Ninety Years of Sunnyside Gardens

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    Queens Boulevard in the mid-1910s

    Sunnyside Gardens, in northwest Queens, was the creation of architects Clarence Stein and Henry Wright and the City Housing Corporation led by developer Alexander Bing. Constructed between 1924 and 1928, it consists of a series of “courts” (composed of rows of townhouses and small apartment buildings) built on all or part of sixteen blocks, a total of more than 600 buildings. The designated area also includes the Phipps Gardens apartment buildings, constructed in the early 1930s, and Sunnyside Gardens Park, one of two officially private parks remaining in New York City (the other is Gramercy Park in Manhattan).

    The large complex is one of the most significant planned residential communities in New York City and has acheived nagtional and international recognition for its low-rise, low density housing arranged around landscaped open courtyards.

    In the early years of the Great Depression, nearly 60 percent of Sunnyside Gardens’ residents lost their homes to foreclosure. Those difficult years saw organized resistance by residents who forcefully opposed efforts by city marshals to evict families. The character of Sunnyside Gardens was protected by 40-year easements which assured the integrity of the courtyards and common walkways and controlled changes to the exterior of every property, extending even to paint color.

    From the 1940s through the mid-1960s, young families and artists moved to Sunnyside from more crowded parts of the city. Well-known residents of that period included Rudy Vallee, Judy Holliday and Perry Como and a young James Caan.

    On June 26, 2007, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to designate the community. Before designation, there was considerable illegal or inappropriate work done on the Gardens’ houses. Since designation, the district is returning to its original character.

    The opening of the Queensboro (now Edward I. Koch) Bridge in 1909 opened western Queens for development. The borough’s signature traffic route, Queens Boulevard, was gradually built over pre-existing roads called Thomson Avenue and Hoffman Boulevard. In Sunnyside, the Gardens’ blocks and lots were plotted over farmland. Utilities, sewers and water lines were put in place. New streetcar routes trundled roads lined with offers to buy and sell real estate. The capstone was the construction of the elevated IRT route on Queens Boulevard which connected to midtown by tunnel and in its early years, to the Upper East Side via the Queensboro Bridge. The elevated opened in 1917.

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    Gardens kids play on a slide in Sunnyside Gardens Park, which opened in 1928. To this day, membership is restricted to Gardens residents and outsiders who are sponsored b y residents. In the Gardens early days, empty lots were pressed into service as ice skating rinks.

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    A view of houses on 48th Street between Skillman and 39th (Middleburg) Avenues in the 1920s. The elevated train is seen rear left.

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    Photo: Gary Vollo

    The same view several decades later. Hedges have been planted and trees have matured to provide ample shade throughout the Gardens.

    The Greater Astoria Historical Society, 4th floor, 35-20 Broadway, is presenting a visual history of Sunnyside Gardens’ 90-year history that includes many historic photos from its archives. For details, email info@astorialic.org, twitter #LIChistory, or call 718-278-0700.

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