Can Modern be Charming?


According to architect Peter Pennoyer who co-wrote the newly published The Architecture of Grosvenor Atterbury with preservation historian Anne Walker, the answer is a resounding yes.


Atterbury (1869-1956) began his career designing sprawling summer "cottages" for New York's patrician elite of which he himself was a member. Even though I love a gilded estate as much as anyone, it was Atterbury's innovative and thoughtful town planning for the lower and middle classes that really intrigued me.

A Forest Hills residence

The model community of Forest Hills, located in New York City's borough of Queens, is a stand-out example of his work . Founded in 1908, it took an English village as its premise. Its layout of winding streets and footpaths which placed emphasis on the pedestrian experience is a far cry from the sterile cul-de-sacs of today's suburbs.

Forest Hills development map proposed by Atterbury and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. in 1909

Atterbury introduced the use of prefabricated concrete to expedite building and keep costs down, and here is where it gets interesting.

Just because something is prefabricated doesn't necessarily mean it has to be bland, uniform, or mass-produced. Even though Atterbury was at the forefront of construction and planning, he didn't sacrifice individuality or detail - in fact, I believe he recognized that it is in these details that humanity lies and that they enhance the life of everyone - no matter what the state of their pocketbook.

Atterbury even designed Forest Hill's lamp posts

Pennoyer pointed out in a lecture given at the Institute of Classical Architecture last week that Atterbury's pioneering achievements have long been overlooked - perhaps it is the design community's inability to see modernity when it's under a traditional veneer.