What Was the City Beautiful Movement?

The City Beautiful Movement was a reform philosophy of North American architecture and urban planning that flourished during the 1890s and 1900s with the intent of introducing beautification and monumental grandeur in cities. It was a part of the progressive social reform movement in North America under the leadership of the upper-middle class concerned with poor living conditions in all major cities. The movement, which was originally associated mainly with Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City and Washington, D.C., promoted beauty not only for its own sake, but also to create moral and civic virtue among urban populations. Advocates of the philosophy believed that such beautification could promote a harmonious social order that would increase the quality of life, while critics would complain that the movement was overly concerned with aesthetics at the expense of social reform.

Origins and Effect
The movement began in the United States in response to crowding in tenement districts, a consequence of high birth rates, increased immigration and internal migration of rural populations into cities. The movement flourished for several decades, and in addition to the construction of monuments, it also achieved great influence in urban planning that endured throughout the 20th century, particularly in regard to United States public housing projects. The “Garden City” movement in Britain influenced the contemporary planning of some newer suburbs of London, and there was cross-influence between the two aesthetics, one based in formal garden plans and urbanization schemes and the other, with its “semi-detached villas” evoking a more rural atmosphere.

Architectural Style
The movement is often associated with Beaux-Arts architecture. The particular architectural style of the movement borrowed mainly from the contemporary Beaux-Arts and neoclassical architectures, which emphasized the necessity of order, dignity, and harmony. The first large-scale elaboration of the City Beautiful occurred in Chicago at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The planning of the exposition was directed by architect Daniel Burnham, who hired architects from the eastern United States, as well as the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to build large-scale Beaux-Arts monuments that were vaguely classical with uniform cornice height. The exposition displayed a model city of grand scale, known as the “White City”, with modern transport systems and no poverty visible. The exposition is credited with resulting in the large-scale adoption of monumentalism for American architecture for the next 15 years.

The McMillan Plan
An early use of the City Beautiful ideal with the intent of creating social order through beautification was the McMillan Plan (1902), named for Michigan Senator James McMillan. The plan emerged from the U.S. Senate Park Commission’s redesigning of the monumental core of Washington, D.C., to commemorate the city’s centennial and to fulfill unrealized aspects of the city plan of Pierre Charles L’Enfant a century earlier.

The Washington, D.C. planners, which included Burnham, Saint-Gaudens, Charles McKim of McKim, Mead, and White, and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., visited many of the great cities of Europe. They hoped to make Washington, D.C. monumental and green like the European capitals of the era; they believed that state-organized beautification could lend legitimacy to government during a time of social disturbance in the United States. The essence of the plan surrounded the United States Capitol with monumental government buildings to replace “notorious slum communities”. At the heart of the design was the creation of the National Mall and eventually included Burnham’s Union Station. The implementation of the plan was interrupted by World War I but resumed after the war, culminating in the construction of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922.

Influence in Other Cities
The success of the City Beautiful philosophy in Washington, D.C., is credited with influencing subsequent plans for beautification of many other cities, including Chicago, Baltimore, Cleveland (The Mall), Columbus, Des Moines, Denver, Detroit, Montreal, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, and San Francisco (manifested by its Civic Center).

In 1913, the City of Chicago appointed a commission with a mandate to “make Chicago Beautiful.” As part of the plan, the Pennsylvania Union Railroad Depot was to be moved to the west side of the city and replaced with a new modern depot. The West Side Property Owner’s Association was among those that objected. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, the association’s attorney Sidney Adler of Loeb & Adler said, “As I saw the beautiful picture of the city beautiful we will have fountains in West Madison Street, with poets and poetesses walking along Clinton, and the simple minded residents of the west side, after work is done, will take their gondolas and row on the limpid bosom of the Chicago River idlely strumming guitars.”

Coral Gables
Planned out as a suburb of Miami in the early 1920s by George Edgar Merrick during the Florida land boom of the 1920s, Coral Gables was developed entirely upon the City Beautiful movement, with obelisks, fountains, and monuments seen in street roundabouts, parks, city buildings and around the city. Today, Coral Gables is one of Miami’s most expensive suburban communities, long known for its strict zoning regulations which preserve the City Beautiful elements along with its Mediterranean Revival architecture style, which is prevalent throughout the city. Coral Gables has many parks and a heavy tree canopy with an urban forest planted largely in the 1920s.

In Denver, Colorado, Mayor Robert W. Speer endorsed City Beautiful planning, with a plan for a Civic Center, disposed along a grand esplanade that led to the Colorado State Capitol. The plan was partly realized, on a reduced scale, with the Greek amphitheater, Voorhies Memorial and the Colonnade of Civic Benefactors, completed in 1919. The Andrew Carnegie Foundation funded the Denver Public Library (1910), which was designed as a three-story Greek Revival temple with a colossal Ionic colonnade across its front; inside it featured open shelves, an art gallery and a children’s room. Monuments and vistas were an essential feature of City Beautiful urban planning: in Denver, Paris-trained American sculptor Frederick MacMonnies was commissioned to design a monument marking the end of the Smoky Hill Trail. The bronze Indian guide he envisaged was vetoed by the committee and replaced with an equestrian Kit Carson.

Palos Verdes Estates
In the 1920s, Palos Verdes Estates, California, was established as a master planned community by noted American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. The community was designed as a “City Beautiful.” Among its early structures were the buildings comprising Malaga Cove Plaza, designed in a Mediterranean Revival style popular with the City Beautiful movement.

For Further Reading:
• The influence of the City Beautiful Movement in San Francisco is described in an article at Weebly. The link is: http://planninghistoryofsanfrancisco.weebly.com/city-beautiful.html
• The Encyclopedia of Chicago describes the influence of the Movement on that city, at: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/61.html
• An excellent overview of this topic can be found at The IBI Group, https://www.ibigroup.com/ibi-insights/city-beautiful-movement/

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