Gardens of Eden: Long Island’s Early Twentieth-Century Planned Communities

Reviewed by Tim Keogh

Gardens of Eden: Long Island's Early Twentieth-Century Planned Communities  Edited by Robert B. MacKay W. W. Norton & Company (2015) 304 pages

Gardens of Eden: Long Island's Early Twentieth-Century Planned Communities
Edited by Robert B. MacKay
W. W. Norton & Company (2015)
304 pages

Today, New York’s high-profile real estate developers build high-rise condominiums in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Long Island City. Their massive glass towers offer Gotham’s professional class apartments with floor-to-ceiling windows, gyms and rec rooms, trendy restaurants and organic markets, all just one elevator ride away. But a century ago, Gotham’s bourgeoisie looked beyond the confines of industrial New York, and the most prominent developers built and planned entire communities along rail lines in the expansive farmland of Queens and Long Island. Constructed in the shadow of Gatsby’s ‘Gold Coast,’ these were the fashionable areas of early twentieth century New York, with architecture and community designs that remain appealing today. For those intrigued by the idealism of suburban planning, or the beauty of Tudor or Spanish-style housing, this new book, Gardens of Eden, offers a coffee table-sized collection of rare pictures, along with intriguing narratives for twenty-two of Long Island’s most iconic early twentieth-century suburbs.

Robert B. MacKay’s edited collection covers the broad diversity of Long Island’s ‘Tuxedos,’ ‘American Venices,’ ‘resort colonies,’ or ‘residential parks,’ all terms to describe what we now call garden suburbs. Influenced by England’s garden city movement, American anti-urbanism, and the rising interest in leisure sport, Long Island’s architects and developers looked to design complete residential communities, not just tracts of housing. This warranted significant investment in landscaping, architects trained in Tudor, Georgian, or Mediterranean styles, elaborate sporting and leisure clubs, and most importantly, property restrictions prohibiting speculation and personal home remodeling. Their plans were visionary, though as MacKay puts it, developers married their utopian dreams to a “wolfish business sense and groundbreaking marketing initiatives.” After all, builders were speculating on the explosion of transportation options at the turn of the century, including Penn Station, the extension of the IRT subway, the 59th Street Bridge, and one of the nation’s first highways, the Long Island Motor Parkway. But as the architectural scholars, local historians, and residents who authored the chapters contend, these planned residential parks were ambitious, going beyond the search for profit to build idealized communities.

Of course, the idealism varied widely across Long Island. Richard Guy Wilson’s chapter on Garden City illustrates how early twentieth-century suburbs could be products of multiple visions. Between 1869 and 1920, Garden City went through four distinct re-conceptions. Department store magnate Alexander Turney Stewart first designed it as a garden suburb emulating Ebenezer Howard’s famed book. Upon his death, Stewart’s wife built a literal American cathedral town, complete with an Episcopal cathedral and religious school for boys and girls. When the heirs of Mrs. Stewart inherited the town in 1893, it became a country resort community, with tennis courts, golf courses, horseback riding, billiard rooms, croquet, bowling, and a luxury hotel. In its final incarnation, the garden city concept returned in 1906, complete with added railroad stations, a Tudor-style industrial complex, farm belt, and shopping area. In Garden City, the utopian urban visions of the industrial and medieval age overlapped, and these conflicting visions are embedded into the residential suburb today.

Idealized designs addressed contemporary urban problems as well, though as Virginia L. Bartos’ biography of Robert Weeks de Forest demonstrates, the tensions between profit, aesthetics, proper planning, and affordability were insurmountable. De Forest, affordable housing advocate and one of the founders of the New York School for Social Work, convinced philanthropist Olivia Slocum Sage to fund Forest Hills Gardens in Queens. The community was to simultaneously demonstrate how ‘scientific’ planning could at once solve the “problem of housing civilized humanity” while making the homes and streets aesthetically pleasing, the planning economic, all while making a return on investment. Ultimately, only two of the visions came true. The community’s curvilinear streets, Arts and Crafts aesthetic, and quick commute to midtown made it popular among New York’s middle class, but Forest Hills Gardens neither turned a profit nor offered affordable housing to the city’s tenement dwellers. When de Forest later constructed Munsey Park in Manhasset, the aesthetics and planning were the exclusive goals; solving broader urban social problems were not on the agenda.

Most developers were less concerned broad social problems, and the bulk of the book’s chapters cover the elaborate communities where design and upscale amenities were paramount. One of the more distinct design themes were the various ‘Venices’ constructed along the South shore in Copiague, Bayshore, and Islip. Exploiting Long Island’s vast bays, builders carved canals out of marshland, placed Venetian-style bridges over the man-made rivers, and imported gondolas for that extra bit of authenticity. In Bayshore, T.B. Ackerson’s ‘Brightwaters’ had a grand canal that fed into five synthetic lakes, each surrounded by winding roads with empty plots for buyers to design custom Venetian-style homes. Ackerson even constructed a lookout tower to attract new homeowners to his masterpiece. Yacht clubs and bath houses were standard features in all three places, and each boasted recreation as a central feature of community living. The most extreme versions of these residential parks were constructed in Long Beach and Montauk Beach, both luxury resort communities. Long Beach was New York’s answer to the then-booming Atlantic City, a beach/entertainment complex with surrounding planned community an hour from Midtown. Montauk Beach was a private luxury colony at the tip of Long Island’s east end, complete with hotels, a casino, golf course, hunting lodge, polo fields, yacht club, an entire downtown with a theater and stores, a school and apartments for employees, and of course, a spate of exclusive luxury properties.

These are the highlights of the book’s twenty-two community profiles, though the volume’s greatest strength is the plethora of advertisements, photographs, and promotional material that accompany the articles. Few pages lack a visual profile of a house, swimming pool, aerial view of planned streets, or an ad of a family pining for country living on Long Island. The book’s extra-large size (9.4 x 12.4 inches) makes it a fantastic coffee-table book, and it can be addicting to peruse the photos, stopping on a particularly striking image and reading along. The authors invested significant time collecting and curating the images, and they are as important to the work as the narratives, which are never more than twenty-five pages long, making the book perfect for quick reads.

Unfortunately, the focus on community design and the promotional photographs presents a limited view of these garden suburbs. It may be unfair to criticize a book that is explicitly architectural and planning history, but upon reading the chapters, many questions are left unanswered. For example, nearly all of the companies and developers who planned the residential parks went bankrupt by the Depression. Most authors describe the reasons why individual entities failed, but there are broader factors at work in the financial collapse of so many planned communities targeting “people of more modest means seeking to escape the city.” Similarly, the very people who inhabited these communities are largely invisible. While racial restrictions are mentioned, and the workers who built the streets, canals, and houses occasionally appear, the kinds of people attracted to these residential parks and how they used the available amenities or interacted with the ideal plans is absent. We are left with the idealized images of what the planned communities were supposed to be and why some did not reach their vision, but not what they were. Those interested in these questions will have to look elsewhere.

These limitations should not detract from the value of Gardens of Eden. Architectural and planning historians can make use of the concise chapters on some of the nation’s most iconic developers, architects, and communities. Scholars of early-twentieth century suburbia and Greater New York need to add MacKay’s volume to their shelf, since it is the first comprehensive history of Long Island’s middle-class suburbs during this period. Lay readers can enjoy the enticing community narratives and pictures from an era at once distant and familiar; here boater hats and Eton crops sit alongside ostentatious homes built in a real estate frenzy. It makes a great companion for day trips, whether one hops on the subway to visit Forest Hills Gardens or Jamaica Estates, the Long Island Railroad for Garden City, Kensington, University Gardens, or Long Beach, or gets on the highway to reach Suffolk County’s ‘Venices’ in Brightwaters, Copiague, and Bayberry Point.

Tim Keogh is Assistant Professor of History at Queensborough Community College, CUNY.