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1920-1983

History 1920-1983: Westchester Comes of Age

Tudor style shops and apartmentsRural life continued in northern Westchester in the 1920s much as it had before World War I. There were many farms still shipping milk, fruit, and vegetables to New York and Connecticut. Small hamlets and villages remained isolated along unpaved roads, and children continued to attend one-room schoolhouses just as their fathers and grandfathers had done.

The Depression drove many farmers out of business altogether, and the dairy farms began to break up as competition from other areas lowered the demand for Westchester farm products. Rising land taxes and falling profits led most of the remaining farmers to sell out to real estate developers after World War II. In 1964, 18,500 acres were farmed in Westchester. Ten years later only 9,000 acres were farmed.

South of White Plains, the few remaining farms disappeared rapidly after 1920 as suburbanization began in earnest. Republican party leader William L. Ward influenced the County Board of Supervisors to create the Westchester County Planning Commission and gathered a team of outstanding county citizens to carry out his dream of developing Westchester into a suburban paradise. An overall plan for golf courses, parkways, and recreational areas created a network of beautiful open areas throughout the county.

The Bronx River Parkway was the highway that opened up Westchester. It had been begun in 1906 as part of the project to clean up the Bronx River, which had become a badly contaminated eyesore by the turn of the century. In the process of building the parkway, the Bronx River bed was cleaned and dredged, 30,000 trees and 140,000 shrubs were planted, and paths and benches for the public were set among the trees and lakes. When it opened in 1925 the Bronx River Parkway immediately. drew worldwide attention to Westchester County.

The Bronx River Parkway was followed by the Saw Mill River Parkway, the Hutchinson River Parkway, the Taconic Parkway, and the Cross County Parkway, all completed by the 1930s. The scenic beauty of Westchester's parkways is still fresh fifty years later. The next major road construction did not take place until the 1950s and 1960s, when the interstate expressways and thruways were built.

The parkways brought many young, middle-class executives and professionals to Westchester to buy new homes being erected on old estates. The prosperity of the post-war period put cash in the pockets of many young families. They invested in real estate, which rapidly increased in value. Buying a home became the goal of everyone who could afford it.

Transportation was developed to accommodate the growing population. Local roads were paved, traffic regulations developed, and traffic lights installed. As the roadways improved, buses replaced the old trolley system. The Toonerville Trolley of Pelham made its last run in 1937; the Westchester bus system had replaced it.

As suburban towns grew, men and women organized a variety of social, cultural, and educational organizations within them. The combination of companionship and worthwhile volunteer service appealed to women like those who had been active in the suffragette movement and World War I relief organizations. Women also nurtured the arts and other cultural activities. Membership in womens' clubs and service organizations became an integral part of the suburban life that emerged in Westchester during the 1920s and continues into the 1980s.

People enjoyed many leisure activities in Westchester during the period between the world wars. Among the achievements of William Ward and the parks commission was the creation of an overall plan for recreational areas in the county. Rye, Playland amusement area opened to acclaim in 1928. Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, Croton Point Park, Glen Island Park, and Kingsland Point Park were also developed by the county for the public. In 1930 the County Center was opened in White Plains as an all-purpose convention space for exhibits and events.

Armonk Airport was a great recreational attraction in the late 1920s and 1930s. People came from miles around to watch the planes and barnstormers. Roadside stands and the Log Cabin Restaurant catered to the crowds. Residents still recall the phenomenal traffic jams along Bedford Road.

The entertainment industry had a brief moment of glory in Westchester when D. W. Griffith operated his movie studio complex on Orienta Point in Mamaroneck. The Gish sisters, Mary Pickford, and many other famous movie stars of the day were filmed in the Griffith studios and also on location around the county. Legitimate theater also took precarious hold in Westchester soil. The Lawrence family opened the Lawrence Farms Theatre, the first summer-stock theater in Westchester, in a barn on the former Moses Taylor estate in Mount Kisco. Day Tuttle and Richard Skinner leased the barn in 1932, and throughout the 1930s great actors and actresses like Tallulah Bankhead, Henry Fonda, and Margaret Sullavan appeared there.

The Depression hit Westchester as badly as it did the rest of the nation. Communities rallied to provide support for the unemployed. Many of the work projects sponsored by the federal government are still enjoyed by county residents today.

The period between the wars saw a number of new businesses arriving in Westchester. When B. Altman's opened a branch in White Plains in 1934, it was the first major New York department store to come to Westchester. Best and Company, Peck and Peck, and Sloane's followed in the 1940s, and White Plains became the major shopping center in Westchester County. The man credited with this development of "Little Fifth Avenue" was Leonard H. Davidow, who set a high standard of excellence in his dealings.

The Reader's Digest developed into a major publishing concern in Pleasantville during the 1930s. When the magazine outgrew its rented office space in Pleasantville, it built a spectacular colonial-style headquarters which still dominates a hill overlooking the Saw Mill River Parkway in Chappaqua.

During World War II the county once again rallied for the war effort. General Motors manufactured airplane parts, Norden bomb sights were made in White Plains, and the Alexander Smith Carpet Mills turned out tents and uniforms for the armed forces. Westchester residents enthusiastically supported scrap-iron drives for Britain in 1940. Then after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, they sent their men and boys overseas to join the Allied forces. On the home front men and women worked in the factories, joined the Civil Defense League, watched for enemy planes, and took first aid classes to be prepared in case of an enemy attack. Many took British and French children into their homes. They bought war bonds and endured the inconveniences of food and gas rationing. Then on VJ Day, August 5, 1945, it was over, and Westchester joined the rest of the nation in parades and celebrations of joy.

One of the characteristics of suburban life in the 1950s was its focus on children and the family. A wide range of social, cultural, and sports activities was developed for young people. It seemed as if parents who had endured the Depression as children and the war as young adults wanted their own children to experience a full life. Families barbecued, camped, and played together. Country clubs, which had catered primarily to golf and tennis playing adults in earlier years, built swimming pools and offered competitive swimming, diving, and tennis programs for members' children.

Women in the 1950s and 1960s generally preferred to work before their children were born and, if necessary, after they were grown. However, many middle-class women did not need to work and hoped to marry soon after finishing their education. Women continued to spend the majority of their time caring for their homes and children. Social, cultural, and service clubs filled their leisure hours and satisfied their need for companionship during the day.

Since 1960 the arts have received increasing attention from the Westchester community. An educated population offered support and volunteer time to help promote historical and art museums and the performing arts. The Katonah Gallery is an outstanding example of a professional and volunteer staff working closely together to create highly professional art exhibits and programs for the public and for the schools. Many communities have active arts councils as well as private schools of dance, music, and art. In 1965 the Council of the Arts of Westchester was founded to provide funds for arts groups and promote the arts in Westchester. Corporations have led the fund raising efforts of the Council of the Arts. PepsiCo, Inc., in cooperation with the State University of New York at Purchase, created the outstanding Summerfare program which brings world-famous musical, theater, and dance groups to the S. U. N. Y. Purchase campus for a month of performances in July and August.

Well-known performing artists have always found Westchester an attractive place to live because of its proximity to New York and the privacy offered by its secluded countryside. Julius LaRosa, Colleen Dewhurst, Joan Bennett, Roberta Peters, Aaron Copeland, and Robert Merrill are among the celebrities who live or have lived in Westchester. They have given generously of their time and talents at many benefits which helped worthy organizations raise funds in Westchester.

The relocation to Westchester of several corporate headquarters during the decades after World War II had a major impact on the county. General Foods was the first, in 1953, followed by Ciba-Geigy, in 1956, and Nestle, in 1958.

In the 1960s and 1970s many factors combined to influence the corporate giants to move their vast operations to Westchester. They had the opportunity to build their own facilities, an available work force, and the interstate road system; Westchester County Airport made the county easily accessible to the rest of the northeast. Also, New York City had become less attractive as rents and taxes rose and the environment decayed.

Edwin G. Michaelian, County Executive from 1956 to 1972, and William L. Butcher, Chairman of the County Trust Company, were among those who were instrumental in selling Westchester County to the corporations. Lowell M. Schulman developed the corporate parks that grace both sides of the Cross Westchester Expressway. Among the companies along the "Platinum Mile" of interstate 1-287 are A.M.F., Hitachi, Gannett Westchester Rockland Newspapers, Combe International, A.C.L.I., Texaco, and General Foods. Corporate parks were also developed on other major arteries. Robert Martin Company, founded by Martin S. Berger and Robert F. Weinberg, developed the Cross Westchester Executive Park in Elmsford in 1966 and the South Westchester Executive Park in Yonkers in the 1970s. They constructed many of the office buildings along Route 287 and in White Plains as well as houses and condominiums.

The handsome architecture and landscaping of many of the corporate buildings make a significant contribution to the beauty of the county. In several instances, major architectural talents have been engaged to design buildings for such corporations as Union Carbide, Frank B. Hall, I.B.M. World Trade Americas/Far East, and PepsiCo. Their landscaped settings have provided Westchester with acres of parkland that complement the parks and parkways built in the 1920s.

In the past ten years, many business areas in Westchester communities have undergone extensive revitalization. White Plains, for instance, has undergone vast changes even since 1970. A new courthouse, a library, and many new department stores have been built On the site of the old railroad station a new transportation center, office building, and world-class hotel are planned.

While there are many new buildings being built in Westchester today, there is a significant movement to retain fine old ones, and many landmarks have been renovated to be used as schools, colleges, and business offices. The Westchester Preservation League has worked with both individuals and municipalities to create historic districts and to save worthy buildings.

Private foundations have generously donated funds for historic preservation. None has done more than the Rockefeller family. Their creation of Sleepy Hollow Restorations, Incorporated, has preserved Van Cortlandt Manor, Philipsburgh Manor, and Sunnyside. Local efforts by non-profit historical societies and town historians continue to keep Westchester's heritage alive through historical museums, library collections, programs, and events.

Philipsburgh Manor
Government agencies have also supported the historic preservation of Lyndhurst, Philipse Manor Hall in Yonkers, and the John Jay Homestead. In October 1981 the county of Westchester was bequeathed the beautiful estate, Merestead, in Mount Kisco, by Mrs. Margaret Sloane Patterson.

In 1983, Westchester County celebrated its 300th anniversary. Residents can look with pride at the past 300 years and, with that rich heritage behind them, look with confidence to the next 300 years.

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