White Plains Makes Its Mark In History

If there were a Doris Kearns Goodwin of White Plains, it would be Renoda Hoffman. 

City historian for three decades, starting in the 1960s, Hoffman always had a good story. Her family left Imperial England for a life in Westchester. From that new family doorstep, in Shrub Oak, her grandmother fed the “Leather Man”—a nomad who wore only leather and lived in Westchester’s caves in the 1860s. Her grandfather delivered the weekend newspaper to summer-stock royalty on Lake Mahopac. A distant aunt married into the Vanderbilt family, although Hoffman wished she had been related to the outlaw Jesse James.

The tale that Hoffman loved most, however, was that of White Plains. She was a prolific author, penning nonfiction books from It Happened in Old White Plains to The Changing Face of White Plains. This year’s White Plains centennial—marking 100 years since its official incorporation as a city—would no doubt have been cause for another celebratory chapter by Hoffman, had she not passed in 2006, at age 95. 

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White Plains’ modern history began in 1683, when Puritan settlers from Rye traveled to a site where the The Westchester mall sits today, to meet local Weckquaeskeck chieftains. After negotiations, a deal was reached: The Puritans would buy more than 4,000 acres of what the Native Americans called Quarropas, or “white marshes”/“plains of white,” a name that obviously stuck.

The USS White Plains, which defended the American camp in the Philippines from the Japanese fleet during World War II, was named to honor the Battle of White Plains.

Colonial homes and farms expanded along an old trading route that later became Broadway. Livestock grazed in the middle of town, and volunteer militias trained along the dirt roads. King George II granted the settlers a patent for the land in 1721, and White Plains became the county seat in 1757. In front of the courthouse on July 11, 1776, Judge John Thomas unfurled the Declaration of Independence from the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and read it aloud. New York’s Provincial Congress met in White Plains, now the “Birthplace of New York State,” to ratify the statement.

White Plains cemented its place in American history a few months later, during the Battle of White Plains. General George Washington and more than 10,000 men had abandoned Manhattan to hold the line between the Bronx River and Croton River. As the British approached what are now the neighborhoods of Battle Hill and Purdy Hill, a melee of Red Coats, Hessians, Continental troops, and various militias exchanged fire. The Americans retreated, but they had drawn away British resources and blocked the campaign northward. 

“If the British Army had managed to overrun Washington, what would have happened?” Hoffman would later ask during a ceremony celebrating the Battle of White Plains. Her matter-of-fact answer: “We would have been under British rule.”

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Washington later re-established his headquarters at the Jacob Purdy House in White Plains. By the end of the war, the town had only a few hundred residents and more cattle than people. Major John Austin and his troops—perhaps by drunken accident—burned most of town center to the ground. 

The courthouse in the 1930s

The era of rebuilding and growth did not truly take off until 1844, when newly laid New York & Harlem railroad tracks reached Westchester. Shops, saloons, and a new court sprang up on Railroad Avenue, which later evolved into Main Street. Faster transportation meant more mills along the Bronx River that profited from a Manhattan experiencing an increased level of immigration.

White Plains, however, remained a close-knit “hello neighbor” town even as officials baptized it a city in 1916, a time when the United States was maturing and redefining itself. The temperance movement was on the rise, and the era of trust-busting and tenement housing was winding down. Democrat Woodrow Wilson had edged out Republican Charles E. Hughes for re-election, promising a peace platform that kept America out of the war in Europe. Pancho Villa and his Mexican raiders had ridden roughshod into New Mexico. The head of the Endicott-Johnson shoe factories had shaken up the shoemaking industry with a radical new idea: the 40-hour workweek. 

In downtown White Plains, 1916 also began marking a makeover toward modern commerce.  The opening of the Municipal Building, Home Savings Bank, and Lawyers Building nearly a decade later, all heralded White Plains as a new national financial center. The 10-story Bar Building became the tallest in Westchester County when local officials cut the ribbon in 1926.

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A map showing the battle lines of the British and American armies during the Battle of White Plains in 1776

On the weekends, actors Henry Fonda and Vincent Price moonlighted at the neighborhood Ridgeway Theatre. Families picnicked at Recreation Park (now Carl Delfino Park) to watch the semipro White Plains Giants or their rivals, the White Plains Bears, play football as NFL scouts camped out in the bleachers for the weekend. 

World War II brought greater fame when the USS White Plains (named in honor of the Battle of White Plains), alongside several US Navy ships, defended the main American camp from a Japanese fleet in the Philippines. When the GIs returned home and started families, though, urban centers were being eschewed in favor of the growing suburbs.

County Executive Ed Michaelian countered by rebuilding the library, courthouse, and the rest of the central city. Known as Mr. Republican, Michaelian started in business before moving to a career on the City Council. Leading an era of unprecedented growth, his team enticed New York department stores to White Plains and turned more than 100 acres of downtown land into a business district. By 2003, construction in the city totaled $650 million. Several Fortune 500 companies were calling Westchester home, including Heineken USA and Starwood Hotels & Resorts in White Plains. 

A groundbreaking ceremony for the Physical Education Buildling at Westchester Community College in 1963.

Last year, the White Plains Common Council signed into law a Historic Preservation Act to protect the city’s treasures. Few white marshes remain today, but nine sites are already listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including Soundview Manor and the White Plains Armory. 

In some ways, though, the commemoration of White Plains’ centennial is arbitrary. White Plains actually became a town 333 years ago and was anointed the capital of Westchester 259 years ago. Before that, the Mohican Nation traced centuries of rich history in the area, clearing trails that later became White Plains’ first roads (even today some of the original names of Native American chiefs remain—Quarropas Street, Nosband Avenue, Shapham Place).

Perhaps a centennial is not about looking back, but looking forward. Westchester County’s Director of the Office of Economic Development, William Mooney III, envisions a White Plains 100 years from now that has New York City’s Department of Economic Development bragging about Manhattan’s proximity to Westchester. The future White Plains might include mixed-use, multifamily projects and an easily accessible transit system to connect them. The White Plains Beautification Foundation has committed to growing White Plains into “a city of trees.” In Mooney’s words: “We will surely be the place where people will be ‘living, working and playing’ 100 years from now.” 

Famous venture capitalist and essayist Paul Graham, tells us that: “A city speaks to you mostly by accident—in things you see through windows, in conversations you overhear.” Without question, the windows and conversations in White Plains have shared a vibrant past. 

Dan Robbins majored in history and American studies at Cornell University and remains an unabashed history buff, particularly when it comes to his own backyard

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