A Walk in Sunnyside

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    The turn-of-the-century English Garden City movement of Sir Ebenezer Howard and Sir Raymond Unwin served as the inspiration for Sunnyside Gardens, built from 1924-1928 from Skillman Avenue north to the LIRR and from 43rd to 50th Streets. This housing experiment was aimed at showing civic leaders that they could solve social problems and beautify the city, all while making a small profit. The City Housing Corporation, whose founders were then-schoolteacher and future first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, ethicist Felix Adler, attorney and housing developer Alexander Bing, urban planner Lewis Mumford, architects Clarence S. Stein, Henry Wright, and Frederick Lee Ackerman and landscape architect Marjorie S. Cautley, was responsible for the project. Co-founder Lewis Mumford [the long-time architecture critic at The New Yorker] was also one of the Garden’s first residents. The part of Skillman Avenue that runs through Sunnyside Gardens has been renamed in his honor.

    The design of the Gardens was novel in that large areas of open space were included in the plan. Construction costs were minimized, which allowed those with limited means the opportunity to afford their own homes. Rows of one- to three-family private houses with co-op and rental apartment buildings were mixed together and arranged around common gardens, with stores and garages placed around the edges of the neighborhood. Just about every interior window in the Gardens offers a view of a landscaped commons. A typical price for a two-story attached brick house in the development cost $9,500 in 1927!

    Artists and writers were also attracted to the amenities of Sunnyside Gardens; in fact, the development in its early years was sometimes referred to as the ‘Greenwich Village annex.'” Artistic residents of the Gardens included painter Raphael Soyer, singer Perry Como and actress Judy Holliday. Crooner Rudy Vallee, NYPD Blue actress Justine Miceli, “Rhoda’s mom” Nancy Walker, and tough-guy actor James Caan also lived in Sunnyside.

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    Sunnyside Gardens Park, between Middleburg (39th) and Barnett Avenues and between 48th and 50th Streets and is officialy a private park “for members only” — one of just two in NYC. The other is Gramercy Park in Manhattan. Sunnyside Gardens Park makes do without Gramercy’s fences and keys, however.

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    Steel tycoon Henry Phipps (1839-1930), a friend and partner of Andrew Carnegie, sold his interest in the Carnegie Company (later US Steel) to J.P. Morgan in 1901 for $50 million and set about creating a series of public houses in NYC, model tenements that would remedy the rampant problems of disease that held sway in the cramped, airless buildings in NYC in the era.

    The first Phipps Houses built in Manhattan in 1906 at 321-337 East 31st Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues rented for $14 a month for a one-bedroom. Four six-story buildings at 233-247 West 63rd Street followed later that year; these apartments were chiefly rented to African-Americans. A third development followed in 1912 at 234-248 West 64th Street, and the fourth, Phipps Garden, arrived in 1931 at Middleburg (39th) Avenue and Fitting (50th) Streets in Sunnyside. The 63rd and 64th Street and Sunnyside Phipps buildings still stand.

    1931 Phipps Garden brochures: locationamenitiesfloor plans, and interior views. Affordable housing built for working class and 9 to 5ers, with spacious apartments, modern kitchens, sunny courtyards…

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    Attempting perhaps to emphasize Sunnyside Gardens’ special status, through which these streets run, or to acknowledge the MTA’s leaving of the old neighborhood street names at the Flushing Line’s stations at Rawson (33) Lowery (40) and Bliss (46), the Department of Transportation re-appended the former names on the same signs as the numbers… which makes both rather difficult to make out, especially at night.

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    The streets of Sunnyside along Skillman Avenue from 52nd Street to 56th Street, and also in Long Island City, Ridgewood and to a lesser degree, Woodside, are lined with blond bricked Matthews Model Flats, each unit produced beginning in 1915 by Gustave X. Mathews, who is virtually unknown today but responsible for much classic residential architecture in Queens. The distinctive yellow bricks were produced in the kilns of Balthazar Kreischer’s brick works in the far reaches of Staten Island. (The Kriescher and Long Island City stalwarts, the Steinways, were linked by marriage.) By 1917, Mathews flats were in such demand that it’s said that if laid side by side the entire string of houses would reach 4.5 miles.

    Mathews mass-produced these multi-unit houses for about $8,000 and sold them for $11,000. When constructed, they did not have central heating or hot water systems. The only heat came from coal in the stove and a kerosene heater in the living room. Despite this, the U.S. Government gave special recognition to Matthews’ concept in 1915 when an exhibit was opened at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. It showed the world how efficiently these type of apartments met housing needs for a surging population.

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