Paying tribute to historian Barry Lewis
by Michael Perlman
Feb 10, 2021 | 1652 views | 0 0 comments | 81 81 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Barry Lewis leads a walking tour of Forest Hills Gardens.
Barry Lewis leads a walking tour of Forest Hills Gardens.
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The January 12 passing of longtime Kew Gardens resident Barry Stephen Lewis, an acclaimed architectural historian, author, and lecturer born on July 4, 1945, marked the end of an era.

On Sunday, over 80 family, friends, and colleagues paid respects and shared stories during a memorial service via Zoom.

“I looked around and saw him on the floor drawing,” said his cousin Mel Lewis. “He was so focused, and I remember thinking ‘my cousin Barry, he has real talent.’ I have been thinking the same thing for approximately 70 years.”

Lewis was a native of Woodhaven. He attended Forest Hills High School and studied art and architectural history at the University of California at Berkeley, New York’s New School of Social Research, Sorbonne in Paris, and the University of Jerusalem.

He was remembered for his encyclopedic knowledge, enthusiasm, sense of humor, and being a people’s person. He specialized in a 300-year history of European and American architecture.

“On New Year’s Day I called him, and we had one of those long and wonderful calls,” said his close friend Laverne Berry. “It would go from architecture to gossip and back. Just this week, I was putting away some files and among them were his TV shows and I started to cry.”

Lewis authored “Kew Gardens: Urban Village in the Big City,” and gave lectures at Cooper Union, Harvard School of Planning, and New York Historical Society. He taught architectural and interior design history at the New York School of Interior Design, and a popular course called “The City Transformed” at Cooper Union’s Department of Continuing Education.

From 1998 to 2004, he co-hosted the PBS series “Walking Tours of New York” with award-winning documentary producer David Hartman.

“My opening remarks were brief, since I knew that if I was talking we weren’t going to learn anything,” said Hartman. “I would say, ‘Barry, what an interesting building’ and he would just take off. The wonderful thing about Barry was that as long as he spoke, he was captivating.

He made all his fascinating history and knowledge exciting, and that made him exciting to be around,” he added. “He has been a gift to me. We will be thinking about him for a long, long time.”

In June 2014, he led a walking tour of Forest Hills Gardens, with particular attention to Station Square as a town center merging residential space with an inn, shops, and the LIRR.

“Forest Hills Gardens principal architect Grosvenor Atterbury’s walkway system around Station Square is brilliant,” Lewis said at the time. “He created over the street bridges and a walkway system that goes through the buildings. This is urban thinking, not suburban thinking.”

Carl Ballenas, who serves as president of Friends of Maple Grove, explained what led to Lewis writing the foreword for his book, “Images of America: Kew Gardens,” which was written in partnership with students of the Aquinas Honor Society of the Immaculate Conception School.

“I asked Barry if he would mind helping 11, 12, and 13-year-old students,” Ballenas recalled. “After they met him, the kids and I spoke quietly and then they asked him, ‘Would you write the foreword to our book?’ and he agreed. I am receiving emails from my students saying that meeting him is something they won’t forget.”

Kew Gardens Cinemas manager Justine Mastanduno met Lewis at a party 25 years ago and was “immediately fascinated.”

“I knew of his walking tours, but just to sit with him and chat about everyday life, there was never a boring conversation,” she said. “I always ask my patrons how they liked the film, but I knew that when I asked Barry I would have to make time. He would have the most interesting take on films.”

Mark Kaplan was an architecture student who met Lewis in the late 1970s and took one of his walking tours. They began sharing hundreds of slides.

“Barry was the first one who really tied together the history of various architects,” said Kaplan. “Who worked at whose office, and who learned from who and how they were interrelated in this country.”

Sara Cedar Miller worked as a Central Park photographer in 1984 and studied with Lewis to learn more about New York City history.

“We became instant friends, he was brilliant and funny,” she said. “Barry had the most insightful things to say. Every day I learned, as well as laughed.”

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