We most often associate modern architecture with technological innovations that enabled feats of construction unimaginable before the late nineteenth century. But an equally central component of the Modern Movement from its inception was a widespread urge to use architecture as a tool for social betterment. The reform initiatives that first arose in Europe in response to the environmental and human impact of the Industrial Revolution—dire conditions that were brought to the attention of a broad reading public by popular novelists including Dickens, Hugo, and Zola—led to a parallel realization about the future of architecture. As perceptive theorists recognized, the only effective way to nurture the vast new class of factory laborers was to rethink the basic premises of city planning, and workers’ housing in particular. Indeed, the desire for economic growth and stability advanced the demand for decent urban dwellings as much as any humanitarian impulse.
In Sunnyside Gardens: Planning and Preservation in a Historic Garden Suburb, a thoughtful, thorough, and bracingly corrective study of twentieth-century American housing reform at its finest, Jeffrey A. Kroessler focuses on Sunnyside Gardens of 1924–1928 in the New York borough of Queens, which presented a particularly distinguished solution to the need for affordable metropolitan housing. After nearly a century this quiet enclave remains a vital and sought-after middle-income residential redoubt in a city whose Manhattan skyline now bristles with supertall, superthin condominiums for the superrich.1 Kroessler, who teaches at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, retraces the history of Sunnyside Gardens’ creation, as well as the interactions of design professionals, civic leaders, and financial backers who brought it into being. He also dicusses the current state of this remarkably intact survivor, which New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission designated a historic district in 2007.
Sunnyside Gardens follows the precepts of the Garden City Movement, founded by the British housing reformer Ebenezer Howard in 1898 (when he published his rousing manifesto To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, substantially revised and reissued four years later as Garden Cities of To-morrow). Unlike the great British polymath and design reformer William Morris, Howard was not a socialist. Although Howard believed that the state should play no part in city planning, his vision of “the social city” was meant to bridge the divide between socialism and individualism, and most of his followers were socialists, many of the Fabian variety. Howard insisted that ever-expanding metropolises were inherently and inevitably destructive to healthful societal development, and that the way of the future must instead be medium-sized, self-sufficient satellite cities surrounded by deep buffers of undeveloped land (“greenbelts,” as they became known). The low-rise, low-density Garden City soon became the ideal among the most progressive urbanists during the middle third of the twentieth century, when most of the government-sponsored housing in Europe and the United States was constructed (although many other planning approaches were also applied, some much less successful than the Garden City).
Kroessler makes a strong case for a revival of the relatively simple and easily applicable planning principles that inspired Sunnyside Gardens, six decades after they began to be derided as hopelessly utopian and outdated by the urban activist Jane Jacobs and her followers. Instead of the built-from-scratch planned communities advocated by the Garden City Movement, Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) proclaimed the superiority of existing urban neighborhoods that naturally evolve through pragmatic accretion, as proved, she argued, by her own home turf of Hudson Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. (At that time, which now seems eons ago, it was still possible for more people with an average income to live affordably in that charming quarter, which has become much more expensive.) Her immensely influential book popularized the notion that such spontaneous growth offers a far more responsive social setting than any created from the ground up.
Jacobs’s contrarian stance set off a major realignment within the better-housing community—with the aging Garden City contingent on one side and the new Jacobsites on the other. The schism was exacerbated by a notorious review of Death and Life in The New Yorker by its long-standing architecture critic, Lewis Mumford, who had lived in Sunnyside Gardens with his family for a decade before they permanently decamped to the rural hamlet of Amenia, New York, in 1936. Called out by name seven times in Jacobs’s book, Mumford competitively belittled what he saw as a frontal attack on his own belief that only a comprehensive replacement of current capitalist practices with socialist Garden City precepts could address an impending urban crisis.
As it turned out, Death and Life would become the most acclaimed text on urbanism since Mumford’s own best-selling The Culture of Cities (1938). His massive rehash of that same material, The City in History, was issued shortly after Death and Life, but despite winning the 1961 National Book Award it was eclipsed by Jacobs’s powerful polemic, which is now deemed a classic, whereas Mumford is seldom read today by anyone too young for Medicare.
Kroessler, undaunted by the reverence for Jacobs—who is often unironically called “Saint Jane” by her acolytes—identifies the basic weakness in her claim that the Garden City idea is an inferior, formalized alternative to her own agreeable but hardly typical experience of ad hoc urban design, though he also honors her insights:
No one can doubt that the values espoused by Jacobs have largely benefitted our nation’s cities. Diversity of scale; diversity of economic activity; urban density sufficient to promote a vibrant street life; small, locally owned shops; solid housing stock of generally modest scale; a city accommodating pedestrians rather than automobiles; local input on policy issues affecting neighborhoods—these are the bedrock principles of the livable city today…. But should all of these ideas be applied uncritically everywhere and under all circumstances?…
She went further than simply critiquing and condemning the planning practices of her time. She traced their origin to the urban thinkers of the early twentieth century who sought to reform cities…[and] characterizes their critique as simply an anti-city, pro-suburban agenda…. It is quite a leap to blame the planners of Sunnyside Gardens…for suburban sprawl and the monstrous postwar housing projects, but that is what she does.
Kroessler agrees that Sunnyside Gardens’ preeminent qualities of livability and tranquility do not derive from architectural design per se. Indeed, the ensemble’s somewhat poky, unornamented two-and-a-half-story redbrick dwellings might well have been erected by Georgian London jobbers circa 1820 and seem retrograde when compared to the bold advances being made in European social housing during the decade of its construction. One can only imagine what the Modernist architect and planner Ernst May—the Weimar-era German master whose mass-produced workers’ dwellings around Frankfurt were of the highest quality ever achieved—thought when, during an international housing convocation in New York in 1925, he and other experts were bused out to Queens to be shown the stylistically unadventurous though conceptually advanced new development.2
Nonetheless, Sunnyside Gardens succeeded because of its careful site planning and attentiveness to low population density and relatable human scale, as well as its superlative landscaping, which added to its strong neighborhood atmosphere. And as Kroessler persuasively suggests, all those factors could be just as applicable today. In a period when government-financed housing is about as likely to be revived in our increasingly self-interested country as the rotary-dial telephone, public–private partnerships of the sort that have been successfully addressing urban housing for the homeless—such as the New York nonprofit social services organization Breaking Ground—would find a realistic, time-tested template for newly built but economical city dwellings in the Sunnyside experiment.3
Sunnyside Gardens was the first project realized by the City Housing Corporation (CHC), a limited-dividend corporation founded in 1924 as an offshoot of the year-old Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA) to construct affordable dwellings for New York’s working class. The small RPAA discussion group was determined to move beyond theorizing about housing reform and to put its ideas into practice. Several earlier private-sector initiatives to clear the city’s slums and replace them with model tenement apartments had achieved some commendable results, most notably the Avenue A Estate of 1910–1913 on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, designed by Harde & Short, Percy Griffen, and Philip H. Ohm. Sponsored by the City and Suburban Homes Company—the most successful of the Progressive Era’s privately financed limited-dividend corporations—this full-city-block development was the world’s largest low-income housing project when it was completed. But the CHC differed in applying Garden City Movement tenets instead of replicating long-established New York urban patterns, however much the city’s characteristic multistory apartment house may have been revamped at the Avenue A Estate.
The major impediment to the creation of affordable housing in New York City, then as now, has been high land costs, and the CHC was fortunate in being able to acquire a seventy-seven-acre disused Queens railway yard from the Long Island Rail Road at a comparatively low price. By the 1920s, that still largely undeveloped outer borough had become more accessible to Manhattan with the completion of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909 and the extension of subway service six years later. (At its inception Sunnyside was a four-stop, five-cent train ride from Midtown Manhattan.) Cheap mass transit spurred construction of middle-income housing in Queens, much of it nondescript six-story apartment buildings. Here was a perfect opportunity for the CHC to exhibit the superiority of Garden City principles cheek by jowl with conventional real estate construction, and the quietly triumphant Sunnyside Gardens could not have made the contrast clearer.
This project—a mixture of single-, two-, and three-family houses (563 units in all), some in rows, some minimally attached to others, as well as 322 apartments—was designed by the architects Clarence S. Stein and Henry Wright, who worked out the site planning, along with Frederick Lee Ackerman, who was primarily responsible for the architecture. (The project’s name came from that of an eighteenth-century estate in the vicinity, not the more famous home of Washington Irving overlooking the Hudson in Tarrytown, New York.) As a purely residential scheme, Sunnyside departed from the Garden City Movement’s strong emphasis on establishing economically self-sufficient communities that kept workplaces and housing in close proximity to eliminate the need for commuter transportation. But clearly a country as addicted to the automobile as the United States would never embrace pedestrian communities as fully as Britain, where the Garden City Movement flourished with such successful new towns as Letchworth before World War I, Welwyn Garden City during the interwar decades, and after World War II Stevenage and ten more new towns completed by 1955 thanks to the socially oriented welfare state.
Clarence Samuel Stein was born in 1882 to a well-off Jewish family in Rochester, New York. His father was a founder of the National Casket Company, and that recession-proof business allowed the Steins to move to Manhattan when Clarence was eight. There the family gravitated toward the recently founded New York Society for Ethical Culture, which attracted secularized Jews eager to assimilate in a non-Christian manner. Young Clarence attended an Ethical Culture school, and then went to work for his father. At twenty-two he entered Columbia University’s School of Architecture, where he focused on interior and furniture design, but soon decided to study instead at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, a sine qua non for aspiring high-style architects. After he returned to the US in 1911 he was hired by Bertram Goodhue, whose large New York firm gave Beaux-Arts traditions a more contemporary and American inflection. Among the Goodhue jobs Stein worked on was the layout of Tyrone, New Mexico (1914–1918), a built-from-scratch company town for the Phelps Dodge copper-mining corporation.
In his spare time Stein immersed himself in the urban design improvement groups that flourished during the Progressive Era, and was attracted to the political coterie around New York’s reform-minded Democratic governor, Al Smith. Stein left Goodhue’s office in 1918 and the following year started his own firm. He later collaborated with Robert D. Kohn and Charles Butler on his most conspicuous commission, New York’s Romanesque Revival Temple Emanu-El of 1928–1930, the Jewish equivalent of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. (It was erected at Fifth Avenue and East 65th Street, across Central Park from Stein’s penthouse apartment at Central Park West and West 64th Street, where he lived for the rest of his life and could view his best-known work from the balcony.)
The great turning point for Stein came in 1923 with the formation of the RPAA, of which he was among the dozen charter members and its treasurer. The chairman was Alexander M. Bing, a leading developer, with his brother Leo S. Bing, of deluxe Manhattan apartment houses (in New York real estate circles “Bing and Bing” remains synonymous with pre-war residential excellence). Other participants included Mumford, the architecture editor Charles Harris Whitaker, the conservationist Benton MacKaye (known as “the father of the Appalachian Trail”), and several more architects, most notably Henry Wright, who would soon team with Stein on the most significant projects of their lives.
Wright, born in 1878, was a Kansas Quaker whose advocacy of cooperative communities reflected his religious heritage. After receiving his architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania, he worked on housing subdivisions in Kansas City and St. Louis that reserved large portions of the site for common use, later to become the most defining feature of his association with Stein. Both men were deeply influenced by the radical writings of Henry George, the nineteenth-century American political economist who decried the private ownership of land as a fundamental social crime. Although Stein and Wright were never in a position to impose such an extreme reassignment of property rights, they promoted the next best thing by designating large outdoor spaces in their multiunit housing schemes for the use of all residents.
To achieve that goal of accessible outdoor space at Sunnyside Gardens, the first of their three joint efforts, they employed the planning format known as the superblock, which places structures in a continuous sequence around the outermost periphery of a site. The pervasive rectilinear street grid of New York City—first applied in Manhattan through the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811 to rationalize new development, and later transferred to the four other boroughs in varying degrees—lent itself particularly well to the superblock pattern.
The distinctive midrise row houses built by the thousands in Manhattan throughout the 1800s (now called brownstones regardless of their cladding material) were positioned as close as permitted to the street to allow maximum coverage of the building site. This practice created an outline akin to the superblock, although the large open areas at the center of each city block were typically subdivided and fenced off from one another. Well-to-do New York households began to install indoor plumbing from around the 1840s onward, but not until passage of the Tenement House Act of 1901 were multifamily dwellings required to have a water closet within each apartment unit; until then these long, narrow urban backyards were mainly the province of malodorous outhouses. The reprioritization of spatial hierarchies proposed by Stein and Wright—who asserted that shared outdoor spaces should be as carefully considered as private indoor accommodations—was their singular innovation, and thus the Garden City concept could be transplanted with astonishing facility from England’s green and pleasant shires to the gritty reality of America’s biggest city.
The third member of the Sunnyside Gardens troika was the New York architect Frederick Lee Ackerman (1878–1950), who designed the quietly neo-traditional architecture of the scheme’s buildings. Ackerman’s best-known independent project is the First Houses public housing project of 1935–1936 on New York’s Lower East Side, an eight-building complex of four- and five-story utilitarian redbrick structures. This was part of the federal government’s Works Progress Administration initiative during the Great Depression to eradicate urban slums and replace them with up-to-date dwellings within the economic range of working-class families. Ackerman, who studied architecture at Cornell, also designed several structures for its Ithaca campus. But the look of his buildings was never paramount to this dedicated social reformer, who saw his architecture largely as a means to an end, contrary to some celebrated exponents of the Modern Movement for whom surface style was a foremost consideration.
Although Stein, Wright, and Ackerman are usually credited with the design of Sunnyside Gardens, it seems a major injustice that equal billing isn’t also given to their most important consultant, the landscape architect Marjorie Cautley (1891–1954), who received a degree in landscape design from Cornell in 1917 and a master’s in city planning from Penn twenty-six years later. Cautley’s verdant enhancement of Sunnyside Gardens (which also encompasses the three-and-a-half-acre Sunnyside Gardens Park, one of only two such private preserves in New York City, the other being Manhattan’s Gramercy Park) has been integral to the long-term success of the enterprise. Her work remains its most attractive feature, thanks to the residents’ diligent hands-on maintenance of the original landscape scheme. Although Cautley wrote Garden Design: The Principles of Abstract Design as Applied to Landscape Composition (1935)—a stylish how-to book aimed at a small upscale readership that during the Great Depression could afford labor-intensive, English-style horticulture—she nonetheless believed that the beauty and consolation of nature must be accessible to everyone, not just the rich.
Cautley was less interested in private commissions than in applying her talents to schemes with a strong social component, and in that respect she followed the example of America’s greatest creator of landscaped terrain, Frederick Law Olmsted. He adapted the Romantic design ethos of the eighteenth-century British landscape masters Capability Brown and Humphry Repton to public parks that fundamentally reshaped notions of urbanism by drawing on aristocratic traditions of land use, while democratizing them as never before.4 Although Olmsted and his British precursors aimed for a naturalistic look that drew out the best in existing topography, their work in many instances depended on pure (though well-concealed) artifice, most spectacularly fulfilled in Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s Central Park of 1857–1873 in New York City.
That direct line of aesthetic inheritance is most evident in Cautley’s landscape design for Stein, Wright, and Ackerman’s next and most ambitious scheme, their “Town for the Motor Age”: Radburn, New Jersey, of 1929–1931. Seventeen miles southwest of New York, this 149-acre “greenfield” project (that is, built on previously undeveloped land) gave her far more scope for dramatic landscape effects than had been possible at the more circumscribed Sunnyside Gardens (a “brownfield” project on a recycled industrial site). Indeed, Radburn demonstrates that the superblock configuration can function perhaps better without the strict imposition of right angles imposed by the New York City grid, as proved by the undulating organic layout of the New Jersey scheme.
The sweeping central common that Cautley landscaped at Radburn so closely adheres to a checklist of Olmsted’s design staples—including a biomorphic ground plan, picturesque stands of tree and shrub varieties selected for their projected sculptural presence when mature, and a sequential unfolding of contiguous spaces in an almost cinematic manner—that it seems as if a goodly chunk of Central Park had somehow wandered across the Hudson River. Furthermore, she always insisted on planting well-established (and therefore costlier) trees, rather than the wispy saplings commonly used to save money in public projects. As a result, her compositional aims revealed themselves much sooner than in settings where it took many more decades for plantings to fully develop. Though this was far from instant landscaping, Cautley’s sense of arboreal life span reconciled the horticultural and the human with uncommon awareness.
The creators of Radburn were eager for their new town not to become just another nicely designed bedroom community of the sort that had been built in the New York region since Alexander Jackson Davis’s Llewellyn Park of 1853 in West Orange, New Jersey, a pioneering planned suburb twelve miles west of the megalopolis. But although only generalized plans were made at Radburn for local businesses beyond the provision of food and household services for its residents, the crash of 1929 halted the entire undertaking. Because Radburn was never fully completed, the economic potential of the Garden City in an American setting remained unproved, fervently though its idealistic originators had hoped it would be vindicated here.
Despite this crushing blow to his high-minded ambitions, Clarence Stein was more fortunate than most of his coprofessionals. In 1928 he married the actress Aline MacMahon, who was lauded as “astonishing, moving and beautiful” by Noël Coward for her performance in Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon. Recruited by Hollywood in 1931, MacMahon stipulated that her film work be limited to a pair of three-month stints per year so she could otherwise “be Mrs. Stein” in New York. Unfortunately that schedule consigned her to B-movie roles that this Barnard-educated, self-described “intellectual snob” disdained as “piffle,” including her delightful comedic turn as a Broadway adventuress in Mervyn LeRoy’s Depression musical Gold Diggers of 1933.
Notwithstanding those disappointing assignments, the actress wisely stuck with her lucrative contracts and kept Stein’s foundering architectural practice afloat during the protracted downturn. Even though MacMahon thereby saved his career, she always insisted that his work was far more important than hers and thus worth the trade-off, a not uncommon attitude among women in those days who put their husbands first. In 1936 Stein’s well-off father gave him and his four siblings the present-day equivalent of $150,000 each, another private cushion against the economic disaster that stymied countless other professionals.
Because Henry Wright did not have such a familial financial fallback, he resorted to a common remedy for architects when building commissions are scarce: teaching. In 1934 he became a professor at the Columbia School of Architecture, which had begun a town planning and housing studies program.
After the collapse of the Radburn experiment and the completion of Stein and Wright’s final scheme—Chatham Village of 1932–1936, a handsomely orchestrated hillside housing estate in Pittsburgh—they had less contact, though the former still hoped for further collaborations. Stein’s major work from this period was his Art Deco Wichita Art Museum of 1929–1935, an ingenious modular scheme that was later encased within additions by other architects. This expertise led to his being asked to do a feasibility study for a new Museum of Modern Art building in New York, although he was never seriously considered for the actual commission, which went to Philip S. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone.
Wright’s sudden death from arteriosclerosis at age fifty-eight in 1936 came as a tremendous shock to his erstwhile partner, who that year suffered the first serious bout of clinical depression, which dogged him for the rest of his life, required sporadic institutionalization, and sharply curtailed his professional activities. Thereafter Stein served primarily as a consultant on multiunit housing schemes designed by others, including Baldwin Hills Village (since renamed Village Green) of 1941–1942 in Los Angeles, an exemplary sixty-four-acre garden apartment complex that was featured in the 1944 MoMA exhibition “Built in USA: 1932–1944.”
By 1951 Stein had recovered sufficiently to become planning director for the Aluminum Company of North America’s new company town of Kitimat, British Columbia, which he designed along superblock lines, a commission that bookended the New Mexico mining town he helped design decades earlier. That same year Stein published Toward New Towns for America, a career survey and summary of his planning philosophy. This late-life resurgence led to his being awarded the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal in 1956. But by the end of the next decade he began to show signs of dementia, and he died in 1975 at the age of ninety-two.
Kroessler ably addresses the concerted effort to preserve the design integrity of Sunnyside Gardens, a more difficult task than might have been expected, since this utilitarian grouping is dependent neither on high-maintenance ornament (such as the gingerbread-festooned Victorian cottages of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard) nor on severe minimalist uniformity (such as Le Corbusier’s Quartiers Modernes Frugès of 1925–1928 in Pessac, France). However, it eventually became clear that Sunnyside Gardens’ individual homeowners could not be allowed to do whatever they liked to the exteriors of their houses, which is true of many gated communities with restrictive homeowners’ association covenants. Kroessler’s detailed account indicates that a sensible medium between exacting adherence to Ackerman’s original architectural design and more permissive alterations in the general spirit of the place has been successfully achieved, although the overarching element that unites Sunnyside Gardens owes everything to Cautley’s superb landscape vision.
Aline MacMahon Stein, the architect’s devoted wife (whom I got to know through Mumford, an anthology of whose writings I organized in honor of his eightieth birthday), told me that, to the end, her husband still had flashes of lucidity that indicated an inner contentment, as when he suddenly announced, “You and I have adequately arrived.” If only one could say the same about Stein and Wright’s life-enhancing planning concepts, which, as the veritable urban Brigadoon of Sunnyside Gardens demonstrates, still have much to teach us about making and sustaining better communities.