When Gustave Mathews began developing apartment houses in Ridgewood that would become landmarks nearly a century later, many working-class New Yorkers lived in rundown tenements devoid of light, proper ventilation and modern utilities.
Coming to a neighborhood that was then a farming village, Mathews set out to build homes “with a conscience” that were affordable, wellconstructed and instilled a sense of community among its owners, historian Debbie Van Cura told residents at last Thursday’s Ridgewood Property Owners and Civic Association (RPOCA) meeting at I.S. 93.
Van Cura, a member of the Greater Astoria Historical Society, gave a presentation at the Mar. 4 session focused on the Mathews flats—multifamily brick apartment houses lining many Ridgewood streets which were also developed in other Queens neighborhoods during the first half of the 20th century—as well as the life of the German immigrant behind their creation.
Facing a growing population of immigrants from Europe, New York found itself in the middle of a housing crisis in the early 1900s, Van Cura stated. Most were forced to live in overcrowded and squalid conditions within tenements in Manhattan neighborhoods.
Many of these tenements had no windows, offering no way to provide natural light or fresh air into the buildings. Bathrooms were shared among tenants. The lack of ventilation also led to the spread of contagious diseases such as tuberculosis.
The impoverished conditions of tenement life were eventually exposed by muckrakers such as Jacob Riis, spurring a movement to improve the housing stock for all New Yorkers. Gustave Mathews then came into the picture, Van Cura said, with an idea of building new apartment houses with all the proper amenities and affordable to working-class residents.
“These were homes built for typical working-class people,” Van Cura told residents, noting that Mathews marketed the six-family homes to families who would live in one of the apartments and rent out the remaining units as supplemental income. This helped making owning a Mathews apartment house affordable to the point where the company boasted in its advertisements that none of their owners had fallen into foreclosure.
Mathews came to the United States in 1886 and originally lived on the Lower East Side. After spending many years working as a salesman, he eventually got into real estate and formed his own company along with his two brothers, William and Alfred.
The development of the Mathews flats permanently altered the look of Ridgewood and transformed it from a “sleepy little haven” on the Brooklyn/ Queens border into a vibrant urban community, Van Cura said. More than 25,000 new residents came into the neighborhood to live in the new buildings, which sold for about $6,500 a piece.
A new kind of home
The first apartment houses built by Mathews were constructed along Bleecker Street between St. Nicholas and Cypress avenues. Later on, he purchased part of the former Meyerrose farm in the vicinity of Woodward and Catalpa avenues near St. Matthias Church.
Unlike the tenements of Manhattan, the Mathews flats of Ridgewood were solidly constructed with materials and fixtures produced locally, the historian noted. The gold and brown exterior bricks were produced from an area of southern Staten Island known as Kreischerville (now called Charleston); the wrought iron railings and bannisters were made by companies based in Ridgewood which no longer exist.
Every room of every Mathews flat “railroad apartment” had access to fresh air and natural sunlight, as the buildings were designed like dumbbells with air shafts running through the center of each structure. The apartments were equipped with full kitchens and bathrooms.
Working with a number of architects, Van Cura noted, Mathews designed homes that were artistically pleasing as well as sound. Bricks and cornices in contrasting colors were placed on the exteriors in a variety of patterns depending on the location of the building.
“When you put those little touches into a home, people start to feel good about where they live,” Van Cura stated. “You get a sense of place and a feeling that you belong there.”
Impact on Queens
As the years went on, Mathews build his apartment houses in other communities around Queens including Astoria, Long Island City and Sunnyside. By 1911, Van Cura stated, he held about 25 percent of all of the building permits in Queens.
Mathews’ influence on development in New York was so great that the “Mathews model flat” was one of three New York architectural marvels put on display at the Panamerican Pacific Expo in San Francisco in 1915; the other two exhibits were Grand Central Station and the Williamsburg Bridge.
“These homes were so important that they were sent out to represent the best that New York had to offer for its time,” Van Cura said.
Though the structures were similar in nature to those built in Ridgewood, the historian noted that Mathews made changes to the exterior designs in each neighborhood. For example, apartment houses in Astoria had different brickwork patterns and iron front doors; the Mathews flats of Ridgewood featured French doors made of glass and wood.
Changing times also altered the way Mathews flats were constructed around Queens, Van Cura observed. After World War I broke out, Mathews stopped installing cornices atop each building since the material was needed for the war effort.
As the Great Depression hit, Mathews constructed one- to two-family homes in the vicinity of 79th Street and Grand Avenue in Elmhurst. These buildings, the historian pointed out, had an “art deco feel” with light brick patterns and a sleek design.
Despite the new construction, the tough economic times made it difficult for Mathews to sell these new homes. In response, he formed the Mathews Bond and Trust Company, which held all the bonds for the homes he constructed and made them affordable for residents to own.
Following the depression, Van Cura noted, Mathews sought to develop homes in upstate New York, but the plans proved unsuccessful. He lived in his final years in a Mathews home in Sunnyside before dying in 1958; his real estate company would be dissolved 11 years later.
A century after Mathews broke ground in Ridgewood, Queens is continuing to experience development, though Van Cura lamented that the spirit of construction that Gustave Mathews brought to the borough has been lost.
“What you see in development today is the idea of developers building high rises” and constructing affordable housing elsewhere to receive tax breaks, she noted. By contrast, the historian observed, Mathews offered buildings that provided a sense of pride to all who lived in the community.