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


  A Thoroughly Conscious and Workable Community - Part 1  

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

A Thoroughly Conscious and Workable Community

By Molly Turner

Part 1. The Early Years

Sunnyside Gardens (the dark polygon at the center of the picture) is located just across the Queensboro Bridge from midtown Manhattan

In 1924, a partnership of prominent New Yorkers, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Culture Society, joined real estate developer Alexander Bing in forming the City Housing Corporation (CHC), a limited dividend company dedicated to building model communities.  The aim of the CHC was to carry out the practical application of the social theories of the Regional Planning Association of America, which had been founded in 1923 by a group of leading planners including Bing, Lewis Mumford, and architects Clarence Stein and Henry Wright. 

The CHC launched its program by commissioning Stein and Wright to design a residential development on an 80 acre plot in Queens.  Sunnyside Gardens, by providing quality affordable homes in a “garden city” to the middle and lower classes, was to demonstrate how enterprising civic leaders could solve social problems, beautify the city, and take in a modest profit at the same time (investors were paid no more than 6% of profits).

The homes at Sunnyside, built between 1926 and 1928, are plain, well-built brick boxes with lots of windows and decent-sized rooms.  “Common brick is the chief material; cheap ornament and bizarre inventions are avoided as well as archaeological survivals of other times and other needs.”  The buildings, designed by Frederick Lee Ackerman, are flanked by open spaces in the form of front and back gardens and shared inner courtyards, laid out by landscape designer Marjorie Cautley.  The houses vary in size, configuration, and relation to the street; in general, they were designed to house several families in close urban proximity without crowding, and with plenty of sunlight, grass, and shade available to all.

The development was targeted toward working individuals and families unable to afford Manhattan.  The houses were sold with a low 10% down payment, at a cost of about $10 per month per room ($15 per room was the usual cost at that time).

"That hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers should be living in homes which injure both health and morals, and that for other hundreds of thousands the limitations and discomforts are only a degree less acute, challenges thoughtful citizens to find a remedy.  What would it not mean to the happiness and well-being of the people of the New York if each of these families were living in a home that made possible a normal, wholesome, healthful family life?  Utopian though this objective may seem in the light of present conditions, it would be unthinkable to pronounce it beyond the capacity of American enterprise to achieve…."

-City Housing Corporation, Sunnyside Gardens promotional brochure, 1920s

Just across the Queensboro Bridge from the city’s commercial center, and close to the subway line, the new development was an easy commute.  A City Housing Corporation survey of homeowners in 1928 counted 184 blue collar workers (mechanics, chauffeurs, restaurant workers) and 355 white collar workers, including tradesmen, salesmen, government employees, teachers, social workers, lawyers, and doctors (Havelick and Kwartler 1982).  Artists and writers were also attracted to the amenities of Sunnyside Gardens; in fact, the development in its early years was sometimes referred to as the “Greenwich Village annex” (Badian 2000).

"The home ideals of hundreds of men and women are coming true.  At Sunnyside Gardens... families that have searched for a real home are finding substantial brick one-, two- and three-family homes, gardens such as they never hoped to have within the city limits, and all to be had for what they would ordinarily pay in rent or less."

-City Housing Corporation, Sunnyside Gardens promotional brochure, 1920s

The ambitious vision of the City Housing Corporation reflected both the inflated affluence of the Roaring Twenties and the belief in scientific method that had begun to pervade the American business world.  In such a prosperous time, the main obstacle to homeownership for lower-income people seemed to be the high cost of land and building materials.  For architects Wright and Stein, for city planner and social critic Lewis Mumford (an early resident of the Gardens) and for the founders of the City Housing Corporation, the challenge was to use scientific knowledge and private enterprise to do better than government—better in terms of aesthetic, moral, and economic value.   

For the architects, the most exciting challenge of Sunnyside was to find the maximum amount of privacy, light, and interior space in the limited square footage available. Wright and Stein were determined to adapt Ebenezer Howard’s model of the English Garden City to the American urban environment.  They had first thought about the project on a large tract of available land in South Brooklyn, and eventually developed it in Sunnyside.  Some of their main concerns involved mixing up single, two, and three-family houses in the same cluster (to achieve what Wright called “group housing,”) and configuring the interior space so that many of the windows looked into the landscaped courtyards.

Next Page
©2017 Place in History