Gardens Historic District
Sunnyside Gardens in Queens was
the first “Garden City” development in the United States.
Architects Clarence Stein and Henry Wright, along with landscape
architect Marjorie Cautley, designed Sunnyside Gardens as a complete
community based on a human scale. Developed between 1924 and 1928,
the community includes 1,202 housing units on 77 acres of land.
Rows of simplified homes front the street grid, creating a shared
landscaped garden space on the interior of each block.
When it was completed in the 1920s, the community was protected
by 40-year restrictive covenants maintained by an elected homeowner
association. When the covenants expired in the 1960s, many residents
renewed their commitment to maintaining the character of the neighborhood.
Unfortunately, others did not. This resulted in alterations that
have fractured the neighborhood’s original aesthetic and spatial
conceptualization. Facades have been modified with materials incongruent
with the original brick, front yards have been fenced and paved
to provide off-street parking and private fences have destroyed
all but one of the 10 shared gardens.
A group of residents have recently
formed the Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Partnership to petition
for landmark status from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
In 1974, this unique neighborhood was recognized by the City Planning
Commission and was designated with Special Planned Community Preservation
District zoning regulations. Although this designation prohibits
new development, demolition, enlargement and substantial alterations
to landscaping or topography without special permits from the Planning
Commission, these protections are rarely enforced and many residents
are not aware of their neighborhood’s historic value. Homeowners
have continued to make alterations to their properties in violation
of the provisions of the designation. The Sunnyside Gardens Preservation
Partnership believes more stringent restrictions and effective adherence
to architectural and character standards are necessary to maintain
this distinctive piece of New York’s architectural and social
In addition to the neighborhood’s distinction as the first
planned garden city in the US, Sunnyside Gardens marks a successful
experiment in urban design with politically progressive functionality.
Longtime Sunnyside resident and social philosopher Lewis Mumford
considered Sunnyside Gardens’ design to be a politically powerful
innovation because it was based on social and political concepts
at all. Built specifically with moderate and low income working
families in mind, property ownership was vested in community cooperation.
The communal nature of the shared gardens facilitated collective
action and a sense of neighborhood cohesiveness that was often lost
in the modern civilization that Mumford critiqued.
The Garden City movement originated
in Britain and found a primary proponent in Ebenezer Howard. The
Regional Plan Association imported the concept to the New York region
in the early 1920s.
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