RADBURN’S PARKS: WHY THE ALPHABET SOUP?
By Rick Hampson and Steve Taylor
Radburn’s creators named the streets of their planned suburb for people they admired: Howard Avenue (for Sir Ebenezer Howard, founder of the Garden City movement), Owen Avenue (for the utopian socialist Robert Owen), and Burnham Place (for the architect and planner Daniel Burnham).
So why, given their penchant for memorial names, didn’t the founders apply it to Radburn’s signature parks?
Instead, when they called them any name at all, they seem to have used numbers. What is today B Park, for instance, was originally designated only as “Lot 8.” A
Park was “Lot 7.’’
How did that system evolve into the (equally prosaic, if more functional) alphabetical letter park names used today?
These questions seem to have no obvious answers. But, pending more information, we have theories.
First, some background. The plans, diagrams and blueprints for Radburn from the late 1920s don’t really call the parks anything.
A 1930 map issued by the City Housing Corp., Radburn’s builder, labels each of the three parks only as “Private Park for Residents of Radburn.’’ One of landscape architect Marjorie Sewell Cautley’s plans refers to A Park as Park 7, B Park as Park 8, and R Park as Park 57. She also uses this nomenclature in her 1930 article on the plantings at Radburn in Landscape Architecture Magazine.
In her subsequent film about Radburn -- made no earlier than 1933 -- Cautley displays a handwritten map entitled “Walk System through Parks’’ in which each park is labeled simply “park.” (See below)
She probably was taking her cue from Clarence Stein, Radburn’s co-planner. In his memoir, written in 1949 after a return visit to Radburn, he places great importance on the parks’ role in the life of the community, but repeatedly refers to them only as “inner parks’’ and doesn’t distinguish one from another by name, letter or number.
Why? There is evidence that Stein and his co-planner, Henry Wright, conceived of Radburn’s green open spaces not as a series of discrete parks, but rather one big park, flowing from superblock to superblock.
They believed that Radburn’s parkland linked the entire community – a radical notion at the time.
Most communities, now and then, are built around a street grid or other layout. Roads form the skeleton around which buildings are arrayed.
Radburn was different. Stein, in his book Toward New Towns for America, described parkland as the “backbone of the neighborhood, (with) large open areas in the center of superblocks, joined together as a continuous park.’’
If the green open space was the backbone, then Stein may have regarded what are today known as parks A, B and R as just one big Radburn park.
If so, how did the parks come by their alphabet names? Here’s a possibility.
The first documented use of names such as A Park appears in 1948 on what’s known as a Sanborn map. (See figure below, The Sanborn Map Company published detailed maps of tens of thousands of U.S. communities for use by fire insurance companies.)
In a Sanborn map from 1929, however, the parks were numbered, just as they were on City Housing documents at the time (see figure below).
We think the odd quotes around A, B and R might be significant – as if the
Sanborn researcher in the 1940s was indicating that these were not necessarily official designations, but rather names the parks had acquired informally --
maybe given them by residents.
Perhaps people had grown tired of saying, “Meet you in the park,’’ and being asked, “Which one?’’
In that case, the most obvious name for each park was the first letter of the names of the cul de sacs surrounding the park.
Another possibility: that the A, B, etc. scheme was part of an acrostic in which the names of all six (or seven) proposed Radburn inner parks would spell out the community’s name. But if so, why would the park adjacent to A not have been called D Park? The park proposed for where Fulton Place sits today would have been the B park.
There have been suggested reforms. In 1977 an aspiring landscape architecture student named Scott Leonard drew up a proposed master plan for the Radburn parks, which he renamed Ascher Park (for Charles Ascher, who devised the legal instruments that preserved the open space in perpetuity); Bing Park (for
Alexander Bing, founder of City Housing; and Stein Park (for Clarence, whose last name, unfortunately, did not begin with R.)
Sarah Allaback of the Library of American Landscape History, a Cautley biographer, has suggested that Radburn rename A, B and R parks in honor of, respectively, Frederick Ackerman, architect of the Plaza Building and many Radburn houses; Bing; and Radburn itself.
At bottom, the issue of how Radburn’s parks got their names is a mystery -- to us, at least. We’re eager to learn of any other evidence or theories that are out there.
Rick Hampson and Steve Taylor are trying to learn about Radburn history. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.