An historic view of several Jackson Heights' community greens and the old golf course. Photo: Daniel Karatzas "Jackson Heights: A Garden in the City"
For nearly a century, the historic community of Jackson Heights in Queens has maintained its acres of shared interior courtyards: green spaces that range from open lawns to planted gardens to shaded canopies of ivy-clad trees. Throughout the Great Depression and the post-WWII building boom, Jackson Heights' residents fought to hold on to their numerous sanctuaries of grass, trees, and gardens in the midst of a city where high property values create an intense pressure to develop any available open space. As a result of their loyalty to the original plan of Jackson Heights, residents of the community are blessed with an environment that, according to resident Daniel Karatzas (author of Jackson Heights: A Garden in the City), "really gives people a sense of pride and a sense of history."
Creating a Vision
Jackson Heights today: looking through the trees toward one of the interior gardens.
The creation of Jackson Heights can be attributed to both the foresight and vision of its founder, Edward Archibald MacDougall. Under the auspices of the Queensboro Corporation, MacDougall oversaw the procurement of 325 acres of land, over the East River five miles from Manhattan. Because of the lack of rapid transit, MacDougall was able to purchase the predominately farmland for a mere $3.8 million. During the initial years, he pressed for a subway connection, whose later arrival created the catalyst necessary to prompt city dwellers to invest in Jackson Heights.
An historic view of one of the 15 gardens of Jackson Heights. Photo: "Jackson Heights: A Garden in the City"
Residents enjoy the fountain and one of many gathering places.
With a rapid transit link to Manhattan in place, MacDougall was able to fulfill his vision of creating the first true "garden community" in the U.S. This concept was inspired by Ebenezer Howard's Garden City Movement in England, which aimed to draw people out of crowded urban centers and into carefully planned towns infused with open space, sunlight, and fresh air. The movement influenced MacDougall's belief that the health of the rapidly growing metropolis depended on the inclusion of green spaces in residential areas.
Path with griffin gate
An interior border
Rose garden and lawn at the Chateau.
Photo: Li Yu
The community of Jackson Heights was to include both residential and commercial buildings, creating a "city within a city" which would fulfill all the needs of its residents, while still allowing them easy access to Manhattan. The 325 acres were divided into 88 blocks. The blocks were approximately 200 by 600 feet, about twice-standard length. Single-family housing, flanked the neighborhood on the east and west sides. In the central fifteen blocks, garden apartments were built.
MacDougall's vision for his garden apartments focused on the following principles:
- The full block would be developed (in contrast to the gradual development happening in most of Manhattan.)
- There would be a maximum of sunlight and ventilation, by including rooms that faced the outdoors and numerous windows into the design.
- Buildings would be set back slightly from lot lines to provide an opportunity for landscaping in front.
Street view into a garden.
In addition, the arrangement of the apartment buildings would create a private interior courtyard, that would be landscaped and serve as a communal garden, for the enjoyment of the block's inhabitants. It would be an area in which to socialize, play and relax and would pervade with greenery all of the apartments that surround it.
In 1917, the Queensboro Corporation built its first large apartment complex according to MacDougall's principles. He named it the "Garden Apartments" and it is considered to be the first garden apartment complex built in the U.S. It consisted of 14 five-story buildings set back about 12 feet from the property line with a strip of grass and trees in the front and a shared park along the inside of the block.
Of the fifteen garden apartments completed, ten had central gardens that ran 80% of the length of the block, almost 500 feet. The other five, built during the Depression when funding was at its lowest, were slightly smaller.
Typical apartment floor plan. Photo: "Jackson Heights: A Garden in the City"
The individual apartment buildings of MacDougall's fifteen garden apartment blocks, were typically U-shaped and were separated or connected to each other, depending on the architect. Two architects, George H. Wells and Andrew J. Thomas, designed most of the apartments for MacDougall. Thomas' apartments were physically separated from each other and contained two apartments per floor, an apartment typically being three rooms deep and two rooms wide with a small hall separating it from the other apartment on the same floor. Sometimes there were three apartments per floor, but the apartments were arranged to provide the most light for their occupants. The Towers, designed by Thomas, consisted of eight, six-story buildings, separated by 37 feet on each side; each apartment had four exposures. The apartment buildings designed by George H. Wells were not separated from each other and were only two rooms deep and two or three rooms wide, so that all rooms could have light.
Rooms were oriented either to enjoy the interior courtyards or face out to the landscaped street. Buildings were typically four to five stories. The buildings usually only covered 40% of the land, which allowed the development of gardens on the other 60%; whereas, in the typical Manhattan development, the buildings occupied 70% of the land which reduced the amount of land available for gardens or other outdoor space. In addition to the interior block gardens, there was land set aside within Jackson Heights for children's play areas, a community garden, tennis courts, and a golf course.
The garden at The Towers, one of the most exclusive apartment complexes, was used as an athletic field before residents returned it to its earlier glory as a formal garden, with an area at one end for children to play. Because most of the apartments are co-ops and remained so during the Depression, people understand their value. Cambridge Court had become a rental property by the time the gardens were destroyed.
Columns at The Towers, then and now.
Today, although the tennis courts, golf course and community garden are gone, all but one of the fifteen interior block gardens are still intact. Unfortunately, the one interior garden that was destroyed, that at Cambridge Court, which was paved over for use as a parking lot, was the only one of the interior gardens designed by the Olmstead Brothers (the descendent landscape architecture firm of Frederick Law Olmstead). The other gardens have remained, though they have gone through some years of disrepair and subsequent renewal.
It was not always easy for the residents of Jackson Heights to preserve the integrity of the original neighborhood. During the depression, one of the gardens was briefly divided into small sections by chain-link fences. In 1977, the owner of that development decided to walk away from the property when interest rates on the land climbed. According to Martin Gallenz, a resident of Jackson Heights and ex-Vice Chairman of the New York City Planning Commission "he just lost faith in the property." The residents, however, did not give up on the value of their shared open space. They pooled their resources to take out an 11 million dollar mortgage.
Quality architecture at the Belvedere (see above), as elsewhere in Jackson Heights, complement the gardens. Photo: Li Yu
Washington Plaza's Cascading Fountain
The physical structure of Jackson Heights has buoyed not only the character and resident loyalty of the neighborhood, but the property value as well. Gallenz adds that if the residents had sacrificed the inner courtyards, the apartments of Jackson Heights would have lost one third of their real estate value.
A courtyard outfitted with benches.
Many gardens include benches for lounging.
"When people come from Manhattan, they can't believe their eyes."
According to Karatzas, there is a much stronger sense of community on blocks with interior gardens than on other blocks within Jackson Heights and in surrounding neighborhoods. At the gardens, birthdays are celebrated and family and wedding photographs taken. Each garden is unique. Some are richly ornamented with vibrant flowerbeds, others provide more areas for residents to sit and read. One garden is adorned with an elaborate fountain.
On any given afternoon, you will find neighbors gardening, strolling through the gardens, and lounging in them. Those who enjoy gardening, plant the flowerbeds, while each household contributes approximately one hundred dollars per year to help keep up the central grounds. As a result, the neighborhood remains elegant and verdant with graceful apartment buildings presiding over acres of ornamental hedges, grand shade trees, and kaleidoscopes of flowerbeds. The greatest benefit of the Jackson Heights gardens is the ability to make an apartment feel like a home. From your apartment, you can sit by the fireplace, surrounded by trees and light with the grand gardens below. The importance of these gardens has not been lost on the residents of Jackson Heights.
A volunteer gardener working in The Chateau rose garden. Photo: Li Yu
In spite of great pressure to further develop their community, Jackson Heights' residents have been able to preserve their garden courtyards. In 1993, as a result of citizen efforts, Jackson Heights was named a historic district by the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission. From that point on, specific covenants as well as the perseverance of the residents have protected the open spaces.
A verdant path in the Chateau Garden. Photo: Li Yu
Daniel Karatzas says that the "physical legacy", of the original design that provides for shared open space as well as easy access to a shopping center and public transportation, has given the neighborhood a human scale, "softening the hard edges of the city". This distinct character, according to Karatzas, has provided an incentive for residents to stay in the neighborhood, preventing it from suffering the same postwar fate of disinvestment, and even arson, that struck many similar historic neighborhoods.
"These apartments are the antidotes to aggressive city living."
Jackson Heights's residents also proudly describe it as one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the country. "People have stayed, even come from all over the world, to live in Jackson Heights." The term "garden apartment" was coined in Jackson Heights for the original apartment complexes built in the teens and twenties. Of those "garden apartments" developed in the last several decades, few have held true to this original model of buildings oriented around shared green space. The importance of green space, sunlight and fresh air has proved valuable not only to the physical health of the community, but to its social health as well. The splendor of Jackson Heights is its characterization as an urban neighborhood with lush interior gardens, whose residents' commitment to their community and defense of their green space attests to the importance they place on these unique amenities.
Jackson Heights: A Garden in the City, written by Daniel Karatzas is a comprehensive history of the neighborhood of Jackson Heights. It is filled with historical photos and architectural plans, documenting the growth of this unique community. It is available for $15.00 (including postage) from the Jackson Heights Beautification Group. To purchase a copy please send a check, made out to JHBG, Box 720253, Jackson Heights, NY 11372. For further inquiry call the JHBG at (212) 439-8784.
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