Suburbia: stale prefab houses, pale eggshell paint, nuclear green grass, and a two-car garage. For a newly emerging Westchester, though, pharmaceutical tycoon William Van Duzer Lawrence had a different vision.
With drooping eyes and a warm smile, Lawrence had made millions on a drug called “Pain Killer,” a cocktail most likely containing alcohol and opium. (You may recall a line from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer referring to the concoction as “simply fire in a liquid form.”) At the behest of his brother-in-law, Lawrence made his way to Bronxville to check out a piece of land that had come up for sale. Upon laying eyes on Prescott farm, a vast collage of undeveloped hilly forest and farmland near a newly built railroad in Eastchester, Lawrence envisioned a town where society patrons and artists lived side-by-side. So, in 1890, Lawrence purchased and began developing the land. Thus began Bronxville’s Lawrence Park. A “planned community for people of all professions,” Lawrence’s imagined village would end up blending full-time artists’ colony and weekend retreat.
In the late 19th century, artists’ colonies contrasted sharply with crowded urban life. Fresh air and pastoral landscapes were thought to stoke the creative mind. In France, the small village of Barbizon alone stocked the palettes of Millet, Rousseau, and Jacque. Early colonies such as Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York; MacDowell in Peterborough, New Hampshire; and Old Lyme in Old Lyme, Connecticut, recast the European experience for American artists. Lawrence Park emerged at the peak of this American renaissance—a mosaic of revived classicism, industrial wealth, and nationalist spirit, which produced a surge in patronage.
Westchester was no stranger to artistic endeavor. Decades earlier, stonecutter Alexander Masterton welcomed famed Hudson River School painters to his homestead on White Plains Road. Lawrence wanted to sculpt into this legacy a community specifically crafted for his target demographic, and he hired architect William Augustus Bates, who fashioned unique homes with large bay windows and skylights that pointed to the north, which enticed artists. Modest plots and natural landscaping put typical suburban ostentation in high relief. As historian Loretta Hoagland noted, Lawrence Park had “the pastoral setting reminiscent of Europe, yet Grand Central Station was half an hour away.”
In addition to controlling the layout and selecting the architectural details of the community, Lawrence also chose the people he would allow to move there, and saw that artists and professionals would make the best fit. Alice Wellington Rollins, well-known writer and Lawrence’s sister-in-law, was one of the first residents and helped introduce Lawrence to a number of well-established artists who eventually moved in. Rollins’ 1895 sales brochure (written at Lawrence’s request) boasted, “We are ourselves a society. We all know each other, and you cannot come to our Park anyway unless some of us know and like you. You must be either a Genius or a Delightful Person to be eligible at all for such privileges as we extend.”
Houses quickly sold to newspaper-worthy society bigwigs and renowned artists. One of the leading illustrators of the time William Thomas Smedley, muralist Will H. Low, and painter Anna Winegar were a few of the early residents. Lorenzo James Hatch, who designed Chinese currency, as well as helped China establish a bureau of printing and engraving, and Henry Hobart Nichols, president of the National Academy of Design for 10 years, also settled in full time a few years later.
As Impressionism, Beaux Arts, and scientific realism mixed along the Bronx River, it became clear the village was not a typical art colony. The town was intended for year-round living, not just a rural retreat for warm-weather inspiration.
The result was frequent neighborly collaboration. The Women’s Club sponsored artist discussions and supported projects through its monthly magazine. Financier Edmund Clarence Stedman wrote a history of the New York Stock Exchange with neighbor Otto Bather as art editor and illustrator. Sculptors Charles Robert Knight and A. Phimister Proctor jointly won a commission to sculpt ornamental detailing of the Bronx Zoo’s Elephant House.
In just two decades, Lawrence Park had grown more than five fold. Lawrence responded by styling a new hotel, local newspaper, and casino. In 1926, he founded Sarah Lawrence College—named after his wife. Also bearing Lawrence’s name, the now ubiquitous Houlihan Lawrence real estate firm.
By the 1930s, pastoral paintings faded from view. Henry Ford’s Model T had expanded the horizon of pastel summering. The end of World War II sparked a second wave of suburban growth. But Lawrence Park still displays a unique hue and moment in time and, today, ranks in the National Register of Historic Places. Many Bronxville homes have repurposed old artists’ studios into living rooms.
As one historian notes, “Bronxville’s Lawrence Park became the unifying force that bound them [the artists] together in a supportive community of peers where they offered each other encouragement and inspiration, collaborated on projects, and networked with the larger art world.” Just a few rolling hills from Manhattan, it still remains Westchester’s—and New York’s—artists’ colony.