5 Barry Place Model House Rendering (Bergen Record)
By Rick Hampson and Stephen Taylor
On April 7, 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression, the Bergen Evening Record reported surprising news: plans for 17 new houses on Barry Place in Radburn.
The item had a rendering of a model house above the headline “The Home with a Future.’’
If the home had a future, its builder did not.
In less than five months, the City Housing Corp., the original developer of the celebrated “Town for the Motor Age,’’ would file for bankruptcy under its president and founder, the Manhattan real estate developer Alexander Bing.
The Record article contained no hint of that. It reported that a Barry Place model house had been completed, and three similar homes were already under construction on the cul de sac.
The Radburn sales agent is quoted as saying the new homes “can be financed with present day incomes’’ (an allusion to the Depression) and were “created to meet the requirements of the average family during the recovery period,’’ which in fact would last another five years.
The houses, which were priced around $8,000, had unfinished second floors (presumably explaining the emphasis on the ‘‘future’’).
Historians have long thought that Radburn construction ended in 1933, five years after it began and four years after the start of the Depression.
But the Record article, and a similar one in The New York Times, show that the CHC was still moving forward. “They were trying everything,’’ Daniel Schaffer, author of Garden Cities for America: The Radburn Experience (1982), said in an interview.
The newspaper stories contain another surprise: The Barry Place houses were designed not by Clarence Stein, an architect and founding planner of Radburn, but by a Paterson firm best known for some of New Jersey’s greatest movie palaces.
What’s in a date?
Map shows Barry Place houses and dates of construction between 1934 and 1941
The date of the Barry Place houses is important, because the 2005 designation that made Radburn a National Historic Landmark limited its essential historic structures to those constructed or under construction when the CHC filed for bankruptcy in August 1934.
1934 topographical map showing homes on the west side of Barry Place and one on the east side. Barry Place is the most northerly cul de sac in Radburn.
Houses and streets completed after that – such as those between A Park and Berdan Avenue, or on Owen Avenue – are not included, because they don’t comport with the original Radburn plan. But for some reason, the NHL designation includes those houses on Barry built after 1934 – and erroneously lists every house on the cul de sac as having been built in 1933.
5 Barry Place: Insurance photo dated 1934 from the Radburn Archive
This much is clear: The 1934 model house – No. 5 Barry – and several others on the street represented the City Housing Corporation’s last stand in its battle to create a template for American suburbia.
‘I know when I am licked.’
Radburn originally was supposed to be a community of 25,000 people, with three neighborhoods, each with a commercial center, parks and elementary school within walking distance. Pedestrians would be able to reach these destinations – plus a high school, a library and factories – without crossing busy streets.
But the Depression, which Stein likened to “an earthquake,’’ ended those hopes.
For about a year after the stock market crash in October, 1929, Radburn continued to expand. But by early 1931, Bing was worried.
On Jan. 9, in a letter to the Rockefeller Foundation, the CHC president reported that construction had come to “a complete standstill’’ due to an inability “to raise sufficient working capital.’’
Construction later resumed, but Bing remained pessimistic. In March, Stein wrote in a letter to his wife that “Al … is more and more bewildered’’ about Radburn’s financial situation. Stein added: “I feel the end is probably in sight…’’
A few days later, in another letter, Stein wrote: “Yesterday morning was difficult. Alone with Al Bing for hours. His spirit has fallen low. … It's City Housing that worries him. Can it weather the storm? … Al said, ‘I know when I am licked.’’’
Over the next few years the CHC began to sell off some of the land it had bought for Radburn at cents on the dollar. Stein himself quietly severed his relationship with the company. Construction dwindled to 16 new homes in 1931, 11 in 1932 and 10 in 1933.
In these years, about 80 percent of Radburn homeowners defaulted on their mortgages. Most had to move or stay on as renters.
The Barry Place houses that represented the CHC’s last bid at survival were designed by Paterson’s most distinguished architectural firm, Wentworth & Vreeland.
Its founder, Fred Wesley Wentworth, had a major impact on shaping Paterson after the fire that destroyed much of its central business district in 1902. He also was famous for designing some of the nation's first theaters designed exclusively for motion pictures, including the Fabian in Paterson, the Ritz in Elizabeth and the Stanley in Jersey City.
His other Paterson buildings included Barnert Hospital, the Masonic Temple, the Alexander Hamilton Hotel, the Passaic County Courthouse and his masterpiece, Temple Emanuel, completed in 1929.
The houses on Barry are comparatively modest. But there was a market for them. On Aug. 6, 1934, the Times reported that No. 5, the model house, had been purchased by a Long Island University historian named Hugo C.M. Wendel.
Six days earlier, City Housing had filed for bankruptcy. Professor Wendel was, in all probably, the last person ever to buy a home from the company that had once hoped to change America.
Barry Place, 1938: Photo from film March of Time.
END NOTE: How do we know the dates of the houses on Barry Place?
- The Times and Record stories say the model home, 5 Barry, was built in the spring of 1934. The same date appears on a photo of 5 Barry in the Radburn Archives. No. 6 Barry is also visible in that photograph.
- A 1934 topographical map shows five houses on the west side of Barry, plus one – 6 Barry – on the east. Also, only six homes are listed in 1934 tax records: 5, 6, 7, 9,11, and 15 Barry. (Tax records, however, incorrectly list the rest of the homes on Barry as being built in 1933. The 1933 dates must be incorrect, because the newspaper articles agree that the first Barry homes were built in 1934.)
- The Borough of Fair Lawn street directory shows that by 1937, 1, 8 and 10 Barry had joined the others. (Nos. 8 and 10 are listed as vacant.) Nos. 16 and 17 appear first in the 1939 directory (and are listed as vacant). Number 2 and what is now 12 Barry appear first in the 1941 directory. Although the original plan was for 17 houses on Barry, only 13 were built.