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Book explores early-20th century 'garden suburbs' on Long Island

Jackson Boulevard, now Edwards Boulevard, in Long Beach,

Jackson Boulevard, now Edwards Boulevard, in Long Beach, part of the planned garden communities that grew up during the early 20th century. Credit: SPLIA

Although Long Island can be perceived as the epitome of cookie-cutter suburban sprawl, in the early 1900s it was the setting for many of the earliest planned garden communities featuring innovative architecture and landscaping.

The story of these "residential parks" is told in a new 304-page coffee-table book compiled by the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities: "Gardens of Eden: Long Island's Early Twentieth-Century Planned Communities" (W.W. Norton & Co., $65).

Edited by society director emeritus Robert B. MacKay, it chronicles more than three dozen of these early "garden suburbs," where the developers preserved or enhanced the natural qualities of the site, from Brooklyn out through Suffolk.

These home colonies were the result of growing interest in landscape architecture and a "Garden City" movement that had begun in England "to create something entirely new, entirely American," MacKay writes.

The developments were characterized by large investments in landscaping and infrastructure, varied architectural styles of the houses and deed stipulations to maintain the vision of the developer.

They were made possible by transportation improvements, including the Queensboro Bridge in 1909 and the Long Island Rail Road tunnels under the East River in 1910, along with economic growth that boosted white-collar salaries to allow more leisure time for the recreation that was a hallmark of these projects.

Llewellyn Park in West Orange, New Jersey -- begun in 1853 -- is considered the first planned garden suburb in the United States. The projects that followed also eschewed, for the most part, what the organizers saw as the boring formality of grid layouts.

"Cottage colonies" of summer homes began to appear at the end of the 1800s out into Suffolk, including Bay Crest at Huntington Bay (1888) and Glen Cove's North Country Colony (1893).

On the South Shore, where the land was flat, several developments featured canals inspired by Venice, including H.O. Havemeyer's Bayberry Point near West Islip, T.B. Ackerson's Brightwaters and Isaac Meister and Victor Pisani's American Venice in Copiague, where the developers even ordered gondolas from Italy.

From the beginning, amenities like tennis courts, docks and beaches were important. Many communities were developed around country clubs, with golf courses being added by the 1920s in Great Neck Estates, Lido Beach, Munsey Park, Garden City, Belle Terre and Montauk.

Even now, "on Long Island," Mackay writes, "the early planned communities, a century after their creation, exude a strong sense of place."

Here's a look at some of the communities.


Alexander T. Stewart, who established the first American department store on lower Broadway in Manhattan, purchased more than 9,000 acres and began to build his model town in 1870. It had a rectangular street grid layout, although some curving roads were added later. Garden City had one of the first sewage disposal systems in the country.

In 1874, a four-story brick hotel was completed to serve as the home for Stewart and his wife as well as the social centerpiece of the community. The Long Island Rail Road built a branch to the site; train service was a trademark of the communities that succeeded.

Garden City was not initially one of them, in part because the houses were rented and marketed to vacationers. After the death of the Stewarts, the community prospered when homes were offered for sale and recreational opportunities emphasized. These included tennis, a gun club, a racetrack, golf courses, a polo ground and later automobile racing and bicycling.

Much of Garden City's early architectural history remains intact, including the Cathedral of the Incarnation and the endangered St. Paul's School. The Garden City Hotel is a modern incarnation, and some of the recreational sites have been developed, although several golf courses remain.


The United Holding Company acquired 77 acres of farmland just east of the Queens border and was building houses by 1910. What was unusual was that the company's founder was a woman, Helen Marsh.

Her development was marketed as affordable houses for commuters to the city. Her engineer laid out the streets to fan out from the railroad station. Marsh retained architectural control so no two houses were alike; by 1920, there were 117. Today, Bellerose still looks pretty much the way Marsh established it.


The city by the sea was the brainchild of former State Sen. William H. Reynolds, who had constructed thousands of homes and apartment buildings in Brooklyn and Queens.

In 1906, the master marketer -- he employed elephants during construction to garner press coverage -- came to Nassau to develop a combination resort and residential community for the "wealthy classes" on an almost empty barrier island. Reynolds dredged a 5-mile-long channel that bears his name along the north side of the island and used the sand to build up the land. He also built a 50-foot-wide boardwalk, a hotel, bathing pavilion, casino and stores.

Reynolds' city was laid with wide landscape boulevards, and he stipulated all houses be built of concrete faced with white stucco with red tile roofs. When the Estates of Long Beach formally opened in 1907, the project was an immediate success. Many of the houses retain their original appearance.


Thomas Benton Ackerson in 1907 began work on a 1,300-acre development on the Great South Bay. His year-round "commuters' paradise" included a canal from the bay to a series of small man-made lakes with winding roads running over graceful arch bridges.

By 1910, he built a Grand Plaza with a boat landing and flanking pavilions at the end of the canal at Montauk Highway.

By 1917, the company had built about 200 homes, making Brightwaters one of the most successful planned suburban developments of its time.

Brightwaters retains more than two-thirds of the pre-1918 structures, along with most of its landscape features.

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