Reviewed by John A. Jakle (Department of Geography, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
Published on H-Urban (April, 2006)
Westchester County, New York, looms large in the American experience as a place thought of as affluent and thus influential, but, perhaps more importantly, as a place quintessentially suburban, a place where changing suburban lifestyles have been pioneered generation to generation. Offered in this anthology are twelve essays that variously explore Westchester County both as a place and as a kind of place, thus to enlarge understanding of America's ever-changing suburban landscapes. The reader will come away with renewed understanding of an American locality (and kind of locality) significant for design experimentation that anticipated and then drove suburbanizing impulses nationwide.
Written by architectural historians and social historians (mainly university professors and museum curators working in the New York City area), the anthology clearly reflects their intellectual biases. Although discussion moves beyond the design aspects of the County's architecture, subdivision layout, and park and parkway development (among other topics) to analyze the social implications of suburban life, missing are many important disciplinary insights from sociology, anthropology, and geography (among other academic orientations) that might have made the anthology even more useful. Still, a broad range of related questions are broached and they represent significant avenues along which architectural-historical and social-historical research might proceed in the future.
Roger Panetta's opening essay ("Westchester, the American Suburb") provides an excellent overview. It is essentially a telling of the Westchester County story from its earliest settlement through present-day urbanization. Close to New York City, the geographical relationship was altered by this proximity and changing transportation technology: first steamboats, then steam and electric trains, and finally motor vehicles, change that enabled commuting over ever longer distances. Washington Irving's home (Sunnyside) early epitomized a suburban idyllic: a rustic romanticism articulated by the likes of Alexander Jackson Davis and Andrew Jackson Downing. Relocation to country villas, Panetta argues, reflected a suburban "ideology" rooted in a new professional and managerial class as inspired by Progressivism's reform currents. Country life, seen by its advocates as countering the growing forces of civic disorder, was to be sustained not just through geographical escape from city problems, but, more significantly, through rational, innovative environmental design. Not only was the autonomy of community prized, but the autonomy of homogenous community was valued, where like-minded families, focused on the rearing of their children, might thrive. With the coming of the streetcar, and particularly the automobile, suburban life in Westchester was democratized, its benefits extended to the middling classes: a story introduced, but left for successive authors to flesh out. Like all of the other essays, Panetta's introduction is well illustrated with photos, line drawings, and a reference map. Key images, collected from all the various chapters, are reprinted in color in a special section near the book's midpoint.
Dolores Hayden's essay ("What is Suburbia? Naming the Layers of Landscape, 1820-2000") provides a condensed history of suburbia nationwide which she sees as a national search for the triple dream of affordable housing, connection to nature, and sense of community. She plays with labels (for example "sitcom suburbs" and "edge nodes") in attempting to identify distinctive periods during which suburban impulses took on new direction (p. 78). Her thinking is, perhaps, a little too reductionist, but is still useful in its allusion to broader, national contexts for which Westchester County's changing landscapes might be considered representative, if not pioneering.
Kenneth W. Maddox (in "The Lure of the Country") connects the suburban house of the nineteenth century with nature (as it was then considered) and art (as it was then practiced). Writer Nathaniel Parker Willis, whose several Westchester County homes fully reflected his once-influential books, serves as one example. Focus then shifts to the Westchester homes of artists Jasper E. Crospey, Alfred Bierstadt, and Edward Gay. Laura L. Vookle's essay ("Glenview: Chapters in the Life of a Suburban Estate") continues the examination of the country house. Her treatment of John Bond Trevor and his family's half-century occupancy of their Glenview estate is very insightful. Trevor was a wealthy New York City financier who pursued the English ideal of "gentleman farmer," involving himself, as well, in various community philanthropies through a sense of noblesse oblige. Especially useful is Vookle's consideration of the period after Trevor's death in 1890 up to his wife's death in 1922 where the reader is led through generational life-cycles of the estate. Having attracted upscale residential development nearby, the estate was ultimately subdivided into small lots for middle-class housing.
Gray Williams (in "Westchester County: Historic Suburban Neighborhoods") changes the scale of analysis from that of architecture and family life to that of urban settlement and neighborhood design, stressing how selected farm villages evolved into suburban towns as well as how new planned towns (and subdivisions) were created. Developments undertaken both by single individuals--for example, the work of patent medicine king William Van Duzer Lawrence in establishing Lawrence Park at Bronxville--and real estate development syndicates--for example, the work of the American Real Estate Company at Park Hill in Yonkers--are used as case studies. Additionally, special attention is accorded several residential developments influenced by famous architects and planners (such as Usonia at Mount Pleasant in which Frank Lloyd Wright had a hand). Especially interesting is the author's treatment of the farm hamlet (Sparta) restored by banker Frank Arthur Vanderslip and the new hamlet (Pound Ridge) created through the salvaging and relocating of old houses by industrialist Hiram Joseph Halle.
Throughout the book there is a lack of careful analysis of the social symbolism implicit both in the architecture and the landscaping of Westchester County's diverse localities, especially those dominated by post-World War II development. This kind of analysis can be found in the recent literature in human cultural geography, such as Landscapes of Privilege. This book is focused on the town of Bedford in Westchester County, but is not cited by any of the essayists.
Frank E. Sanchis, III (in "The Suburban House") catalogs the architectural styles that dominated the elite housing of Westchester County but, save for a short section on the prefabricated house of the early twentieth century, he does not consider the area's vernacular architecture. As in most of the other essays, the concern is exclusively with how society's elites lived, and those of the middle classes who aspired vicariously to elite lifestyles through architectural imitation. Of course, the vast majority of Westchester County's houses have always been of the vernacular or common sort, despite the reputation of the locality as an area of wealth and prestige. Thus the bulk of the County's housing stock--important context for what elites accomplished if nothing else--is ignored.
Barbara Troetel's essay ("Suburban Transportation Redefined: America's First Parkway") shifts discussion toward commuting. Although the Bronx River Parkway, her main emphasis, was not constructed as a commuter road, it and the other parkways that followed in Westchester County (not to mention the freeways) greatly changed the area's geographical organization and, as well, its geographical orientation toward New York City and other places. One might argue with her observation that the Bronx River Parkway was "the first parkway spurred by the arrival of the horseless carriage" (p. 249; construction in Westchester began in 1917). What about William K. Vanderbilt's parkway (c.1909) on Long Island? Tied to the reclamation of a much degraded river flood plain, the Bronx River project spawned an extensive system of parks in the County, most of which were organized around and tied together by parkways. Intended initially for recreational driving, these roads became instead important commuter routes for those heading for Manhattan, those coming the other way, and those driving to work within the county itself. After World War II, Westchester County came to host the administrative offices of a diverse set of large corporations.
Freeways prompted shopping center development, the topic of Bartholomew F. Brand's essay ("Market in the Meadows: The Development of and Impact of Westchester's Cross County Shopping Center, 1947-1956"). Emphasizing the impact of revised tax laws in the 1950s (especially of the new accelerated depreciation allowances), Brand outlines how the county's first large auto-oriented shopping complex evolved, but also the changes it wrought across the locality. This new competitor at the edge of town, the increased congestion on city streets, and the lack of city-center parking placed downtown White Plains, for example, in steady decline. As across the United States, older business districts were largely taken for granted in the county's enthusiasm to build new roads, and to encourage new retail development along them. The new shopping center fully reflected, according to Brand, a process of "feminization" then ongoing nationwide in retailing: retail places becoming not only safer but also more convenient to suburban housewives driving cars.
Priscilla Murolo (in "Domesticity and its Discontents") continues the focus on the changing role of women in suburbia, especially the wife/mothers and servant girls of Westchester's more affluent households. Murolo considers the "separate spheres" that found life partitioned between city-oriented males who commuted to work and suburb-oriented females who stayed at home. Elite women empowered themselves (besides being shoppers and eventually commuters) through club activity, philanthropy, and local politics. Many of Murolo's themes are further explored in the final two offerings: Eileen Panetta's essay ("Westchester: The Suburb in Fiction") and Stanley J. Solomon's essay ("Images of Suburban Life in American Films"). Suburbia, Panetta argues (like the small town and the city against which it was, in fact, substantially defined) became a kind of mythic place fully iconic in the American experience. It became "an artifice" to reflect "anxieties about the self in culture" (p. 374). Suburbs were designed to reduce life's dissatisfactions, if not generate new satisfactions. The design and management of property communicated some of these values and manicured lawns served as "unspoken codes" (p. 412). The well-groomed front yard, for example, was the public veneer of self-satisfied complacency. In the movies, no less than in novels and short stories, motifs of suburban propriety were usually emphasized not in celebration, but explored that which lay repressed beneath life's surfaces. Suburban conformity--perhaps what the nation's post-World War II suburbs came to symbolize most--functioned to protect the privacy of individuals.
It is commendable that Roger Panetta, as the anthology's editor, chose to place at the book's conclusion essays emphasizing suburbia's social symbolism. In both literature and in cinema, well-known landscapes (or kinds of landscape) are variously used not only as convenient, easily understood settings for action, but also as generators of plot and character development. Sometimes place is most important: characters and action are fully energized by the peculiarities of location, locality, or locale--call it what you will. I will call it "sense of place," that which configures in peoples' minds through significant landscape encounters. Landscape can also be considered a kind of text: a discourse to be analyzed for what is represented or symbolized. Certainly, the authors of the various essays are aware of this. It is evident, for example, through their repeated mention of the manicured lawn (although I am not sure any of the authors mentioned rambling ranches, picture windows, barbecue pits, patios, and two-car garages). But none of this book's authors, while presumably engaged in understanding suburban landscape, confront the landscape concept directly. It is one or another "lens" that dominates their thinking: architectural style, family history, changing gender roles, history of political action, etc., and thus they miss an important opportunity. The reader of this anthology encounters many (if not most) of suburbia's important attributes, but like the scattered pieces of a puzzle, they are not fully assembled into a whole. Additional interpretation at the scale of landscape--which forces, for example, fuller consideration of the vernacular patterning of place (landscape with all of its class and status implications)--might have helped.
. See, for example, Andrew Jackson Downing, Cottage Residences; Or, A Series of Designs for Rural Cottages and Cottage Villas, and Their Gardens and Grounds, Adapted to North America, 4th rev. ed. (New York: J. Wiley, 1852); and A. J. Davis, Rural Residences: Consisting of Designs, Original and Selected, for Cottages, Farm-houses, Villas, and Village Churches (1837; reprint, New York: DaCapo Press, 1980).
. For example, Nathaniel Parker Willis, American Scenery; Or Land, Lake, and River, 2 vols. (London: George Virhue, 1840).
. James S. Duncan and Nancy G. Duncan, Landscapes of Privilege: The Politics of the Aesthetic in an American Suburb (London: Routledge, 2004).
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John A. Jakle. Review of Panetta, Roger, ed., Westchester: The American Suburb.
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