Improvement in City Life: Iii. Æsthetic Progress
ONE who would chronicle the development of American cities on strictly æsthetic lines faces a difficult undertaking, not because there is so much to record, but because the development is diversified, widely scattered, and lacking in harmony. But such a chronicle has value in showing a general realization of the shortcomings of our cities, from the æsthetic point of view, and a surprisingly common awakening of a wish to improve them. There is beginning to appear, also, an endeavor to harmonize these efforts, to treat conditions scientifically and systematically.
During the summer and autumn of the world’s fair at Chicago, when the country was carried away by the exposition’s unexpected beauty, it was common to hear it spoken of as " the white city ” and “ the dream city.” In these terms was revealed a yearning toward a condition which we had not reached. To say that the world’s fair created the subsequent æsthetic effort in municipal life were therefore false; to say that it immensely strengthened, quickened, and encouraged it would be true. The fair gave tangible shape to a desire that was arising out of the larger wealth, the commoner travel, and the provision of the essentials of life ; but the movement has had a special impetus since 1893.
When one speaks of the æsthetic side of American cities, one thinks at once of their public buildings; of their parks, statues, and boulevards. But in any right conception of urban loveliness these would be only the special objects of a general and harmonious beauty. A great work in the creation of fairer cities is to be done in directions less striking. A boulevard may do less to improve the general appearance of a city than the putting of its wires underground; a beautiful park may give to it less natural charm than would be restored by the abatement of the smoke nuisance; and a statue may fail to impart the artistic character that an orderly sky-line and harmony in the facades of its business blocks would give. It was appreciation of this fact which the world’s fair especially extended.
A newspaper of New York, in writing of local conditions, has said: “ The opportunity lies before us, ample and inviting, and wholly ignored. The site of a future city north of the Harlem offers a field for improvement more magnificent than that for which Nero destroyed imperial Rome. With a Haussmann or a L’Enfant in our three millions of population, the ideal city, the city beautiful and perfect, would at least be suggested, but what are we doing with it ? We are plodding along on village lines, with village methods, marring with patchwork improvements that disfigure, ignoring all the teachings of the past, unconscious of all the possibilities of the future. We are laying out the new districts of the Greater New York, not as the ideal city nor the city beautiful, nor even as a city of common sense. We are merely permitting it to grow up under the stimulus of private greed and of real estate speculation.”
There is only one American city which has been laid out as a whole on an artistic design prohibitive to haphazard growth. That city is Washington. A detail of the Indianapolis plan also deserves praise. Of the others, the proudest boast of the “ gridiron ” plan, whose virtue is the very dubious one of regularity. This system has not even economy of intercommunication to recommend it, since the traveler has two sides of a right-angled triangle to traverse to any destination that is not on his own street. The vistas granted by diagonal avenues do much for the beauty of cities, as one sees abroad or in Washington. Their points of intersection and the centres whence they radiate make adornment easy with parks, circles, plazas, and statues. Consider the advantage which the mere topography of the city gives to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris over the Washington Arch in New York.
We shall not attain to cities really beautiful, then, until we learn artistically to plan them. Transformations may help us greatly, as London and Paris show; but the pity is that we displayed so little wisdom in the rare opportunity granted when our cities were yet on paper. After actual city building is begun, effort toward beauty is delayed by the strength of the demand for necessities. As long as each new year makes imperative many miles of paving, the laying of miles of sewers, extension of water, and protection from crime and fire over larger areas, it is explicable that weary taxpayers should suffer their ideal of a fairer city to grow dull. Rapid transit aided civic adornment in many ways, but in largely extending city lines an immediate effect was also to increase the burden of necessary expenditures. As a rule, however, the newer parts of our cities, with their broader streets, circles, and spaces set aside for adornment by turf and flowers, are better than older portions. This is hopeful and educating ; and there is a widespread effort to mend existing conditions in the older parts, though a mended article can never be as good as one well made at first. Many of the new bridges are worthy of cities of high ideal. In Washington, the Civic Centre has done much in converting blind alleys into open thoroughfares. In San Francisco, a public-spirited woman, who has provided a worldwide competition of architects for artistic designs for the University of California, has recently offered to provide plans for beautifying the entire city by a similar international competition, and the city is well situated financially to avail itself of the chance. Cleveland also is fortunate in an opportunity for contemplating the simultaneous erection of a new court house, post office, library, city hall, and chamber of commerce. The wish has arisen to group these buildings, if possible, and to construct them on one harmonious architectural plan that shall create a magnificent centre of public business. In Philadelphia, the opportunities for municipal art have been a subject of most earnest discussion in as well as out of clubs, since the beauty of a temporary “court of honor,” erected on Broad Street for the Peace Jubilee last fall, awoke to sudden consciousness the wish for a fairer city, and suggested dreams of its realization. New York is prouder, perhaps, of no portion of its area than of the heights where are rising in picturesque lavishness and splendor those structures that are now spoken of as “ the city’s crown.” Moreover, during the last winter, the Architectural League took as the subject of discussion for its monthly dinners the ideal metropolis ; and the plans there put forth by experts, seeking not the visionary, but the practical, for the adornment of the city, received a degree of respectful comment in the press of the large cities that, like the talk itself, was significant. Since such creative activity has always strongest hold on the imagination, it is proof of conscientiousness that actual efforts so often take a restrictive form. Movements typical of this are the attempts to abate the smoke nuisance, to supervise building operations with æsthetic as well as hygienic purpose, to control advertisements, to clean the streets, and to put the wires underground.
Several inventions have been patented to prevent dense smoke from the burning of soft coal, and various suffering cities have passed ordinances requiring that consumers be used. Others gain results perhaps as large by limiting the time during which such smoke may be allowed to come from the chimneys. The effort is much more notable than the gain. Restrictive building ordinances are strikingly illustrated in recent legislation against the construction of “ sky scrapers.” The winter and spring of 1898 furnished cases in point. In the spring, Chicago passed an ordinance which limited the height of buildings to 130 feet; and in Boston, where an ordinance limits the height to 125 feet, a significant discussion, dragging through the winter, resulted at last in the passage of a bill which imposed a limit of 90 feet upon buildings in Copley Square. Both these acts were interesting ; Chicago’s because, as the first city to put the steel-frame construction to the test, she has always taken a motherly pride in it. It was a surprise to Easterners to find her with aspirations higher even than the buildings. In Boston, no other consideration than the æsthetic really entered into the affirmative side of the argument. When an announcement was made that a sky scraper was about to rise in that chaste square bounded by Trinity Church, the Museum of Fine Arts, the splendid Public Library, and the New Old South, there was a flood of newspaper letters, in which architectural harmony and skylines were technically and feelingly discussed. But this familiar vent did not draw off the agitation. A petition of protest was circulated and numerously signed, and a bill was introduced in the legislature to limit the height of buildings on Copley Square to 80 feet. The fight was a long and hard one, for financial objections alarming to landowners were easily raised. It was notable, however, that the press sided with the supporters of the bill. It was argued that to guarantee the preservation of the beauty of a neighborhood by legislation which was prohibitive to inharmonious construction there, was to add as much to the value of the ground as the proposed restriction in building height would remove. One can hardly overestimate the importance of this animated discussion as revealing an awakened desire for handsomer cities. Boston is often commended for the civic pride and public spirit which made her new library possible ; but here was an action which could be helped by no thought of the monument which it was incidentally raising to itself. The subject has since been seriously considered in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia.
Examples of the effort to control advertisements, for the preservation or increase of a city’s attractiveness, are by no means as common as they should be ; but Massachusetts may again be cited. In the winter of 1898 a bill was introduced in the legislature, providing that “ no person shall place or maintain within 500 feet of a state highway or of a parkway or a boulevard an advertising sign, or a picture or a poster intended to serve as an advertisement, if the superficial area of said advertisement, either by itself or in connection with others placed within 20 feet of it, exceeds 10 square feet.” In Chicago, an ordinance of similar purpose appeared in the autumn of 1897. It limited the size of advertising signs “ within 400 feet of parks or boulevards ” to “ four feet in width by three in height.” New York also has such a law. But no American city, so far as known, controls the buildings which often disgrace park entrances, though even this has been suggested.
Better street cleaning, since the success which attended the efforts of Colonel Waring in New York, has been the most popular direction for the municipal æsthetic effort to take. It has lately absorbed a good deal of the movement’s enthusiasm, but one is not inclined to quarrel with its prominence. Good pavements are a demand which clean pavements involve, and together they may be said to be the essentials of municipal dignity. Asa man is judged by his linen, a city is judged by its streets. Though the success of Commissioner Waring in New York gave special impetus to the present vigorous movement, yet, like every leader of a crusade, he was a natural product of his time. Increased familiarity with the better conditions abroad, the very desire for fairer cities, initiated an effort which gained the larger hope of success for the example which he gave under home conditions. In Hartford, Connecticut, there is a club of women that is interesting as a type of clubs which, singly and collectively, illustrate this form of civic spirit. It is called the Civic Club, and at this writing it has no printed report of its work. It had informal origin at a small luncheon, “ where,” as a member describes it, “ the subject of our extremely dirty streets came up.” There happened to be present a number of women of the sort generally known as “ representative,” and an organization was effected with the avowed object of cleaning the city. The club’s policy has been from the first conservative, and it has maintained friendly relations with the municipal boards. As a result, its mere suggestions have accomplished much. Beginning with street cleaning, the club addressed letters to property holders, requesting coöperation; it induced the city to furnish cans for waste at the corners of the streets, and made it a punishable offense to scatter papers or refuse. A school league was then formed before the movement had been generally inaugurated ; and Hartford was one of the first of the smaller cities to put its street cleaners in uniform. Extending its function to the promotion of “ a higher public spirit and better social order in the community,” the club has added other lines of work. If the Civic Club of Hartford, wTith its membership limited to 150, could do so much, we may be sure that there has been important effort in other cities. It is a work which women have especially taken in hand.1 In Chicago, in 1897, a woman was appointed chief inspector of streets and alleys. She was the first woman to be appointed to such a position, but she filled it to better satisfaction than had been known before, having gained experience in similar duties for the Civic Federation. School children have been widely interested in the subject ; and while the positive work which they do in the collection and removal of street waste is often considerable, the preventive work is of greater value. In Chicago the children formed a Clean City League, and in New York Colonel Waring established leagues in many of the schools. This plan, like most of his, was copied elsewhere.
It is not to be inferred, however, that citizenship always delegates such work to women and children. An example of masculine activity has been offered by the Merchants’ Association of San Francisco. In 1897, 915 business firms were members ; anil to keep them and the public familiar with the work and aims of the association an eight - page paper was started, containing original articles and editorials on municipal questions. No advertisements were admitted, and five thousand copies a month were distributed freely. The streets were the first object of attack. Preliminary plans were prepared for an improved method of street cleaning, and then the association offered to see to the cleaning of any block within a certain district, if the merchants on that block would subscribe at a rate of not more than ten cents a day for a frontage of twenty-five feet. Subscriptions flowed in, and the plan was a success. Thus encouragement was given for undertaking the city contract, as an object lesson. A very low bid induced the board of supervisors to award the contract to the association’s president. Its directors became his bondsmen, and the work was planned and managed by its officers. To insure success, $30,000 were raised by voluntary subscription to add to the city’s appropriation, and the contract was triumphantly carried out. At the approach of its expiration, plans and specifications for perpetuating the system were prepared, and these were adopted by the city authorities.
But whatever the popular interest in this work, it is properly a city function. Upon the city itself must fall the chief burden. This is especially true of the removal of snow, slush, and mud. In fact, apart from the spirit which it illustrates, the popular interest is mainly of importance for its reactionary effect on officials. That is exemplified by New York’s brief success, which was made possible by what is called the “ reform element ” in polities. The exact measure of that advance is thus significant. In 1888, only 53 miles of paved streets in the city were cleaned daily. In 189097, 433 miles were gone over from one to five times a day and kept clean. The distance traversed by sweepers each day was then longer than the railroad route from New York to Chicago. After the famous March blizzard of 1888, when the resources of the department were taxed to their utmost to remove the snow, 40,542 loads were carted away. In the winter of 1896-97, after each considerable snowstorm, 200,000 loads were removed, and in one day a fourth as many loads again as in the whole week after the blizzard. Moreover, 2000 men who had no pride in their work had been converted into a uniformed army of 2500 who were proud of their work, and who were sure of their positions as long as they were efficient. All difficulties were arranged by arbitration ; the pay of the sweepers had been advanced from $600 to $720 a year; and the considerable increase in cost was held fully justified by results.
It is important to note that this change may be considered without the slightest partisan bias. This is generously made clear by Colonel Waring himself in his book. He declares : “ The tendency to ascribe former defects of the Department of Street Cleaning in New York city to one political party, as such, seems to me not to be fair. I had this prevailing tendency myself, when I first took office ; but my experience has taught me that it was a question, not of party, but of politics. . . . I am to this extent no more an anti-Tammany man than I should be an anti - Republican man if Republicans had brought about the same defects had their party been in power.”
The cheapest and easiest pavement to keep clean is a good one. The movement for the one is therefore the other’s strongest ally. The discovery of commercially available asphalt and its preparation for paving has been a powerful factor in the results secured, but the demand for clean pavements will be found to lie back of much of the favor with which expensive asphalt has been received. Probably few persons realize how gi-eat the recent advance in this department of urban development has been. In most of our cities, nearly all the improved pavements have been laid within a dozen years. Forty-five years ago, in New York, the standard type was the cobblestone, and that was a luxury that was confined to the lower part of the city. The asphalt now in use was introduced in 1879. This was early, for even Washington got it only in 1878. A block was laid in front of one of the hotels. It was not until 1888 that a considerable stretch of asphalt was tried. Then it was put on ten blocks of Madison Avenue. In the three years ending December 31, 1893, 1,639,486 square yards were put down, at a cost of §5,500,000. This, in general terms, is the history of the progress in all the cities. In street cleaning and the improvement of pavements, we have lately attained to a distinct and very important effort toward fairer cities.
Perhaps one could cite no better evidences of the extent and earnestness of these efforts along thoroughly practical lines than the American Municipal Improvement Society and the League of American Municipalities. The former of these was organized six years ago. Between sixty and seventy cities are represented in its membership, mainly by mayors, city engineers, and members of the boards of public works. Annual conventions are held, and carefully prepared papers relating to the improvement of cities are read, discussed, and published. The league, which has also the purpose to systematize city building, was the outcome of a convention held at Columbus in 1897. Mayors and council men were present from one hundred and one cities in twenty-three states. In the league the membership is held by the cities themselves. It has established an office in New York, and this is intended to serve as a bureau of information on any subject of municipal management. A library is being formed of reports of the departments of the cities that are members.
Of more distinctly æsthetic purpose is effort for the beautifying of the streets. It rests mainly with the people, and properly, since in any case they must be depended upon to jirotect and cultivate grass, flowers, and shrubbery. Examples of the effort are seen in the greater care of lawns and trees, the removal of front fences, the planting of vines, and the “ parking ” which gives to city sidewalks vistas almost like country paths. Tree-planting societies afford a good instance of collective effort of this sort. In Washington, the street trees, said to number 78,000, are under the care of a special city commission, which expends about $20,000 a year, and a law of New Jersey makes a similar provision there. In a few cities they are in charge of the park commissioners, and this is to be the rule under the new uniform charter which is to go into effect September 1, 1899, for the cities of Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, and Troy, New York. In other instances, as with Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, the trees of certain streets are in charge of the commission; but generally the care of trees is left to the people themselves.
Such is the condition in Brooklyn, where the most conspicuous of the treeplanting societies is located. Founded with enthusiasm several years ago, it languished for lack of a definite plan, and has been but recently revived. It is now performing a great work, and is known in almost every state of the Union. In the extension and popularizing of its work, it had, up to April 12, 1898, published twenty-four circulars regarding the planting and care of trees. One of these was addressed to children ; and another, regarding the injury done to trees by horses gnawing the bark, was put into the hands of practically every horse owner and driver in Brooklyn, it is believed. The society calls frequent attention to the injury done by certain insects, recommends safeguards, and has carried on a movement that amounts almost to a crusade against the posting of advertisements on the trees. It formally states its objects to be “ to promote the planting and protection of trees, the erection of drinking fountains, and otherwise to render the city of Brooklyn attractive.” Within the limits of the old New York a tree-planting society was started in May, 1896. In April, 1898, it reported that nearly 1000 trees had been planted since the association was formed, as a result of its efforts. It has a special field in the miles of residential streets in New York that are so generally bare and shadeless. In Buffalo a Forestry Association was incorporated last December, to do by persuasion what the municipal government had the right to accomplish, but never did. Staten Island has a treeplanting association that has been working earnestly. In Indianapolis, a number of women, who have banded themselves into a Park Memorial Tree Association, do an interesting work in planting memorial trees, with appropriate ceremonies, besides working on streets and lawns.2
This does not exhaust the list of private efforts, but it indicates their character. To this group of societies one for the planting of vines has been added, in New York. Duluth is an example of the short-sighted policy with which too many cities were laid out. When it awoke to æsthetic aspirations, it felt the need of trees so much that their provision was made a city charge. The work was put into the hands of the park commissioners, who in 1896 reported that they had planted along city streets about 5000 trees of the forest class. In Denver, writes Julian Ralph, the first things that impress you are the neatness and width of the streets, and the number of young trees that ornament them.” New Haven, as is well known, gains a sub-title from the beauty of her elms ; Cleveland is called the Forest City ; and Rochester, which is called the Flower City, gained a reputation some years ago through a crusade of the school children against a pest of caterpillars which threatened to destroy the shade trees. A popular subscription was raised by the Genesee Valley Forestry Association for prizes to the children, and in a few spring weeks 45,000 cocoons were destroyed. The attack was two or three times renewed, with not less success, until the danger was passed. Dayton, Ohio, has lately attained distinction by the wonderful aesthetic redemption of a squalid section through the influence of a manufacturing company which commenced by beautifying its own grounds.
Progress in city lighting owes much to the application of electricity. Public opinion is permitting a more generous use of it than strict necessity demands. When the expense of this extra lighting, which finds in adornment its excuse, reaches a prodigious sum in the eyes of taxpayers, the protest is apt to take the form of a demand for a city plant.
This is significant, but it opens an economic question which has no place here.
The debt which city beauty owes to rapid transit is large. In its prevention of crowding, it makes rus in urbe possible, and all that this means. In suburban property the idea of civic beauty is generally emphasized. No unimportant part of the work of this branch of the City and Suburban Homes Company of New York, for example, is in the setting out of model suburban communities, planned in their entirety from an artistic as well as a hygienic point of view. A prospectus, which is a fair type of many, announces houses pretty in themselves, and of varied but harmonious architecture, macadamized streets, “ well-laid sidewalks, lines of shade trees, terraced sites, and a perspective of fifteen feet of lawn in front of the houses.” Discovery of the means of rapid transit came at a critical point in the swift growth of our cities, and with the telephone it has enabled them to stretch out and make themselves fair, just as the electric light and the smooth pavement came in time to give a practical turn to the awakening æsthetic effort. The burial of street wires, like these other changes, is not required by æsthetic considerations alone, but it is just as effective as though it were. Indeed, it is worth while to reflect that the last quarter of a century must have witnessed a real advance in civic art through the influence of invention, — through the conduit. the smooth pavement, rapid transit, and electric light, — had there been no conscious endeavor.
City parks at once suggest themselves. Two years and a half ago, a writer in The Atlantic Monthly, on The Art of Public Improvement, said that “ parks have become a necessity of our cities and towns,” and a very interesting sketch was published of their origin with us, and their rapid development. Historically, the thought of large parks for American cities hardly goes back of the early fifties ; and “ only persistent and unremitting effort on the part of a few determined souls ” was able then to get consideration for the project. An official who has made a study of the park statistics of twenty-five principal cities is my authority for saying that, except in a few of the largest, it is only within the last decade that a general interest in park development has appeared. He adds that in every case the park acreage has more than doubled in that time.
There are scoffers who see only robbery in the parks, as they do in the schools, and sneer that the “ public-spirited voters of appropriations ” are not those who pay the taxes. It is a pity that no comparative statistics have been collected, for an answer would probably be found in the proportion of park lands which are gifts to the municipality. The large gifts of this character to the cities of Cleveland and Hartford are so recent as to be generally remembered. To take, therefore, two cities which are further apart, it appears in the third annual report of the park commissioners of Duluth (1894) that the total value of park property, exclusive of improvements, was $497,263, of which lands worth $228,000 had been donated to the city for the purpose. In the East, Springfield, Massachusetts, reported that of the 24 parcels of land making up the 463 1/2 acres of Forest Park, which is the great park of the city, 19, comprising 339 1/2 acres, had been the gifts of individuals. It may be added that this park included considerable zoölogical and ornithological exhibits, for which not one dollar of public money had been expended for specimens. In fact, private gifts are apt to take this practical turn. The report of the park commissioners of Scranton includes, among those of 1898, a commodious kitchen for the use of picnickers, a lake, a menagerie, and a number of summer shelter tents; and the little city of York (Pennsylvania), setting about a rehabilitation of the old public common last summer, found associations and individuals ready to present almost everything. A musical society gave the band pavilion, mechanics an iron flagstaff and flag. Each school in the city, private or public, planted a tree. Citizens gave benches and seats, and collectively a fountain, for which the water company furnished free water. In St. Louis, to go back to the larger gifts, the famous Tower Grove Park and Shaw’s Garden came from an individual. The latter is a practical school of botany, largely endowed, and the former was enriched by the gift of fine bronze statues of Shakespeare and Humboldt. In his will the donor made provision for two unique and interesting banquets, to be held each year by those who were interested, as he was, in this expression of the city’s higher life. This is too picturesque an institution for the student of urban development on æsthetic lines to overlook.
But our cities are not dependent upon private generosity, great as that may be. The park acreage of Greater New York, authorized by public liberality, exceeds that of Greater London or of Paris, and is four times that of Berlin. There is little need here to speak of the park systems of Boston, — the Boston within the city, and the Metropolitan without. For the land alone which is comprised in the first the city has paid something more than $6,000,000, without considering the old Common or the Public Garden ; and it has added something more than $7,500,000 for improvement and adornment. The Metropolitan Park Commission, which enables the towns and cities about Boston to coöperate with the big city in the selection of contiguous park lands and their harmonious treatment, was created by legislation only as late as 1893. The commission now controls more numerous large pleasure grounds than are held by any public authority on the continent except the national government. The great systems of boulevards and parkways, which are characteristic of the development of this land, are distinctly an æsthetic feature. They have become a distinguishing part, also, of the fine park system of Chicago, which, through their means, encircles the city on the land side. With proverbial large-mindedness, Chicago is now extending one of them, the famous parkway, Sheridan Drive, with the aid of the towns and villages to the north, along the lake shore clear to Milwaukee, a distance of some eighty miles. New York, taking up this line of æsthetic improvement, has been building a beautiful speedway, and is extending her drives and boulevards as far as Yonkers, constructing noble bridges and costly viaducts for the purpose. In the winter of 1897 alone (though in the fifteen years ending in 1896 the park acreage had been increased nearly fivefold) an expenditure of $13,250,000 was authorized for improvements in parks and associated enterprises. Chicago, within a year, has decided on an improvement in Lincoln Park alone that will cost $5,000,000, while Buffalo has joined the little list of cities that find speedways a civic need.
A peculiar contribution to the proofs of popular esteem for parks is made in the Fairmount Park Art Association of Philadelphia. The organization is believed to be unique, though park management often forms the subject of debate at other civic clubs, and an American Park and Outdoor Association, which is national in character, has been lately formed. It holds annual conventions, and its membership is composed of experts ; but men, women, and children comprise the 1300 members of the Fainnount Park Art Association, voluntarily banded together for the adornment of Fainnount Park and the city of Philadelphia. For this purpose they pay annual dues, which are graduated according to the kind of membership chosen. A certain part of these payments is set aside for the permanent funds, which are to be allowed to accumulate until they aggregate $100,000, now nearly reached, when the interest alone will be used. The unreserved balance is expended as opportunity for civic adornment offers. The society was founded in 1871, and incorporated the next year. It is its claim that, in the intervening years, almost every Philadelphian of note has been a member. As yet, the efforts have been devoted mainly to the procurement of fine sculpture for the park.
In New York, an organization of generally similar purpose has made its appearance in the Municipal Art Society. This was organized in March, 1893 ; but in a new constitution, adopted in 1898, the scope of the work was considerably enlarged. Hitherto it had depended on the subscriptions of its members for funds to provide decorations, sculptural or pictorial, for the public buildings and streets of the city. These are costly, and there had been completed only one piece of decoration, — Simmons’s allegorical paintings in the criminal courts building. Arrangements had been made, however, in conjunction with ten other art societies, for the construction of the beautiful Hunt Memorial on Fifth Avenue, against the wall of Central Park. Both these were notable achievements. By its new constitution, the society is able to institute and to control competitions for works of art, for the execution of which it does not pay. An instance is the competition which it was made possible for the society to hold for the ceiling decoration of the new municipal assembly room in the city hall. The former administration had appropriated $10,000 for the purpose, and the Municipal Art Society can increase the efficacy of the grant by conducting a competition and offering prizes. In Philadelphia, the Academy of Fine Arts became the oentre for such associated effort to decorate the city hall. The city, with a larger liberality than New York’s, made the appropriation for the prize competition.
The New York society further extends its function by securing competitive designs for artistic street lamps, for the most artistic public flagpoles, park benches, drinking fountains, etc. In loyalty to its motto, “ To make us love our city, we must make our city lovely,” it has begun in a small way a work like that of the National Belgian Society, which is doing so much for the ax*tistic renaissance of Belgian cities. The Architectural League is putting its words into deeds by also offering competitions for practical civic ornaments. Last winter, one of these was for reviewing-stands.
To go a long way from New York, there is in San Francisco an Art Association which takes pride in beautifying the city. That is indeed a field to which art clubs everywhere may well turn their attention. In a letter from the mayor of San Francisco, on æsthetic efforts at the Golden Gate, the special advantages which that city offers for artistic treatment are described. Market Street, the main artery of the city, he says, “is unique in this respect: that it has other streets running into it at unusual angles, thus creating small open places distant from one another by block divisions. In these places it is planned to put fountains.” Three have already been erected, and one of them is famous as the memorial to Robert Louis Stevenson. The Art Association, the Merchants’ Association, and the Bohemian Club have been active in this direction, and the first-named has done valuable restrictive work. In Cincinnati, a Municipal Art Society was formed in 1894. Its most important work has been the decoration of the vestibule of the city hall, for which $2500 were raised. This building is notable as having witnessed probably the first example, with us, of municipal art as understood in the cities of Renaissance Italy. The common council threw open to competition the designs for the stained-glass windows on the staircase. In Baltimore, a Municipal Art Society was organized a few months ago; and no attempt can be made here to name all the clubs that are working in this direction, with more or less singleness of purpose. In Philadelphia, for instance, the Contemporary Club has lately discussed memorial municipal art. In Brooklyn, the Civitas Club, the Urban, the Chicopean, and various others have taken up the matter. In some cases there is nothing except talk, but often club protest does a very important work. A case in point is the emphatic resolutions adopted by the Boston Society of Architects, in 1896, against the threatened destruction of the Bulfinch front of the State House ; at the same time the Fine Arts Federation of New York sent a letter: and these protests were finally heeded.
The trouble in all this effort has been lack of concerted action. The National Sculpture Society and the National Society of Mural Painters have been formed, each to unify its special work and take all the cities as its field. Still more recently, the Fine Arts Federation and the National Art Club have been established, to bring together all the various departments of art activity. The sphere of the former is limited to New York, and it was founded in hope that a representative committee, able to express promptly and authoritatively the judgment of the whole artistic conscience of the city, would make united action less difficult and tedious than in the past. The National Art Club, with a large nonresident membership, proposes to knit together the art influences of the country, to keep them in touch with one another by a monthly publication, and in the home which it establishes to supply a centre for art societies and art lovers. Its prospectus contained also this significant promise : “ It will try to encourage the fine arts in many directions and the broadest spirit, especially agitating for beauty and good taste in civic architecture, town parks, public sculpture and painting, public processions and pageants and the decoration of streets ; and it will keep its members informed of what is being done for civic art, at home and abroad.” The National Sculpture Society (incorporated in 1896) has exercised important influence in an advisory capacity in several cities. A number of periodicals devoted wholly to municipal affairs have recently appeared. These are an effect rather than the cause of wide awakening to civic possibilities; but they also tend to unite and harmonize effort.
A large amount of endeavor, however, is informal. Sometimes an individual, whose motive may or may not be publicspirited ; sometimes a society, or a collection of individuals united only for a moment by common impulse, and often with the wish for the æsthetic adornment of the city completely secondary to that for perpetuating a memory, offers to give an art object. In this way a degree of adornment has been gained for which our cities might have waited vainly many years, had they depended upon the societies regularly organized for municipal improvement. Recent notable examples are the great Washington Monument, which was presented to Philadelphia by the Society of the Cincinnati of Pennsylvania, and which is said to be the finest of its kind in the country; the Stephen Girard statue, in the same city ; the beautiful Shaw Memorial, at Boston ; the Grant tomb and the Washington Arch, in New York. The last is a particularly interesting case, having slight excuse other than its own beauty and power of civic adornment. Of temporary construction, to grace an anniversary celebration, it appealed so strongly to the public’s æsthetic yearning that the money was raised by popular subscription to make it permanent in marble. Its fairness thus belongs not only to itself, but to its promise.
When one thinks of the monuments to soldiers, sailors, and civilians, of the fountains and other such things which have lately been offered to our cities, it is clear that there is need of an expert examining board in each city to pass on the worthiness of the contemplated gift. Some years ago, a physician, of more enterprise than civic conscience, went through the country offering a drinking fountain to each of several cities. He was hailed as a public benefactor, and some municipalities voted their proudest sites to him for the embellishment. When the fountain came and was set up, it proved to be a zinc structure, containing incidental advertisements of the material and the donor, and capped by a crude life-size figure of its giver. There was a general revulsion of feeling, and in several cases where the municipality did not act, the big fountains were “ spirited ” away by night. This experience should teach a lesson.
But to realize that all is not art which adopts art’s form, and that a thing is not necessarily worthy of acceptance merely because it is a gift, requires a higher degree of popular culture than the instinctive wish to make cities fairer. In some instances, as we have seen, the art societies have tried to exercise this critical function; but, lacking the stamp of official authority, their decisions have not always had popular support. Indeed, disappointed donors have generally looked upon such disapproval as unwarranted interference. Out of this obvious need there have arisen the municipal art commissions. The first of these was established in Boston, and was composed of men of experience and good taste. The charter of the Greater New York provided for the appointment of a similar commission for that city, naming as ex officio members the mayor, the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the president of the New York Public Library, and the president of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences.
It is worth noting that the mayor made his excellent selections of “ a painter, a sculptor, an architect, and three other citizens ” from a list furnished by the Fine Arts Federation. Baltimore came next, the new charter granted to that city in the spring of 1898 making the provision. In every case the commissioners serve without pay, and no work of art, “ which term comprises statues, paintings, mural decorations, stained glass, monuments of any kind, arches, or fountains,” may become the city’s property by purchase or gift without their approval. Nor can any existing works of art in the possession of the city be removed or altered except by their consent. In each case, also, it is provided that, at the request of the mayor or council, the commission shall “ give its advice,” to quote from the Baltimore charter, “as to the suitability of the design for any public building, bridge, or other structure.” In Philadelphia the establishment of a jury of art experts has been the goal of much earnest effort by the Civic Club ; and Brookline has had — and unhappily has lately lost its patience with — an art committee, whose approval a bylaw made essential to the acceptance of the plans of any school or other public building.
There is criticism of municipal art commissions on the ground that their work is so largely restrictive. It is claimed that in action mainly of a negative character there is only discouragement. But, if necessary, public opinion can authorize the bestowal of larger power. The bill for the establishment of an art department in Boston was reported to the legislature unanimously in the winter of 1898. In the state of New York, in the same winter, a law was enacted permitting all cities of more than 50,000 inhabitants to spend a certain sum annually for American works of art, such expenditure to be made under the supervision of an art commission. The sum named was $50,000 a year for cities of over 250,000 inhabitants, and $25,000 a year for the others. The works of art must have been done by American artists in the United States, but they may include mural paintings, mosaics, and stained or painted glass, which is bought “for the purpose of beautifying” the city. The act requires that when a municipality decides to make such a purchase, if an art commission is not otherwise provided, the mayor “shall” appoint one ; and that the commission shall contain art experts, and “ may ” include women. But the cities have gone little beyond this, and none has yet given to its art commission the suggested initiative power to make a general artistic plan, marking out sites suitable for sculptural and other adornment. Still, the theory of the veto power seems to presuppose an ideal, lack of conformity with which shall be fatal to artistic projects ; and the new law referred to, in New York, makes it possible for the commission to assume an initiative, as experience has shown, and ask for the legalized appropriation for a special object.
A distinctive feature of the new charter of New York provides for a Board of Public Improvements, which has a distinct opportunity of this sort. When a plan has received the indorsement of the small local board, whose chairman is the president of the borough, it goes to the board which represents the city at large. The latter consists of the mayor, the corporation counsel, the controller, the presidents of the five boroughs, and the commissioners of the six departments, with a president whom the mayor appoints. The theory is that the individual will have a better chance to be heard, and yet that order and unity will be preserved in the city’s development. But the reform now needed most is still restrictive. It is the submission of the plans for public works of all kinds — there is good reason for naming bridges as an example — to the art commissions. This need is too weakly recognized by the charters, and public opinion should change the notice to the mayor from the subjunctive mood to the imperative.
There is a line of civic development in an æsthetic direction which appeals to other senses than sight. The claim of the ear is not forgotten. In Philadelphia and in Boston there is already a municipal band. The mayor of Philadelphia writes that the one in that city has steadily grown in favor. In the summer of 1897 it gave ninety concerts in twenty-three squares. The band in Boston gave its first concert last June. A series followed, one each Sunday on the Common, and two or three every week in public parks and squares. A music commission had been created, as an expression of the city’s wish to furnish good free music to the people. The municipal band was of its creation, and was made excellent. A choral society was organized, and the programmes were varied with vocal music, instrumental solos, etc. The popular success was immense, audiences numbering 20,000 persons sometimes gathering on Sunday. The commission also purchased the Mechanics’ Hall organ, which it proposed to place in a public building accessible to the people ; and when winter came, a series of indoor orchestral concerts was arranged. The commissioners conducted an examination of the instruments of itinerant street musicians, and the ordinance defining the powers of the board states that, with slight restriction, it “ shall have the charge and control of the selection of public music, to be given either indoors or in the open air, for parades, concerts, public celebrations, and other purposes.” No other American city has yet gone as far as Boston in this direction, though public concerts in the parks are common.
The permanent orchestras, other musical efforts, and various artistic advantages belong, of course, to a city’s artistic as much as to its educational group of problems, though in this study it has seemed best to treat them more fully under the latter head. But for reference to the suppression of city noises there can be no place in these three groups of effort better than is this. A magazine article advocating this movement, not long ago, was received with unusual approval. In most places city ordinances were found to be sufficiently restrictive in letter, and they came to be better enforced ; Detroit furnishing a good instance with a successful crusade against steam whistles. City noise has vastly increased with the growth and congestion of traffic, but smooth pavements and rubber tires are now helping civic progress in the direction of greater quiet.
Municipal advance on aesthetic lines has been supported by an interesting economic argument. This was not needed, but of late it has been so much referred to that it cannot be properly passed over. It expresses the value of civic attractiveness in dollars. When the Municipal Improvement Association of New Orleans.wished to close one of its printed addresses with a strong appeal, it said: “New Orleans could be one of the most attractive cities in the world, and visitors should come in large numbers ; and if this condition of affairs should be reached, then the income derived from this source would be, perhaps, as important as that derived from the trade of the city.” The mayor of San Francisco, in an address which has since been printed in pamphlet form, said : “ Every visitor . . . adds to the general prosperity. . . . San Francisco could thus be made a great resort, if the people, having an ideal before them, would devote their efforts to its realization from year to year.” And then he quoted the stand which Pericles took : “ Make Athens beautiful, for beauty is now the victorious power in the world.” The Chicago Tribune, which is not a sensational newspaper, made a strong appeal, some time ago, for higher æsthetic progress, by devoting a page to an enumeration of the wealthy Chicagoans who were living elsewhere. It was a remarkable list, telling how the fortunes had been made, and where and how they were being spent. The aggregate of principal was $130,000,000, and the estimated income $5,000,000, which was “ spent away from the place where it was earned.” The showing tilled rival cities with delight, — New York, for instance. But New York would have as long a list of absentees. The lesson that was plainly sought, and as plainly taught, is that it is financially worth while for a city to make itself attractive ; lovely to look upon, comfortable to live in, inspiring and interesting. An extraordinary development of the idea, as it will seem to most Americans, is to be found in Brussels, and more recently in Paris. These cities are offering prizes for the most beautiful house fronts. The American Architect says that in Paris the municipal council lately opened a new street, and announced that a jury would be appointed to consider the houses erected on it. Owners of the four houses judged most beautiful were to be entitled to a remission of one half the frontage tax, while the architects who designed the structures were to receive premiums of 1000 francs each. Our increasing leisure class, which is not hampered by landed estates, is sure to gather where there is most that is fair. The condition is not one of discouragement. Those who are bound to any city will always make a beginning of the movement. How much Chicago, with her high ideal and her masterful purpose, has already done! In her permanent orchestra, her noble libraries, her art buildings, her boulevards and parks, there is more than a beginning. Once a start is well made, the wealth that is attracted, or kept at home, will be spent on the very objects that increase the attractiveness of cities. To the city that hath, more shall be given.
But there is other value in municipal beauty than that indicated by money value. There is a sociological value in the larger happiness of great masses of people, whose only fields are park meadows, whose only walks are city streets, whose statues stand in public places, whose paintings hang where all may see, whose books and curios, whose drives and music, are first the city’s where they live. The happier people of the rising City Beautiful will grow in love for it, in pride in it. They will be better citizens, because better instructed, more artistic, and filled with civic pride. The little Florence of the twelfth century, whose few inhabitants were raising the tower of Giotto and the famous Duomo, has written her name above cities a score of times as large. It was possible to say in her, as it should be possible to say with us, that the “ noblest sort of heart is that composed of the united will of many citizens.”
Charles Mulford Robinson.
- It is an open secret that Commissioner Waring, of New York, owed his appointment to the suggestion of a woman.↩
- A small but illuminating anecdote may be repeated to illustrate the latter department of effort. The association formed a club of boys who had been thoughtlessly ruining a tine stretch of street lawn. The hoys were consuited regarding plans for its preservation, and each was given some task for which lie was responsible. It is said that no more neatly kept lawn is now to be seen in the city.↩