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 Fujifilm 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 portrait of New York’s largest and most diverse borough.”
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. “It’s a bit of 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.