Yes, as unbelievable as that may seem in today’s real estate market, such was the dictate given in the 1800’s in New Rochelle when it was decided to develop some 70 acres of farmland, woods, orchard and un-drained marshland what was the then the outer edge of New Rochelle in Westchester County.
It is always interesting to find out how an area was developed. And New Rochelle’s Historic District is no different. In the early 1800’s, an insurance company, found that it had inherited through foreclosure, some 70 plus acres of land, and was then faced with the predicament – “what do we do with it?” The insurance company contemplated personal sacrifices in order to escape from the heavy tax burden of the property. They had thought to create small city lots but the grading of that would have been too expensive, and they didn’t know whether there would be interest in residence properties there, but with mounting interest charges, they realized that some form of action was required. It was decided to convert the land into a park, a well thought out community where there would be standards of size, and so they consulted with a landscape architect, Nathan P. Barrett, and civil engineer, Horace F. Crosby whose determinations were that if additional monies were spent to create the community , then success would surely follow. The cost at that time was reputed to be about $75,000 and it was believed that much money had been saved by allowing the natural rock formations to remain where possible. Quite astutely, they realized that the business men would wish easy access to the trains, and so rather than have a central entrance on North Avenue to the park and community, they utilized the southwest corner which would offer the most direct route to New York.
The Great Lawn was created for outdoor gatherings, and to also afford a grand vista of the surrounding area. It is interesting to note that in a House and Garden article (May 1904 article by Samuel Swift), he alludes to the “green breathing spot” and “the nearness of an ordinary town is quite forgotten.” It is interesting to note that even back in 1904, people were beginning to appreciate the importance of green living! An English Architect, E.A. Sargent designed the stone pillars leading into the now Rochelle Park area. 115 building lots were laid out and nearly one third of the land was set aside for streets, sidewalks and pathways of grass. Originally as you entered into the community, there was a 54 foot wide driveway with an 8 foot bluestone sidewalk, and a 15 foot strip of grass planted with trees. All streets led to the Great Lawn with the exception of the Court and The Serpentine which was an intrinsic part of the design, and noted to be of great value within the park with its curved thoroughfare. It was felt that The Serpentine offered imagination, elegance and though there could have easily been straight roads built throughout, The Serpentine was a reflection of the artistry of the landscape architect. The outcropping of rock was left to retain some rusticity, and 50 lots were initially sold for $2000 each so it would seem that the insurance company did realize a profit at the end of the day, once again confirming that real estate is the best long term investment.
As a way of protecting their investment, it was mandated that the houses built facing the Boulevard would cost no less than $3000 and no more than $5000. However, homes on other streets cost much more with stables, etc. After some 25 families bought and built in the community, the Rochelle Park Association was formed to take away the management aspects of the insurance company, and henceforth the Association held annual meetings, with each homeowner carrying one vote, and the insurance company having 30. The revenue of the Association was about $2500 a year with each lot owner contributing $25, and this tax paid for the roads to be mended, the lawns to be maintained, but there was great discussion at the time that the homeowners were taxed doubly by the city and the Association. A solution was reached when the city, in realizing the park maintained about 2 miles of city roads within the park, stated in 1903 that they would light the park road free of charge!
It is interesting to now note that the Association is still in existence, but the now $100 yearly fee is not mandatory, and all are welcome to the meetings. This suggested contribution goes towards the upkeep of the Great Lawn, etc. It should also be noted that while the community was open to all when it was first built, it was closed once or twice a year in order for them to claim Rochelle Park as a private community. The homeowners felt that if in paying that secondary tax, it afforded their privacy then it was well spent money to live in an area they cherished.
I listed a home on The Serpentine last year, and it received multiple bids the first weekend, selling for $694,000. While I have lived in New Rochelle for over 30 years, there is always something new to learn about this great city. That particular 4532 square foot Victorian house, lovingly maintained (and for good reason!), is located on 0.48 of an acre, and offered 6 large bedrooms, a wonderful beamed den with pocket doors, and architectural detailing of yesterday. In reading about its history and then entering the home, made me truly appreciate the character of the home, and the history and forethought that went into building it.
New Rochelle is Great!