Sounding the alarm: Race to preserve historic FDNY pedestals

Joining forces after a restored fire alarm pedestal vanishes

By Michael Perlman

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Northern Blvd & 55th St, The now missing historic alarm side by side with its plain replacement, Photo courtesy of FDNY.

For over a decade, Woodside resident and volunteer John S. Colgan, nicknamed the “Fire Alarm Box Guy,” has meticulously restored historic cast-iron V.F. (Valentine Fendrich) fire alarm box pedestals.

But without any individually landmarked via the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, some are being removed, including one of Colgan’s restored models in Woodside.

In an age of rapid demolition, residents worry that another chapter of the city’s historic character is further being diminished.

A couple of weeks ago, some locals, including Colgan, were devastated to learn that Box No. 7802, a 1921 V.F. pedestal on Northern Boulevard and 55th Street in Woodside, was removed and replaced with a plain rectangular 1950s-style O’Brien model a few feet away.

Ten years ago, my mother gave me some money and told me, ‘Go paint and clean the neighborhood.’ No one could have known that simple gesture would lead me a decade later to advocating for the preservation of the FDNY fire alarms,” Colgan said.

John Colgan applying finishing touches, V.F. model, 67th Ave & Queens Blvd, Photo by Michael Perlman.

Today, there are an estimated 15,077 fire alarm boxes citywide. A majority of the ornate V.F. models date to 1913, 1921 and 1931, whereas the 1950s non-descript O’Brien models have a prototype dating to 1947.

The historic treasures exhibit Beaux Arts meets Art Nouveau vine-like lacework, topped by a torch, where details are often enhanced in gold to accentuate their craftsmanship.

This columnist helped Colgan survey Forest Hills and Rego Park’s historic pedestals and actively supported the restoration process.

Locally, Colgan dedicated a year toward restoring a circa 1929 model on 67th Avenue and Queens Boulevard, which was completed in August, followed by another on 66th Avenue and Queens Boulevard, where restoration is now underway.

Each of Colgan’s restoration projects becomes a public show, as witnessed by passersby who gain an education on their history and intricate nature behind restoration.

As a result, an online petition was posted a week ago, requesting NYC Individual Landmark status for all remaining historic pedestals, a halt on their removal by the FDNY and a reversal on the ones that were already removed.

So far, the petition garnered nearly 600 signatures plus comments.

John Colgan restoring the 66th Ave & Queens Blvd V.F. pedestal, Photo by Michael Perlman.

Colgan believes that no one is suggesting that every pedestal remain precisely where they are.

“We have to be realistic with our goals of preservation, but the city and the FDNY did not consult with local residents to see where we wanted our community’s alarms to be reset. Box No. 7802 was removed and the community does not know where it is located.”

He suggested that it could have been moved two blocks away to a major intersection of Broadway and Northern Boulevard, or placed at a park within his community’s crossroads.

Years earlier, a historic model met the same fate on Austin Street and 70th Road, as well as in front of the Forest Hills Post Office, where a circa 2012 O’Brien replacement is already falling apart.

Referencing the Woodside scenario, an FDNY spokesperson explained that the intersection is part of the NYCDOT street redesign to address pedestrian safety.

“The V.F. pedestal was too close to the intersection where work was being completed. DOT contractors are tasked to install a new O’Brien pedestal in the new pre-determined location, so we can de-energize the old pedestal and activate a new one to avoid any prolonged out of service issues of the alarm box. In this situation, the old V.F. pedestal is returned to an FDNY depot garage. This one will most certainly be preserved.”

The FDNY spokesperson pointed out that if a V.F. pedestal is returned in worse condition, it may be kept for parts for repairs of other such models.

The FDNY Bureau of Plant Operations does not deliberately remove or replace historic pedestals, according to the spokesperson.

“The qualifying reasons for removal and replacement is if the V.F. pedestal is structurally unsound regarding its sub-base or pressure fitted upper portion, which can result in serious injury if it falls. The other is if it is within the perimeter of NYCDOT’s work for pedestrian sidewalk safety. In such cases, the VF pedestals are secured and transported to a FDNY depot, where it is kept for possible future installation elsewhere, if feasible.”

“The FDNY doesn’t produce these types of pedestals anymore. We are vested in the preservation of these historic pedestals and take measures to ensure they are secured and preserved,” the spokesperson continued.

However, after observing the historic pedestal most recently in Woodside, following earlier scenarios, local residents are sounding the red alert.

“Please don’t remove the fire alarms. They mean the world to our communities, for what they symbolize and their historical context,” said Inmaculada Gattas of Kew Gardens.

Another petition signer, tour guide and professor, Riley Kellogg, provided three reasons for on-site preservation.

“These historic fire alarms are beautiful to look at, enhancing the aesthetic experience of a street and neighborhood. It is an educational reminder of the history of our city and technological development. They help keep the appreciation of ‘New York’s Bravest’ in our minds.”

“These boxes are a lovely leftover from my childhood,” added Liz Zollner. “Can’t be fixed? I am sure they could be built to house a modern system. Quit ruining the character of NYC. You have free maintenance from a devoted New Yorker. Let him do his thing.”

Sometimes residents feel a sense of ownership.

“I have one on 70th Ave. and 110th St. I have been wondering for years when they will give it a fresh coat of paint. They should not be removed,” said Mitchel Powers.

Their historic character has been additionally stunning, according to Ida Langsam of Forest Hills.

“John Colgan’s gorgeous restoration brightens up the corner of Queens Boulevard and 67th Avenue, where it is admired by all and adds to the neighborhood’s special nature.”

Colgan sees the fire alarms as the largest and heaviest worldwide.

“It would only seem natural that we would also have the nicest ones in the world, but that is not the case. The FDNY fire alarms are in a horrible condition,” he said, citing decades of paint, rust and human and dog urine, as well as missing pedestal doors, screws, torches and handles.

“The ones that do have all of their parts are being restored citywide by people like me. They grew tired of waiting for the government to do something, and took it upon themselves to paint and preserve their local fire alarms,” said Colgan. Examples are in Brooklyn, Inwood and Northern Queens.

“Local residents decided that their community could not afford to lose such an important piece of our history, so they painted it in hopes that would deter the FDNY from removing their 100-year-old work of art, but that did not turn out to be the case in the fire alarm that I began restoring in Woodside,” he continued.

The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission’s mission is to regulate NYC’s architecturally, historically and culturally significant buildings and sites after granting landmark or historic district status.

Citywide, greater than 37,800 properties are landmarked, where a majority are located in 154 historic districts and historic district extensions.

The sum includes 1,446 individual landmarks, 121 interior landmarks and 11 scenic landmarks.

Besides facades, individual landmarks can include street furniture.

For historic lampposts, the earliest date to the mid-1800s, and many will continue lighting the way due to the Commission’s blessing.

An estimated 100 historic cast-iron lampposts were identified, which resulted in the “Historic Street Lampposts” designation in June 1997.

It consisted of 62 lampposts and four wall bracket lamps, spanning Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Notable examples include one on 53rd Avenue between 64th Street and 65th Place in Maspeth and on Rockaway Boulevard near 150th Street.

Meanwhile, the remainder were already safeguarded within historic districts or situated on landmarked sites.

At least seven sidewalk clocks will also keep on ticking, as a result of landmark status.

The clocks were a significant part of the late 1800s NYC landscape.

The designations include a Seth Thomas Co. clock in front of 522 5th Avenue from 1907 and the Bomelstein Jewelers clock by E. Howard & Co. in Greenpoint.

There is much to be discovered about the history of V.F. pedestals.

VF & OB pedestals, 1912 to 1978, Courtesy of FDNY.

To Colgan, each fire alarm is an educational tool for the right teacher.

“The alarms were handmade by long-lost craftsmen and incorporate art, history and American invention and engineering. We don’t know who made the original models and in which foundry, or where the original molds are located and who was the original artist. Many of these questions can be answered over time and by examining multiple alarms, but nothing can be done currently or in the future if there are no alarms left to enjoy.”

Colgan considers them “historic street art.”

“Each is individually made with a unique personality. We must landmark them so future generations can enjoy their beauty, as we do today.”

Golden Age Society transports seniors back to high school

‘Senior prom’ held at O’Neill’s

By Stephanie Meditz
[email protected]

The Golden Age Society, a senior group at St. Mary’s Winfield church in Woodside, turned up the rock-and-roll tunes and opened the dance floor to its members last week.

Prom king Herbie Wiley poses with his queen, Catherine Berger.

Members of the society came together to socialize, dance, and reminisce on their high school days at a “senior prom” at O’Neill’s in Maspeth.

The Golden Age Society typically hosts parties like this twice a year, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult for seniors to spend time together.

Father Rolvin Romero, a visiting priest at St. Mary’s church for the summer, is grateful to be in the U.S. after two years of travel restrictions.

He is currently studying canon law in Spain, where he will return in the fall to pursue a doctorate.

He emphasized the importance of social interaction for seniors and is glad that the Golden Age Society could finally get together again.

“I know that they were trying so hard to get people back because there are still people, I guess, who are afraid to go out of their houses,” he said. “It’s a good thing to gather them again and we have to go on with a new normal.”

Usually, Father Romero only interacts with the seniors when they attend Mass, so he was honored to be invited to the prom.

“It’s very nice to bond with these wonderful seniors,” he said. “I am Filipino and we value our family ties, we value our grandparents, and so it’s like this is to be with my grandparents.”

Carol Cappiello has been a member of St. Mary’s parish since 1968 and worked in the rectory for 19 years.

As a member of the Golden Age Society, she is grateful for the chance to meet new people and keep in contact with old friends at meetings.

“It’s a nice place to meet and gather and socialize with all our friends that you don’t get to see every day,” she said.

The prom inspired Cappiello to recall her own prom and the loud rock-and-roll music she listened to when she was a senior at All Saints High School in Brooklyn.

Joseph Yee, another long-standing member of St. Mary’s parish, likewise reflected on his high school days at Power Memorial Academy in Manhattan, which has since closed.

He was a student there at the same time as former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whom Yee knew as “Lou.”

“We never lost a basketball game. Maybe once,” he said, proudly displaying his Power Memorial baseball cap. “That’s my claim to whatever fame that Power brings me. When I go shopping, it’s amazing how many people know about Power, not because they went to Power, but because of all the other Catholic high schools that used to get beaten by us.”

Yee was a leader of song at St. Mary’s for 30 years before he retired, and he is still an active member of the parish today.

Parishioners from St. Mary’s and St. Adalbert’s shared a table with Father Romero.

A two-time lung cancer survivor, his faith is a central aspect of his life.

“Having survived death, basically, I have a certain different perspective of life,” he said. “Your whole life is based on the Lord now… the Lord is kind and merciful.”

Yee is a member of St. Mary’s Holy Name Society and helps take up collections at the church.

“I enjoy the camaraderie of the Golden Age even though it took a while before I got used to being a Golden Ager,” he said.

In the true spirit of the event, the Golden Age Society’s current president, Carol Smykowski, crowned Herbie Wiley and Catherine Berger king and queen of the prom.

Smykowski recalled a previous event at which Wiley danced with Berger by spinning her around in her wheelchair. The two shared a “first dance” at the prom as well.

Donning her rhinestone tiara, 85-year-old Berger remembered a beauty contest that she won as a teenager.

She is grateful to the Golden Age Society for keeping her close to the friends she has made over the years.

Wiley, a first-year member of the society, did not expect to win the title of prom king.

“I had a great time, it’s been a great year. And I was lucky they chose me as the king,” he said, showing off his bow tie. “I did wear my tuxedo.”

The Golden Age Society is open to all community members ages 50 and older. Members come from various places, including AARP and the parishes of St. Mary’s, St. Adalbert’s, and St. Sebastian’s.

Jean Bednarczyk, a member of AARP and St. Mary’s parish, loves the community aspect of the society, especially in wake of the pandemic.

“At this point in my life, I want to socialize with people,” she said. “For so long, we couldn’t get together… now, things are opening up, so it’s nice to get out and mingle again.”

The group meets on Tuesdays from noon to 3 p.m. in the parish room at St. Mary’s to play Bingo or cards and socialize over cake and coffee.

As president of the society, Smykowski works to ensure that it brings seniors together “not just as a community, but as friends.”

“I really like this group, I like what I’m doing,” she said. “They like to have fun, and that’s what I like. This is my first full year as president, so I try to come up with some different ideas.”

New Eagle Scouts congratulated by prominent figures

From former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to Pope Francis, four local Eagle Scouts were celebrated by numerous prominent figures both close to home and far away.

Massimo Accardo, Éamonn Dobey, Aidan Haran, and Oisin Haran from Boy Scouts Troop 45 of Woodside recently completed all the requirements, including their final projects, to become Eagle Scouts.

Their combined Eagle Scout Court of Honor was held at St. Mary’s of Winfield in Woodside on June 17.

The Eagle Scouts watched as Fred Coltrinari initiated the traditional Lighting the Eagle Trail Ceremony

All natives of Maspeth and Middle Village, the four young men dedicated their projects to serve local communities. Accardo and Dobey focused on the upkeep and preservation of Forest Park, Aidan Haran restored the backyard of Bonitas Youth Service in Manhattan, and Oisin Haran made renovations and repairs to the schoolyard of St. Mel’s Catholic Academy in Flushing.

“This is an occasion for pride and joy, as well as a time for serious reflection,” Fred Coltrinari, chartered organization representative of Troop 45, said.

“Eagle Scout is the highest recognition that scouting offers to scouts is earned. Only a small percentage of boys who begin scouting receive this honor,” he continued. “The wearer of the Eagle award is the epitome of scouting’s best efforts and beliefs.”

Throughout the ceremony and the various speeches given, the unique bond between the scouts, families, and troop leaders was apparent.

“All the faces that I recognize from throughout the years, you guys have really made this experience worthwhile. From Cub Scouts at six-years-old, these are the families and faces that I’ve seen since day one, and they’ve always been like brothers and sisters,” Accardo said.

“Other parents have been like parents to me, driving me to and from camp, taking care of me, and just looking out for me like I was one of their own,” he continued. “I really appreciate that; it goes a long way.”

From left to right: Éamonn Dobey, Oisin Haran, Congresswoman Grace Meng, Fred Coltrinari, Aidan Haran, Massimo Accardo, and State Senator Joseph Addabbo.

The four scouts expressed their gratitude to the troop leaders through the distribution of mentor pins and other sentimental items.

“I have known these boys for a long time, and I am so proud of their projects,” Marie Casalaspro, den leader, said.

“We had the quarantine during the pandemic, but that didn’t stop them,” she continued. “It was amazing to see.”

Donna Manetta, committee chairperson for Troop 45, made arrangements so the ceremony was extra special, including putting together a slideshow of troop photos from over the years, making poster board presentations for the four projects, and reaching out to noteworthy local, national, and even international figures.

The four Eagle Scouts received commendations from a long list of names, including the New York Jets, the Mets, NASA, Sen. Chuck Schumer, former president George Bush, Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, and Queens Borough President Donovan Richards.

Other local elected officials including State Senator Joseph Addabbo, Congresswoman Grace Meng, and Councilman Robert Holden showed up in-person to celebrate the scouts’ achievements.

“I love Eagle Scout ceremonies because this teaches leadership, and we need good leaders not only in this country, but certainly in the city,” Holden said. “These were great projects, and I want to try to promote more Eagle Scout projects like this. Most of them are community service-based, which teaches the importance of teamwork and volunteering.”

Meng presented the scouts with American flags that have flown over the U.S. Capitol on behalf of them specifically. She said that these flags are reserved for only the highest achievements of constituents in the district.

Addabbo thanked the scouts for their community service, and presented each of them with a citation from the New York State Senate.

“The founder of Boy Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell, once spoke about boys and changing their attitude to go from what they can get to what they can give. As an elected official, that’s what we are so appreciative of,” Addabbo said.

“During these troubled two years with the COVID pandemic, so many people were in need. Scouts throughout our area were giving out food, helping those in need,” he continued. “Scouts are on a great path. Many are successful in life, and they’re good citizens. These citations not only acknowledge their achievement, going from ordinary to extraordinary and being there when the community needs them.”

Remembering Woodside’s Daniel Andrews

Councilwoman Julie Won and Queens Borough President Donovan Richards honored the late Queens stalwart Dan Andrews with a street co-naming ceremony last Saturday, June 4, near his former family home in Woodside.

The intersection of 54th Street and 32nd Avenue will forever be known as Daniel Andrews Way.

The event was attended by over 100 people who came to celebrate a man so near and dear to the Woodside community. Friends, family, representatives of the local FDNY firehouse, as well as former Councilmember Karen Koslowitz, Juliet Papa of 1010WINS, Dave Seifman of the New York Post and Alexandra Rosa, longtime Borough President representative and Chief of Staff under two former Borough Presidents.

Born and raised in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, Andrews graduated from St. John’s University in 1970 and began his career in the new business as a photo caption writer at United Press International. He went on to become UPI’s Bureau Chief in New York’s City Hall, joining other members of the Room 9 press corps in covering then-Mayor Ed Koch and the rest of City government.

After leaving UPI, Andrews went on to serve for 23 years as press secretary to Queens Borough President’s Claire Shulman and Helen Marshall. Upon his retirement in 2013, the New York Daily news noted that Andrews, “may well be the longest serving government spokesperson in the city.”

He eventually married his wife, Deirdre, and raised two children in their loving Woodside home, before moving to Bronxville, NY. Dan passed away on October 12, 2020 at the age of 72.

Rezoning seeks to allow 13-story building in Woodside

The owners of 62-04 Roosevelt Avenue in Woodside are requesting a zoning variance to build a 13-story building, taller than the nine stories permitted under the current zoning.
The rezoning’s co-applicants – Astoria-based developer Woodside 63 Management LLC and the local dance and theater non-profit Mare Nostrum Elements, INC. – discussed the potential benefits of the project at Wednesday’s virtual hearing.
“With Mare Nostrum’s assistance, we began engaging with the community about five years ago,” said Steve Lysohir from Woodside 63’s ownership team. “We heard several priorities. Affordable housing, particularly so close to mass transit, is key to the community’s successful future
“Woodside deserves attractive architecture that fits in with the neighborhood around it,” he added. “Many arts organizations have been pushed out of their homes, and so we were inclined to include them based on feedback from Mare Nostrum.”
The proposed mixed-use development would function as both a residential building and community center.
In accordance with the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, the owners of 62-04 Roosevelt are working to ensure that 25 percent of the apartments (54 of the planned 213 units) will be affordable.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Mare Nostrum Elements co-founder Kevin Albert also spoke at length about the nonprofit’s plan to make the new building a haven for local artists.
“We hope the development will be a space for people in the community,” Albert said. “The current model of performance art spaces in the city does not work. The pandemic has shown us that.”
The plans for 62-04 Roosevelt include studio and performance spaces for dance groups, musicians, and artists. Woodside 63 and Mare Nostrum plan on lending the space to local community groups for free rehearsals and then renting the space to other groups to raise more revenue.
Mare Nostrum also hopes on holding its own community-focused dance and art classes in the space as well.
In addition to housing and community amenities, much of Wednesday’s hearing was focused on transportation and sustainability. The site is located in close proximity to the 61st Street Station on the 7 train, which lends itself to transit-oriented development.
“We also know this is a very climate-conscious community,” Lysohir explained. “One of the most important steps local governments can take to combat climate change is to promote density near mass transit.”
Lysohir also discussed the increase in Citi Bikes in the area, and expressed Woodside 63’s interest in working with community leaders to create more bike lanes in the neighborhood.
The developer also has plans to implement energy-saving aspects to its design, including solar-panels, high-efficiency cooling and heating, and high-performance insulated windows.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the developer also plans on reducing high-touch surfaces throughout the building.
The current single-story structure at 62-04 Roosevelt Avenue has been home to a series of struggling businesses. Lysohir and the Astoria-based Woodside 63 Management are hoping to revitalize the site.
If the variance isn’t approved, the developer still plans on constructing a nine-story, smaller version of the project that is allowed under the current zoning.

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