The City Beautiful Movement

The City Beautiful movement brought together the ideas of municipal art, civic improvement, and landscape design. The event that is generally considered to mark the beginning of the movement is the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Intended to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America, though it opened a year later, it had been the object of a major competition between a number of cities.

Designed by Daniel Burnham, the most prominent architect and urban designer of the day, and Frederick Law Olmsted (the designer of Central Park), the fairgrounds presented the visitor with a carefully integrated combination of landscaped areas, promenades, exposition halls, and other buildings. By the time the exposition closed, some 26 million people had seen it. The exposition opened the nation's eyes to what planner, architect, and landscape architect, working in concert, could do.

In this "White City" of almost 700 acres Chicagoans and millions of visitors, accustomed to urban ugliness, saw for the first time a splendid example of civic design and beauty in the classic pattern and on a grand scale, and they liked it. Indeed it marked the beginning in this country of orderly arrangement of extensive buildings and grounds.10

One effect of the exposition was to set off a wave of a particular type of planning activity in American cities. Plans coming out of the City Beautiful movement tended to focus on those things over which municipal government had clear control—streets, municipal art, public buildings, and public spaces. The results may be seen today in dozens of cities, particularly in civic centers, municipal buildings, and the like. Probably the best-known example of City Beautiful planning is the Mall and its immediate surroundings in Washington, DC.

The design was presented in the 1902 Report of the Senate Park Commission, more commonly known as the McMillan Commission after the senator who chaired it.11 Its carefully designed vistas, the symmetry and axial layout (i.e., the Washington Monument placed at one end of the reflecting pool and the Lincoln Memorial at the other end), the formality, the classicism, and the scale and magnificence of the whole conception are hallmarks of the City Beautiful-era design. The City Beautiful movement obviously has close links to the municipal art movement, and to argue about whether a particular turn-of-the-century city hall and adjacent public spaces are products of one movement rather than the other is unimportant. Perhaps what distinguishes the two movements is more a matter of scale than intent. The municipal art movement tended to focus on particular points in the city: an arch, a plaza, a traffic circle, a fountain. The City Beautiful movement sought to create or remake a part of the city: a civic center, a boulevard, a parkway.

Two examples of the fruits of the municipal art—City Beautiful movement a century later. Above, Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, New York, and, below, the Pulitzer Fountain at Fifty-Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

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