Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Poppenhusen Institute

Poppenhusen Institute entry hall
Museums: Poppenhusen Institute (15 min) …………………… Free

Poppenhusen Institute
On the northern fringe of Queens lies a neighborhood under siege.  Called College Point after a college that closed over one hundred and fifty years ago, this neighborhood was once a small town of Victorian homes, summer resorts and German beer gardens, yet much of the remnants of that past are being slowly demolished today in favor of low cost, high density apartment buildings.  In the heart of this vanishing town lies an ancient community center with the esoteric name of the Poppenhusen Institute. 

A sign on the front proudly declares it the site of the first free kindergarten in the United States (began July 1st, 1870), but despite its official Landmark status the institute is not really set up for visitors and was difficult to get into.  We’ve found that historic buildings occasionally get noted as museums even if they are not set up as such, and this appears to be the case with the Poppenhusen Institute.  However, it was on our list and I was unable to determine its museum-y qualities online, so Paul and I combed their facebook site for times when they were open and we ended up crashing their summer fundraiser.  When we got there, the flea market and bake sale were up and running and the Beatles cover band was in full swing.  We didn’t know anyone at this neighborhood party, but we’ve gone far stranger places in the pursuit of our goal (see our post on the retirement home in Riverdale), so Paul entered the raffle and we gamely set about exploring the building.

Jail cells in the Poppenhusen Institute
The Institute is named for the German-American industrialist Conrad Poppenhusen, who built a factory here to manufacture hard rubber goods, transforming College Point from a sleepy farming community into a factory town.  Poppenhusen built the institute in 1868 to serve the community that grew up around the factory, and in addition to the kindergarten, this building also served as the local bank, the first library in College Point, a courtroom and the Sheriffs Office.  Paul and I stumbled upon two jail cells in the basement, left over from its law and order days.

Upstairs there were classrooms for the institute’s karate and dance classes, a large ballroom and a limited exhibit on local Native Americans, complete with a grass hut and a manikin dressed in a loincloth.  For me, the most touching part of the museum was a series of poster boards in the back, with pictures of the historic buildings that College Point has lost to development.  Faded black and white photographs of buildings were surrounded with notes of the battles that had been waged to save them and the descriptions of what has been lost.  It felt like looking at photos of lost friends whose lives had been tragically cut short by the rapid pace of high-density development.

Joe Beresheim's Butcher Shop. A note reads: "This building still stands."
The Poppenhusen Institute itself was almost demolished in 1983, but the community rallied to save it and on this occasion they won.   Its nice to know that some pieces of the old College Point will be around a little longer.

Pauline: 2 out of 10. Historic community center, but not much to see and limited hours.
Paul: 4 out of 10. A noble last stand against the destruction of a neighborhood.

Sewing class at the Poppenhusen Institutue

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