The City Beautiful Movement

By the end of the 19th Century, American cities were growing dramatically in size. Both immigrants and rural Americans were pouring into cities, hoping to take advantage of new jobs made available as a result of advancing technologies and the subsequent increases in industrial production [1].

As cities became larger, urban problems became more pronounced. The cities were crowded and dirty, with many poorly-made buildings and unpaved roads [2]. Social problems such as poverty, prostitution, and corruption were increasingly apparent as well [3].

With the growing evidence of the need for urban reform, the City Beautiful movement began, spanning from 1899 to the start of World War I. This movement, with supporters in cities across the country, attempted to address urban problems through systematic urban planning and beautification [4]. Proponents of the City Beautiful movement believed that well-designed and carefully-arranged buildings embellished by public monuments and parks could keep the urban masses under control [5], while at the same time improving the aesthetic tastes of the public [6]. Further, sculptors claimed that sculptures placed in public spaces could serve to improve the morals of the people through the portrayal of uplifting and inspiring subject matter using classical style and technique [7].

The ideas behind the City Beautiful movement gained legitimacy among turn-of-the-century urban reformers with the example set by the highly-successful World's Columbian Exhibition of 1893, a world's fair held in Chicago. In an effort to present the best of American industrial and cultural progress [8], the designers of the exhibition, led by architect Daniel H. Burnham, created a small city with buildings designed to compliment each other in style and placement; with architectural sculptures and murals; with fountains, public plazas, and monuments. The architects and artists involved in the project were chosen from across the country, and represented the most established of American artists. Given the chance to create their own urban space, the architects, landscape architects, sculptors, and muralists worked collaboratively, building a city inspired by the traditional European combination of art and architecture, but with an American sensibility [9].

In addition to the aesthetic concerns addressed through the exhibition space, other elements of urban life were tackled as well. The systems of public transportation, sanitation, and security at the exhibition were exemplary, showing that modern technology and planning could be used successfully if implemented well [10].

The accomplishments of the creators of the World's Columbian Exhibition led many people to become interested in applying to real cities the ideals that they had seen at the fair grounds. In New York, the recently-founded Municipal Arts Society took on this goal [11]. The members of the Municipal Arts Society worked to create a City-Beautiful-inspired plan for New York.

At the same time, the New York Art Commission was formed. This organization , part of the city government, was put in place when the five boroughs joined together to become one city in 1898. The writers of the new city charter included a provision for a body of city officials, artists, and residents who would review all plans to place permanent artwork on city-owned property. In this way, City Beautiful supporters hoped to control the quality of the art in New York's public spaces [12]. The jurisdiction of the Art Commission was later expanded to include review and approval of buildings planned for city property [13].

Art works that were created and placed in New York around the time of the City Beautiful movement:
Joan of Arc.
General William Tecumseh Sherman.
Pulitzer Fountain.
The Four Continents.

Footnotes

  1. Chudacoff, H. P. (1975). The evolution of American urban society. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. p. 86
  2. Wilson, W. H. (1989). The City Beautiful movement. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 78-79.
  3. Bogart, M. H. (1989). Public sculpture and the civic ideal in New York City, 1890-1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 58; Chudacoff, p. 44.
  4. Bjelajac, D. (2000). American art: A cultural history. London: Laurence King Publishing. p. 240.
  5. Bogart, p. 56.
  6. Bogart, p. 58.
  7. Bogart, p. 58.
  8. Bogart, p. 40.
  9. Wilson, p. 64.
  10. Wilson, p. 57.
  11. Bogart p. 60; Wilson, p. 61.
  12. Bogart, p. 66-67.
  13. Bogart, p. 67.
 

 
 
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