Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Sea Cliff, NY: Treasure Trove of Urbanism

As a lifelong Long Islander and an urban explorer by nature, it is rare for me to discover a place I have never seen before here on the Island. It is a thousand times rarer for me to be absolutely stunned by something here, but when I visited Sea Cliff for the first time, I was floored.

I spent about two hours on a perfect Friday summer evening driving and walking around, photographing, and taking measurements in Sea Cliff because I was so intrigued by it. For those unfamiliar with the area, Sea Cliff is located less than twenty miles northeast of Midtown Manhattan on Long Island's "Gold Coast":

Tucked into a natural harbor off of the Long Island Sound, and perched atop a 120' precipice that gives it its name, Sea Cliff has always been a fairly sleepy place despite a nearby commuter rail link to New York with trips under one hour. Luckily for us today, Sea Cliff managed to survive the modernizations of the 20th Century with its amazing historic urbanism and architecture completely intact.

What struck me first as I wound around the serpentine roads leading into Sea Cliff along the harbor was Sea Cliff's tiny scale - for the first time on Long Island, and perhaps for only the second or third time ever in the United States, I felt like I was entering a piece of Europe. Like Boston's North End and Lower Manhattan, Sea Cliff operates an what in today's terms is a tiny scale - the main street of the town, Sea Cliff Avenue, measures between 44' and 48' wide from street wall to street wall:

The actual roadway at Sea Cliff is only 32' wide for two parking lanes and two driving lanes, and it is flanked by 4-8' sidewalks. This is extremely narrow even by historical standards - similarly aged towns on Long Island and in the Northeast have main streets with somewhat wider roadways as well as more generous sidewalks, generally totaling about 55-60' in sum. Compare this to 19th Century Midwestern railroad towns that might have main streets with 80-90' ROWs, and modern day arterials that are far, far wider.

Yet despite its limitations (see the cars in the picture above that actually don't fit in the 6.5-7' parking lane), Sea Cliff actually works. There was not a lot of traffic, but it did move through the town, albeit slowly when two cars had to pass. I wouldn't advocate a 32' wide four lane road today, but Sea Cliff Avenue shows that "too small" can actually be functional, and reminds us that every extra few feet we add greatly diminishes the intimacy of place a street can evoke.

It might be hard to believe, but the typical residential street in the town is even narrower. I loved this because even in a town where the main drag is 32' wide, the residential streets were still hierarchically smaller, in this case about 16-18' of pavement. They had no sidewalks, but didn't really need them since they felt comfortably sized for walking, almost as though they were pedestrian lanes down which cars occasionally traveled and parked. I documented 12th Avenue, one block south of Sea Cliff Avenue:

*A caveat to both street sections: all of the streets in the downtown area of Sea Cliff are very variegated in plan, with buildings at all different setbacks, alternations between attached and detached buildings and even building types, etc. The street sections try to give a representative view of the street's most typical character.

The architecture of Sea Cliff complements its amazing and unique urbanism. There is an excellent mix of well-executed buildings in several styles popular in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, including Queen Anne, Italianate, Tudor, and more. I'll close with a selection of some of the many amazing buildings I saw, without doing the justice to the countless others that fill every street in the historic town.

The fire station (left), my favorite building and a simply awesome example of half-timbering in brick, was finished in 1931. The town library (right) must have formerly been a church, and sits a few steps above Sea Cliff Avenue, with its own wooded plaza out front.

Some of the mixed use buildings downtown. The left building is an example of the beautiful polychromy throughout the town. The right building shows the adaptation of detached housing into mixed use streetfronts, with a single (or sometimes double) story extension filling up the former yard to meet the street wall formed by its neighbors. This happens frequently in small towns throughout Long Island. I also loved that the storefront was nothing other than an architect's office!

More polychromy (left), not in the best shape but still stunning. Finally, a typical local house (right), featuring a tower, which are quite common in Sea Cliff due to its excellent vantage point. There are excellent views across the harbor to Port Washington, and also across the Long Island Sound to New Rochelle, which is developing quite a skyline these days.

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