By Bill Parry
Sunnyside Gardens turns 90 this month and residents will unveil three historic district signs and throw a birthday reception Oct. 25.
The Greater Astoria Historical Society marked the occasion last week with a photo exhibit and lecture from preservationist Jeffrey Kroessler and his architect wife Laura Heim.
“I consider it to be one of the most historic neighborhoods in the city and perhaps the nation,” Kroessler said. The garden community, on the north side of Sunnyside, was landmarked as a historic district in 2007.
The 16 block area with more than 600 buildings began construction in 1924 to alleviate stifling overcrowding in the tenements of Manhattan.
“In the late 1800s the overcrowding of tenements was extraordinary. In Manhattan’s 10th Ward the density was 600 people per acre — they called it a social evil” Kroessler said, referring to the congested Lower East Side neighborhood.
“Imagine the darkness in building after building with no open space,” he said. “No light and no air. In fact, a court even ruled that renters had no right to air or light.”
In London, Kroessler explained, Ebenzer Howard was so disturbed by the separation of rich and poor he wrote a book about utopian housing in industrial cities and it led to a housing reformist movement that played out in Jackson Heights, Forest Hills Gardens and in Sunnyside Gardens. Clarence Stein and Henry Wright designed a garden city based on the English model.
“The houses were small so people could afford them; it became the original affordable housing,” Kroessler said. Subway lines were built to Astoria and Corona and the exodus from tenement life began.
“The city of New York moved to the middle of nowhere,” he said. The new housing in Queens allowed for the density to be lowered to 300 pre acre. What made Sunnyside Gardens distinctive was its single-family houses facing a dozen common courtyards. “Everyone had access to the outdoors with backyards and decks and terraces,” Kroessler said.
After 40 years the easements began to run out and property owners began dividing up the courtyards with fences, according to Kroessler. “It compromised the integrity of this historic planned community,” he said.
In 1974, the Department of City Planning under the John Lindsay administration instituted a set of rules for a community preservation district.
“No driveways or fences into the common courts, no additions, sheds or outbuildings,” Kroessler said. “To do anything you would need a permit and they wouldn’t issue permits.”
Sunnyside Gardens was saved, although Heim called the landmarking process a “contentious” one.
The first of the new historic district signs will be unveiled Oct. 25 beginning at 1 p.m. at Skillman Avenue and 46th Street. The Sunnyside Preservation Alliance will lead a stroll through the garden courtyards where the other two signs will be unveiled.
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.