Saturday, July 30, 2016

Centennial Gardens: Modernism Comes to Syracuse

Syracuse, NY. Centennial Gardens. Nemeny and Geller, archs., 1948-50. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012
Syracuse, NY. Centennial Gardens. Nemeny and Geller, archs., 1948-50. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012
Syracuse, NY. Centennial Gardens. Nemeny and Geller, archs., 1948-50. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012

Centennial Gardens: Modernism Comes to Syracuse
by Samuel D. Gruber

Facing Lower Onondaga Park and close to Onondaga Creek are the Centennial Gardens Apartments, an attractive early modem rental apartment complex of detached three-story redbrick multi-unit buildings subsidized by the Federal Housing Administration's section 608 program. Centennial Gardens, set between Onondaga Avenue and Onondaga Creek Parkway, was named in honor of the centennial of the city of Syracuse, and was begun in September, 1948, the year loans were obtained for the project. Landscaping completed the project in the spring of 1950, and a stretch of landscaped road on two sides of the complex was named Centennial Drive. 

The buildings faced formal gardens at the very eastern end of Lower Onondaga Park. Today, the parkside apartment buildings remain intact and fully occupied, though windows and other details have been changed. The Southwest neighborhood has changed a lot since these buildings were erected 65 years ago, but this is not much apparent from the relative isolation of the complex and the surrounding beauty of Lower Onondaga Park.

The complex, designed by prominent modern architects George Nemeny and Abraham Geller of New York, was featured in an article in Architectural Forum magazine in 1950. As simple as the buildings appear to our eyes today, the architects had to fight for some features, especially the separation of the structures within a green setting. At the time, this created the effect of a residential campus, something we are now very familiar with, but which at the time was still new. Certainly, the unadorned style was very different from the historicism of earlier apartment buildings in the city, such as those on Catherine Street which I wrote about a few months ago. There is, however, greater kinship with some simple Deco-decorated brick apartment buildings of the late1920s, such as the similarly sized Chaumont Apartments (1928) or the much taller Washington Arms (1928). In fact, though two decades separated Centennial Gardens from these 1920s buildings, since there had been virtually no market rate apartment construction in the intervening years because of the Great Depression and World War II, there is a direct succession (The housing exception is the publicly financed l Pioneer Homes, built 1938-1941, about which more below).

The Federal Housing Administration's section 608 program, built on the success of the pre-War public housing programs begun after 1937 when the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act was enacted was created to provide rental housing for returning World War II veterans and to meet continually growing housing needs. In a sense the program was aimed to revive the robust private housing market of the 1920s but with some controls and standards. The opposite happened. The program ended in 1954 when scandals revealed lax administrative and financial oversight leading to enormous profits by builders.   

Syracuse, NY. Centennial Gardens. Nemeny and Geller, archs., 1948-50. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012
The Architectural Forum article pointed out features of Centennial Gardens:
 "Architects Nemeny & Geller,  altho working within sharp cost limits, managed to increase room sizes 25 per cent above FHA minimums and to open their site plan for light, air and vista. The development was built under the old $1,800 a room loan limit. It has 83 five-room apartments ($105) 39 four-room apartments ($85) and 21 six-room apartments ($127). The Syracuse development covers only 20 per cent of its site (25.5 families an acre). Over strong opposition from FHA, the architects opened the site plan for maximum  view. (FHA insisted right up to the end that the corners of the buildings be joined, they recall). Buildings front on 90-foot courts. The apartments have thru ventilation (half of them have cross ventilation in addition). All apartments have entrance foyers with coat closet."
Syracuse, NY. Centennial Gardens. Nemeny and Geller, archs., 1948-50. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012
Syracuse, NY. Centennial Gardens. Garages. Nemeny and Geller, archs., 1948-50. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012
Today, Centennial Gardens are not given much thought by architects, realtors, or an aspiring Middle Class, but when these brick apartment buildings first opened off the Olmsted-inspired public park and parkway, the units were a hot ticket for the young married set, especially newly-wed veterans and other members of the "Greatest Generation."

George Nemeny (d, 1997) and Abraham Geller (1912-1995) were prominent New York modernists active especially from the 1940s through the 1960s.  Their work was well known and exhibited, including at the Museum of Modern art in the 1952 exhibit Modern Architecture in the New York Area.

Syracuse, NY. Pioneer Homes. Randall King Vedder & King, archs (1938-41). The pedimented porch is recent addition. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012.
Syracuse, NY. Pioneer Homes. Randall King Vedder & King, archs (1938-41). The pedimented porches are recent additions. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2004.
Today, when we think of the first modern style housing complexes in Syracuse, most observers will cite the downtown Pioneer Homes, a publicly funded and operated complex  designed by local architects Randall King Vedder & King and built from about 1938-41 for low income tenants in the 15th Ward. They are right about this. Pioneer Homes was the first completed Roosevelt-era "public housing" project in the country (but there were 350 similar projects under construction by the end of 1940). New Deal planners favored rational planning and modern design, and Pioneer Homes is a rare pre-World War II example in America of a complex of stripped down, almost minimal, multi-unit residences for any class or tenant (compare, for example, the look of the contemporary Robert Mills Manor Public Housing  in Charleston, South Carolina).

There was a long tradition in the United States of very simple attached workers' housing, which could especially be found in "company' towns, but the immediate example for Pioneer Homes came from Europe where for many years similar complexes of public housing and housing by workers' collectives had been erected in Holland, Germany, Austria and elsewhere. 

The builders of Centennial Gardens took many of the lessons of Pioneer Homes, including government subsidies, and applied them for a more affluent market. Of course this type of building for public and market rate housing took off after the war. Increasingly, however, federal agencies embraced high-rise public housing. Market-rate apartment developers followed both models in Syracuse, the inner suburbs, and elsewhere; building low and tall bare brick buildings. Sadly, these were mostly, however, without much grace in proportion, siting or detail.


On Centennial Gardens see: "Loan Completed on Housing Project," Syracuse Post Standard (Sept. 4, 1948), p. 6; "Centennial Gardens To Be Featured in Magazine Article," Syracuse Post Standard (Jan. 25, 1950), p. 10. 

On Pioneer Homes see: Eva Hardin, Syracuse Landmarks, pp. 131-132.


  1. Both of my grand mothers and three of my great aunts lived there, as well as so many good fiends. What strikes me is the difference in landscaping. So many of the trees, small trees, and shrubs are gone and haven't been replaced. It's no longer 'garden' apartments. Still nice, though!

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