Lawrence Farms, the village that never was

October 15, 2010
by Nancy O’Neil

In 1889 William Van Duzer Lawrence purchased a large parcel of land near the Bronxville railroad station and began to create a suburb. As they came of age, his sons joined him in his real estate business and over time the family created modern Bronxville. The extent of the Lawrence influence is memorialized by Lawrence Hospital and Sarah Lawrence College, named for the patriarch’s wife.

In the 1927, the real estate family decided to repeat their Bronxville success and began assembling parcels of land in New Castle for a major development.  Their plan was to create a village at the intersection of the railroad and Roaring Brook Road.  The village, to be named Lawrence Farms, would have its own railroad station, shopping district, schools, churches, etc., surrounded by acres of beautiful houses on curving, tree-lined streets:  Lawrence Farms East and Lawrence Farms South.

In 1928 the family incorporated themselves as Lawrence Farms, Inc., and began buying real estate.  They bought the Moses Taylor estate, The Ivy Hill nursery and property from other families, eventually amassing 1,000 acres.  They understood that the project was on a grand scale, and estimated that it would take thirty years to complete. 

Glowing press releases, grand plans, but fateful timing

News of the future development was relayed to the public in a series of glowing press releases.  Besides the village, and the architect-designed houses, Lawrence Farms would have a country club, a golf course and a stable where residents could keep horses to ride along the many horse trails threading through the property.  A sales office was built, sales and administrative staff hired, and at least one model house was built.

The 1920s were a period of vigorous growth and optimism.  Similar plans for new developments were springing up all over the country.  Unfortunately, the 1920s were followed by the 1930s.

Although the country club and stable were built, sales of the lots were slower than expected.  As the decade progressed, the stock holders were asked to invest more money, and some of the family members helped out by buying lots.  However, it wasn’t enough to counter the poor housing market and by 1934 Lawrence Farms, Inc. was faced with dire circumstances. Cost cutting measures such as renting the model house, closing their sales office and eliminating other employees proved futile.

With the company no longer able to borrow more money, some of the lots reverted to their lenders, which included banks, private lenders and original property owners.  Sadly, the Lawrences prepared for the dissolution of Lawrence Farms, Inc.

A white knight (and his lady) appear on the horizon

A bright light appeared unexpectedly in 1936. Lila and De Witt Wallace bought 80 acres from Lawrence Farms, Inc., as the site of their new headquarters for The Reader’s Digest Company.

But the decline continued.  The final, legal dissolution of the company came in 1944.  Those were the war years, and the real estate world was temporarily on hold.

But cue the band and confetti.  The 1950s ushered in a bright new era.  The Depression and the War were in the past. The country was back on its feet, and a new wave of eager home buyers appeared.  Lovely houses were built along those curving, tree-lined streets. The Mt. Kisco Country Club was thriving, although under new ownership. The stable was converted to The Westchester Playhouse, presenting Summer Theater with soon-to-be famous stars. 

The Village of Lawrence Farms with its central business district never materialized, but Lawrence Farms East and Lawrence Farms South were as beautiful and as desirable as the Lawrence family’s vision back in the 1920s.  And they were right about the thirty years.

Above, the two halves of the map joined

Below, larger versions of each half:

Left page

Right page

Nancy O’Neil is a former trustee of the New Castle Historical Society.

We encourage civil, civic discourse. All comments are reviewed before publication to assure that this standard is met.

So the moral of this story is:  you rarely can predict the outcome of your grand plans, and had better consider the down as well as the upside before proceeding.  Are you listening, Town Board, as you consider the developer’s plans for “Chappaqua Crossing,” a/k/a the old Reader’s Digest property?  Kind of ironic that the 2010 Ozymandias is being proposed on the same property on which the 1928 monument was to have been erected.

By Lawrence Farms East Resident on 10/15/2010 at 7:42 am

What an interesting article by Nancy O’Neil about Lawrence Farms.  I love reading something “new” about New Castle, even after living here 35 years.

By suzanne keay on 10/15/2010 at 7:44 am

Great bit of history!  When my mother visited us in Chappaqua shortly after we moved in in 1983, she immediately recognized the “neighborhood” as one she rode into from the Lawrence Farms stable.  I have always wished to see old photos of that “neigh"borhood! These building plans are interesting to review.

By Buffy Hallinan on 10/15/2010 at 11:37 am

When the Lawrence Farms development got into trouble it was rescued by Reader’s Digest. Reader’s Digest got into trouble and turned to a developer. Now the developer is in trouble.

It looks like he expects the residents of Chappaqua to rescue him.

What’s in it for us?

By egl on 10/15/2010 at 8:01 pm

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