This post has expired and the events have already occurred. Copies of the book that is mentioned can be purchased at the Everyday Healthy Cafe on the first floor of the Library.
White Plains in the 20th Century (Arcadia Publishing) is a 130-page compendium of photographs of White Plains throughout the 1900s compiled by former White Plains librarian Ben Himmelfarb and current city archivist Elaine Massena. They gathered 200 photographs largely from the collections of artist/photographer John Rosch (1854-1949) and longtime White Plains city historian Renoda Brown Hoffman (1909-2005) to show how a village-turned-city (in 1916) evolved over 100 years. The result in 2019 is that White Plains is the hub of New York State’s Lower Hudson Valley, but how it became so was not always pretty.
Himmelfarb and Massena will discuss White Plains in the 20th Century in the Library’s Community Room on Tuesday, November 26, at 3:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. in two programs that are supported by the White Plains Library Foundation. The book can be purchased for $20 in the Library bookstore with, says Himmelfarb, “proceeds being divided between the city archives and the White Plains Collection and used to maintain and grow these historical collections.”
Pre-1900 White Plains had an impressive history with its November 1683 founding by New Englanders who purchased Quarropas, a tract of “white marshes,” from Native Americans. Nearly a century later, White Plains became the unofficial “birthplace of New York State” when the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed there on July 9, 1776. And the Battle of White Plains in October 1776 was an early highlight of the Revolutionary War.
By 1900, downtown White Plains had long been the Westchester County seat, but it was hardly booming. “There was no zoning and the infrastructure was a mess,” says Himmelfarb, who was the Library’s local history librarian before relocating in February 2019 to the Richmond, Va., Library. “John Rosch photographed tenements in White Plains that resembled those in New York and other big cities, and the distance of just a few miles showed the contrast between squalor and wealthy estates.”
White Plains becoming a city in 1916 was an early turning point, as were the electrification of the New York Central railroad tracks and the first of many upgrades of the White Plains train station. To promote commerce, “Railroad Avenue” was renamed “Main Street” and in 1925 the Bronx River Parkway became the city’s first thoroughfare.
It is all documented in the book with decade-by-decade recaps. “There is much about White Plains that is amazing,” says Massena. “A highlight of mine was that from 1909-1913, George J. Grossman owned an automobile factory on 39 Mamaroneck Avenue in what he called the ‘Mammoth Garage’ because he adorned it with three cemented heads of woolly mammoths. Grossman would sell the property to a printing company, but for a brief time, Grossman’s cars, the GJGs, were built here.”
White Plains would boom in the Roaring ‘20s, suffer during the Great Depression (President Franklin D. Roosevelt attended the city’s 250th-anniversary parade at Rosch’s invitation in September 1933) and prosper with the suburbanization that followed World War II. There are pictures of the 1950s’ construction of the Cross Westchester Expressway (I-287) that would further open White Plains to commerce from upstate New York and New England.
The book captures the major turning point in White Plains' history with the 1970s’ urban renewal that led to building the current Library and Westchester County Courthouse, with the culmination being the Galleria, which was among the United States’ first major downtown shopping malls when it opened in 1980. “There were significant issues with White Plains’ infrastructure. Building and living conditions were decaying, so some kind of investment was needed,” says Himmelfarb.
“But progress came at a cost to small businesses. The city would go from five movie theaters to zero until the 2003 opening of the White Plains City Center, and independent bookstores—my favorite was Boyle’s on Post Road—were replaced by the large chains.”
In the early 21st century, the City Center, the Westchester Mall, and the Ritz Carlton/Trump Tower skyscrapers helped make White Plains the thriving metropolis that it is today, and the bar scene on Mamaroneck Avenue is evidence that downtown no longer shuts down at 5:00 p.m.
Massena, whose office is on the Library’s third floor, is a protégée of Hoffman’s. “We are continuing what Renoda and, in retrospect, John Rosch started. We’re in the midst of digitizing close to 5,000 slides of White Plains that Renoda took during her lifetime. Her legacy is incredible.”