Bourgeois Nightmares

Suburbia, 1870-1930
By Robert M. Fogelson

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2005 Robert M. Fogelson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10876-7


Chapter One

Suburbia, 1870-1930: The Quest for Permanence

The Problem of Unwanter Change

Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., had nothing to do with the planning of Palos Verdes Estates-and in all likelihood he never even saw the Palos Verdes Peninsula. By the time Vanderlip and his associates bought the property from Bixby and hired Olmsted Brothers to help subdivide it, Olmsted had been dead for more than a decade. But had he lived long enough, he would probably have approved of how his sons designed Palos Verdes Estates-how, in line with principles he had formulated, they enhanced the natural beauty by reserving hundreds of acres for parks and open spaces, how they preserved the breathtaking views by laying out the streets and lots to fit into the contour of the hilly terrain, and how they rendered the streets quiet and safe by funneling traffic into a few wide thoroughfares. He would also have approved of how the Olmsteds and Cheney restricted Palos Verdes Estates-how, in an attempt to ensure its "stability and permanence," they imposed a set of sweeping and stringent restrictions on what the owners could do with their property. For much like the restrictions in other upper-middle-class subdivisions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Palos Verdes Estates Protective Restrictions were designed to solve a problem that Olmsted had noticed as early as the 1860s and 1870s, a problem that raised strong doubts about the future of suburbs in the United States. Although Olmsted was not the only American who was aware of this problem, no one else spelled it out so vividly and perceptively.

As a designer, consultant, and writer, Olmsted devoted much of his prodigious energy to trying to ameliorate some of the worst features of America's cities. But by the 1860s he began to doubt that it was possible to build in these cities "a convenient and tasteful" house "adapted to the civilized requirements of a single family, except at a cost which even rich men find prohibitive." Given the natural tendency of people to "flock together" in cities, a return to the country was out of the question. So was an exodus to "the sterile parts of the great West." But a move to the suburbs was not. For most Americans, Olmsted argued, the suburbs offered the benefits of city life without the congestion, tumult, noise, crime, and vice, and the pleasures of country life without the inconvenience, isolation, and lack of amenities. As he wrote to Edward Everett Hale, a Boston clergyman best known today as the author of "The Man Without a Country," the suburbs provided "elbow room about a house without going into the country, without sacrifice of butchers, bakers, & theatres." In a society racked by class conflict, "a suburban yeomanry," in the words of two Olmsted scholars, also served as a much-needed balance wheel. Well-planned and well-designed suburbs, Olmsted wrote in the late 1860s, were "the most attractive, the most refined and the most soundly wholesome forms of domestic life."

But as Olmsted pointed out, few suburbs were well planned and well designed, much less "attractive," "refined," and "soundly wholesome." With the subdividers driven by short-term pecuniary goals, most suburbs were built "little by little, without any general plan"; and where the subdivisions were laid out in a methodical way, "no intelligent design has been pursued to secure any distinctly rural attractiveness." The result, Olmsted observed, was that most suburbs were "as yet little better than rude overdressed villages, or fragmentary half-made towns." More often than not, the roads were "untidy, shabby, uninviting, and completely contradictory to the ideal which most townspeople have in view when they seek to find a pleasant site for a suburban home"-a site at once sylvan and picturesque. Sometimes the lots were "in themselves attractive," Olmsted conceded. But all too often they were located next to "rough clearings in old wood land with blocks of gaunt trees left standing; patches of waste land and ill kept fields[,] raw banks by the side of the road, puddles and swamps[,] roadside taverns and beer gardens[,] shanties, dilapidated stables or small groups of buildings such as are to be looked for in the most repulsive outskirts of cities with cinders and garbage strewn before them New York fashion." Even worse, some suburbs were "malarious or otherwise unhealthy." No wonder, Olmsted wrote in the mid-1880s, there was little demand for suburban lots near New York City and many of them "can be bought at half their original cost."

Even more disturbing than the sorry state of what Olmsted called "catch-penny speculations" was the rapid deterioration of once fashionable suburbs. As he wrote in the early 1870s, "Numerous suburbs of New York, which a few years ago were distinguished for their rural beauty and refined society, have thus, through the gradual development of various uncongenial elements, entirely lost their former character." What were once "charming villas and cottages" have been sold "at less than half their cost" and turned into "boarding and tenement houses." These suburbs were "laid waste almost as by an invading army." To Olmsted, it was plain that the success of suburbia led to its undoing. Attracted to a new subdivision by the expansive views and wooded grounds, a few families bought lots and then built houses and made other improvements, which detracted from the natural setting. For a while the suburb retained many of the qualities that first drew people to it. But before long other families moved in. Through "ignorance, incompetence, bad taste, or knavery," Olmsted wrote, the newcomers destroyed "just those circumstances of the locality which have really constituted the chief parts of its value to cultivated townspeople." Far from happy with the changes, some owners lost interest in their property or found other uses for it. "Rural buildings and fences are allowed to fall into decay, woods and orchards to be cut down, shops, brickyards, breweries, factories to be brought in, and a poor semblance of the scattering outskirts of a large town to overgrow what had been a beautiful countryside."

Olmsted had observed this deterioration on a tract of about a thousand to fifteen hundred acres on Staten Island, where he had worked on and off as a gentleman farmer in the late 1840s and early 1850s. A tract that was once "the most attractive of any on the island, or even perhaps of any on this side of the Atlantic," it had been covered by farms and villages, whose residents lived in cozy cottages alongside pretty roads, "winding among the great trees, crossing clear brooks and skirting the clean meadows." Then a wharf was built, and a ferry began running between the island and the city. New roads were constructed, and old farms were divided into suburban lots, "inviting to a good class of residents." But no provision was made for proper drainage, and no care was given to protecting the natural setting. Soon the growing suburb attracted not only the well-to-do but also servants, laborers, and what would now be called day-trippers. To tap the new market, one businessman opened a beer garden; others set up shops and stables and built small dwellings, "to make room for which fine trees were often felled." "At length," Olmsted wrote, "two or three factories were established in the neighborhood, increasing the demand for small lots for lodging houses, stores, and dram shops" and making the place less attractive for single-family houses. Polluted by household wastes and left stagnant by road construction, the once sparkling brooks became "disgusting and dangerous." The once beautiful woodlands, cleared by builders (and then stripped by the poor for fuel), were replaced by "bare, unsightly wastes" and "pestiferous swamps." To Olmsted, it was extremely troubling that "a suburban district of great beauty" that was easily accessible to the city could deteriorate so rapidly.

Things were just as bad in the cities, where rapid deterioration was spreading over many once attractive residential communities. Five years earlier, Olmsted wrote in the early 1860s, New York's Washington Heights was a neighborhood of "nothing but elegance & fashion." Now it showed "the unmistakable signs of the advance guard of squalor." Homeowners were eager to sell, but no one other than saloon keepers were willing to buy. The same process was under way in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and other cities. A case in point was Boston's South End. In only two or three decades, it went from a well-to-do residential community, featuring handsome houses and private parks, to a port of entry for working-class immigrants, full of taverns, factories, and, in one sociologist's words, "women of dubious character." (In John P. Marquand's novel The Late George Apley, the hero's father leaves the South End after he sees "a man in his shirt sleeves" on the steps of a brownstone across the street.) Residential deterioration was not just an East Coast phenomenon. It also took place on Cleveland's Euclid Avenue and Kansas City's Quality Hill, a fashionable residential neighborhood before it was abandoned by the elite in the late nineteenth century. To Olmsted, unwanted change was bad enough in the cities, but even worse in the suburbs-where, one journalist wrote in the 1920s, "population attracts business; business begets more business, and soon what was once a residence community becomes a city, and a part of the population starts moving again, out toward that fringe of green that will always be the ideal setting for the home."

Other Americans shared Olmsted's concern. Brookline had once been "the garden of Boston," wrote town historian Harriet Woods in 1874. But lately "greedy speculators" were wiping out "every vestige of rural beauty" and the other qualities "which have for years made our town proverbial for its charms." A Brookline Chronicle writer made a similar point. Ever since the railroad and the Irish, "who never object to living in close quarters," came to Brookline, he said five years later, "there seems to be a mania for destroying everything that is old or beautiful or natural." George E. Kessler, another prominent landscape architect, complained in the mid-1890s about what he called "the erratic tendency" of shops and stores to follow residents to the periphery, where they formed "a large sprawling [and unattractive] combination of city and village." This litany continued well into the twentieth century. "Choose any city you please," wrote J. C. Nichols, subdivider of Kansas City's Country Club District, in 1923. Go into the part "that was ultra-fashionable a dozen or a score of years ago; there you will find mansions turned into boarding houses and modiste shops, or remodeled or razed for office and store buildings; or if some homes have not been used in that way, you will find their original residence values destroyed by the establishment of stores, shops, undertaking parlors, and the like, in proximity."

For someone of means and refinement who was thinking of moving from the city to the suburbs this created a serious problem, Olmsted pointed out, one that raised hard questions about any parcel, no matter how attractive it was at first glance.

"Suppose I come here, what grounds of confidence can I have that I shall not by-and-by find a dram-shop on my right, or a beer-garden on my left, or a factory chimney or warehouse cutting off this view of the water? Is this charming road sure not to be turned also into a common town street, strewn with garbage, and in place of these lovely woods, can I be certain that here also there will not soon be a field of stumps with shanties and goats and heaps of cinders? If so, what is likely to be the future average value of land in this vicinity? ... Looking either with reference to enjoyment of it as a place of residence, or as an investment for my children, I must be cautious not to be too much affected by superficial appearances. What improvements have you here that tend to insure permanent healthfulness and permanent rural beauty?"

Without satisfactory answers to these questions, most Americans were not likely to move. They were not likely to leave for suburbia if before long it was doomed to lose the very qualities that made it so attractive to them. They were not likely to uproot their families if before long they would be forced to uproot them yet again. They were not likely to invest their hard-earned money in suburban real estate if before long they would have to sell at a loss. To put it another way, few Americans were likely to move to suburbia unless they saw it as more than a stopgap in the quest for a wholesome domestic environment. Whatever else suburbia had to offer, it had to offer permanence. Somehow a solution to the problem of unwanted change had to be found.

The Search for a Solution

The very rich had little trouble finding a solution. To prevent what they regarded as undesirable people and undesirable activities from spoiling their suburban retreats, they built homes on estates of scores, hundreds, and even thousands of acres. They made sure that no nearby buildings would deteriorate by making sure that there would be no buildings nearby. One case in point was Woodburne, the estate of William Minot, who was reputedly Boston's largest landowner. Another was Druim Moir, the home of Henry Howard Houston, a very wealthy Philadelphia businessman, investor, and railroad director. Even more impressive than Woodburne and Druim Moir were the huge estates, many with hundred-room mansions (and their own golf courses and race tracks), that were built on Long Island's North Shore by the Pratts, Vanderbilts, Guggenheims, and other magnates. Perhaps the most impressive was Greentree, the 660-acre estate of Payne Whitney, who paid more in income taxes in the mid-1920s than any other American except Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller. After visiting the White House with their mother (who was a granddaughter of Franklin D. Roosevelt), two of Whitney's great grandchildren remarked that it was "nice enough, but hardly on a par with Greentree." Even larger than Greentree were some of Chicago's North Shore estates. Westleigh, the estate of meatpacker Louis Swift, covered more than 1,500 acres. Melody Farm, the estate of Swift's rival J. Ogden Armour, was half as large but had a private siding to the Milwaukee railroad. Even the largest of these estates were dwarfed by Rockefeller's compound at Pocantico Hills in Tarrytown, New York, which by the 1920s covered more than 6,000 acres, nearly ten square miles, almost twice as large as Palos Verdes Estates.

(Continues...)



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