Birth of a burb

These aerial photos from the Cornell University Library may represent the last visible link between the eras of farming and of suburbia in Fairmount Hills.

The first photo was taken in September 1938, and shows that the Fairmount Hills area was laid out for modern suburban tracts before World War 2 (note the curvier streets compared to Old Fairmount’s straight avenues, at top of photo).

This photo probably shows the borders of the Geddes family farm, even though they had been gone from the area for several decades. One of the tree lines on the left side of the picture seems to conform roughly to the border of Lot 38, much of which they owned. (Without further research I couldn’t tell you exactly where their holdings were, though.) It also shows the Brockway Tavern (aka Whelan’s Funeral Home, circled in red) and one of the Geddes farm’s outbuildings (which still exists in back of Fairmount Animal Hospital, circled in yellow). The purple X is approximately the location of the house George Geddes lived in later in his life (son James Jr. lived in the big family mansion on Fairmount Corners). The blue X is my street.

It’s interesting to walk through the neighborhood these days and understand a little more about what was what back in the early 20th or even the 19th century. It’s easy to find out the location of the Geddes family’s ice pond (hint: it’s still a swamp). But everything has changed visually – the only thing that hasn’t changed is topography. So if you want to figure out which route the farmers of yore took to get to their back forty, you can get insights by walking, more than you can get from consulting a map of streets invented for cars.

The Syracuse Herald’s report on the demolition of the Geddes mansion (December 1929, part 1, part 2) discusses the upcoming development of the land into residential and business space, so this photo shows streets that were likely laid out even earlier than 1938, with their development probably stalled by the Depression. Still, this fancy and oh-so-suburban configuration (for prewar) begs the question: who did they expect to live here? It’s not as if they could have been fully anticipating postwar baby boomers.

Let’s jump ahead to 1951:

The war is long over, and Fairmount Hills (aka “Lake Lawns”) is on the verge of a building boom. Fairmount Fair is still a gleam in Eagan’s eye, but already the streets off Onondaga Road have started to see some action, and within five years the rest of the neighborhood will be filled with ranch houses and Cape Cods built by Liverpool’s Bud Stanley.

Flash forward to 1966, and the transformation is almost totally complete:

Not shown in this picture is the now-fully-developed Terrytown area in back of swinging Fairmount Fair, where the dots (er, houses) are spaced out more than they are in Fairmount Hills. They figured out that people wanted bigger homes, bigger lots, and that they wanted a shopping mall with plenty of parking — even though, for a suburban mall, FF is bizarrely easy to walk to.

The whole Fairmount area is really like a suburban history laboratory, where you can trace fine gradual developments in the whole concept of sub-village and sub-urban housing. (I say “sub-village” because I suspect Old Fairmount, laid out in the 1890s, was really meant to be a suburb of the village of Solvay.) The last major building spurt in Fairmount happened in the 1990s, so conceivably you could take an hourlong stroll through one hundred years of suburban history. (Yes, there’s still one guy finishing his new mini-McMansion up on Jane Drive, but he’s very late to the party.)

And that’s really the oddest thing of all: a history of suburbia that you don’t need to drive through!

For further reading on the characteristics of prewar vs. postwar suburban development: Interpreting Post-World War II Suburban Landscapes as Historic Resources.

4 thoughts on “Birth of a burb

  1. Casey

    Very interesting history of the Miliraty Lots, the development of “Old Fairmount”, “New Fairmount”, and areas south.

    What I find most interesting is how Beverly Drive was originally envisioned AND constructed as a 2 lane divided road it’s entire length – if you research old town minutes they were supposed to be planted with trees in a grand avenue. The divided idea only lasted through the development of the 100 and 200 blocks only, and there’s recent discussion that during the next major road resurfacing the divided portions may be eliminated altogether in the interest of traffic safety. Although the answer was already known, the photo clearly shows the winding path of Beverly drive and explains what “happened” to the 700 block of Beverly, which is now Skyview Terrace. This same idea was attempted again in the Weatheridge subdivision, and appears to have suffered the same fate.

  2. Ellen Post author

    My grandfather used to say that the concrete for the divided streets ran under the edge of the front yards. ( One could do an archaeological dig, but I’m not THAT obsessed!)

    The 1938 photo clears up a few little mysteries… like, why is Beverly Drive so crazy (answer: it looks like it follows the edge of the original housing tract) and what on earth they were referring to when they named “Fairwood Drive” since the street never seemed to have many trees. Well, back in the ’30s and ’50s, it had the only trees around.

    I always thought the divided streets were supposed to be like Parsons Drive in Westvale. The PDF article I linked to at the bottom of the post discusses traffic calming strategies in the early burbs. The usual story about suburbia and cars is that they were built as havens for car travel, when in fact they were built as a means of getting away from deadly street traffic found in cities – to make walking residential streets safer. That’s what the curvy streets were primarily for – to avoid dangerous intersections. Then they were seen as desirable street configurations in their own right.

    The linked-to Syracuse Herald article about the Geddes family only scratches the surface of the history of the Fairmount area, which is quite interesting and hardly included in any of the standard Town of Camillus histories.

  3. syracuse b-4

    There’s an entire chapter of “Crabgrass Frontier” devoted to the history of curving/winding streets. They first started to make their appearance in new suburban developments in the 1850s, as a aesthetic design response to the grid street system of the city (“A gentle turn was indicative of the pastoral and bucolic pace of the home rather than the busy and efficient system of the office or factory.”)

    The real estate ads from the 1920s in the Syracuse Herald are fascinating – many contain paragraphs/extensive lists of why people should buy in the (streetcar) suburbs. Most seem to emphasize “strictly residential” and “fresh air”.

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