Village Improvement

"'Will it be beautiful?' should be asked as to any proposition for improvement, but it is not by any means the first question to be asked."

"It would seem to have been thought by most of those who directly or indirectly lead village improvements that a choice of beauty is mainly a choice of embellish-ments. But by far the highest and choicest beauty is that of inherent and comprehensive character and qualities, and whatever of decoration hides this, or withholds attention from it, however beautiful in itself, is in effect a blemish. Many of us see this of late much better than formerly in respect to architecture. It is beginning, that is to say, to be realized that the work of the builder is not to decorate, 'but to expound, emphasize, and refine upon the work he did in his capacity of constructor, and to develop and brighten its effect.'

"Where the reverse of this occurs, as it yet does in the larger part of our build-ings, private and public, we are beginning to recognize the putting away of beauty. A revival of good sense in this respect, even in railroad cars and stations, is so generally welcomed that we may hope to see it go on yet to steamboats and hotels.

"When, however, we have to deal not with stone and wood, iron and glass, in constructions, but with flowers and plants and trees, groves, woods, forests, hills and dales, mountains and valleys, as we have occasion to do in determining the sites of our houses, in arranging roads, laying out towns and villages, railroads, plantations, and fields, and in placing fences and gateways, fountains and monuments, how much are we given to asking what is to be the effect of our determinations upon the more important conditions of beauty? Is it to be that of emphasizing them, fixing them; or the reverse? Suppose that the general local beauty is but meagre, and that there are blemishes; are our plans laid to obscure and tone down these, and to develop, exalt, and hold the eye and the mind to what nature and circumstances not of our arrangement have provided that are inherently beautiful?"

And so, questioning, my text ends. But let us pursue the matter a little further.

I have in mind an "improved" village common which was, in its unregenerate state, a triangular plot having short-cut paths leading directly from one much frequented point to another, all but two of which had been planted with rows of trees, though most of them had become broken and discontinuous. The older trees were all elms, and along one side of the common there was a double row sufficiently complete to form a fine mall; but "improvers" of the last generation, seeking for variety, had replaced gaps among the elms with maples. They interrupted the sweep of the arched avenue of elms, and weakened it, without removing the impression that an avenue of elms was intended. Imperfection, not variety, was suggested by the maples, because they were introduced in a composition the chief characteristic of which was the ordered continuity of repeated forms.

The rough turf on the common was unsystematically and occasionally mowed, for the absence of cows formerly allowed to graze here left the grass weedy and rank. Considerable patches were worn in the grass where the boys of the neighboring school played hail. A. good deal of litter lay about the grass, and in one low corner water frequently stood in a stagnant pool. There was also a wooden pump, but the water had become of doubtful quality.

Now came an energetic spasm of Village Improvement. First and best, litter and paper were cleared away, barrels for such rubbish were set out (unfortunately of a bad color), lawns were systematically mowed, and the people persistently educated in neatness.

Next, the areas worn bare were seeded, but the boys promptly wore them out again, a difficulty that might perhaps have been met by frequently shifting the diamonds, to distribute the wear, without closing the common to ball playing, as was strongly urged by some of the improvers.

The next year a distinct embellishment was undertaken by excavating the objectionable wet spot, supplementing the uncertain natural water supply by a pipe discharging through a boulder rockery at one side of the pond; the rocks very prettily covered with ferns and nasturtiums, with water lilies planted in the pondlet, with shores enlivened by iris and other aquatic plants, all surrounded by a curving path, and a wire fence to keep the dogs away from the flowers. Another year flowering shrubs were introduced back of the rockery, making a strikingly picturesque, if somewhat "gardenesque," composition.

The well having been condemned, a wealthy summer resident gave a drinking fountain, the design for which was made by a clever Boston architect' based on an Italian fountain of which the donor gave him a photograph. This, too, was a very pretty thing, although its character had no more connection with that of the common at large than had the picturesque water-garden. The architect, feeling the need for some appropriate setting, prevailed upon the committee to grade a little terrace about the fountain and border it with a privet hedge, providing also a straight walk leading in at right angles from the nearest path, and continuing in the same line to the path on the opposite side. The two old paths to the pump had led in slantingly from the most convenient points, and another piece of fence had to be put up to keep people from breaking through the hedge and reverting to one of the old path lines. The old lines had looked reasonable enough with the old pump, but the architect was certainly right in feeling that they were quite too casual and informal to harmonize with the new fountain.

The Daughters of the American Revolution, in order to mark a point of historic interest, set up a large boulder bearing a bronze tablet. The inscription, by the way, was in "stock" lettering, which costs less than half as much as lettering designed for the special purpose, and has a very neat and business-like look, as though it were the product of a sort of gigantic typewriter.

In the meantime further decorative planting was undertaken. A weeping beech, three purple barberries, four golden elders, a Colorado blue spruce, several assorted conifers, six hydrangeas, and some good plants of native rhododendron, were set out. The purple barberries and the golden elders were grouped together (because they always do go together, you know), and pleasant open locations were selected for the others, where they could be readily seen. The local florist was an active and public-spirited member of the improvement Association, and he has maintained for four years at his own expense, in the middle of the slope above the pondlet, a star arid a crescent and a Maltese cross in bulbs, followed by summer bedding plants.

Now what is the net result of all this embellishment? The bit of rich informal gardenesque treatment round the lily pond looks lonely and ill at ease in its simple and severe surroundings; the specimens of ornamental shrubs and trees dotted here and there are individually interesting, but inconsequential; the delicate and almost hyper-refined Italian fountain and the D. A. R. boulder stare each other out of countenance; and the old common, which forms the framework and background for all this decoration, is quite bewildered and befuddled. Its quiet open spaces are frittered away with decorations, the simplicity of its plain short-cut paths is at odds with the newer introductions, its old character is shattered, and in place of it no single character worthy of the name is to be recognized, but a series of samples suggesting half a dozen different characters, any one of which might, with good effect, be given to the tract, but none of which has been.

The only safe procedure, when one goes a single step beyond the neat and orderly provision for generally recognized practical necessities of the village, is to look fairly and squarely into the future, to adopt a definite and comprehensive plan and policy, and never to undertake or accept a project of improvement without earnestly and deliberately comparing its probable results with the aims of the general plan. However wise and comprehensive they may be, such general plans must from time to time be modified, but the modifications should be thoughtfully and deliberately accepted, not drifted into haphazard.

A savage, forced by the limitations of his condition, may live upon a spare and healthy diet. Give him the opportunities of civilization, and he will gorge himself with indigestible combinations, selected at random from among the endless number of things that individually please his palate. The civilized man may be equally fond of the same things, but when he wants a good dinner he resolutely rejects nine tenths of the things which please him on the bill of fare, for the sake of adequately enjoying what he elects to have at that particular place and time.

What village improvers seem often to forget is that their selections from the bill of fare are not for a day only, but for many years, and must be considered in relation to the selections of the past and of the future for the locality in which they are to occur.

"Will it be beautiful?" should be asked as to any proposition for improvement, but it is not by any means the first question to be asked. "Is it in purpose and tendency aiming in the direction we have deliberately chosen?" "Is it appropriate to that particular kind of common, park, street, dooryard, or township, which we can reasonably look forward to having during the period in which the improvement will be effective?" These are the first questions to ask in such a case. They are often hard to answer, but real improvements are not made easily and thoughtlessly. Time, effort, and money expended on embellishments, without painstaking thought as to their ultimate result, are apt to be worse than wasted; while wise forethought as to purposes and tendencies may so shape the simplest utilitarian necessities of a village as to give it the beauty of consistency, harmony and truth.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In