Architecture in the Diverse Borough

Photo: Rafael Herrin-Ferri, courtesy 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 on his walks around his new neighborhood: a boxy apartment rotated 45 degrees from the deli on the ground floor, Tudors done up like candy-coated gingerbread houses, and a two-story baby-blue house squished between two brick warehouses. The more he saw, the more his curiosity grew, until he traded his iPhone camera for a point-and-shoot and methodically documented the houses that grabbed his attention. He traveled down each street in the 108-square-mile borough, mostly by bike and skateboard, but occasionally using Google Street View. “My friends told me, ‘You’re on an urban reconnaissance mission,’ but I don’t think it’s that militaristic,” Herrin-Ferri says. It’s almost the opposite: a loving archive of a borough’s peculiar, mundane, often completely enchanting homes that don’t get enough appreciation from the design world.

Herrin-Ferri’s hobby turned obsession is now a book, All the Queens Houses, which is available from the German publisher Jovis. Like a guidebook, it’s divided into neighborhoods, offering what Herrin-Ferri calls “an architectural snapshot of New York’s largest and most diverse borough.”

Photo: Courtesy of the publisher

What, exactly, is Queens architecture? As Herrin-Ferri learned on his quest to find the most interesting homes in Queens, naming a “Queens vernacular” is an almost impossible feat. These houses — often single-family dwellings and duplexes — display an eclecticism that can’t easily be categorized. There is no Queens equivalent of a San Francisco Victorian, a Brooklyn brownstone, or a Chicago greystone. This is partly owing 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, its history of settler colonialism, immigration, and real-estate development shaped the housing stock in a unique way compared to the rest of New York.

When Queens merged into New York City in the late 19th century, it was mostly rural farms and villages. Just 150,000 people lived there in 1900, compared to over 1 million in Kings County. Then, the rise of Robert Moses’s highway system, plus the Queens Chamber of Commerce’s declaration, in 1920, that it become “the borough of homes,” laid the groundwork for its character today. While some housing reformers built large-scale projects like Sunnyside Gardens and the Garden City–inspired co-ops of Jackson Heights, the borough is mostly composed of 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, really made the borough what it is. “It is this very feature of Queens—the modest home—that has been key to its rapid growth and tremendous social diversity,” Heathcott writes.

Over time, the modesty of the Queens home has lent itself to adaptation, personalization, and even wholesale reconstruction. This is what charmed Herrin-Ferri the most about the houses he encountered. “You have to have an acquired taste,” he says. “I’m a professional architect and have worked with designer firms all my life. These houses are the flip side of all those aesthetic rules. You see the rules violated or inverted, but what’s behind it is the basic instinct to animate a dwelling that you’re proud of and that suits your lifestyle. These are very honest expressions.” He walked us through a few of his favorite recurring typologies from the book.

Altered Tudors

“Between Laurelton and Saint Albans, in southeastern Queens, a lot of the Tudor housing stock has been modified. Besides the awnings and decorative panels tacked on, it’s the paint job on this Tudor rowhouse in Laurelton that gives it a new character. Sometimes it confuses the property lines. There’s a lot of syncopation going on. Every third house will have something painted red or blue. It’s an everyday palette of everyday materials and paint colors. They’re almost like a masculine version of San Francisco’s Painted Ladies.”

Vinyl-Clad Victorians

“Many Italianate homes from the early 1900s have been wrapped in vinyl siding, which is more affordable than fixing the original woodwork. The effect is a kind of ‘ghosting’ of the artisanally crafted facade that came before, like in this Astoria house built in 1901 and most recently updated in 1977.”


“This style is found more in eastern neighborhoods, which are more suburban than western Queens. You’ll see a lot of stucco, color blocking, and mansions built since 2000 that have Mediterranean-style facades. I’ve called this house, built in Little Neck in 1945 and updated in 2016, the ‘Pink Brick Capricci.’” (A capriccio is an architectural fantasy found in Renaissance and Baroque paintings.) “Everything you’d find in a Mediterranean palace is compressed in this footprint. It gets squished.”

This stucco mediterranean in Ozone Park was built in 1930 and renovated in 1957 and 1976.

Fedders Buildings

“This is a pejorative nickname for the low-budget, small, multi-family structures that have through-wall air conditioners (from which the name comes) and were mostly built in the 2000s. They’re everywhere in Queens, and Brooklyn, too. They have a nice scale to them that just helps provide a lot of variety along the street, and they usually interrupt a tract. I like them urbanistically rather than architecturally since they have a little more open space between the street and facade in front. This one is in Queensboro Hill.”

Polychromatic Brick

“What I’ve called the ‘Holy Zebra House,’ in Ridgewood, is one of my favorites. I posted it to Instagram and friend commented: “If I lived here, I’d knit a matching sweater.” William Butterfield, a Gothic Revival architect, resuscitated decorative brickwork, which was originally Venetian, and got the nickname ‘Holy Zebra’ because of it. He used a technique called ‘diapering,’ which uses diamond patterns to fill gaps in a wall, sort of like what’s going on here. There’s also a connection to Persian, Arabic, and Islamic traditions.” 

Queen Anne Cartoons

“Here you have what was once a pretty elaborate and expensive house in Richmond Hill. It’s now greatly simplified. You have a porch that has this red stone pattern and airy flat truss columns. The suspended corner tower now has a stucco finish. It reflects the slow evolution of maintenance and retrofits.”

Two-Family Suburbans

“You get a lot of two-family homes split down the middle but that are slightly different on each side. One of the most ordinary but overlooked housing types is the suburban two-family. This one is in Wave Crest.”

Photos: Rafael Herrin-Ferri; courtesy Jovis

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