Corresponding with the construction of the buildings in the historic district, urbanization was triggered by the opening of the elevated train around the turn of the century. Providing rapid and dependable rail service, the “El” was extended from its original terminus at Myrtle and Wyckoff Avenues to Fresh Pond Road and 67th Avenue in 1915.
German immigrant Gustave X. Mathews began building in Bushwick and Ridgewood in the first decade of the 20th century. Using wider lots, large air shafts, private bathrooms, and limiting occupancy to two families per floor, Mathews’ “cold-water flats” were a radical improvement to the overcrowded tenement houses of Williamsburg and the Lower East Side. By creating improved living quarters and controlling costs so that the apartments could be affordable to families of modest income, Mathews found a niche in the real estate market and met with immediate success. He built and sold over 300 tenements in Ridgewood between 1909 and 1912, receiving 25% the tenement house permits issued in Queens in 1911. As testament to their improved design, the “Mathews Model Flats” were exhibited by the New York City Tenement House Department at the Panama-Pacific Fair in San Francisco in 1915. The buildings in this district were among the first that Mathews built featuring his innovative floor plans, and are the earliest examples of fully developed Mathews Flats in Ridgewood, which became standards for later tenement house construction.
In addition to being innovative in plan, the tenements are striking in appearance. Built after 1905 when fire codes in Ridgewood began requiring masonry construction for attached rows, the buildings have load-bearing masonry walls constructed of light-colored Kreischer brick. Using mainly buff- and amber-colored brick, the buildings have fine detailing in the Romanesque- and Renaissance-Revival styles, including corbelled, projecting, contrasting and geometric patterned brickwork, brick pilasters, and contrasting brick or stone string coursing. With mainly flat facades, the mid-block buildings are recessed from the street wall of the corner buildings, adding further interest to the row, while 66-22 to 66-42 Forest Avenue feature angled projecting bays. Some buildings, like those on Grandview Avenue and Palmetto Street have Romanesque Revival-style round and segmental arches of contrasting brick, while others feature carved-stone door and window lintels. Other handsome details include Classically-inspired carved-stone entablatures and friezes, pressed metal cornices and original ironwork at the stoop and areaway. The buildings facing Fairview and Grandview Avenues have commercial storefronts at the first floor and apartments on the second and third floors, while those on the side streets are completely residential. A cohesive collection of speculative urban architecture, the tenements in the Ridgewood North Historic District retain extremely high levels of architectural integrity and represent an important part of the development of housing in New York City.