Hills is probably best known to the general populace as the former site of the
U.S. Tennis Open, which is now held in nearby Flushing Meadows. But to that
admittedly small group of people around the world who are interested in the
architectural history of planned communities, or "garden cities",
of the Arts & Crafts period, Forest Hills Gardens is one of the best of
a very few remaining examples. Most of them have been renovated and modernized
out of existence. But, because of a concerted effort by the people who have
lived in the Gardens, the community remains much the same as it did at its inception.
A Brief History
The present site of Forest Hills was once 600 acres
of farm land owned by Frederick Backus, George Backus and Horatio N. Squires.
The area was originally known as Whitepot. The land was purchased in 1906
by the Cord Meyer Development Company and named Forest Hills after its proximity
to Forest Park. Streets were assigned by the alphabet ... Atom Avenue thru
Zuni Avenue. (The alphabetical designations live on. We lived on Fleet Street
... the F in A-O, Austin Street thru Olcott Avenue). Under the direction of
George C. Meyer, the Cord Meyer Development Company engaged architects like
Roger Tappan and William Patterson.
Forest Hills Gardens was the dreamchild of Margaret
Olivia Slocum Sage, the widow of Russell Sage and benefactor of the Russell
Sage Foundation. It is said that Mrs. Sage was influenced and inspired by
a favorite book, "Garden Cities", by Ebenezor Howard. Under the
direction of Mrs. Sage, the Foundation purchased a section of land below Queens
Boulevard from the Cord Meyer Development Company. On these 142 acres, Mrs.
Sage engaged the services of architect Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. to design
a planned community after the style of the English "garden cities"
of the time. The plan would include a central square with a green, a railroad
station, an inn and 1500 houses designed by architect Grosvenor Atterbury.
The rents of $12 a month would ensure that the residents were well-to-do.
The main square and elevated railroad station were completed in 1911. The
guest speaker for the opening ceremony was the then President of the United
States, Teddy Roosevelt. President Roosevelt was a staunch supporter of the
guiding principle of planned communities, the accomodation of nature in housing
developments. In that same year,Gustav Stickley's "Craftsman Magazine",
at that time the voice of the Arts & Crafts movement in America, featured
an article with drawings of the "garden city" in Forest Hills. The
following year, 1912, saw the completion of the Forest Hills Inn, a motor
garage and a country club. In 1913, ten acres were sold to the West Side Tennis
Club. The stadium, however, wouldn't be opened until 1923. Post Office service
began in the Gardens in 1914, and the lovely Church in the Gardens on Ascan
Avenue was built in 1915.
Famous people and well-known figures who have lived
in the Forest Hills Gardens include: Helen Keller; Dale Carnegie; John F.
Hylan; entertainer Fred Stone; famed sculptor Adolph A. Weinman, who designed
and sculpted the War Memorial in the Gardens; and Congresswoman Geraldine
Today, the preservation of the Forest Hills Gardens
is the responsibility of the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation.
A Photo Tour of the Gardens
Forest Hills is located in the borough of Queens, on
Long Island, and can be reached from Manhattan by subway on the E, F, G or
R lines. When you emerge from the subway in downtown Forest Hills on the corner
of 71st and Continental Avenues, you are only steps away from the historic
Forest Hills Gardens Square. The two blocks on Continental Avenue before you
reach the square are a bustling shopping district, lined with all the usual
stores and businesses. You get a taste of the Arts & Crafts architecture
to come, though, when you pass the facade of the Forest Hills Cinema on Continental
Avenue. It must have been a beautiful theater at one time. The cross street
before the square, Austin Street, is the principal shopping district of downtown
Forest Hills and actually attracts shoppers from other boroughs, mainly because
the stores are open on Sundays. You enter the Main Square by passing under
an overpass of the Long Island Railroad to arrive at the next cross street,
Burns Street. Standing at the corner and looking over your left shoulder,
you'll see the steps leading up to the railroad station. It was from these
steps that President Roosevelt made his opening ceremony speech. The steps
and railroad station are sorely in need of repair, and the Forest Hills Gardens
Corporation has already begun a massive restoration. Phase One has been completed
with the repairs of the underpass. Phase Two will address the steps, station
and platform and should begin shortly. The square is surrounded on all sides
by buildings reminiscent of the Bavarian walled cities of Europe. This is
in keeping with the style of the English Garden Cities. In fact, the architecture
is almost identical to that in the Hampstead Garden Suburbs of North London,
England,another planned community that has survived as it was designed in
1906 by Edwin Lutyens.
Directly in front of us, the center of the square is
divided by a green island with benches and trees and small gatehouses at each
end of the island. In warm weather, it is a popular place to read, chat or
simply watch the world go by. The square itself is distinctive from the converging
streets in that it is paved in red cobblestone, like the original. The buildings
around the square house businesses for the most part, including a small sidewalk
cafe to the right, very much in the European tradition. Directly across the
square is the original Forest Hills Inn, now the Forest Hills Inn apartments.
The huge tower atop the Inn is a focal point of the square. Where streets
converge into the square, elevated covered walkways span the streets, joining
the buildings to maintain the sense of a walled city surrounding a central
If we cross the square and continue down Continental
to Dartmouth Street, we find that the Forest Hills Apartments also continue
down the right hand side of Dartmouth. The entrances to the apartments, as
well as the ornamentation and exterior treatments, closely follow the Arts
& Crafts style of architecture. The houses, too, could be picked up and
transplanted into a typical English city and they'd blend in perfectly. If
we were to turn right down Dartmouth Street, the next cross street would be
Tennis Place. Here, to the right, we find the venerable old West Side Tennis
Club. The clay courts are still maintained perfectly and the original English
Tudor clubhouse is immaculate. The stadium, though, has seen better days and
is in a serious state of disrepair. But not enough, apparently, to keep the
Club from booking the stadium as an outdoor venue for performers like Diana
Ross. Nearby #2 Tennis Place is where you'll find the offices of the Forest
Hills Gardens Corporation.
Continuing down Continental Avenue, we are skirting
the edge of the Gardens proper. On both sides of the tree-lined street are
beautiful old houses in various styles, many of them in the Old English and
Arts & Crafts styles envisioned by the original architects of the Gardens.
We'll turn left at a cross street to enter the heart of the Gardens. At the
center of the Gardens is the Park at Greenway Terrace. At the beginning of
Greenway Terrace, nearest the main square, the spire of the First Church of
Christ Scientist catches the eye. It's a beautiful old building that looks
as though it were sculpted from a single block of sandstone. The park is beautifully
laid out. The circular benches at one end of the park grab your attention
immediately. You can sit for awhile and, if you brought along a bag of snacks,
share it with one of the many squirrels in the park. Unlike their country
cousins, city squirrels have no fear of the two-legged variety of animals
visiting their park and, with patience, can be coaxed to eat from your hand.
The park is also home to the War Memorial, a sculpture by Adolph A. Weinman
commemorating the men who died in "the Great War" (WWI). The Greenway
Apartments dominate the site as the tallest building in the Gardens. Even
the huge archways of stone blocks that mark the entrances to the Apartments
are impressive. They were originally intended as low rent apartments for the
working class but are now, ironically, much-sought-after apartments for the
very well-to-do. The building itself is now owned by the Helmsleys (the infamous
Leona Helmsley of the Helmsley Palace Hotel), and it is rumored that in order
to get an apartment you must be on a three- year waiting list. When someone
dies, you move up another notch. Just behind the Greenway Apartments is the
Garden's school, P.S. 101, that can boast of being the only public school
in New York City without bars on its ground floor windows. The rowhouses that
border each side of the park are designed in the style of Old English stone
cottages, with stone fences, brightly painted wooden gates, and even the odd
stone gazebo. Nearby, on North Greenway Avenue, you'll find the lovely old
Church in the Gardens, a non-denominational house of worship.