Place in History

Sunnyside Gardens Neighborhood History

Year: 2000
Project: A two-phase initiative to document and publicize the history of Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, one of America’s first planned Garden Suburbs.

In Phase I of the project, Place in History conducted an in-depth examination of this pioneering housing development.

This effort focused on the evolution of the Sunnyside community, and the history of disputes over residents' right to lay claim to formerly public space.

In the course of Phase I, Place in History combed secondary sources, gathered primary records and memorabilia, and interviewed those few longtime Sunnyside residents who remember the community's first few decades of existence.

In Phase II, Place in History presented its findings to the Sunnyside community in an exhibition at the Fall 2000 Skillman Avenue street fair.

Transcripts

Partners and Sponsors

Without the assistance and resources of Dorothy Morehead, director of the Sunnyside Foundation, this project would not have been possible;  we at Place in History are grateful to her for putting everything into place and leading us to all of our sources.

In addition, we would like to thank Bea Badian, Jerry Modica, and Maxine Shacker, who talked with us at length about their memories of Sunnyside.

We also would like to acknowledge all of the people who spoke with us at the Skillman Avenue Street Fair, including:

Elena Acosta
Dan Allen  
Isabel Bocchino  
Anne Cody  
Molla Corson  
Kim Edel  
Barbara Gilbert
Maria Guzman
Walter Iwachiw
Patricia Noel  
Carole Smargon
Patrick Sweeney
Howard Weiner


  Space and Community at Sunnyside - Part 2  

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Part 2. Design and Development

Sunnyside Gardens site plan

The City Housing Corporation was established in February 1924 to develop model neighborhoods and towns based on the garden city principles forwarded by the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA).  Alexander Bing, a reform-minded realtor from Manhattan, spearheaded the creation of CHC, and with the help of his colleagues at the RPAA, set out to find an appropriate development site for a trial project.  New York City had voted to exempt new housing developments from real estate taxes during 1923 and 1924, so Bing had incentive to begin work quickly.  After a brief search, Bing purchased 77 acres of land on lots 154 and 155 in the First Ward of Queens, and immediately commissioned RPAA members Clarence Stein and Henry Wright to come up with development plans.

Stein, an architect, and Wright, a landscape designer, created a plan for 1200 moderately priced units on 28% of the site, leaving the remaining land for community open space.  Rowhouses, which constitute most of the structures in the development, were built close to the sidewalk to allow more space for common courts behind the buildings. In addition to the courts, the plan created small private gardens in the rear of each house, as well as a three-and-a-half acre private park for recreational uses.

"In new communities that have been planned as social units, with visible coherence in the architecture, with a sufficient number of local meeting rooms for group activities, as in Sunnyside Gardens... a robust political life, with effective collective action and a sense of renewed public responsibility, has swiftly grown up."

Urbanist Lewis Mumford, a longtime Sunnyside Gardens resident. 

Stein and Wright’s design also called for the development of eight apartment houses, including four 30-unit cooperatives, three 70-unit rentals, and Phipps Houses, an Art Deco building demonstrating the latest in garden apartment aesthetics. Managed by a non-profit housing development corporation, Phipps Houses, finally built in 1931, provided an alternative model to cooperative living in Sunnyside Gardens.

Members of the RPAA hailed Stein and Wright’s plan for Sunnyside Gardens as a “democratic” design which would encourage its middle class residents to adopt the cooperative values and behavioral patterns of more wholesome, pastoral communities.

The attempt to create a microcosm of cooperative village life within New York City did not, however, entail the creation of low-income housing.  While Bing made a strong effort to keep the cost of units down, houses in Sunnyside Gardens generally sold for around $2000 more than speculatively built housing in the immediately surrounding neighborhoods.  Nevertheless, the first generation of middle class buyers attracted to Sunnyside Gardens did use the community gardens and public spaces for just the kinds of cooperative, progressive community activities envisioned by the RPAA.

In order to ensure that its social and political objectives remained intact, CHC drew up a series of covenants and easements which placed restrictions on everything from common court access to house painting. These legal agreements were drafted over the course of the neighborhood’s development, which lasted from 1924 to 1928.

The final Declaration of Easements and Restrictions, signed in March 1926, not only reserved the central courts “for the common benefit of the property owners in each of said respective blocks,” but also stipulated that:

"[N]o garage of any kind or nature....no fences, hedges, outbuildings, clothes poles or lines, radio poles or lines, signs or awnings shall be erected.....[N]o changes, alterations or additions of any kind shall be made to the porches or exterior of any building on said premises, including exterior painting in any different color than at present, without written consent of said Trustees."

With the exception of several “light easements,” as well as easements protecting the mews, the restrictions imposed by the CHC were scheduled to expire on January 1, 1966, approximately forty years after going into effect. Banks and insurance companies, apparently concerned about perpetual easements on properties for which they were providing mortgages, required this arrangement.

"Some resented the fact that they had to paint their windows yellow and their doors green.  I painted my windows white.  I said, 'white on brick is terrific, why can't we have white?  Why is it that stupid yellow?  And green.'  But the thing is the green came out because it was predominantly Irish, and the Irish like green!"

Longtime Sunnyside resident

The CHC’s Declaration of Easements and Restrictions also established a five member board of trustees to oversee the maintenance and use of the neighborhood’s common gardens, streets and parks, financed through annual fees paid by residents.  Court associations were also created to look after individual common courts.  This arrangement fell apart during the 1930s when Sunnyside Gardens residents staged a rent and mortgage strike and CHC declared bankruptcy; a new group, the United Trustees, stepped in however, assuming most of the responsibilities held by the original trustees.  The management of the private park, supported by membership dues from those residents willing to join, also shifted during the 1930s from the original trustees to a new organization called the Sunnyside Gardens Civic Association. 

In spite of the financial and managerial difficulties of the 1930s, Sunnyside Gardens met many of the expectations of its designers and developers. For the first twenty years or so, the covenants and easements facilitated a sense of community unusual in New York, and gave residents an opportunity to live at near-suburban densities in the middle of the city. During the 1950s, even as the park and many of the common courts began to fall into disrepair, many Sunnyside Gardeners nevertheless attempted to extend the life of the easements, fearing that their expiration would signal the end of the community. This effort resulted in the extension of easements by 54 of 60 homeowners on Hamilton Court, but did not convince the majority of residents to renew their commitment to the RPAA’s principles.  Thus in 1966, Sunnyside Gardeners enthusiastically began renovating, fencing, and curb cutting en masse.

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