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Bayside Historical Society marks 60 years of preserving local heritage

Fort Totten in Bayside. Photo provided by Bayside Historical Society

Feb. 22, 2024 By Christian Murray and QNS Staff

A local historical society that has been instrumental in protecting historic buildings in Bayside is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. 

Located at the historic 19th-century Fort Totten, Bayside Historical Society (BHS) has been preserving and promoting local history for the past 60 years, advocating for the protection of iconic buildings in the area. 

Fort Totten, completed in 1887, once served as the Officer’s Mess Hall and Club for the US Army Corps of Engineers School of Application and the society has been tasked with restoring and preserving the historic castle since 1986. 

The organization has called Fort Totten home since 1984 and was instrumental in obtaining landmark status for the historic building in the 1976, securing its future in Bayside “in perpetuity”. 

Society President Paul DiBenedetto said landmarking historical local buildings and protecting them for future generations is one of the organization’s chief aims. 

He said buildings that have been granted landmark status by the Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC) are “special historic buildings that define our historical culture and our past”. 

“I firmly believe that it’s good for people in our time to understand how we lived in the past,” DiBenedetto said. “With exceptional buildings, it’s important that they’re saved for the future. Not just saved and then not used, but made current for modern times while preserving the exterior.”

In his 12 years as society President, DiBenedetto has played an instrumental role in the landmarking of two historic local buildings – the Ahles House on 213th Street and the Hawthorne Court Apartments – which were both preserved with the support of the late Council Member Paul Valone. 

DiBenedetto is particularly proud of the society’s role in the preservation of the Ahles House, which was built by prominent local farmer Robert M. Bell in 1873 for his daughter Lydia and her husband John William Ahles. 

Ahles House. Photo provided by Bayside Historical Society

Located near the Bayside LIRR Station, the Ahles House is the last remaining property built by the Bell Family in Bayside. 

The Hawthorne Court Apartments, constructed in the 1930s and landmarked in 2015, are a Tudor Revival style garden apartment complex boasting a historically-designed façade. 

DiBenedetto pointed out that any building that has obtained landmark status has gone through a rigorous vetting process and said the status helps prevent historic buildings from being lost to modern developments. 

“It’s not just some house or a building that I think is cute,” DiBenedetto said. “It would have to have some significance. Because the LPC doesn’t just landmark anything.

“In fact, it’s very difficult to get things landmarked, especially in the suburbs,” he added. “There are only a few in Queens.”

L-R: Matt Symons, Northeast Queens Park Administrator – Carol Marion, BHS Trustee/Head Educator, Laura James BHS Trustee/former Executive Director, Paul DiBenedetto BHS. President Photo provided by Bayside Historical Society

Aside from promoting the local history of Bayside, the society additionally promotes the neighborhood’s modern-day culture and diversity with a series of cultural events held at Fort Totten throughout the year. 

BHS’s Annual Winter Arts Show, which runs until March 3, is now in its 23rd year and reflects the diverse range of cultures that exist in Bayside, while the society also launched an annual Passport Concert Series last year, featuring music from dozens of countries around the world. 

The ongoing Winter Arts Show promotes dozens of Queens-based artists from a multitude of backgrounds, with more than 60 local artists submitting content for this year’s festival. 

The Winter Arts Show also features Student Art Galleries, promoting the work of 21 students from Bayside High School.  

DiBenedetto said he believes it is important to strike a balance between preserving Bayside’s history while also promoting its modern-day culture. 

“We live in the most diverse county in the world with so many languages spoken and cultures represented here. We try and bring that to the folks in Bayside, which is always changing.” 

He added that cultural events hosted by the society showcase the “really talent folks creating all different mediums of art in Queens.” 

The society additionally offers educational programs for local schools, which include field trips to Fort Totten where students will meet members of the society dressed in clothes dating back to the early 20th century. 

“We teach them about the way that people lived back in 1905,” DiBenedetto said. “It’s very hands on. We have old utensils and tools that were used, and they learn all about how people lived back then.

“It’s a great program. Every time that I’m in the building when the program is on and I’m there looking at the teachers and the kids – it gives you goosebumps. I’m a volunteer and I do this for free, but when I’m there and I see the kids, I think wow. It’s good that this place exists and we’re doing what we’re doing.” 

DiBenedetto said members of the community can use Fort Totten for private functions, such as wedding receptions and birthday parties. 

“It’s a pretty building,” he said. “It was finished in the 1880s, so if you have any appreciation for old craft work, this is a great place to get married.” 

Looking to the future, DiBenedetto said he hopes the BHS can help landmark more historic buildings in Bayside and the wider Queens area. He said important buildings are frequently “lost” to new developments due to the difficulty in obtaining landmark status. 

email the author: news@queenspost.com
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