During the Progressive Era of the 1890s to the 1920s, a time when societal modernization was being pursued with great effort and enthusiasm, the notion that mankind could vastly improve the conditions of life had a direct influence on residential development. The appeal of the countryside and the desire for recreation factored into a family’s decision to move out of the city, where “residential parks,” or “garden cities,” were cropping up. The East River Tunnels opened in 1910, and the 59th Street (Queensboro) Bridge was completed in 1909, providing easy access to the area. Although most could not afford the Gatsby-esque mansions of the North Shore, built by the barons of industry and finance, urban professionals with families could acquire a beautiful two-and-a-half story gambrel-roofed Dutch Colonial in Great Neck, or an Arts and Crafts-influenced home in Brightwaters. The sentiment of the day was nicely summed up by songwriters P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome Kern in the popular 1917 melody, “Bungalow in Quogue”:
Oh, let us fly without delay
Into the country far away
Where, free from all this care
We’ll go and live the simple life
Let’s build a little bungalow
In Yaphank or in Hicksville
or in Patchogue.
Though the Progressive Era reached into the 1920s, the wind was taken out of the sails with the start of WWI in 1914. That particular era of optimism stalled, and was later revisited following WWII—although residential expectations were considerably more humble. But the Cold War era, with its fears of communism and nuclear destruction, robbed the American population of the paradisiacal optimism of earlier generations. Times changed.
Today, remnants of various garden communities exist. In 2007, for example, the Village of Brightwaters celebrated its centennial. Richard F. Welch, a contributing writer to the book, said that the commemoration featured many festivities and events, “but the real star was the village itself.” While being surrounded by a patchwork of post WWII development, Brightwaters “remains a virtual time capsule.” As Welch says, it is a “community that takes pride in its distinctive identity and remains committed to its preservation.”
We can be thankful that such communities still exist and are well maintained. After reading Gardens of Eden, jump in the car, and go on an architectural treasure hunt.