New York’s comeliest blocks are mostly the product of accident or repetition. Some are haphazard accumulations of ornate façades that acquired atmosphere over generations of construction, demolition, and rebuilding. Others are uniform chains of brownstones. Station Square in Forest Hills, on the other hand, is both alluring and anomalous — not a block, exactly, but a planned piazza that isn’t even wholeheartedly urban. After years of scaffolding and orange cones being shunted from facade to street and back again, the square has just reopened to pedestrians, renovated and camera-ready. (And the neighborhood corporation that manages it is apparently considering keeping car traffic permanently away.) But it is more than a pretty place: It represents an important episode in the story of how New York became modern.
In the early years of the 20th century, when Manhattan was growing taller, vaster, and more crowded by the day, Station Square, the centerpiece of the new outlying development of Forest Hills Gardens, provided a caesura at the end of the day for midtown workers, who could hop off the train and take a deep breath of serenity before walking home. The tightly planned neighborhood is neither pastoral nor quite suburban, but an urban antidote to Manhattan’s dense chaos.
Station Square was explicitly designed to charm. From the LIRR station’s elevated platform at Forest Hills, commuters gaze down on a stage set, a fantasy village fitted out in mock-Tudor regalia: gables, greenery, dormer windows, eaves, arcades, wrought-iron lanterns, turrets — even a sort of castle keep. That faceted tower (once the Forest Hills Inn and now an apartment building) sports a sort of Robin Hood cap for a roof, its feather a skinny chimney. You half expect a herald in a velvet doublet to sound a fanfare every time a train pulls in.
English Renaissance knockoffs long ago became a worldwide cliché, a way to spray instant patina onto quickie construction. A bit of fake half-timbering here, an oriel window there, and voilà — quaintness. But when Station Square opened in 1912, it offered far more than nostalgia; it was a thoroughly modern, forward-looking place, wrapped in vintage costume.
Its prettiness was perfect for the camera age. The Kodak Brownie had only recently turned photography into an everyman’s hobby, and a 1914 report in House Beautiful pointed out how well the neighborhood’s textures, details, and mottled shadows showed up in an ordinary snapshot. Forest Hills Gardens, writes the scholar John Stilgoe, was the country’s “first deliberately photogenic residential development.” The staircase to the station, with its curved balcony and symmetrical wings out of an operetta stage set, were made of concrete that appeared to have flowed into place and hardened like lava. In the architect Grosvenor Atterbury’s hands, concrete became expressive. He stirred in shards of tile, stone, and mica, then roughened the surface with an acid wash, all to give it a shimmering, sensuous roughness. Rather than selecting bricks for uniformity, he wanted them mottled and variegated, which gave the square an antique, organic look — the architectural equivalent of pre-torn jeans.
As a result, Station Square looks almost as venerable in early photographs as it does today. The landscaping, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (the Central Park creator’s son), is already on its way to lushness. The clustered buildings of varying bulk seem picturesquely random, though Atterbury conceived them as a single view. Only the rarity of cars and the central fountain, which has since been converted to a planter for a spruce, indicates that the images are a century old. What the camera couldn’t capture then was the square’s russet palette of brick-paved streets, shingled roofs, and pinkish stucco tinted with pulverized tiles. Conceived in color and publicized in black-and-white, Station Square was a pastel daub between the city’s gray mass and the verdant countryside.
Today suburbs get blamed for despoiling the landscape, corroding the atmosphere, and shackling residents to grueling commutes. But Forest Hills is no amorphous exurban mass of wriggling cul-de-sacs. Instead, it fans out from the station along a gracious Greenway that flows toward Forest Park. (Or would, if the connection hadn’t been cut in the 1930s by the construction of Union Turnpike and the Interboro, now Jackie Robinson, Parkway.) That train-to-nature trajectory, the bedrock principle of English planning since the mid 19th century, guided early American suburbs, too. The idea eventually died, killed by fumes from millions of tailpipes, only to return much later, usually in cruder form, as “transit-oriented development.” So Station Square was prescient twice.
The Russell Sage Foundation developed Forest Hills Gardens, even though the project aligned poorly with its mission to improve housing for the urban poor. Instead of fixing up tenements or erecting worker housing, the foundation bought 22 acres of Queens farmland and announced plans to build a model town. It was a novel idea, and the announcement was national news. Manhattan, overrun with chaos and filth, had come to seem irredeemable, at least to orderly-minded urban planners. If they wanted to impose their ideals, they’d have to do it on more or less virgin fields. The city was colonizing the fringes anyway, expanding chaotically into what the monthly Architecture magazine described as a slumscape “of squatter huts, of corrugated iron architecture, and of scavenging goats.”
Not everyone applauded the Sage Foundation’s plans. Even aside from the Elizabethan architectural style, the notion of the garden city seemed suspiciously English — fine, perhaps, for a small green country but not the sort of thing that would thrive amid America’s adolescent cities and rowdy wilds. The all-embracing stylistic consistency that made Station Square so attractive also made it a sign of dictatorial intrusiveness. The Forest Hills Gardens charter restricted what homeowners in the neighborhood could build and how, what businesses could operate, and, effectively, who could live there.
“The foundation had a fairly clear idea of what to exclude,” Stilgoe writes in Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb 1820-1939, “and the excluding required a massive paragraph ranging from brass foundries to crematories, hog pens to cesspools, making ink to producing cream of tartar, dynamite manufactories to sugar bakers, and from tanning to soap preparing.” The rules also effectively excluded buyers who might not fit into the developers’ vision of affable suburban life, with like-minded residents depending on each other’s generosity and good will. “The Gardens is NOT and never will be a promiscuous neighborhood,” the foundation declared, which wasn’t an exhortation to monogamy but a promise that future residents could expect uniformity in architectural style, building quality, and neighbors’ ethnicity. Blacks, Jews, and immigrants, the statement implied, should look elsewhere.
The city has since enfolded Forest Hills Gardens into the metropolitan landscape, and in the realities of a pluralistic society. But Station Square still has the feel of a fictionalized enclave protected by its landscaped embankments and its air of decorous tranquility. Its innovations in concrete, transit, and urban planning have receded into history, leaving a place that has earned its vintage look. One thing that hasn’t changed about the neighborhood is that it boasts a feature common enough in London or Savannah but still a New York rarity: a genuine square.