Pillared entrance to Palm Haven Residence Park - 1913

The Residence Park
Defining the "American Dream"

by Michael Borbely

(A supplement to the author's summer 2007 American Bungalow Magazine article, "Residence Parks: An American Vision Reborn")

    If you take a drive from the downtown district of any major American city and proceed in any direction away from the downtown, the first neighborhoods you find looking much like today's ubiquitous suburbs (detached, single-family homes on a "garden" lot with light and air on all sides) are almost always the early Residence Parks.

    Today, suburban sprawl has become the bane of cities seeking to curb automobile traffic and smog. Suburban developments have frequently become monotonous collections of houses with little architectural variety and are subjected to continuous cost-cutting measures that inevitably affect their quality. City planners now hold the view that their cities have outgrown the classic suburban model and must craft a new vision for development. But the benefits afforded the suburban homeowner still lie at the root of the model and it began with the early Residence Parks.
    The Residence Park explosion peaked in the early 1900s. Some earlier experiments were developed in the late 1800s but by the 1910s, cities across America were boasting of their beautiful new residence sections. The Residence Park suburban model came to define the "American Dream". Its development restrictions were the starting points for city zoning and planning codes today and its tract associations laid the groundwork for the modern "Homeowner's Association". The invention of the Residence Park marked the genesis of a development pattern for the modern American city.

From San Francisco's Forest Hill Residence Park advertisement - 1912

    Prior to the Residence Park's popularity, purchasing and owning property generally meant owning a piece of land with no restrictions on what could be built on it or nearby. This resulted in crowded cities filled with a hodgepodge of structures set on rows and columns of streets in grid layout. But there were more profound changes happening to cities of industrialized nations that collided to create a backlash against older practices and we can find their roots in the post-Civil War years of the 1800s.

     The United States’ Industrial Revolution had propelled the nation to a status as the world’s most powerful industrialized economy. It created vast empires of wealth for the likes of Andrew Carnegie (steel), J.D. Rockefeller (oil), Jay Gould (railroads), and J.P. Morgan (banking), and was fueled in part by an unprecedented wave of foreign immigration. In 1860, the U.S. population was just over 31 million and only 16 % lived in its cities. By 1910, over 30 million immigrants had flooded U.S. cities and the nation’s population swelled to over 90 million. More remarkably, 46 % of the U.S. population lived in its cities by that time.  U.S. cities experienced explosive growth as people came to seek good wages from the new industrial economy. Much of the work offered by the new industries was filled by the burgeoning immigrant population.

“Panic, as a health officer, sweeping the garbage out of Wall Street.” - NY Daily Graphic, 1873

     But the new industrial economy failed to deliver the immigrants' dreams of a better life. Cities became overburdened and poorly equipped to handle the needs of the masses. There were many wage disputes and the use of children in factories eventually resulted in child labor laws.  The late 19th century was marked by a series of economic downturns that wracked the nation – spurred by over-speculation, corruption, and poor management of corporate finances: 

"Wall Street. looking west toward Trinity Church past Washington statue on the steps of the Sub-treasury building on May 14, 1884 ..." - Harper's Weekly, 1884

The Panic of 1873 – started by a railroad company bankruptcy rippled to thousands of company bankruptcies and resulted in the “The Long Depression” not ending until the mid-1890s.

The Panic of 1884 – started by a stock market crash from over-speculation resulted in over 10,000 business failures across the country.

The Panic of 1893 – occurred in part due to a run on the gold supply resulting in over 15,000 business failures and 500 bank failures.  The nation was 12% to 18% unemployed over the next 5 years.

National Guard in front of Arcade Building in Pullman During Railroad Strike - 1894

May 11, 1894 – The Pullman Strike - shut down transportation in Chicago and gained sympathetic strikes across the country. President Grover Cleveland was forced to send in thousands of U.S. Army troops to break up the strike. Ironically, it resulted in a torching of buildings at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago – the same buildings that would be the beginning of one of the movements that inspired Residence Parks.

    The tumultuous decades of the late 19th century compelled the nation to redefine itself and set a course of its own making rather than continue to chase what was perceived as hollow promises from the industrialists. By the turn of the century, a middle class was forming that did not trust the leadership of the country’s powerful elite and a progressive movement punctuated by the organized protests of the farming sector developed into a formidable voice for the people.

Sir Ebenezer Howard 1850 - 1928

     The Garden City Movement arose in 19th century England in reaction to the crowding and pollution of cities happening as a result of its Industrial Revolution.  In his 1898 book, To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, Ebenezer Howard laid out his ideas concerning the creation of new towns. Howard believed that these towns should be limited in size and density, and surrounded with a belt of undeveloped land. It led to the creation of Letchworth, in Hertfordshire, England, credited there as the first "Garden City."

Garden City concept map - 1898

    The movement spread to the U.S. into the 1920s resulting in a number of planned communities such as Radburn, New Jersey, and Jackson Heights of Queens, New York. Some early residential developers started to experiment with the “Garden City” concept before it gained the title. In New Rochelle, New York, an area simply called “Residence Park” was developed into a planned community in 1885 by Adrian Iselin, Jr., son of a New York banker. It has meandering streets with sidewalks, street trees, and small green spaces scattered throughout the development. The streets follow a very naturalized route so that navigating them can be an adventure for a newcomer. Residents today remark that delivery drivers often become lost. It may have been the intention of Iselin to “get lost” in the naturally winding streets of Residence Park. Or it may have simply been his antithetical response to the grid system of streets and avenues of New York City. But there was another movement brewing and its proponents had a different solution to the monotony of the city block grid.  

The Mall - Washington, D.C.

    In the last decade of the 1800s, the City Beautiful Movement formed in the United States in reaction to crowded cities filled with poverty, crime, blight, and ugly repetition. Its advocates believed that cities’ social ills could be changed by surrounding the inhabitants with beauty that inspired them to higher civility and morality.

"White City" - World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago - 1893

They also wanted to demonstrate the arrival of the U.S. on the world stage as a leader that boasted cities rivaling the great cities of Europe. All of this would be expressed through the application of the Beaux-Arts design ethos on city plans and architecture. The seminal event for this movement came in the “White City” of the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Architect, Daniel Burnham, secured architects from the Eastern U.S. as well as Irish-born American sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create his vision for the exposition.

The American expression of the Beaux-Arts resulted in order, symmetry, hierarchy, and beautiful vistas punctuated by monuments and other embellishment. The designers of the “White City” embraced this expression to austerity by painting all the buildings white. Daniel Burnham went on to join the team responsible for the axial plan and surrounding civic structures of The Mall in Washington, D.C. The team included Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., Charles F. McKim of the prominent architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White, along with noted sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens. This American expression of the Beaux-Arts reverberated across the country and most state capitols followed the concept when they built their capitol buildings and civic centers.

    Wrenching changes to U.S. cities created by the Industrial Revolution and the public reaction reflected in the ensuing social planning movements drove residents to seek escape from urban living but just enough to still work at their city jobs.

Bird's-Eye View of Palm Haven, San Jose, Ca. - 1913

    Developers started hiring notable landscape architects to design the layout of their new Residence Parks in a Beaux-Arts-influenced street plan – reflecting the collective spirit of the City Beautiful Movement - while infusing the lots and public areas with green spaces called for by "Garden City" proponents.

The landscapers often specified particular street tree species and other plants in public spaces. The developers also hired respected local architects to either consult with buyers on a home design or to design homes they would build speculatively.

The architectural styles followed the popular styles of the day but were frequently in bungalow layout: often single-story, open plan, and set on a “garden lot” with light and air on all four sides. Not all were single-storied and the location and developer’s concept affected the resulting architecture.

Dubbed "San Francisco's Residence Park", Ingleside Terraces opened in 1919

    Ingleside Terraces, a San Francisco Residence Park, installed in the development a lumber yard, planing mill, cabinet shop, plumbing shop, painting shop and warehouse to support the homebuilding projects.  The architectural styles used by builder, Joseph A.  Leonard, reflected the San Francisco influence on the many revival styles of the period.

    Palm Haven, a Residence Park developed just outside of San Jose, Ca. in 1913, started with Mission Revival as its architectural signature. Property deeds to Palm Haven made holders joint owners in the public spaces and needs of the tract by incorporating into a little "city". But shortly after it opened the United States declared war on Germany and residential real estate sales across the country came to a halt. It did not fully recover until the 1920s when an economic boom fueled vast expansion of America's suburbs. By this time, the Mission Revival style had given way to the highly popular Spanish Colonial Revival style and it dominates the streets of Palm Haven today.

    The benefits of the suburban Residence Park model elevated America's standard for residential living. It set rules such that homes would complement one another rather than destroy the view or air coming from all sides.

Mission Revival was the architectural style chosen to set the tone for Palm Haven as seen in this rendering of its trolley wait station - 1913

It produced an architectural signature through the installation of decorative embellishments that served to create a unity and harmony in style throughout the developments. It required that all homes be set on "garden lots" to enhance the connection to nature while creating green spaces in common areas for the entire neighborhood to enjoy. It removed the monotony of the city street grid and introduced curving streets to create pleasing vistas. It guaranteed minimum improvements throughout the development such as finished streets, curbs and sidewalks.

    While the contemporary American suburb has gained the ire of many city planners today, some of the original elements of Residence Parks are finding favor in developments embracing the "New Urbanist" vision of community living. Even the "bungalow court" concept popular in the early 1900s can trace its roots to the Residence Park in its share of common spaces, cohesive architectural style, and restrictions.

    The Residence Park has earned its place as the grandfather to suburban living in the modern American city. Prior to its existence, residential settings were limited to the extremes of either a very rural or very urban experience. Lots were fronted by no more than a ditch or a dirt road when not directly in the urban environment. When in the city, there was little to no natural space except for public parks. In today's surviving original Residence Parks, the attention to public spaces, visual beauty and natural settings set them apart from their suburban children. Well maintained, today's historic Residence Parks command higher property values than nearby residential tracts absent the Residence Park signature elements. Their homes' architectural variety combined with their community-oriented spaces continues to attract a diverse population of homeowners.

    With the advent of the Residence Park, the vision of the "American Dream" was forged into a concept that has endured to influence living standards ever since their reigning popularity at the turn of the 20th century and may well serve to influence urban planning into the next century.


A book on Palm Haven from Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" series is set to be released October 28, 2013. It can be pre-ordered at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and other book retailers.

Palm Haven - Images of America


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