The Ravenswood community lies on the East River
shore north of the Queensboro Bridge
and south of Old Astoria. Mid-nineteenth century mansions lined
the East River until overwhelmed by industry at the turn of the 20th century.
Yet, today, some remain waiting for you to find them! Home to the
Noguchi Museum, the Socrates Sculpture Garden, Ravenswood is one of Long Island City's secret delights.
A Mid-19th Century mansion that still survives
in modern-day Ravenswood.
No one is certain where the name Ravenswood comes from. There are several
theories, none satisfactory.
It started as a wealthy development of a single line of homes off of
Vernon Blvd from about the Bridge Plaza to Hallets Cove. It was
always small hemmed in by the East River and Sunswick Marsh along 21st
The first baptisms, marriages and funerals in the area took place in
St. Thomas Episcopal Church. From about 1840 to 1860 it remained a secluded
enclave, but industry and the development of the Long Island City shore
brought industry. By 1900 the area was solidly commercial.
Sunswick Creek ran from Hallets Cove to Bridge Plaza along 21st
Street. It was filled in about 1900 or 1910 with municipal land fill,
primarily ashes. The word Sunswick came from an old Indian word Sunkisq,
or the place of Sachems (Chiefs) wife presumably
because she found valuable herbs and plants used in medical and religious
ceremonies were along the tidal wetlands.
In the 19th Century the architectural possibilities afforded by the natural
beauty and prominent location of the Ravenswood shoreline with the ready
wealth of its residents could not help but attract artists and builders
of the day. As soon as the Roach Brothers and Samuel Throckmorton acquired
the Ravenswood property, they engaged the most prominent American architect
of the day, Alexander Jackson Davis, to draw up a sketch for an impressive
collection of residences along the shore line which would act as a showcase
for their new development.
Jackson (1803-1892) was active from about 1830 to about 1850 and designed
many public buildings, State houses and lordly country residences. He
was the pioneer of the Revivalist Movement and worked in the classical,
Gothic and Swiss styles. A number of the sketches made for the Roaches
are preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York along with
Davis' diary recording his commissions. Twenty-five villa sketches were
executed in January 1836 for which Davis charged the Roaches $75; another
sketch of a Tuscan villa is dated July 1836, and one each for Peter Roach
and Samuel Throckmorton in the same month.
Currier & Ives: Ravenswood, 1836
One sketch of a proposed shoreline was executed in January 1836 entitled
"Ten Villas with a chapel, en suite" and Nathaniel Currier of
the firm of Currier & Ives made a lithograph of it. In the view appear
porticoed mansions, Parthenon-like country seats, ltalianate villas and
Gothic churches, with a promenade and carriage way along the water's edge.
This Ravenswood lithograph is one of the rarest known; only 16 copies
were printed and only four are known to exist today. Although the real-life
Ravenswood never produced such a hodgepodge of architectural styles, the
romantic taste of the day did favor medieval-like castellated buildings
like Bodine Castle and the Gothic St. Thomas' Church. Although Davis turned
out sketches for Ravenswood, there appears to be no solid evidence that
any of his designs were translated into real houses. The Roach Brothers
and Samuel Throckmorton did not settle in Ravenswood or build houses there
for themselves; the wealthy men to whom they sold building sites all erected
elegant mansions, but the architects for these buildings remain unknown.
Farmhouse on Twelth Street
The residents of Ravenswood early felt the need of a church that would
be suitable for such a wealthy and exclusive community, and in 1849 Gen.
Gilbert Hopkins donated a plot of land 100 X 100 on the east side of Vernon
Avenue just above 38th Avenue. It was a frame Gothic edifice and opened
early in the spring of 1849. The little church lasted through the golden
age until it burned down, probably at the hands of an incendiary, on December
4, 1867. A new church was erected in March 1869 but by then the winds
of change were already blowing.
Ravenswood, unlike Astoria, never became a village; there was no disposition
at any time to become independent, and indeed, there was no substantial
population or commercial activity to justify such a move. Ravenswood remained
an exclusive hamlet within the Town of Newtown until its absorption by
Long Island City in 1870.
In the spring of 1853 Ravenswood succeeded in getting a post office of
its own. At the same time the community benefited by the opening of its
first country store run by Messrs. Moore & Luyster, and Mr. Samuel
H. Moore of that firm received the appointment of postmaster, handling
the mails in a corner of the store.
It comes as something of a surprise to us to learn that even while these
stately mansions were being built, a cartridge assembly operation was
being carried on in this highly unlikely location. The New York Tribune
of January 29, 1854 carried a long account of a terrible explosion that
had occurred the day before in a small one-story building, 20 X 25, at
43rd Avenue & 10th Street, some 500 yards from shore. A Mr. French,
agent for Hitchcock & Co., munitions manufacturers, had rented this
building, probably because of its isolated location and had recruited
about 30 girls and a few boys between the ages of 10 and 18, all of them
poor Irish and presumably from near-by Astoria, to fill and pack cartridges
with gun powder. Some distance off was the powder magazine from which
the children drew their supplies. Because of the intense January cold,
the children kept a belly stove hot in one corner of the little room.
In some way a bit of the highly combustible powder came in contact with
the stove and the whole works exploded with a roar that shook buildings
and blew out windows for a mile around and was audible even in Brooklyn.
Fifteen children were blown to pieces and the immediate area was strewn
with limbs and flesh. Over 50,000 cartridges blew up in the blast but
fortunately the powder magazine was unaffected. The catastrophe aroused
a brief flurry of indignation in Ravenswood for a time, but the incident
was soon forgotten.