WHERE RADBURN GOT ITS NAME
By Rick Hampson and Stephen Taylor
In our video, Historic Radburn, we repeated the conventional wisdom that the name “Radburn” is Old English for “Saddle River.’’ The name seemed apt, because when plans for the community were announced in early 1928, it was supposed to stretch from the Erie Railroad tracks to the Saddle River.
But we now believe that Radburn's name probably was inspired not by an Old English translation of Saddle River, but by the Scots for "quick brook.''
Let us explain.
The conventional wisdom comes from a crucial figure in the planning of Radburn: Charles Ascher, lawyer for the City Housing Corporation, which built “The Town for the Motor Age.’’
Ascher said he chose the community’s name. Here’s the account he gave -- “for the record,’’ he said -- on Oct. 4, 1975, when he came to Radburn to mark the community's addition to the National Register of Historic Places.
“Our able (CHC) public relations man, Harry Propper, set up a press conference for our president, Mr. (Alexander) Bing, to announce our intention to build a model town. That was to be on a Tuesday (Jan. 24, 1928). Suddenly, Propper realized we would have to give it a name.
“I spent the previous Saturday (before the press conference) at the New York Public Library, searching the names of the governors of New Jersey and the presidents of Princeton. The mellifluous ones like Carteret or Elizabeth had already been taken. I found the maps prepared for George Washington’s military campaign in New Jersey, but there was no human culture in our area. It was woods and marshes.
“The Saddle River ran through our town site, but there was already a Saddle River Township.’’
Finally, he said: “I found a book on English place names which said that ‘rad’ meant ‘saddle,’ so I added ‘burn’ (a river or stream) and there we were.’’
In a 1930 article in Landscape Architecture magazine, Radburn's landscape architect, Marjorie Sewell Cautley, supports Ascher's account -- up to a point. She wrote that the Saddle River is "the stream for which 'Rad Burn' is named.''
A half century later, the author of the most comprehensive history of Radburn implicitly accepted this version. Daniel Schaffer, who interviewed Ascher in 1977, writes in Garden Cities for America: The Radburn Experience (1982) that Ascher picked the name.
Similarly, Jane Lyle Diepeveen in her book Fair Lawn: Historic Tales from Settlement to Suburb (2010) says flatly: “Radburn was the Old English translation of Saddle River.’’
There’s just one problem: in Old English, ‘rad’ didn’t mean saddle; ‘sadol’ meant saddle. If Ascher had named the new town based on actual Old English translation of Saddle River, it would have been called “Sadolburn.’’ Which sounds uncomfortable.
In Old English, in fact, ‘‘rad’’ meant “red.’’ And so if you were talking to Londoners before 1066 and said, “Radburn,’’ they would have thought you meant “Red River’’ – not Saddle River.
A better explanation for the name's origins comes from an economist named Stuart Chase. He was a founding member of the Regional Planning Association of America, the group of intellectuals centered around Radburn's chief planners, Clarence Stein and Henry Wright.
On June 24, 1928, Chase wrote in The New York Times that "the name Radburn comes from the Scottish 'rad,' meaning quick, and 'burn' meaning brook.'' (A Scots dictionary supports the translation.)
Chase was writing just six months after plans for Radburn were announced; Ascher, in contrast, offered his account almost a half century after the fact, when he was 76 and had only three years to live. And, as we've seen, it doesn't make etymological sense.
But the choice of the new community's name does, as Ascher claimed, seem to have been a last minute affair. Just two weeks before Bing’s press conference, Clarence Stein wrote a memo entitled Notes on the New Town Planned by the City Housing Corporation. He repeatedly referred to what became Radburn simply as “the New Town.’’
Rick Hampson and Stephen Taylor lead free Historic Radburn Walking Tours. For information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org