When entering the 175-acre Forest Hills Gardens, one may think they are in an old English suburb. At Station Square and the towering Forest Hills Inn, four sectioned archways lead to winding streets and private parks. There are greater than 800 stately homes, 11 regal apartment houses, churches, and the West Side Tennis Club.
Development began in 1909, when the Russell Sage Foundation purchased land from the Cord Meyer Development Company. Architect Grosvenor Atterbury and Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. were appointed to design what became an internationally recognized model of urban planning, inspired by Sir Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Movement.
On June 2, the Forest Hills Gardens Taxpayers Association hosted “A Thanksgiving To The Russell Sage Foundation” and “A Celebration To Our Founding Documents” at The Community House. Nearly 100 residents participated in a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the covenants and restrictions that has preserved Forest Hills Gardens since 1913.
It also marked the 90th anniversary of the Russell Sage Foundation’s assignment of the streets, parks, rights, and infrastructure to the community residents in 1923. The Forest Hills Gardens Corporation continues to hold the responsibility of preserving the community’s historic character and quality of life.
During the event, William E. Coleman, president of the Forest Hills Gardens Taxpayers Association, presented a framed certificate to Eric Wanner, president of the Russell Sage Foundation. It was co-signed by Mitchell S. Cohen, President of the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation.
As a result of the Sage Homes Company’s imposition of covenants, Forest Hills Gardens is largely a preservation success story. The restrictive covenants are also responsible for the Gardens’ pristine restoration work.
Coleman noted the tiled roofs along Station Square, some homes along Greenway North and Puritan Avenue, the restoration of the “America’s Cup” flagpole at Flagpole Green on Greenway Terrace, and the recreation of the Station Square gardens by Friends of Station Square.
Some residents and critics question whether past Architectural Committee members of the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation have been too lenient when it came to approving modifications to the community’s original design elements, as well as the small quantity of new construction over the decades.
“Sometimes in the past century, the corporation’s Architectural Committee was not as vigilant as they have been in recent years,” said Coleman. “Some of the house designs, revisions, and extensions that were approved in the 1960s would receive much greater scrutiny today.”
The Forest Hills Gardens Taxpayers Association has been going strong for 103 years.
“We were created originally as a voice of the residents to communicate with the Sage Homes Company, but when the Foundation withdrew from the Gardens in 1923 due to a shift in pursuits from building and planning, there was minimal communication,” Coleman explained. “The residents became custodians of the Gardens Corporation. As a result, the Taxpayers Association would provide information about city taxes, tax assessments, and other city services.”
In 2007, the association decided to build on its mission, and it became known as a cultural and educational group, oriented towards community history and preservation.
“Each year we invite residents to a lecture, which may include a book signing followed by a reception where it is possible to enjoy some fellowship and to meet the speaker,” said Coleman.
In 2009, the Association presented “Looking Back, Looking Ahead: Forest Hills Gardens At 100,” which featured a presentation by Susan Klaus. Peter Pennoyer and Anne Walker lectured and signed copies of their book, “The Architecture of Grosvenor Atterbury.”
Coleman shared his vision for a future lecture.
“From 1984 to 1985, Robert A.M. Stern’s wonderful ‘Pride of Place’ series aired on public TV, and included a tour of the Forest Hills Gardens, where he calls Station Square ‘one of the finest public places in America,'” he said. “I would love to have him return to hear what he has to say about Forest Hills three decades later.”
The event earlier this month reinvigorated neighborhood pride. Bette Sheets takes pride in her lineage in Forest Hills Gardens for nearly a century. The Church-in-the-Gardens hosted her wedding, as well as that of her brother and parents, and her reception was held at the Forest Hills Inn’s Tea Garden.
“I worked with an architect, and when I said where I lived, he said it’s the most successfully planned community,” she said. “I can’t learn enough about our community.”
She boasted about the phenomenally tall trees that were precisely selected at the community’s origins, and the cottages, cul-de-sacs, and rowhouses.
“The Forest Hills Gardens is a miracle, and I am so happy people are nurturing it,” she said.