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The City Beautiful: Forgotten Origins and Lost Meanings


Peterson starts with a discussion of previous ideas on The City Beautiful; that it was a devotion to classic Renaissance taste, a commitment to monumental city planning (McMillan plan: Washington DC), and derived from “The White City” in Chicago. He argues that this is all true, but in addition the City Beautiful Movement has other meanings and origins pointing at a complex cultural movement involving 3 essential concepts; municipal art, civic improvement, and outdoor art. Between 1897 and 1902, these three factors developed into a national expression of the City Beautiful, with leaders working together towards a common vision.

Charles Mulford Robinson was one of the best spokesmen for the City Beautiful movement. Women were the main motivators behind the movement but they encouraged men to speak out for them and push the movement forward. This lead to city planners being looked as less masculine. – Ellora Larsen

With the contrary to the conventional wisdom, this movement began between 1897 and 1902 as interest in municipal art, village and civic improvement, and outdoor art found organized, interconnected expression and gaining a spokesman in Charles Robinson (Peterson 429). With that in mind, the ones that overlooked the small-scale side of the City Beautiful will merely pass over the interest in ornamental lampposts, street trees, public murals, or rubbish cans. Ignoring a pattern of the activity sustained by the thousands of groups across the nation. The Origins of the City Beautiful to the Chicago World’s Fair, accounted the additional influences, notably decorative art, concepts of small towns beauty, and landscape design ideas (Peterson 429). This movement’s congeniality was emphasized as sort of a piecemeal change, and only after 1901 did the comprehensive city planning be the advocated goal that was seen at the end of the tunnel. – Hunter Dykhuis

Municipal art

The concept of municipal art began in NYC in 1890s, and was not originally associated with the City Beautiful, including decorative art and small-scale adornments not usually associated with the movement. Some examples of decorative art are sculptures, murals, and stained glass, meant to accompany the public spaces of big buildings. Municipal art is collaborative, involving cooperation between the architects and artists. In 1886 the Architectural League of New York emerged, which was an organization of allied artists, hosting annual exhibits featuring decorative work that was getting more public attention around this time. The Chicago World’s Fair was not the start of this form of art, but gave it tons of public recognition, leading to the creation of the Municipal Art Society of New York in 1893. This organization essentially wanted to municipalize decorative art by providing decoration for public and governmental spaces.

The National League of Improvement Associations was an association that promoted the improvement and beautification of cities during the reform era of the early 20th century. This association and their second President, Charles Zueblin, promoted the idea of “civic improvement.” This change in name from the original “village improvement” gave people the desire to improve and change their cities because of their civic duty. It instilled a pride in people in their city which drove people to keep their city clean and beautiful. - e.m.

Peterson talks about Andrew Jackson Downing, and how he popularized English landscape gardening. He encouraged societies to plant trees, and have tasteful architecture (8). He wrote many books on country houses and their landscapes, which many people wanted to have. Everyone aspired to have a beautiful lawn, or garden, or landscape. In the 1880's Downing's ideas took off, and societies all around the U.S. had beautiful landscapes that people admired.

Peterson talks about the European influence in architecture for the Chicago World fair, the ideal white city. Columns and very specifically detailed buildings surround the walkways and massive pond in the World fair. The white city is also extremely well kept, thanks to a specific upper class that reside within the cities perimeters.

Peterson argues that the City Beautiful Movement involved more than just architectural reconstruction but had a large impact on municipal art, civic improvement, and outdoor art. The City Beautiful Movement really blossomed during the period of 1987-1902 with smaller aftershocks across America in 1902. The first aspect of Peterson’s argument, municipal art, did not begin with the Chicago World’s Fair but it was widely popularized by the large crowds that flooded the fairgrounds and saw the ornamental statues decorating the facades of the fair’s buildings. Statues, murals, clusters of trees, and other beautiful ornaments were scattered among cities as an attempt to cancel out the uglier smoke and air pollution, large advertising billboards, and the monotonous business buildings. - K.Eastridge

Civic Improvement

The second aspect of Peterson’s argument is civic improvement, a lesser talked about influence on the City Beautiful Movement. Beginning with notations from Andrew Jackson Downing in the 1850s about integrating rural aspects (green spaces) into cities and The National League of Improvement Associations, civic improvement came to fruition with the progressive reforms of the era. Focusing on bettering the general city instead of individual, private spaces aligned with the social reformers of the early 20th century. Based on small tasks, like removing the massive amount of advertising billboards or limiting smoke pollution, civic improvement differed from larger plans (for example, the McMillan Plan of 1902) of city beautification. -K.Eastridge

Jon A. Peterson goes over the National League for Civic Improvement Association and their goals for society. The goal of the National League for Civic Improvement Association was to improve and beautify American homes (421). The league also expanded and soon had different advisory councils for different areas that were for municipal art, municipal reform, social settlements sanitation and recordation (423). Peterson also goes over other out of the city leagues in different areas on how they enforce their group ideas. One of them for example he talks about Nebraska and how they had the Nebraska Federation of Women’s Clubs and how they started a campaign to have public restrooms (424). - Jasmine Williams

Civic improvement began taking place after the establishment of Women’s Clubs, who were in charge of keeping the city streets clean and sanitary. The goal was to make the streets and city look less cluttered and messy by removing trash, planting trees, or hiding electrical wires. Different cities required different forms of beautification, they all had different sanitary/aesthetic issues to fix. Since beauty was seen as feminine, officials put women in charge of beautifying the city. - Devin Wright

Outdoor Art

Originating with Frederick Law Olmstead, outdoor art refers to landscape architecture that began in the 1850s. They greatly advocated for green spaces like parks and gardens, but also for the removal of nuisances like billboards. It coincided with the other two aspects of the City Beautiful Movement as they all argued for practical applications of beautification. Coming to full fruition in 1901-02, landscape architects, municipal artists, and those in favor of civic improvement all listened to one another’s ideas on improving cities. With the later years of the City Beautiful Movement came ideas about larger projects including city planning. Large cities, like New York and San Francisco, and smaller cities, like Denver and Oakland, were looking into forming comprehensive city plans. -K. Eastridge

Progressive Movement

Peterson writes to three important aspects to the, “City Beautiful” movement: municipal art, civic /village improvement and the park movement. He sees the City Beautiful movement as a process of civic pride and a byproduct of the Progressive goals at the time, at least in mindset, mirroring these new civic ideals onto the aesthetics of the city. J.Binns

peterson_the_city_beautiful_movement.txt · Last modified: 2019/03/01 16:41 by