One of the most influential architects, town planners, and inventors of the first half of the twentieth century, Grosvenor Atterbury (1869–1956) embodied the progressive spirit that began to permeate the American psyche after the Civil War. As an optimist, Atterbury believed in the power of change and improvement; as a member of the conscience-driven WASP elite, he felt an obligation to help the less fortunate; as an architect, he was inspired by the romantic and sculptural forms of European and English buildings; and as an inventor, he pursued the promise of new technology to introduce beauty—in the form of well-designed, low-cost, prefabricated concrete construction—into the lives of the working classes. Atterbury’s extraordinary career, which spanned six decades, affected the course of American architecture, planning, and construction.
In 1895, when Atterbury set up his own practice in a small office on Fifth Avenue and 19th Street, he launched himself into a profession that stood in its infancy in America. As the financial center of the country, New York City presented a field of endless opportunity for a young architect. The closing decades of the nineteenth century had produced an unprecedented number of rich men. Due to the industrial revolution, the city—and the nation—experienced exponential growth and a boom in building. Beaux-Arts–trained architects like Atterbury found their rarified knowledge much in demand as the emergent country strove to express its cultural and social arrival. During what has been described as the age of metropolitanism, a wealth of European-inspired monuments, museums, and grand houses came to redefine the cityscape. As the offshoot of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, many of the same group of architects—considered part of the cultured elite—applied their command of classicism to the problem of civic design, transforming city centers into grand, ordered, urban environments indicative of the country’s emergence as a world economic and cultural power. The son of a successful corporation lawyer, Atterbury personally enjoyed the fruits of the flourishing economy and benefited as an architect with a series of commissions for rambling summer cottages, country estates, and city mansions from a host of affluent financiers, lawyers, and manufacturers.
However, not only was New York a symbol of the country’s progress but also it was a microcosm of the problems and issues that plagued the period’s unfettered expansion and growth. Immigrants poured into the country between 1880 and World War One to fuel America’s industrial engines; the gap between the wealthy and the working classes widened substantially. Many of the vibrant neighborhoods in which the working poor lived swelled and deteriorated into overcrowded slums. With his book How the Other Half Lives (1890) and a stream of related articles, reporter and photographer Jacob Riis (1849–1914) revealed the shocking and deplorable conditions of these districts. Harvard professor James Ford, author of the seminal two-volume Slums and Housing (1936), later described them as areas “in which housing [was] so deteriorated, so substandard or so unwholesome as to be a menace to the health, safety, morality or welfare of the occupants.” Riis’s illuminating photographic essays galvanized reformers to concentrate on the alarming underside of the era’s gilded excess…