The Rockleigh Woods Coop

It was a pleasant Sunday afternoon in September 1952 when Elaine and I were walking along Avenue A towards our apartment in Shanks Village, Rockland County, New York.  Once known as Camp Shanks the army acquired the land to temporarily house soldiers as they assembled convoys bound for war theaters in Europe during World War II. After the war ended, the camp was turned over to the Public Housing Authority to house married veterans who were going to colleges and universities in the New York metropolitan area and renamed it Shanks Village. Hundreds of army barracks were converted to apartments, three apartments per barracks building. I was one of those students, studying for a masters degree in history. Columbia University coordinated the assignment of apartment units under a management agreement with the N.Y. Public Housing Authority.

There were no sidewalks on Avenue A.  Avenues A and B were the main thoroughfares through the village, originally and hastily designed for marching soldiers.  The Public Housing Authority was now putting on pressure to close down the camp because most of the ex-G.I. students had graduated.

As we ambled along this wide expanse of pavement, we encountered friends who were talking about alternatives to living in our barracks apartments. One of them, Ray Calt, told us of a group that was being formed to incorporate to purchase and sub-divide land cooperatively to then build their own homes. Ray invited us to his apartment where he provided more information. Another group of former Shanks Villagers had already done this and built a community of thirty-two homes in nearby Tappan, New York. Known as the Hickory Hill development, their experience was a valuable model. Their membership included a young lawyer and two former students of the Columbia University School of Architecture. They had purchased land, and after agreeing on a uniform architectural style contracted for utilities and a road through the purchased land and cooperatively built attractive, contemporary homes, privately owned.

Elaine and I had already taken a look at new homes that were being built on a mass scale in Levittown, Long Island, costing only $6,900. Some of us checked out organizations that helped home seekers interested in setting up cooperatives to finance and build new homes.  We visited a cooperative in Spring Valley, New York, where members had sub-divided a large tract into minimum two-acre lots and then proceeded to build their own houses.  Also we had heard and read about a new balloon style design (a shell with only air inside,) that could be erected and lived in, unfinished, until the owners could afford to complete the interior. One Saturday, we actually drove to a rural area outside Boston where we sat in a field eating our picnic lunches while staring at that structure for what seemed like hours.

Finally, a group of us coalesced to form one group to be known as the Rockleigh Woods Coop. With the help of Milton Carrow, the same lawyer who helped put the Hickory Hill group together, we incorporated.  There were eleven couples in our group. It  was decided that each couple should have an annual income of at least $5,000.  I did not reveal my income, which at that time was barely over three thousand dollars a year. We learned of two parcels of land located in Palisades, New York.  The smaller of the two parcels was sixteen acres. An absentee owner was asking only $6,400. Each member of our group was assessed enough to bring in that sum and with the help of our lawyer, we completed the purchase.

One of our members, George Kay, had a degree from Columbia School of  Architecture. He drew up a scale drawing of the property that showed a sub-division with eleven one acre lots, one for each member, three half acre lots that could be sold at market price to non-members, and another lot that was not accessible from the roads that we had to provide.

The next step was to come up with names for our two roads. We had fun with that part. The names submitted for consideration were: West Running Road, Giuseppe Garibaldi Road, Horne Tooke Road and Indian Hill Lane. I was particularly enthused about Garibaldi but the vote went decisively for Horne Tooke and Indian Hill. We then had to go to a public meeting in Nyack, New York, to get the approval of the Zoning and Planning Boards. That was done without objections.

With board approvals accomplished, our group met and paper slips numbered one to eleven were drawn from a hat to establish a pecking order for selecting a lot. Lucky me, I drew number eleven which signified last choice. The main part of our land measured 450 feet wide by 1600 feet long.  The plan was to have a 50-foot right of way down the center of the property for Indian Hill Lane and five lots of one acre each 0n each side of the road. There would be a cul-de-sac at the far end of Indian Hill Lane just beyond which, one house would be perched on a cliff without access to our road.

Our lot was interesting topographically. A good part of it was exposed rock, and there was a nice stream that coursed diagonally across the property. It was heavily wooded.  Elaine had an uncle, Gaston Stecke, who was an architect. He came to visit us many times. We would take sandwiches over to our one-acre plot. Sitting on the hard, exposed rock surface, we would discuss the best location for a house, the distribution of space within its structure and how to design a home that complemented topographical features such as the exposed rock, the stream and the overhead canopy of tall trees such as the fast growing tulip trees and the rugged oaks. We talked and Uncle Gaston sketched, interspersed between his stories about Frank Lloyd Wright.

Uncle Gaston was born and educated in Belgium. Because of his foreign training, he had chosen to work for a well-established American architect rather than pursue additional studies in order to obtain a license to practice architecture in the United States. He did, however, show us the plans that he had drawn for large mansions and estates. I was under the impression that he was gifted and capable of designing buildings of distinction. Unfortunately, I did not trust my own ability to build the lovely home that he designed for us. For one thing, Elaine and I were financially hard pressed at the time. Elaine was pregnant and gave birth to Denise in July, 1955, in a clinic in New York City. As an example of our poverty, we could not afford to buy milk for a number of years. We would buy powdered milk and mix it with water.

Many things seemed to happen simultaneously. I was fired from my job with Dexter Folder Co. in Pearl River. One of the members in our Coop dropped out and I had the opportunity to move up to his lot. It didn’t have the exposed bedrock that made the aspect of constructing a home seem risky considering my untrained skill as a carpenter. Finally, Paul Guttman, who would become my new neighbor, now that I had switched to a new lot, decided to build a modular, contemporary pre-fabricated home on his lot, and I took off three days from work to help him erect it in order to acquire the experience.

Paul had telephoned the president of the prefab company, Scholz Homes, and convinced him that he was experienced in the building trade and hoped to build a number of Scholz homes if everything went right. Paul even opened a bank account with the name Palisades Contractors.

Scholz Homes were nothing like typical pre-fabricated houses. They could be erected on either a slab or regular block foundation. They had cathedral ceilings supported by six by sixteen inch redwood ridge beams. The entire front of the house was a twenty-four foot long double glazed window wall, topped with trapezoidal double glazed glass that rose to the peak of the cathedral ceiling. I spoke to the local salesman for Scholz and got a set of plans. Paul’s house had gone up with considerable ease and I became virtually certain that I would be building the same home.

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Some interesting links related to this story:

Shanks Village:
http://www.mcsr.olemiss.edu/~mudws/family/shanks.html

http://www.rocklandhistory.org/product.cfm?page=64

http://www.hvmag.com/Hudson-Valley-Magazine/September-2010/Remembering-Camp-Shanks/

Palisades, NY:
http://palisadesny.com/history/camp-shanks-indian-hill/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palisades,_New_York

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