Clarence Stein

Clarence Stein

Stein and his wife, Aline MacMahon
Born June 19, 1882
Rochester, New York
Died February 7, 1975(1975-02-07) (aged 92)
Alma mater Columbia University
École des Beaux-Arts
Occupation Urban planner, architect, writer
Known for Proponent of the Garden City movement
Spouse(s) Aline MacMahon (m. 1928–1975)

Clarence Samuel Stein (June 19, 1882 – February 7, 1975) was an American urban planner, architect, and writer, a major proponent of the Garden City movement in the United States.


Stein was born in Rochester, New York into an upwardly mobile Jewish family. While a youth, his family transplanted to New York City. There he was immersed in the milieu surrounding the Ethical Culture Society, attending its Workshop School and developing his sensibilities within the context of Progressive thought: the integration of physical and mental labor, the importance of a universal humanistic philosophy, the concept of a nurtured individualistic sensibility. Intense, even overwrought, the young Stein had a nervous collapse shortly before he was scheduled to leave for college, experiencing a bout of what was then called neurasthenia, for which he was sent to Florida to endure a rest cure.

He returned to New York but did not immediately matriculate; instead, he worked in his family's casket business, where the combination of physical and mental labor matched the philosophy in which he'd been educated. After a year or so, he prepared to attend college; one essential step was the American upper-middle-class version of the Grand Tour: travel to the artistic and cultural centers of Europe, in this case in the company of his father. Returning to the United States, he again postponed university education, immersing himself in work in the Progressive settlement house movement. In concert with his brothers and a small cohort of like-minded young men, many of whom would be influential partners for the rest of his career, Stein started the Young Men's Municipal Club, an organization modeled on many other such burgeoning social-studies movements, and dedicated like them to studying and then agitating for improvements to the chaotic life of the modern city.

While at work on this urban mission, Stein began to take classes at Columbia University, but they were not the traditional liberal-arts courses appropriate to a prosperous and gifted young man at an Ivy League academy. Instead, he focused on the courses newly appearing at Columbia under the influence of the Pragmatists and Progressives: cabinet making, furniture design, and design more generally. Having been deeply impressed by the vision of modern Paris while on his European tour, Stein decided to attend the prestigious, though still deeply conservative École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Training at the École as an architect-designer, even as late as the early 20th century, meant an immersion in what is today known as Beaux-Arts Neoclassicism, a historicist architectural style that sought to train architects—and artists—to stay within the grand traditions that began with the Greeks, passed through Rome and then the Renaissance, and emerged as the dominant style of French culture.

Upon returning to the United States, Stein joined the office of the deeply conservative Gothic-Revival architect Bertram Goodhue and his more illustrious, but equally conservative, partner, Ralph Adams Cram in 1911 and contributed to three of Goodhue's large-scale projects of the time: the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, California, the company town of Tyrone, New Mexico, and the master plan and individual buildings for the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

In 1919 Stein started his own practice in New York, and in 1921 began his long association with fellow architect Henry Wright. In 1923 Stein also co-founded the Regional Planning Association of America to address large-scale planning issues such as affordable housing, the impact of sprawl, and wilderness preservation. Other founding members included Lewis Mumford and Benton MacKaye; the RPAA helped MacKaye develop his vision for what would become the Appalachian Trail.

From 1923 to 1926 Stein served as chairman for the New York State Housing and Regional Planning Commission.

Stein travelled extensivelly outside of the USA and established friendship with among others Swedish statesman-planner Yngve Larsson.[1]

Personal life

From 1928 to his death in 1975, Stein was married to stage and film actress Aline MacMahon. They had no children.[2]


Beginning in 1923 Stein and Henry Wright collaborated on the plan for Sunnyside Gardens, a neighborhood of the New York City borough of Queens. The 77-acre (310,000 m2) low-rise pedestrian-oriented development was constructed between 1924 and 1929. It was funded by fellow RPAA officer Alexander Bing and took the garden city ideas of Sir Ebenezer Howard as a model. This neighborhood has retained its special character and has been listed on the National Register of Historical Places.

A diagram showing the street network structure of Radburn and its nested hierarchy. Separate pedestrian paths run through the green spaces between the culs-de-sac and through the central green spine (he shaded area was not built)

Construction for Sunnyside started April 1, 1924, two months after it was purchased from Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Because of the high costs of urban land, many neighborhoods were congested and run down, making it unhealthy and an unenjoyable place to live in. Sunnyside was different; the land was not being used by the railroad company so it was cheap. Stein had a very important job with Sunnyside. He was responsible not only for developing a more generally affordable neighborhood, but also making it a healthy and enjoyable place to live. He designed more natural green space with lots of light, resulting in a serene living environment. In between all the apartment buildings there was a central public open space, such as a play ground or mini park. The park was then surrounded by individual private gardens that went to the ground level of the apartments. Gardens were also placed on the front of the apartment buildings between the road and the building. This helped break up the long lines of houses and also created an appealing mood. Stein needed as much space as possible to incorporate gardens and open areas. Because of this, he had to place the garages by themselves separate from the apartment buildings. The ending outcome of Sunnyside was very successful.

In 1929 Stein and Wright collaborated with Kenneth Weinberger on the plan for the Radburn community in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, roughly double the area of Sunnyside. The vision for Radburn was of an integrated self-sustaining community, surrounded by greenbelts, specialized automotive thoroughfares (main linking roads, serviced lanes for direct access to buildings, and express highways), and a complete separation of auto and pedestrian traffic. These thoroughfares were called superblocks. This was because the block is very large with a very large road surrounding the houses within. Stein knew that the community could not survive without a road system but he also didn't want the roads dominating the land. Instead, the superblocks make the main focus on the yards and the gardens surrounding the buildings. This grand vision was informed by the lessons of Sunnyside, and by the comparable city-planning work of Ernst May in Germany (researched by a young Catherine Bauer), but the experiment was never completed because of the economic pressures of the Depression. Due to the Depression and different land issues, Radburn was not able to become a Garden City, but it was still impressionable because the superblock was a very successful idea that has been repeated numerous times.

In the 1930s Stein and the other members of the RPAA saw their social housing cause adopted by the government, at least for a while. They lobbied for the creation of government-sponsored planned communities, under the short-lived Resettlement Administration, and planned for 22 green-belt resettlement towns across the country. Three were built: Greenbelt, Maryland, Greendale, Wisconsin and Greenhills, Ohio. The others were halted when the Resettlement Administration was dissolved in 1936.

Among Stein's other urban-planning credits are the five-city-block Hillside Homes in Williamsbridge, the Bronx, as a Public Works Administration project in 1935; part of the massive wartime labor-force housing at the Walt Whitman Houses in Fort Greene, Brooklyn; Baldwin Hills Village (now the Village Green) in Los Angeles, California in 1941; and his only postwar commission, the re-planning of Kitimat, British Columbia, in 1951.

Stein wrote Toward New Towns for America in 1951, and received the AIA Gold Medal in 1956. He died in 1975 at the age of 92.

Other accomplishments


Clarence Stein's work expanded the idea of a Garden City. He was able to take the boring and stale urban subdivision, and make it inventive and exciting. He believed in molding urban construction into nature. He brought these two aspects together to make a modern yet comfortable environment. Because Steins work is reused so much today, it shows how successful his designs were.

Published work



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