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To Protect and Preserve

Queens Plaza History and Gristmill Overview

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Historic LIC photos and maps  links to maps and photos that accompany this narrative. (Note: this is a large file and may take a few moments to load) Once it’s loaded though, you should be able to use your browsers back/forward buttons to toggle between the narrative and photos…

Both the photos and the narrative are copyrighted by the Greater Astoria Historical Society and used here with permission.

About Gristmills:

Milling grain was a complex, highly sophisticated process – it was certainly more involved then simply dropping corn cobs between two stones. Throughout the colonial period, the miller held a prominent role in his community.

The first milling steps involve equipment that separates wheat from seeds and other grains, eliminates foreign materials such as metal, sticks, stones and straw; and scours each kernel of wheat. It can take as many as six steps.

The miller must select the exact milling surface, or corrugation, on the break rolls, as well as the relation and the speed of the rollers. The machinery must be customized to match the type of wheat and its condition.

The miller’s skill is demonstrated by the ability to adjust all of the rolls to the proper settings that will produce the maximum amount of high-quality flour. Grinding too ‘hard’ or ‘close’ results in bran powder in the flour. Grinding too ‘open’ allows good endosperm to be lost in the mill’s feed system.

Or, to use the miller’s language, ‘each break roll must be set to get as much pure endosperm as possible to the middlings rolls. The middlings rolls are set to produce as much flour as possible.’

Historically, flour was sifted through a cloth, called a bolting cloth, to separate the flour from the bran. The oldest way of doing this was to simply put flour in a cloth and shake the flour onto the floor where it was then swept up and used. There is nothing inherently unsanitary with this approach — but it was slow.

The broken particles of wheat are introduced into huge, rotating, box-like sifters where they are shaken through a series of bolting cloths or screens to separate the larger from the smaller particles.

The bolting drum was a cloth fitted onto the drum made of a natural fabric, as linen, cotton, or silk was used in the pre-modern period. Bolters with more than one grade of cloth turns out flour from white to brown — but a brown flour without the coarsest bran and thus whiter than most American whole wheat flours. For example, when corn is milled into corn meal, the bran is sifted out to make bolted corn meal.

In the pre-modern period, the baker — including the home baker — might be responsible for bolting the flour used for bread. But whether the baker bolted the flour, or whether the miller bolted the flour, what is important to recognize is that people conceived of flour as a product that ran in fine gradations from the whitest white to the coarsest whole wheat.

The machinery of the mill is simple, often only one pair of millstones, but sometimes two pairs of millstones. One of them was used to grind grains such as wheat, rye, oats or barely into flour and meal. The other was generally reserved for corn. 

Many early water wheels were enclosed inside of the building or under roof for protection from winter’s snow and ice. Grist mills operate seasonally with the harvest. Custom mills grind grains individually for farmers and other individuals. The miller is paid for his services of milling by collecting a toll, which is a portion of the grain brought to the mill for grinding.

 Colonial gristmills and the Bolting Act 

The settlers were quick to seize every opportunity the landscape presented. Native peoples left an infrastructure of seasonal camp sites near springs that were connected by a system of footpaths. The Europeans settled in the same locations and used the same paths as the basis for their road network. Within the primeval forest, the European settlers used the same planting fields cleared by Indians. Both American and European crops were planted: corn and squash as well as wheat, oats and barley. The soil of Queens was notable for its quality. A tobacco plantation, a crop rarely this far north, was at Calvary Cemetery. Land along the waterfront not only yielded prized salt hay for cattle, but offered farmers rather convenient and quick transportation for their produce to reach markets in Manhattan. By draining a swamp or damming a pond, an enterprising settler could also create a pond to run a tidal mill. For the same amount of bulk, flour was worth more than grains. In the hold of a vessel, where space was valuable, the commodities of the highest profit margin were wanted. By milling wheat or corn, a farmer got cargo of a greater value than shipping bags of unmilled grain. 

The motive force behind tidal mills was simple. When the tide came in, the mill pond filled up. The inrushing water also turned millstones that ground grain or corn. A few hours later, as the tide went out, the water from the millpond was released. The millstones again ground grain but this time, the gears went in the opposite direction. The system was very efficient. The same water that ground grain as the pond filled also did double duty by grinding grain as the pond emptied.  

New York’s Governor Edmund Andros encouraged parliament to pass the Bolting Act of 1678, which granted New York merchants not only a monopoly for milling grain, but to build ships to transport flour and meal to other colonies and England. Many historians credit this single legislative act as the foundation for the city’s fortune. New York became the third arm of the familiar triangular trade route across the Atlantic between the British Isles and the colonies. We find the Bolting Act symbolized in the seal of New York City, whose shield bears the sails of a windmill and the two flour barrels. 

Queens had a number of tidal mills. (Exhibit 1) 

Jorrisen’s Mill, built sometime between 1643 (the year of his patent) and 1654, was the first in western Queens. Although some sources state that stones arrived from Holland as ballast in a West Indies merchantman, scientific analysis can prove their true origin. They are supposed to be the oldest surviving European artifacts in the borough. 

In 1657, John Coe set up a mill near the mouth of Horsebrook Creek, which ran into Flushing Creek from Elmhurst. This was the colonial mill destroyed when it disappeared under Horace Harding Boulevard in the 1930s. 

Edward Jessup built a mill at Wessels Creek, on the northern part of Queens, in October, 1667. Nearby, a fulling mill, at Fish’s Point and later called Jackson’s Mill, is mentioned in 1691. This location today would have been under Grand Central Parkway at 94th Street near the LaGuardia Airport. 

Around 1670, Thomas Scudder set up a mill in English Kills. Stagnant water in the millpond attracted swarms of mosquitoes. When some of his neighbors fell ill and died of malaria the authorities tried to close down the mill and drain the pond as a public nuisance. 

The final mill in western Queens, built in 1753 by Jacob Blackwell and Joseph Hallett, was at the mouth of Sunswick Creek on the East River (near the present day Socrates Sculpture Park.) A contemporary account described that mill as “furnished with two run of stone and bolting conveniences.” 

 From 1643 – 1690 Burger Jorrison 

Burger Jorissen was a native of German Silesia.  He came to Renssalaerswyck on the Hudson River in 1637 and lived there for five years as a blacksmith. Jorissen then bought a vessel and became a trader on the Hudson. He might have picked up the millstones at this time. To this day Van Courtlandt Manor displays a number of similar millstones. The word ‘Burger’ roughly means ‘Citizen,’ and in seventeenth century Germany, it was a title for one who lived in a town, who had full rights, and could practice a trade. We are not certain of his first name. 

In July 1643 he secured a ground brief (or deed) for some land in Dutch Kills. That year saw a number of grants issued along the creek and his was inland, at the head of the kills. A modern description of his property would be just north of Queensboro Plaza and east along Northern Boulevard perhaps as far as 48th Street. Here he settled with his Swedish wife, Engeltie Mans, and raised five sons. The Jorrisen’s colonial house stood between Northern Boulevard and the railroad yards and just a few hundred feet north of where 41st Avenue intersects with Northern Boulevard. 

During the first five years of his grant he constructed a dam across Dutch Kills at a point now in the Sunnyside Rail Yards and created a millpond. He then erected a water-powered grist mill. It would have been about 100 feet to the south and east of his house, a location today in the Sunnyside Rail Yards. 

To drain his land and to get a better flow of water over the mill dam, he constructed (about 1650) a ditch or channel through the swamp that paralleled Northern Boulevard on the south from 40th to 48th Streets. It was called ‘Burger’s Sluice.’ 

The spot was well chosen. There were no roads in Hunter’s Point or Dutch Kills as most of the district was tidal marsh. The road on the west bank of the kills started at approximately Northern Boulevard between 41st Avenue and 43rd Avenue, then bents sharply west towards the East River following the line of 43rd Road. On the east bank of the kills, the road followed the grants along Dutch Kills tracing a route roughly following Van Dam Street to Borden Avenue and then to Newtown Creek. (Exhibit 2) 

Burger Jorissen (or Jorisz) must have been a man of character and ability. His name appears repeatedly on important documents relating to Newtown Township. On July 13, 1666, Jorissen (with a handful of others) is on an Indian deed when the natives agreed to extinguish their claim to the land. Governor Richard Nicoll mentioned him as one of six freeholders by name on a Newtown Township patent on March 1, 1667. A year before he died at 59, in 1671, he is again in the public record as a road and fence overseer. 

Jorissen’s sons all took the patronymic ‘Burger.’ They moved to Manhattan after selling the farm to John Parcell. But Burger Jorissen was remembered year later, even in death. Governor Dognan listed a ‘Berger Joorst’ in the Newtown Patent of November 1686.

 The Hamlet of Dutch Kills 

Settled in 1643, Dutch Kills was the first community in Queens. Its road network, which existed to relatively modern times, provides us a key to the series of historic maps showing the change in the community over time. 

The two roads that led to Newtown Creek and the East River, which met at the grist mill, date sometime between 1640 and 1654 and are among the oldest roads in Queens. A third ancient road, probably laid out by Burger Jorissen or his heirs sometime after 1652, was Middleburg Road (approximately 39th Avenue.) It connected the hamlet of Dutch Kills to the town seat in Middleburg (later Newtown or today, Elmhurst) via Woodside Avenue, originally a Native American path. Later, a fourth road, Ridge Road, connected the crossroads at the mill to Astoria and ran along 28th and 29th Streets. 

The gristmill was the center of this road network. The road at the foot of the milldam (called Skillman Avenue in the nineteenth century) traversed the creek. It crossed Northern Boulevard and heading the west, split to roads that led to Astoria and the East River. Heading east, in the opposite direction, it split into another two roads that led to Sunnyside and Newtown Creek. In the hundred years between settlement of a few isolated farms, little visible change occurred.  The original settlers died off by 1700 and their children sold off the land, divided it up among the very large families common in those days, or, in rarer instances, preserved it intact.  With the increase of population the farms grew smaller, averaging less than 100 acres. (Exhibit 3). 

Dutch Kills was a crossroads hamlet with two or three old farms. On 45th Avenue between 23rd Avenue and Jackson Avenue was the Van Alst homestead and farm outbuildings; a path led from here down along the line of the present Court Square to the wharf on the Dutch Kills about 300 feet inside the present railroad yards. Produce from the farm was carted to this dock and then shipped by water to the New York market. The Van Alst family burying ground on the south side of Barn Street adjoining the railroad yards survived into the 1880s. The 1852 Riker Map shows another view of the hamlet of Dutch Kills along with a list of the original settlements (and a school, later known as PS 3). This gives us a suggestion as to the mill pond’s location. (Exhibit 5)

 From 1690 – 1800 The Bragraw Family

 Between 1698 and 1690, Burgon Brocard (or Bragaw) bought Burger Jorrissen’s farm and gristmill (perhaps from Parcell). Bragaw, a French Huguenot exile, immigrated to America in 1675 from the Rhine region. In 1684, he settled in Bushwick briefly before moving to Dutch Kills. Bragaw stayed only twelve years at the mill before selling out and moving in 1702. 

His son, Isaac, bought the farm some years later, and added to his father’s acres. He died at Dutch Kills in March 1757. We believe he probably built the house (that is the one torn down in 1913) at this time. The date traditionally given for its construction, circa 1720, would fit in with the timeline of Isaac buying back the farm. It would seem logical that this house was built on the site of Burger Jorissen’s house and incorporated parts of it. 

Isaac’s son, Richard Bragaw, born 1748, inherited the farm and lived on it throughout the Revolution until his death in 1818.  Richard abandoned his father’s house and built a handsome 2½ story gambrel-roof house on the east side of mill dam on Middleburg (or Dutch Kills) Road.  This is the building, usually dated from the late 1700s, that is depicted in the Long Island Savings Bank mural (Exhibit 26)

From 1776 – 1801 American Revolution and John Ryerson 

The settlers over the years had altered the landscape in one visible aspect: the amount of cleared and planted farmland had increased year by year and pushed back the ancient forest, so that western Queens by the time of the Revolution had lost much of its wild primeval look and now gave the appearance of an open if sparsely settled country. 

The British army had conquered Long Island and garrisoned it as conquered territory. The peculiar geography of Long Island City dictated the particular spots where the British High Command chose to deploy its occupying forces.  The whole of Hunter’s Point and much of Dutch Kills were swampy areas and unsuited to settlement and military movement.  

The headwaters of Dutch Kills paralleling Northern Boulevard and trailing eastward towards Woodside closed off that area, while in Ravenswood, the Sunswick Meadows covered a vast tract inland from the river. Immediately east of Newtown Road and north of Jackson Avenue began the swampy tract of Train’s Meadow, covering a vast area east of Steinway Street.  

A narrow neck of land separated the meadows draining to the west and the meadows draining to the east and this “Narrow Passage”, as it was then called, was at the junction of today’s Northern Boulevard, Woodside Avenue and Newtown Road. By keeping a tight grip on this narrow watershed that controlled the only approaches to the East River, the British were able to control movement to the north (Astoria), movement to the west (Hunter’s Point) and to the east (Woodside & Elmhurst).  

For the seven years of the occupation, 1776-1783, this strategic passage was kept constantly garrisoned and patrolled.  The troops guarding the Narrow Passage were billeted and bivouacked all along the road that skirted the southern edge of Dutch Kills leading to Hunter’s Point 

In the midst of all the disorder and ill-will engendered by an Army of Occupation, it comes as a surprise to us that romance could occasionally flower. James Larremore, one of the British officers at Dutch Kills, fell in love with the young widow Gertrude Polhemus who at that time owned Burger Jorissen’s grist mill and farm at 41st Avenue. And when the peace came in 1783, he stayed behind and married her. The former British officer became transformed into a miller and one of his sons in the next century became a judge on the New York bench. 

It is not known precisely when she bought the house and mill from the Paytnars (perhaps about the time they moved into their new house), nor when she sold it to John Ryerson. 

This important crossroads at Dutch Kills, by colonial days, supported a tavern and grocery store run by John Francis Ryerson, who grew up near the gristmill.  The tavern appears on the British Military Map of 1783 and would be located today at the corner of 41st Avenue and 28th Street. (See Exhibit 5.) 

The proprietor must have done a heavy business during the Occupation, catering not only to farmers passing along the road but also to the large numbers of British troops stationed nearby at Sunnyside. At some point, the ancient farm house and mill had passed to the Ryersons and the gristmill was called Ryerson’s Mill during the Revolution. 

John Ryerson was killed in his own tavern during a brawl on August 3, 1798 and was buried in his orchard behind the tavern. On July 7, 1902 when workmen were excavating for the basement of William Cullent Bryant (the old Long Island City High School) on the northwest corner of 29th Street and 41st Avenue, they found, six feet below the 29th Street sidewalk, the grave of John Ryerson along with his tombstone, recording the date and the fact that he was then 74 yrs. 3 months and 22 days old.

From 1801 – 1913 The Payntar Family

 After the Revolution the house and mill became the property of the Larremore family (of whom nothing is known), but in 1831 the Payntar family bought it. We associate the house with their name. 

Burger Jorissen’s mill lasted for a century and a half after his death. The remains of the grist mill and the grass-grown mill pond were clearly visible to the eye down to 1861, when the Long Island Railroad drove tracks through the headwaters of Dutch Kills obliterating the mill. (See Exhibits 6 and 7). 

The following year, the Hunter’s Point and Flushing Turnpike (later Jackson Avenue, and still later, Northern Boulevard) opened. (See Exhibit 8). 

The Biers Map of 1873, although showing the railroad and turnpike (Northern Boulevard) as well as some development in the surrounding areas, still has most of the original landmarks and road network clearly identified. (Exhibit 9) 

Just before the Sunnyside Rail Yards obliterated all local features, the Belcher-Hyde Map of 1903 shows Skillman Avenue still open.  (Exhibit 30) 

About this time the Payntar family placed two millstones in the sidewalk in front of their home. 

By the 1860s, tidal mills were becoming obsolete. On one hand, large commercial enterprises started to mill flour more cheaply and at better quality. On the other, the nature of farming changed in Queens. Truck farms that grew vegetables, or florists with greenhouses, became the local agricultural pursuit of choice. They were far more profitable than bulk crops like wheat or corn. The tables of Manhattan were fed by the farms of Queens. 

With the creation of Hunter’s Point in 1860, and the creation of Long Island City in 1870, pressures for developing western Queens became overwhelming. A picnic grove opened across the street. The area was surveyed and streets were plotted. (Exhibit 10)

Yet, perhaps because of the marshy conditions in the immediate neighborhood (Sunswick Creek started at Queens Plaza) Dutch Kills itself was slow to develop. A photograph (ca1900) shows the Payntar House facing old PS 3 across the valley with the lazy meandering Dutch Kills in the foreground. (Exhibit 12) 

Several photographs of the Payntar House exist. This photo (ca 1900), with the family and their chickens best captures the flavor of place that was antique even one hundred years ago. The house seemed almost immune to change. (Exhibit 13) 

Within fifteen years it would be gone and the area changed completely. 

The writer met William Paytar, the son of Elmer, in 1995 and inquired if the family has any artifacts from their many years at Dutch Kills. William did remember ‘some old papers’ but his father died while he was overseas during World War II. When he came back he found nothing of value in their safe deposit box at Long Island Savings Bank at Queens Plaza.

From 1902 – 1917 Queensboro Bridge, Queens Plaza, and Sunnyside Railyards 

When Queens voted to become part of greater New York in 1898, it was assumed that, after decades of negotiations, a bridge would connect Manhattan and the borough. In 1901 the Queensboro Bridge started. At more than 7,500 feet, it is a mile and a half long and three times longer than other East River Bridges. It linked Second Avenue in Manhattan to Dutch Kills. Within a decade, the last vestiges of the area’s rural past disappeared. 

The first major project, in 1902, was to raise Northern Boulevard above the marshy terrain. (Exhibit 14) By this time, the ancient Payntar House, located 65 feet north of 41st Avenue and Northern Boulevard, was literally going downhill. Only its roof and chimneys were visible from the road. (Exhibit 15) 

The following year, the Pennsylvania Railroad started to assemble property for the Sunnyside Rail Yards. Skillman Avenue, which crossed the railroad yards at the former mill dam, was finally closed in 1903. The railroad destroyed the colonial homes along Middleburg Avenue, including the Bragaw house. Deprived of students, old PS 3 closed. The old bed of the stream no longer existed except as a dotted line on property maps. (Exhibit 18) 

Property maps also show the William Payntar estate as owning much of the land that later became Queens Plaza, and his family, especially with their political connections, must have received a generous settlement when the city took over its title under eminent domain. Planners sketched out a great entranceway to Queens. They planned a network of elevated train lines that would led to Brooklyn, Astoria, and Flushing. Queens Plaza held promise that it would become a vast commercial and transportation center. (Exhibit 16.) 

The picnic grove, once called Schwalenberg’s Park, became Queensboro Arena, a boxing club that could hold thousands. Only a three block segment of 41st Avenue that runs by the Clock Tower Building remains of the colonial road network. The rest disappeared in the excavation of Sunnyside Rail Yards along with Dutch Kills itself. 

The Dual Contracts agreement of 1913 was responsible for much of the Queens subway network. The two subway networks (IRT and BMT) and the city agreed to share in the financing and the construction of the subway. Only the Panama Canal, financed by the federal government, was more expensive. The two lines in Queens (pictured here at Queens Plaza) would be jointly controlled by the IRT and BMT. Completed in 1915, this was one of the most complex parts of the elevated system. (Exhibit 17) 

The decade between 1910 and 1920 also saw the completion of most of the buildings along Queens Plaza North. The plaza became a noisy crossroads of trains, trolleys, and traffic. It was the business, banking, (and, from 1916 to 1940 when Queens Borough Hall was located there) the political center of Queens. (Exhibit 18) 

The fate of the Payntar House was sealed when kids started to repeated break into it and set fires. Elmer Payntar reluctantly decided to tear down the 200 year old ancestral landmark in January 1913. In its place went up a new commercial loft, the ‘Payntar Building.’ (Exhibit 19) 

The building housed the Walworth Company according to the earliest Belcher Hyde atlases. By 1955 the American Stove Company (which sold stoves under the familiar name Magic Chef) leased the property. According to the Long Island Railroad’s ‘Map of Freight Stations and Private Sidings’ (published in June 1966) the building was occupied by the Westinghouse Corporation during the sixties. Its last tenant, in the 1990s, was D.W.L. Industries. 

An interesting photo shows the sunlight falling onto Northern Boulevard through a latticework of steel girders and wooden ties from the elevated train. We are just feet from the former Payntar House. Everything from the past is gone. Erased in the name of progress was three hundred years of history, as well as a landscape unchanged since the last glaciers thousands of years before. (Exhibit 20)

 A modern Belcher Hyde Map (1968) shows a Queens Plaza very similar to today. The two gristmill stones were embedded in a traffic island since at least 1920. (Exhibit 21) 

Some plans never made it off the drawing board, like this exquisite rendering from the 1930s of a great rail terminal that was to be on a decked over rail yards. This station received commuters from the Hell Gate Bridge and was heralded as an alternate route for congested Park Avenue and Grand Central Station. This building was to anchor a new business district on Long Island that was to stretch from Long Island City to the Atlantic Yards. Is it historical accident or perhaps a function of location, that the gristmill, a center of industry and commerce for seventeenth century Queens, would be but stone’s throw from a similar commercial center planned for the twentieth century. (Exhibit 22)

From 1909 – 2003 Long Island Savings Bank 

This photograph, taken in April 1920, shows the Long Island City Savings Bank, the First Mortgage Guarantee Company, and the Title Guarantee and Trust Company (the building upon which construction work had just started). A branch of The Bank of Manhattan Company and the millstones embedded in the traffic island (right) are in this northeastern perspective of Queens Plaza North. (Exhibit 23) 

The Long Island Savings Bank (LISB) opened its doors the same year as the nation celebrated its Centennial in 1876. After a series of moves, it purchased property and relocated to the banking center at Queens Plaza. They adopted the marketing byline ‘Kinship with the Community’ as symbolic of their stability. They wanted to demonstrate their contribution to the preservation of home life with their financing of homebuilding, and demonstrate their contribution towards the expansion of manufacturing by financing industry. It is open to speculation if these themes had any influence on the city’s placement of the millstones just feet from their front door. 

In an image from about 1920, it appears that there was landscaping around the area where the stones were placed. (Exhibit 24) To the immediate left is the Clock Tower Building (Exhibit 30) 

The bank’s Trustee’s Room (pictured) as well as in the executive offices, was in the Georgian style with paneling of African mahogany brought in from Ghana. Over the fireplace in the Trustee’s Room is the mural of the Bragraw mansion, mentioned in our narrative of the mill. (Exhibit 25) 

The banking room, equipped to serve a thousand people at a time, boasted black and gold marble quarried from the Gulf of Spezia region in northwest Italy. The mural, ‘History of Newtown’ was on the wall near the entrance behind the viewer. The millstones were just across the street from the entrance. (Exhibit 26) 

The bank commissioned Bayside native, Vincent Aderente, to do two murals. 

The first, the old Bragaw home with its white picket fence and garden represented the home atmosphere of the bank and the protection that thrift gave to the home and family. It was also the home of one of the bank founders, Richard Bragaw. (Exhibit 27a) 

His other work, completed in 1939 for the main banking floor, was entitled ‘The History of Newtown.’ It traced the community’s heritage of industry and commerce from the earliest times. At the bottom, Indians making wampum, then a tidal mill and fields of wheat, Redcoats during the Revolution, the oldest church of Newtown (St James) and the oldest house (Riker-Smith), to the horsecar, Queensboro Bridge, factories, and airplanes of modern times. (Exhibit 27b) 

Sixty years after his death, his work sits in the Queens County Courthouse as well as in major civic and cultural institutions around the country. Considered one of the most significant artists in this medium, the writer has received calls from historians restoring his work in places like the Denver Mint and the Chicago Museum of Fine Arts. 

A development project destroyed his former home in Queens recently. Both murals are missing and presumed lost. The country respects his work. Queens, on the other hand, did not honor her native son. 

For years, the main office of the Long Island Savings Bank was a local landmark. The writer knows many people, who, as children, would accompany their parents to the main banking floor. They relate tales that the room and mural mesmerized them. At night, the neon advertising sign would tell thousands of home bound commuters that LISB was their ‘Home Town Bank’ and alternately displayed the temperature and time. It was a spirit that proved to be obsolete for modern Queens. (Exhibit 28) 

Astoria Federal Savings (which itself had long moved out to Lake Success on Long Island) purchased LISB. Developers bought various properties. The Grand (30th ) Avenue branch was mutilated when a local developer bought is and doubled its bulk using architecture of questionable value. An investor purchased the main building on Queens Plaza, and gutted it. The marble, paneling, furnishings, and murals are lost. 

In 2003, a homeless man would recall that a couple workers showed up on a weekend morning and removed the mural. They threw it, rolled up, in the back of a pickup truck, and drove away. When the writer tried to alert the community to its loss, there was a minor flurry of publicity – and one paper, Newsday, actually did a profile on the developer! He turned it into a series of short lived nightclubs with names like ‘Bliss’ and ‘The Vault.’ When someone was murdered, the police closed it down and the building sat vacant. (Exhibit 29) 

The Bank of Manhattan, called the ‘Clock Tower Building,’ was put up in two sections with the tower a much later addition. This is a northern view of the plaza near Northern Boulevard with the LISB building to the left. Completed in 1925, it was the set piece for the Long Island City skyline when Queens Plaza was to be the Times Square of Queens. The Bank of Manhattan built what was once the tallest building in Queens. The 14-story building still stands with its four-faced clock recently restored. Unfortunately, the former ground floor banking space remains vacant. 

Although we have good evidence that the millstones were in front of the building for decades, they are not on the postcard (left image from the 1930s.) Perhaps a creative artist painted in an imaginative foreground as it does not correspond to the western view of the same location (Exhibit 24) image. The building faces the original lane (dating from the mid-seventeenth century) that led to the mill. (Exhibit 30) 

We have an interesting perspective from the vantage point of the Sunnyside Rail Yards that shows the approximate location of the Payntar House and to the left, the gristmill. The destruction of the original topography and marsh by the 1904 Sunnyside Rail Yard project is complete. However, by the end of the twentieth century, the yard was underutilized and freight operations to the commercial sidings suspended. (Exhibit 31) 

Today (2008) 

A fragment of the past remains at 41st Avenue where, under the Belgium block paving, the road may be 350 years old. The old trolley rails are clearly still visible in this contemporary view looking south towards the millstones. (Exhibit 32) 

This photo is from a brochure published by LISB dated about 1940 and is the earliest known picture of the millstones in their current location. (Exhibit 33) 

These two pictures of the millstones of today not only record their condition, but when compared to the previous image, show their deterioration over the decades. (Exhibit 34) 

The hulk of the LISB building was finally put out of its misery in 2007 when it was destroyed for a planned hotel. The New York Daily News did an article that chastised the community for not making an attempt to have the building designated a landmark. The paper chose not to print that the community felt the exercise was pointless. The commission routinely denies review of such applications submitted by the public for Long Island City or Astoria. (Exhibit 35) 

It is ironic that the great commercial enterprise of the twentieth century, Sunnyside Rail Yards and their loft buildings, which destroyed the original historic fabric of the area, themselves lasted less than 90 years without substantial alteration or removal. The Payntar building was torn down several years ago, and the space once occupied by the house, mill and dam, is now a large hole with tunnels for the subway, Long Island Railroad, and New York City water tunnel. (Exhibit 36) 

Mysteries of the Millstones 

Although we have outlined a narrative about the stones, much of their history remains unknown.

 Where are the stones from and who carved them?

A professional examination of the rock comprising the stones and their carving style might solve these questions. 

Are they as old as the record claims?

Can stones survive grinding grain for 200 years without replacement? It seems doubtful, but, the writer is not a miller. 

Did the Payntar family move the stones to the sidewalk in front of their home?

When was Northern Boulevard guttered and sidewalks put in? It is difficult to believe that there were sidewalks when the mill was destroyed in 1861, so where were they placed at that time? What happened to the stones when the road was raised in 1902?  

When did the city move the stones to their current location?  

Until we can find city records, or a newspaper article, this is still unknown. Several possible dates: 

(1909) The original plans for Queens Plaza did not include that northwest corner near the banks, which still were plotted with buildings and lots when the plaza opened. (Exhibit 11) 

(1912) Early maps show of structure of wood where the stones would be placed (Exhibit 16). 

(1913) The Payntar House was torn down. 

(1915) Queens Plaza was completely made over for the elevated trains. 

(1920) Current buildings including LISB built in the northwest corner of Queens Plaza. 

(ca 1930) A row of shrubbery is photographed on a traffic island near the stones. (Exhibit 18). 

(?) When Queens Plaza received its present configuration? 

Why were the stones rescued?

This is a good question, as the first decades of the twentieth century, a period of intense development, witnessed the wholesale destruction of the early historic fabric of Queens by the city and private developers alike. 

Perhaps they survived through the influence of the politically connected Payntar family (as part of an understanding reached when they sold their home or sold Queens Plaza for the bridge?). Perhaps there was some connection with the LISB which used its historical roots with the community to great effect during their tenure at the Plaza. 

The answer is somewhere, in a forgotten government report, or a non-indexed newspaper article written during a twenty year period between 1902 and 1922. 

Perhaps their survival was simply an accident.

A Note on Sources 

There are a host of on-line sources on milling, the source of the text in this paper. Old manuals on milling are routinely available, and a number of historic mills have websites discussing their operations. Van Cortlandt Manor and Saddle Rock in Great Neck, Long Island, both have gristmills. In the former, a number of millstones are on exhibit. 

Early histories of the community as Riker’s 1852 ‘Annals of Newtown,’ and the delightful City History Club’s 1912 survey of historic sites are invaluable collections on information found nowhere else. 

Some images come from the Forgotten NY website (Kevin Walsh) and Richard Melnick. 

Finally, the collections of the Greater Astoria Historical Society, as the historical museum for Long Island City, proved to have the most extensive collection of images, maps, and research papers on western Queens.     

Copyright: © 2008 by the Greater Astoria Historical Society

All rights reserved without written permission 

Greater Astoria Historical Society

Quinn Building – 4th Floor

35-20 Broadway

LIC, NY 11106 


Written by licmillstones

December 29, 2009 at 3:01 pm

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