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GIO Looks at a Brief History on the City Beautiful Movement

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood…” ~Daniel H. Burnham, architect, planner of cities

The City Beautiful movement began in the United States in the 1890s as a response to crowding in tenement districts, increased immigration and internal migration of rural populations into cities. The movement flourished for several decades, achieving great influence in urban planning that endured throughout the 20th century.

The premise of the movement was the idea that beauty could be an effective social control device by creating moral and civic virtue among urban populations. Advocates of the movement believed that beautification could provide a harmonious social order that would improve the lives of the inner-city poor. 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 movement was conceived as explicitly reform-minded; while other reformers concentrated on improving sanitary conditions or opening missions, the City Beautiful leaders (who were upper-middle class, white and male), believed the emphasis should be on creating a beautiful city, which would in turn inspire civic loyalty and moral rectitude in the impoverished. Daniel Burnham, a leading proponent of the movement, linked their efforts with the Progressive Movement, which was an effort to cure many of the ills of American society that had developed during the spurt of industrial growth in the last quarter of the 19th century.

The first large-scale elaboration of the City Beautiful occurred during the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. The planning of the exposition was directed by Burnham, who hired architects from the eastern United States, as well as the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to build monumental and vaguely classical buildings, all of uniform cornice height, all decorated roughly the same, and all painted bright white. The exposition displayed a model city, known as the “White City”, with state-of-the-art sanitation and transport systems. The White City was not only dignified and monumental, it was also well-run. There with no visible poverty and seemingly no crime, with everyone kept happily in their place by the Columbian Guard. In stark contrast to the grey urban sprawl and blight of Chicago and other similar American cities, the White City was Utopia.

Side note: one of the manual laborers working to create the “White City” fantasy at the World’s Columbian Exposition was a man by the name of Elias Disney—father of Walt.

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The exposition set a standard for American tastes in architecture for at least the next two decades, and some will say that its influence extended even farther. The Beaux-Arts style was considered dignified and beautiful, and Americans embraced the harmony and order the style provided during a period of great disharmony and disorder in their country. The fair also introduced the concept of a monumental core or civic center and a building arrangement intended to inspire beauty and harmony, as well as marking the beginnings of comprehensive city planning. Many American cities went on to embark upon beautification projects. In Washington, D.C., this led to the creation of the McMillan Plan (named after Senator McMillan), the first governmental plan to regulate aesthetics.

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The National Mall was the centerpiece of the McMillan Plan.

The exposition is also credited with resulting in the large-scale adoption of monumentalism for American architecture for the next 15 years. Monument Avenue in Richmond Virginia, is one expression of this phase.

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A city notable for being built entirely upon the City Beautiful movement is the Miami suburb of Coral Gables. With obelisks, fountains, and monuments seen in street roundabouts, parks, city buildings and around the city, 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 and heavily canopied lush parks.

Coral Way, one of the many scenic roads through the Gables.  Image by Marc Averette.
Coral Way, one of the many scenic roads through the Gables. Image by Marc Averette.

Though the City Beautiful movement was not without its detractors (architect Louis Sullivan saw its influence as a virus that would afflict American architecture for 50 years, and activist-author Jane Sullivan referred to the movement as an “architectural design cult”), it led to the creation of numerous art societies seeking to obtain legislative means for aesthetic regulation in the city. This idea eventually led to the preservation of historic structures for the public good with the passage of the Bard Act and the New York City Landmarks Law.

While critics complained that the movement was overly concerned with aesthetics at the expense of social reform, advocates of the philosophy believed beautification could promote a harmonious social order that would increase the quality of life. Regardless, the City Beautiful movement was successful for many years and did not end abruptly, but was slowed by extensive infrastructure clearing and rebuilding, over-ambitious planning, the Depression era, and World War II. Today there is a renewed interest in the reconstruction of City Beautiful plans and the creation of new designs.