On Sunday morning, a group of a dozen people met in front of The Church-In-The-Gardens at 50 Ascan Avenue to trek through Forest Hills Gardens, the earliest planned suburban garden community in the United States.
The Wanderers – the name is inspired by the Jewish people who wandered on a quest for the Promised Land in the Old Testament - was founded in 2007 by Kew Gardens resident William Gati. It consists of 100 active members who pay $5 per tour with no annual membership fee.
During the weekend's tour, participants learned the community’s origins can be traced back to 1909, when the Russell Sage Foundation purchased land from the Cord Meyer Development Company.
Architect Grosvenor Atterbury and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. collaborated on a design that was inspired by Sir Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Movement, and would become an internationally recognized model of urban planning.
“Some of the house interiors are quite stunning, and many of the owners attempt to restore its style back to the glory days,” said Gati. “There was a mix of expensive and affordable housing, even though the houses are now out of reach for most middle-class Americans.”
Forest Hills Gardens has private streets that are governed by the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation. Homeowners are required to seek approvals for any proposed alterations, fences are not permitted around homes and sidewalks need to be consistent with a pebble sand finish.
“My earliest memories of the Gardens is when my parents took me here 60 years ago,” said tour participant David Kramer of Jamaica Estate. “I always had a connection. I loved the style of the homes, and I’m glad that by law they will always remain the same.”
There were also less-favorable rules governing Forest Hills Gardens in its early days. For example, Jews and African Americans were not permitted to own property.
“The policies and procedures that were used to create such a wonderful community were in themselves, not so wonderful,” said Gati.
Properties either overlook or are near small and large private parks, and are situated on winding streets with monumental trees and decorative street lamps. Noteworthy sights include many churches, P.S. 101, and Station Square.
“Station Square is where Theodore Roosevelt made his famous ‘100 Percent American’ speech, and many other politicians later used it as a platform,” said Gati.
For the tour, The Wanderers received a map and a listing of where many actors, musicians and politicians lived. One of the first stops was the Tudor apartment house at 150 Burns Street, where Academy Award-winning performer and composer Burt Bacharach resided from 1952 to 1958.
Fred Stone had a diverse career which ranged from being a circus performer to a Vaudeville actor, Broadway performer, and feature film actor. One of his major accomplishments was creating the scarecrow role in the 1903 Broadway production, The Wizard of Oz. In 1920, he resided at 50 Olive Place, and then moved to 150 Greenway North, where he lived until 1946.
The intersection of Ascan Avenue and Austin Street was co-named “Geraldine Ferraro Way” in October 2012 in memory of Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro. She lived at 22 Deepdene Road from 1967 to 2002, and made history as the first female vice presidential candidate in 1984.
Even Grosvenor Atterbury chose to live in the community he helped create. He resided in one of the Gardens’ largest homes on a spacious plot of land with a pond at 8 Markwood Road.
And you may have been famed sculptor Adolph Weinman’s next-door neighbor if you lived in the Gardens between 1917 and 1952. He used 234 Greenway South as his studio and 236 Greenway South as his residence.
Prior to founding The Wanderers, Gati coordinated tours reflecting his background as an architect and historic preservationist. Gati expects to take The Wanderers on another Forest Hills Gardens tour featuring Station Square and the West Side Tennis Club, possibly on the third Saturday in September.
Join The Wanderers at www.meetup.com/Wanderer.