Never one to be shy about attaching his name to distinctive projects, entrepreneur and developer William Van Duzer Lawrence left a lasting legacy scattered across lower and central Westchester. Much of his forward-thinking real-estate development, as well as his philanthropic works, remain firmly in place, nearly a century after his death.
Lawrence, who made a fortune in pharmaceuticals, launched Lawrence Hospital (now NewYork-Presbyterian Lawrence Hospital) after his son Dudley nearly died while being rushed from the family home in Bronxville to a New York City hospital with life-threatening appendicitis.
Lawrence founded Sarah Lawrence College in 1926 on the grounds of his estate and named it after his wife, the former Sarah Bates. Their magnificent red-brick and half-timber mansion, known as Westlands, still serves as the college’s administration building.
Houlihan Lawrence, the county’s dominant real estate agency, is a direct descendant of his Lawrence Park Realty Company. The family-run firm, with more than 1,300 agents across 30 offices serving Westchester, Fairfield, and the Hudson Valley, is celebrating its 130th anniversary this year.
And, most of all, the village of Bronxville still carries Lawrence’s distinctive stamp, especially the core 20-acre Lawrence Park section that launched his vision of the American suburb. In fact, much of Bronxville still resembles the characteristic suburb of Lawrence’s day. Its array of tidy, tree-lined winding streets filled with stately English Tudors, Southern Colonials, Classical Revivals, Craftsmans, and Victorians, can be traced directly to Lawrence’s modern vision of suburbia and his gracious style of architectural execution.
Lawrence insisted on following the contours of the land in laying out the streets of Bronxville, preserving as many of the hills, craggy rock formations, and trees as he could. He personally oversaw the design and construction of the first homes. Lawrence’s dream of a planned community for some of New York’s most notable writers and artists, as well as for solidly upper-middle-class professionals, first took shape in 1890, when he acquired the 86-acre Prescott farm in Eastchester.
He then commissioned architect William Augustus Bates (no relation to his wife), who had recently completed a group of “cottages” for millionaires in Tuxedo Park, NY, to design the first homes on spec.
The first four houses sold quickly, and the new owners were in residence by June 1891.
Prominent writers were among the early arrivals to Lawrence Park. Edmund Clarence Stedman, “the poet of Wall Street,” reflecting his dual careers of banker and poet, was one of the most prominent men of letters in the country when he moved into a Colonial Revival on Wellington Circle in Lawrence Park in 1896.
Many of the esteemed writers were women, including Alice Wellington Rollins, children’s author Kate Douglas Wiggin (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm), and Ruth McEnery Stuart. One of Lawrence Park’s best-known early residents was Elizabeth Custer, an author and the widow of the legendary cavalry general, George Armstrong Custer. She also had been a friend of Sarah Bates Lawrence since childhood.
A host of well-established artists soon followed the literary contingent. These included painters William Henry Howe, Anna Lillian Winegar, and Bruce Crane, illustrator William T. Smedley, muralists Will Hicok Low and Violet Oakley, and sculptor Alexander Phimister Proctor. Other early residents included the muralist and interior designer Herman Schladermundt, still-life painter Milne Ramsey and writer-lawyer-artist Tudor Jenks.
By Westchester standards, the Lawrence Park lots were relatively small and modest — nothing like the expansive acreage that then surrounded moneyed estates in the county. Each of the houses, though set close to one another, feels private and secluded, perhaps due to Lawrence’s care in siting them within the existing
Many of the homes feature exquisite design details, including towers, gambrel roofs, generously proportioned bay windows and built-ins, wood shingles, carved finials, and stone pillars. Some were built with north-facing skylights to capture the light so treasured by artists.
By 1901, when many of the houses in Lawrence Park had been completed, Lawrence decided to extend the planned community into 295 additional acres he also owned in Yonkers, dubbing it Lawrence Park West.
The original 20-acre Lawrence Park, also known as the Hilltop section of Bronxville, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. With its nearly 100 historic homes, the neighborhood remains one of Westchester’s distinguished architectural and cultural treasures, a fitting and lasting tribute to William Van Duzer Lawrence.
Eons ago, Bill Cary majored in history at Duke University. These days, he writes about local history whenever he can