Berkeley Park Subdivision Historic District
The Berkeley Park Subdivision Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.[†] Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
Berkeley Park Subdivision Historic District, a forty-one acre residential subdivision designed in 1911, is located in the southeast quadrant of the City of Syracuse, Onondaga County, in the Central New York State region. The boundaries of the Berkeley Park Subdivision Historic District coincide with those originally laid out by the architect and developer, Clarence S. Congdon. The Berkeley Park Subdivision Historic District's northern boundary is Stratford Street, across which are additional residential neighborhoods. The eastern boundary is the rear property lines of the residential lots on the west side of Ackerman Avenue, beyond which are more residential streets. The southern boundary is the north end of properties belonging to Morningside Cemetery and the City of Syracuse, beyond which are athletic facilities belonging to Syracuse University. The western boundary is formed by Comstock Avenue, across which are the southeastern sector of the Syracuse University Main Campus and the northeastern sector of the historic (National Register listed) Oakwood Cemetery. Located on a drumlin, the subdivision was designed to follow the natural contours of the land and capitalize on the views provided by the elevation.
Within the Berkeley Park Subdivision Historic District there are a total of 137 properties, of which 126 have been deemed contributing. The road system and its associated features, laid out in 1911, has been counted as a contributing structure. Both the residential architecture of Berkeley Park and the original character-defining features of the subdivision retain a high level of integrity.
The City of Syracuse straddles an east-west line that separates two physiographic regions: the Appalachian Foothills to the south and the Ontario Lake Plain to the north. The Berkeley Park Subdivision Historic District is located in the Appalachian Foothills part of the city on a gently sloping drumlin atop a raised geologic formation. The low point of the neighborhood is the southwestern corner along Comstock Avenue, at the base of the drumlin. The terrain rises gently from Comstock Avenue to Circle Road, steeply from there to the southern end of Berkeley Drive and crests about mid-block between the southern end of Berkeley Drive and Windsor Place. Beyond this point the land slopes down gently to Ackerman Avenue to the east and to Terrace Road in the north. From Terrace Road to Dorset Street is the steep face slope of the drumlin; the land then slopes gently to Stratford Street to the north.
On this hilly site, no two blocks are entirely at the same elevation and only Dorset Road is essentially flat. All the other streets curve and/or climb and descend. By working with the natural landforms presented by the topography, sinuous roads were developed which result in irregularly shaped lots. The undulating terrain with curving, climbing and descending streets and the relative density of the residential lots and the rich vegetation, combining street trees and private plantings and gardens, make the Berkeley Park subdivision seductively complex: full of visual surprises revealing a near perfect integration of terrain, architecture and vegetation. The design incorporates terracing, elevated sidewalks, public stairways and shared alleys and drives. Cast iron handrails provide pedestrian protection along public stairs and steepest sidewalks. Period street lamps line all but two streets within the subdivision.
Congdon did not, however, rely just on the original layout to define this landscape; he put into place "protective provisions" that established this as a residential subdivision solely of single-family homes, with minimum lot frontage, designated set backs, prohibitions against barns or garages built in or near the front yard, and minimum construction costs for the houses.
The most distinctive entrance to Berkeley Park is at Ostrom Avenue south across Stratford Street onto Berkeley Drive. There is a visible change from the urban grid street pattern to the north to the curvilinear street pattern of the subdivision; the increased size of individual lots and large size and architectural design of the houses enhance this difference. Berkeley Drive, the widest and only through street in the subdivision, is a boulevard from Stratford Street to Acorn Path and contains a central median planted with deciduous trees and lawn. It is the most dramatic street in the subdivision, climbing steeply to the south, and dominated by additional steepness in the residential lots to its east, which begins south of the intersection with the heavily wooded Terrace Road. No other street in the subdivision has as much topographic change as Berkeley Drive. At the first intersection south of Stratford, it meets with Dorset Road at the east and Circle Road at the west. Facing south, one is presented with the sweeping upward curve of Berkeley Drive and the sinuous downward curve of both Dorset and Circle. At the top of its rise Berkeley Drive meets Acorn Path from the east, and turns ninety degrees to the east where it first intersects Windsor Place before turning gently southeast to join Broad Street.
Acorn Path, perhaps originally conceived as a through street within the subdivision, is a unique byway that is part limited-access street and part pedestrian sidewalk. Its extreme east and west ends are open to vehicular use while its central portion is devoted to pedestrian circulation. The eastern section meets Berkeley Drive and provides common access to numerous lots situated at the top of the steep western slope of the drumlin, while the western portion serves lots at the base of that slope and joins Comstock Avenue. At its center, Acorn Path is a public sidewalk aligned along the steep mid-slope of the drumlin; where it rings the cul-de-sac of Circle Road, it is separated from the street by planting strips in excess of forty percent.
Circle Road, which terminates in a cul-de-sac, has a very different character than Berkeley Drive. The street width is much narrower and some of the houses are smaller than those on the larger street. Ostensibly having no through-traffic (although Acorn Path does provide an outlet to Comstock Avenue), Circle Road is the most secluded street in the subdivision. With its grade lowest at the midpoint and its alignment following the sinuous form of the drumlin, it is impossible to discern the entire corridor from any vantage point; the plating strips with their street trees and the dense vegetation of the residential lots enhance this effect. Although this sense of mystery and variety are present on all of the streets in the subdivision, it is most evident on Circle Road.
Dorset Road runs east from Berkeley Drive and Circle Road, and at its eastern end turns ninety degrees north to intersect with Stratford Street. The location of many handsome houses and the site for the original community building (120 Dorset Road), Dorset Road has a subtle curving nature then is strongest at its turn towards Stratford. Its relatively flat grade and recent loss of mature trees (due, in part, to a devastating 1998 Labor Day storm) somewhat diminish the sense of mystery inherent in this alignment.
Terrace Drive, on the other hand, with its curvilinear form, dramatic topographic change and abundant vegetation of adjacent lots, provides a great deal of interest. Despite its non-contributing houses, Terrace Drive is defined by the same large lots, extreme slopes and extensive vegetation that characterize all of the subdivision. The properties on the north side of Terrace have wonderful views within the subdivision and out into the surrounding neighborhoods to the north. On its south, Terrace Drive has a steeply sloped wood of four parcels which are unfit for construction (and currently are associated with the 100 Windsor Place) but add to the very sylvan character of the neighborhood.
Windsor Place climbs south from its intersection near the eastern end of Terrace Road, crests about mid-block and slopes gently toward its intersection with Berkeley Drive. Although lacking the curvilinear alignment found on the previously mentioned streets, Windsor Place still provides interest and a degree of mystery due to its elevated location — resulting in both filtered and open views of the city to the north. Due to vegetation, these are somewhat veiled during the summer but during the winter are more open.
Both Comstock Avenue and Stratford Street have the same straight alignment of Windsor Place, but lack its high elevation. Comstock Avenue, forming the boundary of Berkeley Park at the western base of the drumlin, is a primary north-south city street. It is wider than the streets within the core of the subdivision, as well as those in the older adjacent neighborhoods. The lots are generally level, with some having gentle grade changes at the rear — at the north end of the street sloping down and at the south end sloping up. Both street trees and period street lighting line the corridor. Vegetation within the residential lots, and that of Oakwood Cemetery to the west, enhance the park-like character of the subdivision. Stratford Street is at the northern base of the drumlin and is aligned with the older grid of streets just beyond. Here the lots are somewhat narrower and have less deep front yards, resulting in a greater density than elsewhere in the subdivision. Nevertheless, mature vegetation within both the public planting strip and private lots is consistent with that throughout Berkeley Park.
Congdon amended the original subdivision design a number of times in the first few years of development. The first major change was to connect Berkeley Drive with Broad Street at the southeast corner of the subdivision. A map showing this change is dated September 1, 1911. In December of 1912, Congdon designed the shared drive on Windsor Place that serves lots 19, 20, and 21 on Berkeley. These lots are located on the east side of Berkeley Drive at the top of the drumlin. From Berkeley Drive, they are accessible only by climbing many stairs from the level of the sidewalk, which itself is also elevated, in part, from the roadbed. The shared drive allows for vehicular access to the lots from the rear. In October of 1916, two similar shared drives were developed between Circle Road and Berkeley Drive. One was accessed from the eastern portion of Acorn Path, the other from between lot 26 and 27 on Circle Road.
In 1914 the firm of Rich and Putnum, landscape architects, constructed terrace walls and planted shrubs in Berkeley Park. The following October, nearly two hundred mature trees were planted in the subdivision. An aerial photograph of the area taken sometime prior to 1924 shows mature trees in the median of Berkeley Drive and lining the streets. The mature silver maples found throughout Berkeley Park probably date from this planting. (The devastating 1998 storm destroyed a great number of mature trees in Berkeley Park, as elsewhere throughout the city.)
Period streetlights are located at equal intervals along Berkeley Drive, Circle Road, Windsor Place and Comstock Avenue. The lampposts are cast iron (c.1910s-1920s) topped with a cylindrical lamp with a flat aluminum cap (c.1940s). Contemporary cobra neck lamps mounted on wood poles, are situated on Dorset Road and the north side of Stratford Street. Terrace Road has no streetlights.
The restrictions placed on the development of the subdivision by "protective provisions," as well as the example Congdon provided with the houses he designed, helped create a neighborhood of picturesque early-twentieth century revival style homes. Prominent local architects Ward Wellington Ward, Gordon Wright, Merton Elwood Granger and Dwight James Baum all designed houses in Berkeley Park. Forty-five percent of the properties in the subdivision were developed by 1924, and eighty-nine percent were developed by 1934. Only twelve residences were built in the post-Second World War period. There is a consistency of high-quality architectural design that further emphasizes the subdivision as a distinct and separate neighborhood.
It is this combination of vegetation, topography, circulation, and residential architecture that make Berkeley Park Subdivision Historic District a cohesive cultural landscape that exemplifies early-twentieth century American subdivision design.
Berkeley Park Subdivision Historic District is a distinctive example of an early-twentieth century residential subdivision. As presented in the Multiple Property cover document "Historic Designed Landscapes of Syracuse, New York," well-planned subdivisions were highly unified, with uniform streetscape treatment and strict control over the size, location and design of homes. A hierarchical street system integrated the subdivision with the surrounding community while at the same time maintaining exclusive privacy for residents. The ideal residential subdivision provided complete infrastructure services, large pen spaces, facilities for quiet outdoor recreation, a cohesive architectural appearance, and relief from the hustle and bustle of the city. Berkeley Park remains an outstanding and highly intact representation of early-twentieth century landscape architectural design.
With the development of the public trolley system, settlement beyond Syracuse's urban core could be realized and the farmland to the east of the downtown area soon opened to development. The first true subdivision in Syracuse was The Highlands, developed by Maurice Graves in 1872 on a hill southeast of the urban center. University Heights followed this subdivision to its south and east from Comstock Avenue to Sumner Avenue. In 1902, ninety acres of the original 105-acre parcel was sold to the University Heights Land Company. This new company, controlled by W.F. Rafferty and partner Maurice Graves, expanded with the addition of Clarence S. Congdon as a third partner. In 1911, Congdon purchased from his partners forty-one acres south of Strafford Street, which was being held by the company for further expansion of the Heights subdivision. The proposed expansion is shown on the 1908 map of the city. Congdon, a Syracuse University trained architect, radically altered the initial design for the area. Rather than adhering to the grid pattern found in both The Highlands and University Heights, he designed the subdivision to work with the natural contours of the parcel's dominant topographic feature, a drumlin. Congdon worked closely with his former partners to secure sewer service to the area and, when it became a reality in 1911, the development and promotion of Berkeley Park began in earnest.
Berkeley Park was conceived and developed by Congdon as an exclusive residential subdivision marketed to the middle and upper middle class. Congdon designed it to appeal to both established and young professionals seeking the "best" Syracuse had to offer. When planning the subdivision, Congdon took into consideration the desires of the affluent middle class to escape the growing problems of city living — overcrowding, noise and pollution. The Berkeley Park brochure promised "...no flats, no factories, no saloons, no noise, no smoke, no dirt."
Public infrastructure as completed; municipal water and sewer and electrical and telephone service were all provided. Congdon took an extra measure to preserve the visual quality of the subdivision by placing all overhead service at the rear of the lots to eliminate unsightly wires along the streets; in some cases, water and sewer lines also were located here. The hierarchical and curvilinear street system set the subdivision apart from the surrounding older neighborhoods, yet still provided smooth connections to these established areas. Berkeley Drive was constructed with an eighty-foot width, much wider than adjacent Strafford Street or Ostrom Avenue. With its center median, it appeared grander than the established streets to the north and, with its curving alignment, much more private. On this hilly site, no two blocks in the subdivision were laid out entirely at the same elevation and only Dorset Road and Stratford Street were essentially flat. By working with the natural curves presented by the topography, Congdon developed sinuous roads that resulted in irregularly shaped lots. The design relied heavily on terraces, elevated sidewalks, public stairways, and shared alleys and drives. Cast iron handrails provided pedestrian protection along public stairs and walks, and streetlights lit the subdivision. In 1914, Congdon hired the Syracuse landscape architecture firm of Rich and Putnam to build retaining walls and install vegetation. The design called for the retention of the mature oaks growing in the southwest corner of the parcel and, in 1915, nearly 200 additional substantial trees (10"dbh) were planted throughout the subdivision. An early 1920s aerial photograph shows mature trees lining the streets and in the median of Berkeley Drive. Congdon originally included a common green area within the subdivision, to be located in the extreme southwest corner; however early on — and no doubt as demanded for lots increased — this area was re-designated for building lots. Similarly his plans for a social club, a two-acre site on Dorset Road, were soon set aside and that land also was offered for development.
Congdon did not, however, rely solely on the original layout and these installed features to define this landscape; he also put into place "protective provisions" to control potential future trends. These provisions, or deed restrictions, limited construction to only single family homes and only one per lot, with established minimum lot frontages, designated set backs, prohibited barns or garages from being built in or near the front yard, and set minimum construction costs for houses.
Congdon not only served as subdivision designer, developer and real estate agent, he even designed and built several of the first homes in Berkeley Park. In December of 1916, Congdon joined with George Bartlett, Grover Bartlett and Edwin Tanner to form Haverling Builders, Inc., of which Congdon was president and manager. The purpose of this business venture was to "engage in the building of artistic houses in Berkeley Park." The first house to be built by Haverling Builders was at 107 Circle Road. Congdon is credited with its design. With the minimum construction cost for any house established in the protective provisions (and it varied, depending on the street, from $3,500 to $5,000), the tone was set for the quality of architectural development in the subdivision. Many of the homes are architect designed. Prominent local architects Ward Wellington Ward, Gordon Wright, Merton Elwood Granger and Dwight James Baum all designed houses in Berkeley Park. The majority of all the subdivision houses were built by 1928 and executed in the picturesque early twentieth century revival styles. By the end of the 1930s, ninety percent of all the current houses had been built. (Of the remaining ten percent, most were built in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and only a few houses were built after that. One religious property was constructed in the 1980s on two parcels never before developed).
Congdon's design and development acumen was matched only by his prowess in real estate. His aim to attract Syracuse's established and rising academic, professional, business, civic and political leaders to Berkeley Park was realized within fifteen years of launching the subdivision. By then, Berkeley Park boasted a broad array of local notables as its residents — drawing in large part from the administration, faculty and staff of nearby Syracuse University, New York State College of Forestry and University Hospital (today the Sate University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and State University of New York Upstate Medical University, respectively). Many of the city's most prominent families resided here, with children and siblings of early residents eventually building or buying their own home within the subdivision. Similarly, colleagues in many well-known and successful Syracuse businesses were also neighbors in Berkeley Park. Throughout its history, the subdivision has remained an enclave of single families that generally make a long-term commitment to the neighborhood — with a number of properties having had as few as three owners in over eighty years.
Berkeley Park is an excellent example of early twentieth century residential subdivision design in that it had, and is still comprised of, a spatial organization associated with the romantic traditions of planned residential neighborhoods initiated in the mid-nineteenth century and popularized into the 1930s. Its meandering streets and public sidewalks provide ample access while offering interest and intrigue. Its vegetation accentuates the park-like character of the broad lots, provides enclosure and privacy, and enframes distant views as well as neighboring houses. And its buildings were as attractive compliments to the sylvan nature of the underlying topography, abundant vegetation and numerous visual and physical sequences.
† Cynthia Carrington, Chris Cappella-Peters, and Bill Krattinger, Preservation Association of Central New York, Berkeley Park Subdivision Historic District, nomination document, 2001, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.