Back in 1830, Richmond Hill was a farm.
August 28, 2012
To be specific, it was the Captain Briggs Farmhouse, says Carl Ballenas, a Richmond Hill historian who has amassed an impressive collection of rare and vintage photographs of the neighborhood. The farmhouse was built by Capt. Jeremiah Briggs, a veteran of the War of 1812, as early as 1830. Briggs moved to the Richmond Hill area—although it wasn’t yet called that—to become a “gentleman farmer,” and would cultivate a pear orchard that spanned the acreage between Jamaica and Atlantic avenues. Says Ballenas, “In the 1830s, when the captain moved to that location, he would receive mail with this address: Captain Briggs, Jamaica, NY.”
Near the top of the farmhouse, Briggs built a widow’s walk. These boxing ring-like perches, common in New England, would allow a sailor’s wife to scan the seas for ships. A telescope on his rooftop also allowed the captain to watch boats coming in from the New York Harbor. To the south, he would have admired vast acres of farmland and undeveloped marshes where the John F. Kennedy airport now sits.
This colored postcard shows that the Farmhouse later relocated half a block away from Jamaica Avenue to Briggs Avenue, also known as 117th Street. (You can see the widow’s walk on the right.) This is a more developed Richmond Hill, as indicated by the grand Victorian houses popping up on both sides of the street. “I believe the Farmhouse was moved because that section of Jamaica Avenue was becoming the Business District,” says Ballenas, “and a private house on that prime piece of real estate did not make any sense.”
These days, many of these houses have been turned into ugly “McMansions,” in Ballenas’ words, by those who “have no regard for the period.” Homeowners, to his dismay, are pouring cement over the gardens, removing the stained-glass windows, and remodeling the original wraparound porches.
Yet Ballenas remains dedicated to the preservation and appreciation of the little-known neighborhood founded by lawyer Albon Platt Man in the mid-1800s. Although the Queens pocket is now home to large Sikh and Indo-Caribbean populations, Ballenas, a Richmond Hill native, is still “transported back to the 1800s” when he walks down some streets. “Growing up, I was fascinated by my own backyard,” he says.