Born poor in 1868, at 18 Reynolds went into business as a builder and real estate broker, “having accumulated capital of $200 by obtaining a 2 per cent discount on bills he collected for his father’s creditors. His father, he explained, had been a little slow in paying bills because of a press of business, and the son figured out a way for both to benefit.” Focusing for some years on Brooklyn, he among other things built and operated theatres for staging “musical extravaganzas”.
Around 1906, already wealthy, he discovered Long Beach, a barrier island along the south shore of western Long Island, easily accessible from New York City via the Long Island Railroad (LIRR). The island was hardly undiscovered… the mammoth Long Beach Hotel, purportedly the largest in the world, had been built there in 1880. But Reynolds had even bigger plans: He purchased some 3400 acres of the island, it is said for a mere $100,000, and began plowing money in to a 2 ½-mile boardwalk, casino, hotel and other amenities, while dredging a 1000 foot-wide channel (the “Reynolds Channel”) north of the island to permit access by large steamboats and sea planes.
Offered here is a promotional plan issued by Reynolds’ Estates of Long Beach Company, dated March 1907. While the thousands of parcels offered for sale were real enough, many of the features shown on the plan were aspirational… Long Beach was at the time still largely sand and scrub. The 1000-foot channel, the long, tree-lined boulevards, miles-long boardwalk, tennis courts and hotels lay largely in the future, while the fabulous country-club development just east of the LIRR never came to fruition (or, perhaps more accurately, was eventually built as the Lido Club well to the east, off the area shown).
The plan is credited to Charles Wellford Leavitt (1871-1928), whom Wikipedia describes as a “landscape architect, urban planner and civil engineer who designed everything from elaborate gardens on Long Island, New York and New Jersey estates to federal parks in Cuba, hotels in Puerto Rico, plans of towns in Florida, New York and elsewhere…. one of the preeminent landscape architects of his era…. a forceful practitioner of the City Beautiful architectural movement of the day.”
The verso of the plan features an attractive bird’s-eye view putting Long Beach in the larger geographic context of the New York-New Jersey area. White lines indicate roads and railroads, highlighting the ease of access from New York City.
The plan is accompanied by a small pamphlet with a price list for lots in Long Beach, ranging from $775 to a whopping $12,000 for large lots adjacent to the planned hotel along the boardwalk, between Franklin and Neptune Streets.
Reynolds’ endeavor was not without setbacks, and indeed his Estates of Long Beach Company “failed for $5,000,000” in 1921, but a year later Long Beach became a city, and he was elected its first Mayor. In the 1920s Reynolds presided over the digging of canals (“the canals of Lido”) and the development of the luxurious Lido Golf and Country Club, all of which must have appealed to his upper-middle and upper class target market. By the end of the 1920s the city’s census population had soared from 282 in 1920 to nearly 6000.
Reynolds died of heart disease in 1931, and his obituary ran a full column in the October 14, 1931 New York Times. The full title conveys some sense of the range of his activities and influence: “W. H. REYNOLDS, BUILDER, DEAD AT 63[.] Was Founder of Long Beach, L. I., Which He Afterward Served as Mayor. A STATE SENATOR AT 24[.] Opened Office as Realty Broker at 18—Had Managed Theatres, Race Track and Coney Island Show.”
A rare and visually arresting vision of a planned city, designed to attract the ever-increasing wealth of New York City’s well off.
OCLC 1099775050 (Yale only, as of May 2020). The view not in Reps. Background from “W. H. Reynolds, Builder, Dead At 63,” in the New York Times for October 14, 1931.