bought the property and knocked down the bakery’s wood-frame building. A local architect, Joseph Gunther, was commissioned to design a two-and-a-half story, 35- by 100-foot, 20th century neoclassical building. The exterior finish on the façades facing Rockaway and East Jamaica avenues was finely cast composition stone with black and white aggregate. Four shallow pilasters with Tuscan capitals separated each vertical row of windows on the building’s front façade. There were two mezzanines — one in front and the other towards the back — each with a balcony that overlooked the first floor (they have since been enclosed). It was customary in those days for bank managers literally to oversee their business. The bank opened in 1927. The timing, however, was unfortunate: The Depression was a mere two years away. In 1933, the bank closed its doors due to insolvency.

In 1936, the Incorporated Village of Valley Stream leased 195 Rockaway Avenue, and in 1940, the village bought the building outright. During World War II, an air raid siren was installed on the roof of the building, because the location was central enough to reach many worried ears if necessary. In 1955, Frederick P. Wiedersum built a new village hall on the village green.

In 1958, Temple Judea, founded by Saul and Celia Levy, leased 195 Rockaway Avenue. The sanctuary was located on the first floor; the rabbi’s study and a classroom were on the mezzanine; and three classrooms, a library, and a social hall were on the second floor. In 1963, the congregation purchased the building, but a dwindling membership caused the temple to shutter in 1972.

In 1973, Rabin Associates, a full-service advertising agency owned by Jules Rabin, bought 195 Rockaway Avenue and set up shop on the second floor. Home Federal Savings and Loan Association (HFSLA) leased the first floor and rear mezzanine. In 1998, North Fork Bank acquired HFSLA, and in 2006, Capital One Bank bought North Fork Bank. Rabin sold the building in the mid-aughts.

In 2012, the Incorporated Village of Valley Stream bought 195 Rockaway Avenue for the second time by exercising eminent domain. Kate Sherwood, an architect with the Gensler architecture firm, designed the first floor and back mezzanine. The grandness of the space revealed itself once the suspended ceiling was taken down — the first floor is a column-free double-height room with classical ceiling-exposed plaster beam and original dentil cornice work. Panels that covered the tops of the stately double-height windows on the south side of the building were removed, allowing more natural light to stream into the courtroom. The benches and the wainscoting that surround the room are made of richly stained mahogany. Two conference rooms are also located on the first floor; the judge’s chambers and another conference room are on the back mezzanine; village security is housed on the second floor.

The opportunity to buy 195 Rockaway Avenue was a rare opportunity. But buildings, even beautiful ones, are vessels. Their intrinsic beauty comes not from brick and mortar but from the people that fill them with life, art, culture, and humanity. The same could also be said of villages.