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 [graphic] National Register Bulletin: Historic Residential Suburbs Guidelines for Evaluation and Documentation for the National Register of Historic Places

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U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service

Historic view (c. 1935) of suburban streetcar and corner drug store, Indianapolis. As the introduction of the electric streetcar spurred the expansion of metropolitan areas across the Nation after 1887, commercial centers emerged at nodes along streetcar lines. The streetcar continued to shape the daily life of commuters and their families well into the twentieth century, eventually to be displaced by automobiles, buses, and motorcycles, which offered greater speed and mobility. (Photo by Bass Photo Company, courtesy William Henry Smith Memorial Library, Indiana Historical Society)


The evolution of American suburbs from 1830 to 1960 can be divided into four stages, each corresponding to a particular chronological period and named for the mode of transportation which predominated at the time and fostered the outward growth of the city and the development of residential neighborhoods:

1. Railroad and Horsecar Suburbs, 1830 to 1890;
2. Streetcar Suburbs, 1888 to 1928;
3. Early Automobile Suburbs, 1908 to 1945;
4. Post-World War II and Early Freeway Suburbs, 1945 to 1960.

The chronological periods listed above should be viewed as a general organizing framework, rather than a fixed set of dates, thereby allowing for overlapping trends, regional influences, and variations in local economic or social conditions. Within each period, a distinctive type of residential suburb emerged as a result of the transportation system that served it, advances in community planning and building practices, and popular trends in design.

The following overview examines the major national trends that shaped America's suburbs, including the development of urban and metropolitan transportation systems, the evolution of building and planning practices, a national system of home financing, the design of the residential subdivision, and trends in the design of the American home.


The laying out of new transportation routes, using new technologies, spurred the outward movement of suburban development. New circulation patterns formed the skeleton around which new land uses and suburbs became organized. Farmland near the city was acquired, planned, and developed into residential subdivisions of varying sizes. Separate from the city, new subdivisions were designed as residential landscapes, combining the open space, fresh air, and greenery of the country with an efficient arrangement of houses.

Railroad and Horsecar Suburbs, 1830 to 1890:

With the introduction of the Tom Thumb locomotive in 1830, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad became the first steam-powered railroad to operate in the United States. Soon after, railroad lines rapidly expanded westward from major northeastern cities, making possible the long-distance transportation of raw materials and manufactured goods. On the eve of the Civil War, an extensive network of railroads existed in the eastern half of the United States, connecting major cities as far west as Chicago.

Seeking new sources of revenue, railroad companies started to build passenger stations along their routes connecting cities with outlying rural villages. These stations became the focal points of villages that developed in nodes along the railroad lines radiating outward from cities. Land development companies formed with the purpose of laying out attractive, semi-rural residential communities.

Railroad suburbs offered the upper and upper-middle classes an escape from the city to what historian John Stilgoe has called the "borderland," where rural countryside and the city, with its modern amenities, merged. The railroad simultaneously provided access to the center city while insulating communities from the urban, lower classes who could not afford the high cost of commuting, creating what historian Robert Fishman has called a "bourgeois utopia."(5)

By the mid-1860s, railroad commuting was well established in many cities. Outside Philadelphia, "mainline" suburbs developed along the route of the Pennsylvania Railroad at places such as Swarthmore, Villanova, and Radnor. Lines from New York City extended north and east to Westchester County, Long Island, and New Haven, Connecticut, and west and south into New Jersey. In 1850, 83 commuter stations lay within a 15-mile radius of the city of Boston. The building of a railroad south of San Francisco in 1864 stimulated the rapid growth of a string of suburban towns from Burlingame to Atherton.(6)

Outside Chicago, which rapidly developed during the railroad era, extensive new suburbs took form in places such as Aurora, Englewood, Evanston, Highland Park, Hinsdale, Hyde Park, Kenwood, Lake Forest, Wilmette, and Winnetka. Eleven separate railroad lines operated in the city between 1847 and 1861, and by 1873 railroad service extended outward to more than 100 communities. The most famous was Riverside, a Picturesque planned suburb west of the city, developed by Emery E. Childs of the Riverside Improvement Company. Designed in 1869 by Olmsted, Vaux, and Company, Riverside would become a highly emulated model of suburban design well into the twentieth century.(7)

Revolutionizing cross-city travel in the 1830s, horse-drawn cars provided the first mass transit systems by offering regularly scheduled operations along a fixed route. Due to the introduction of the horse-drawn omnibus and later the more efficient horse-drawn streetcar that operated on rails, the perimeters of many cities began to expand in the 1850s. By 1860, horsecard systems operated in New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cincinnati, Montreal, and Boston.(8)


In 1890 at the urging of real estate developers, the Burlington and Quincy Railroad built an attractive and comfortable suburban station at Berwyn, Illinois, nine and one-half miles west of downtown Chicago. (Photo by Charles Hasbrouck, courtesy Illinois Historic Preservation Agency)

Horse-drawn cars increased the distance one could commute in one-half hour from two to three miles, thereby extending the distance between the center city and land desirable fro residential development from 13 to almost 30 square miles. Horsecar tracks followed the main roads radiating out from the center city toward the emerging railroad suburbs on the periphery. Transportation began to influence the geography of social and economic class, as the the cost of traveling between home and work determined where different groups settled. The middle and working classes settled in neighborhoods closer to the central city accessible by horse-drawn cars, while those with higher incomes settled in the railroad suburbs.(9)

Following the precedent of Central Park in New York City in 1858, large, publicly-funded, naturalistic parks began to appear in many of America's rapidly industrializing cities. Aimed at improving the quality of life, they offered city dwellers the refreshing experience of open space, natural scenery, and outdoor recreation. In cities such as Buffalo, Brooklyn, Boston, and Louisville, the desire to connect parks with the central city and each other resulted in the creation of parkways and boulevards that were essentially extensions of park carriage roads. Characterized as wide, tree lined roadways often running alongside natural brooks and streams, these roads quickly became desirable corridors along which new neighborhoods and suburban estates were built for those wealthy enough to travel by horse and carriage.

Streetcar Suburbs, 1888 to 1928:

The introduction of the first electric-powered streetcar system in Richmond, Virginia, in 1887 by Frank J. Sprague ushered in a new period of suburbanization. The electric streetcar, or trolley, allowed people to travel in 10 minutes as far they could walk in 30 minutes. It was quickly adopted in cities from Boston to Los Angeles. By 1902, 22,000 miles of streetcar tracks served American cities; from 1890 to 1907, this distance increased from 5,783 to 34,404 miles.(10)

By 1890, streetcar lines began to foster a tremendous expansion of suburban growth in cities of all sizes. In older cities, electric streetcars quickly replaced horse-drawn cars, making it possible to extend transportation lines outward and greatly expanding the availability of land for residential development. Growth occurred first in outlying rural villages that were now interconnected by streetcar lines, and, second, along the new residential corridors created along the streetcar routes.

In cities of the Midwest and West, such as Indianapolis and Des Moines, streetcar lines formed the skeleton of the emerging metropolis and influenced the initial pattern of suburban development.(11)

Socioeconomically, streetcar suburbs attracted a wide range of people from the working to upper-middle class, with the great majority being middle class. By keeping fares low in cost and offering a flat fare with free transfers, streetcar operators encouraged households to move to the suburban periphery, where the cost of land and a new home was cheaper. In many places, especially the Midwest and West, the streetcar became the primary means of transportation for all income groups.(12)

As streetcar systems evolved, cross-town lines made it possible to travel from one suburban center to another, and interurban lines connected outlying towns to the central city and to each other. Between the late 1880s and World War I, a number of industrial suburbs appeared outside major cities, including Gary, Indiana, outside Chicago, and Homestead and Vandergrift, both outside Pittsburgh.(13)

Figure 1. Milestones in Urban and Metropolitan Transportation

1830 Baltimore and Ohio Railroad introduces the steam locomotive in America.

1868-92 Parkways designed by Olmsted firm for Brooklyn, Buffalo, Boston, and Louisville.

1887 Electric streetcar introduced by Frank J. Sprague in Richmond, Virginia.

1893-1915 Kessler Brothers design park and boulevard system for Kansas City.
1902 Improvement of Towns and Cities by Charles Mulford Robinson calls for civic improvements such as roads, site planning, playgrounds and parks, street plantings, paving, lighting, and sanitation.
1908 Introduction of the Model-T automobile by Henry Ford.

1911 The Width and Arrangement of Streets by Charles Mulford Robinson is published, later republished as City Planning (1916).

1916 Federal Aid Highway Act (42 U.S. Stat. 212), commonly called the "Good Roads Act," establishes Bureau of Public Roads and authorizes Federal funding of 50 percent of State road projects within a Federal aid highway network.
1916-24 Construction of Bronx River Parkway, New York.

1923 Detroit Rapid Transit Commission announces comprehensive system of mass transit including a centralized subway.

1928-29 Radburn developed as the "Town for the Motor Age."

1938 Bureau of Public Roads report, Toll Roads and Free Roads, calls for a master plan for highway development, a series of upgraded interregional roads, and the construction of express highways into and through cities to relieve urban traffic congestion.
1939 New York World's Fair "Futurama" presents designer Norman Bel Geddes's vision for a national highway system and the modern city of the motor age.
1940 Arroyo Seco Freeway opens in Pasadena; first modern, high-speed turnpike opens in Pennsylvania.
1944 Federal Aid Highway Act calls for a limited system of national highways and a National System of Interstate Defense Highways; Interregional Highway Committee recommends creation of a 32,000-mile network of express highways, now known as the Eisenhower Interstate System.



[photo] Nineteenth-century public parks were pleasure grounds with gardens of exotic plants, fountains and ponds, paths for strolling, and sometimes a spacious greensward. In Buffalo (top), the creation of a system of parks and parkways by Frederick Law Olmsted spurred the transformation of adjoining land into attractive, tree lined neighborhoods, such as the Parkside East Historic District. In St. Louis (bottom), Lafayette Square became the heart of a growing residential district distinguished by some of the city's finest homes. (Photo by L. Newman, courtesy New York Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; historic photo courtesy Landmarks Association of St. Louis)

Concentrated along radial streetcar lines, streetcar suburbs extended outward from the city, sometimes giving the growing metropolitan area a star shape. Unlike railroad suburbs which grew in nodes around rail stations, streetcar suburbs formed continuous corridors. Because the streetcar made numerous stops spaced at short intervals, developers platted rectilinear subdivisions where homes, generally on small lots, were built within a five- or 10-minute walk of the streetcar line. Often the streets were extensions of the gridiron that characterized the plan of the older city.

Neighborhood oriented commercial facilities, such as grocery stores, bakeries, and drugstores, clustered at the intersections of streetcar lines or along the more heavily traveled routes. Multiple story apartment houses also appeared at these locations, designed either to front directly on the street or to form a u-shaped enclosure around a recessed entrance court and garden.

In many places the development of real estate closely followed the introduction of streetcar lines, sometimes being financed by a single operator or developer. East of Cleveland, Ohio, the community of Shaker Village took form after 1904 when O. P. and M. J. van Sweringen set out to create a residential community for middle- and upper-class families. To ensure the fastest and most direct service for home owners they eventually purchased a right-of-way and installed a high-speed electric streetcar to downtown Cleveland. By 1911, the community of Shaker Village was incorporated, establishing a system of local government that would ensure the community's development as a residential suburb for decades to come.(14)


Bird's eye view (1974) of Shaker Square, outside Cleveland, Ohio, shows the transit right-of-way, planned shopping center, nearby apartment houses, and outlying subdivisions of detached houses which attracted residents to the newly incorporated town of Shaker Heights in the early decades of the twentieth century. (Photo by Eric Johannesen, courtesy Ohio Historic Preservation Office)

Streetcar use continued to increase until 1923 when patronage reached 15.7 billion and thereafter slowly declined. There was no distinct break between streetcar and automobile use from 1910 to 1930. As cities continued to grow and the demand for transportation increased, the automobile was adopted by increasing numbers of upper-middle to upper-income households, while streetcars continued to serve the middle and working class population. Streetcar companies, however, in the 1920s remained confident about their industry's future. By the 1930s, many became mass transit companies, adding buses and trackless trolleys to their fleets to make their routes more flexible. In a few cities-Boston, Chicago, New York, and Detroit-mass transit included elevated trains and subways.(15)


Streetcar Waiting Station at Brentmoor Park, Clayton, Missouri, one of three residential parks designed by Henry Wright and featured in a 1913 Architectural Record article, entitled "Cooperative Group Planning." Each subdivision featured an arrangement of fine houses along a private curvilinear drive, commonly owned gardens and grounds, and a perimeter service road. (Photo by Esley Hamilton, courtesy Missouri Department of Natural Resources)

By the 1940s, streetcar ridership had dropped precipitously. The vast increase in automobile ownership and decentralization of industry to locations outside the central city after World War II brought an end to the role of the streetcar as a determinant of American urban form.

Early Automobile Suburbs: 1908 to 1945:

The introduction of the Model-T automobile by Henry Ford in 1908 spurred the third stage of suburbanization. The rapid adoption of the mass-produced automobile by Americans led to the creation of the automobile-oriented suburb of single-family houses on spacious lots that has become the quintessential American landscape of the twentieth century.

Between 1910, when Ford began producing the Model-T on a massive scale, and 1930, automobile registrations in the United States increased from 458,000 to nearly 22 million. Automobile sales grew astronomically: 2,274,000 cars in 1922, more than 3,000,000 annually from 1923 to 1926, and nearly four and a half million in 1929 before the stock market crashed. According to Federal Highway Administration statistics, 8,000 automobiles were in operation in 1900, one-half a million in 1910, nine-and-a-quarter million in 1920, and nearly 27 million in 1930.(16)

The rise of private automobile ownership stimulated an intense period of suburban expansion between 1918 and the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. As a result of the increased mobility offered by the automobile, suburban development began to fill in the star-shaped city created by the radial streetcar lines. Development on the periphery became more dispersed as workers were able to commute longer distances to work, as businesses moved away from the center city, and as factories, warehouses, and distribution centers were able to locate outside the railroad corridors due to the increased use of rubber-tired trucks.(17)

The popularity of the automobile brought with it the need for a new transportation infrastructure that included the construction and improvement of roads and highways, development of traffic controls, building of bridges and tunnels, and widening and reconstruction of downtown streets. One of the most unheralded structures that facilitated the growth of the suburbs was the perfected mechanical road. Automobiles required smooth, hard surfaces, and before 1900, even in cities, most roads were unpaved. Asphalt, introduced in the 1890s, became the common road surface by 1916.(18)

Beginning in the 1890s, the City Beautiful movement spurred advances in city planning and urban design. Transportation planning, as well as the improvement of streets, was recognized as central to the coordinated growth of urban areas. In cities such as Kansas City, Denver, and Memphis, the collaboration of planners, landscape architects, architects, and local political leaders, forged a rich legacy of parkways and boulevards that linked new residential suburbs with the center city. Highly influential were the writings of Charles Mulford Robinson, a journalist and advocate for Denver's park and parkway system. These included Improvement of Towns and Cities (1901), Width and Arrangement of Streets (1911), and City Planning, with Special Reference to the Planning of Streets and Lots (1916).

Historic photograph (c. 1928) of a typical new subdivision of "better homes" in Indianapolis. By the 1920s, improvements in suburban street design to accommodate the automobile, the growing acceptance of land-use controls, and the development of public utilities resulted in a host of suburban amenities, including paved roads, mandatory setbacks, sidewalks and driveways, concrete curbs, street lighting, and underground utilities. (Photo by Bass Photo Company, courtesy William Henry Smith Memorial Library, Indiana Historical Society)

Proposed in 1906 and built between 1916 and 1924, the Bronx River Parkway was one of the first modern parkways designed for automobiles. Sixteen miles in length, the parkway connected suburban communities in Westchester County with downtown New York. The parkway followed the Bronx River through a reservation initially established to reclaim what had become a polluted and unsightly watershed. Featuring a right-of-way ranging from 300 to 1,800 feet, the parkway was extensively planted with trees and shrubs, provided scenic river views, and achieved the illusion of being totally separated from adjoining development. The alignment featured graceful curves and gently followed the undulating topography to give motorists, many of whom were daily commuters, a pleasurable driving experience.(19)

Metropolitan areas expanded as streets, parkways, and boulevards extended outward, opening up new land for subdivision. As new radial arterials were built, suburban development became decentralized, creating fringes of increasingly low densities. With commuters no longer needing to live within walking distance of the streetcar line, residential suburbs could be built at lower densities to form self-contained neighborhoods that afforded more privacy, larger yards, and a parklike setting. Neighborhood improvements typically included paved roads, curbs and gutters, sidewalks, and driveways, as well as connections to municipal water systems and other public utilities.(20)

Concerns over pedestrian safety emerged as automobile use increased, and by the late 1920s, subdivision designers and housing reformers alike were examining ways to separate neighborhood traffic from arterial traffic and to design neighborhoods that remained safe, quiet, and free of speeding traffic. The "Radburn Idea," first introduced by Clarence Stein and Henry Wright in their 1928 design for a "Town for the Motor Age," called for separate circulation systems to serve pedestrians and automobiles. Published a year later in the regional plan for metropolitan New York City, Clarence Perry's Neighborhood Unit Formula called for a hierarchy of streets of varying widths to control automobile traffic.

In 1916 the United States Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act, authorizing expenditure of Federal funds for up to 50 percent of the cost of State road projects within the Federal aid network. During the 1920s, most States established highway departments, and the total miles of surfaced highway in the Nation doubled. (21)

During the "golden age of highway building" from 1921 to 1936, more than 420,000 miles of roads were built in the United States. The increase in intercity highways and roads connecting farms with markets made new land available for suburbanization. Advances in highway engineering, including the development of divided highways, bridges and tunnels, and cloverleaves, made automobile travel faster and safer.(22)


The Park-and-Shop (1930) in the Cleveland Park Historic District, Washington, D.C., designed by architect Arthur B. Heaton for real estate developers Shannon & Luchs, illustrates the convenience of shopping in one's neighborhood. Located on a busy street leading out of the city, this early shopping center provided an innovative front automobile parking lot and a collection of stores serving daily needs that were planned, developed, owned and managed as a single unit. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Theodor Horydczak Collection, LC-H814-T-1049)

Suburban areas continued to grow faster than central cities, and the planning of metropolitan highway systems gained increasing attention. High speed roads extending outward from central cities appeared in major metropolitan areas: Lakeshore Drive to Chicago's northern suburbs opened in 1933; and, in 1936, the Grand Central Parkway was added to the already extensive system of roads on Long Island built under Robert Moses's direction. In 1940, the opening of the Arroyo Seco Freeway in Los Angeles heralded a new age of freeway construction connecting city and suburb.(23)

The Futurama exhibit sponsored by General Motors Corporation at the 1939 New York World's Fair presented one of the most influential and memorable visions for the future of highway engineering, and with it suburban life. Designed by Norman Bel Geddes, the exhibit featured a huge diorama of the American landscape overlaid with an intricate network of high-speed, multilane, limited-access highways joining country and city. Called "magic motor-ways," the highways featured total separation of grades and graduated speeds. A ring highway surrounded the city interconnecting with radial freeways that guided suburban commuters to the center city where exit ramps eventually led to underground garages.(24)

In its 1938 report, Toll Roads and Free Roads, the Bureau of Public Roads called for a master plan for highway development, a series of upgraded interregional roads, and the construction of express highways into and through cities to relieve urban traffic congestion. The report also outlined the routes for six transcontinental highways and debated the feasibility of using tolls to support highway construction.(25)

The emergency of World War II intervened, and Federal highway spending was limited to the improvement of roads directly serving military installations or defense industries. In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed a seven-member Inter-regional Highway Committee to work with Public Roads administrator Thomas H. MacDonald on recommendations for national highway planning following the war. The committee's recommendations for an extensive 32,000-mile national network of expressways resulted in the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1944. The act authorized a National System of Interstate Highways, which included metropolitan expressways designed to relieve traffic congestion and serve as a framework for urban redevelopment. (26)

Since Congress did not appropriate additional funds for the system's construction until the mid-1950s, State highway departments were forced to rely on other sources, including public bonds, toll revenues, and the usual matching Federal funds earmarked for the improvement of the Federal aid highway network. (27)

From the end of World War I until 1945, increasing automobile ownership accelerated suburbanization and significantly expanded the amount of land available for residential development. This trend further stimulated the design and construction of a new infrastructure of roads, highways, bridges, and tunnels, laying the groundwork for highway systems that would transform metropolitan areas after World War II.

Post-World War II and Early Freeway Suburbs: 1945 to 1960:

The fourth and most dramatic stage of suburbanization in the United States followed World War II. The postwar housing boom, manifested in the so-called "freeway" or "bedroom" suburbs, was fueled by increased automobile ownership, advances in building technology, and the Baby Boom. A critical shortage of housing and the availability of low-cost, long-term mortgages, especially favorable to veterans, greatly spurred the increase of home ownership.

Highway construction authorized under the 1944 act got off to a slow start, but by 1951, every major city was working on arterial highway improvements with 65 percent of Federal funds being used for urban expressways. Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 provided substantial funding for the accelerated construction of a 41,000-mile, national system of interstate and defense highways which included 5,000 miles of urban freeways.(28)

By the late 1950s, the interstate system began to take form and already exerted considerable influence on patterns of suburbanization. As the network of high-speed highways opened new land for development, residential subdivisions and multiple family apartment complexes materialized on a scale previously unimagined. Increasing national prosperity, the availability of low-cost, long-term mortgages, and the application of mass production and prefabrication methods created favorable conditions for home building and home ownership. These factors gave rise to merchant builders, who with loan guarantees and an eager market, were able to develop extensive tracts of affordable, mass-produced housing at unprecedented speeds.


Designed as the "Town for the Motor Age," Radburn, New Jersey, featured separate circulation systems for pedestrians and automobiles. A network of interconnected pedestrian paths and a grade separation (visible at the right), similar to the "arches" Olmsted designed for Central Park in New York City, enabled residents to reach their neighborhood park on foot and pass from one park to another without crossing busy streets. (Photo by Louis DiGeronimo, courtesy New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection)

The increase of large, self-contained residential subdivisions, connected to the city by arterials and freeways, created a suburban landscape dependent on the automobile for virtually all aspects of daily living. Retailing facilities migrated to the suburbs and were clustered in community shopping centers or along commercial strips. Large regional shopping centers began to appear first along arteries radiating from the center city and then along the new circumferential highways. By 1960, the construction of suburban industrial and office parks added further impetus to the decentralization of the American city and the expansion of America's suburban landscape.

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