Eden in the City

Garden Apartments Are Losing Ground to Development.

Jackson Heights' Greystone Apartments, the first garden apartments in the country

Credit: Community Greens, an initiative of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public

Cramped apartment dwellers in New York City might be a little less resentful of high rents if they could live like renters in the Jackson Heights area of Queens, N.Y. Credited as being the first garden apartments in the country, Jackson Heights' Greystone complex has lush gardens, ornate fountains, and well-manicured lawns that spread out around entire blocks of residential communities-like apartments in the country. But since the Jackson Heights apartments were built in the late 1910s, garden apartments, an architectural staple of the mid-20th century, are slowly being destroyed by development.

"Real-estate development pressures have created conditions for redevelopment of early suburbs, and as a result, some of the best examples of garden-apartment design have become threatened," says Ken Bernstein, historic preservation director for the city of Los Angeles, which is facing the loss of 50-year-old garden apartments.

Six years ago, when developers bought the c. 1940s Chase Knolls complex in Sherman Oaks, the city stepped in and designated it a Historic-Cultural Monument the same year. But preservationists are still fighting to save Lincoln Place, in nearby Venice, from Denver-based Apartment Investment Management Co., which purchased the complex in 2003. Designed by modernist architects Heth Wharton and Ralph Vaughn, the 52 apartment buildings were built between 1949 and 1951, when there was an urgent need for housing after WWII. 

Lincoln Place residents were evicted last year.

Credit: ?20th Century Architecture Alliance

"A lot of pre-war garden apartments were done in a more traditional style, but these feature more modern architecture," says Amanda Steward, president of the 20th Century Architecture Alliance, one of the organizations fighting to save Lincoln Place. "There is a Hollywood-style sensibility to them." The investment company, however, would like to demolish the peach-and-yellow stucco structures and build a mix of higher-density apartments and condos. Dozens of tenants have been evicted from the rent-stabilized apartments while the issue remains tied up in court.

The Garden City Movement, or the concept of planning communities and separating them from commercial areas, was first made popular in England by Ebenezer Howard and his 1898 book "To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform." Howard's ideas eventually resulted in several Garden Cities in America, but the first example was Jackson Heights.

While the majority of existing garden apartments sprung up after World War II, they were actually first designed in 1917 by Edward Archibald MacDougall, a New York City businessman who had purchased 325 acres of Queens farmland, naming the new area Jackson Heights. Impressed by a trip to Europe, MacDougall decided he was going to incorporate Howard's tenets into New York City housing, encouraged by the 1901 Tenement House Act and the New York Zoning Resolution of 1916, which established regulations for decent housing and zoning laws.

Appropriately naming them the Garden Apartments, MacDougall had some basic requirements for their construction: there needed to be several detached buildings, rather than a single large one, the buildings had to take up the entire block, there was to be as much sunlight and ventilation incorporated into the buildings as possible, and the structures had to be set back from the lot lines so that there was plenty of room for landscaping. Envisioning a city within a city, MacDougall wanted the apartments to have plenty of gathering spots all within walking distance and planned space for churches, a community hall, and recreational activities such as tennis and golf. With an interior courtyard spanning the entire block and attractive architecture, the Garden Apartments were a hit. In fact, in 1925 they were renamed the Greystone Apartments, since "garden apartment" had turned into a generic term for all the many copycats. 

Most of Buckingham Village will be razed.

Credit: Arlington Heritage Alliance

Bernstein points out though that while there are hundreds of garden-like apartments across country, most are not quite the real thing. "Garden apartments were shaped by an overall master plan and landscaping plan and built on large super blocks consciously separating automobiles from pedestrians," he says. "There are really just a handful of them."

In July, preservationists lost a battle to save several sections of Buckingham Village in Arlington, Va. After many meetings and talks, city officials are allowing Washington, D.C.-based Paradigm Development Co., co-owner of the 20.8-acre complex, to bulldoze two sections of the 456 brick apartment units for construction of luxury townhouses and apartments and to gut and renovate the third section for 140 affordable housing units. The other sections of the original 1,800-unit complex, not owned by Paradigm, are protected by historic designations. While Arlington did create a multi-listing document of the city's garden apartments several years ago, it hasn't resulted in the historic designation of every qualifying community. "Virginia isn't strong on designating properties against the wishes of the owner," says Kathryn Smith, chair of the Arlington Heritage Alliance.

Designed by architect Henry Wright and built by Allie Freed, chairman of the Committee for Economic Recovery (under President Franklin D. Roosevelt,) the Colonial-revival apartment units were built between 1937 and 1943 as Freed's response to the postwar housing shortage. The sections Paradigm will demolish are a newer part of the complex. Describing the final agreement with Paradigm over Buckingham Village as a "necessary compromise," because of the need to preserve affordable housing, Smith says her organization isn't giving up on the area's other garden complexes. "We are moving toward finding a way to make it worthwhile for garden apartment owners to certify and designate their properties, whether through tax credits or a package of incentives."

Following last year's historic designation of some of its postwar neighborhoods, Scottsdale, Ariz., conducted a survey of its 18 garden apartments earlier this year to determine which were also eligible for designation. Describing them as part of Scottsdale's "Gold Rush" after the end of WWII, Debbie Abele, the city's historic preservation officer, says they should be saved in part because of how they've helped shape Scottsdale's past. "They were a significant part of the postwar era when Scottsdale earned a national reputation as a wonderful place to live." Unlike in most cities, Scottsdale's garden apartments, 14 of them now condos, are all located in one area, so the city would like to see them become a historic district and Abele says residents have generally been welcoming of the announcement to preserve the apartments. "We've had a very positive response," she says.

Park Paradise Apartments, Scottsdale, Ariz.

Credit: Scottsdale CVB

According to Bernstein, the best thing cities or preservation groups interested in saving these apartments can do is find out what ones they have and what ones are worth saving. "A comprehensive survey is a good way to separate the wheat from the chaff," he says.

In spite of current development threats, people aren't likely to ever let go of garden apartments completely, especially in Sun Belt cities such as Atlanta, Orlando, and Dallas, where they've always been popular because of the ever-increasing population and the more laid-back lifestyles of those regions. "People here have specifically sought them out and like to live in them," Abele says, " because they are cool."

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