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.”

A black and white drawing of Frederick Law Olmsted
Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. (Library of Congress)

When asked to write a paper relating to Village Improvement, I at once thought of a fragment of manuscript upon which I recently happened among the papers of my father, the late Frederick Law Olmsted, written perhaps fifteen or twenty years ago, but applying with more than passing appropriateness to the conditions of to-day.

“Fifty years ago,” wrote my father, “I had a long day’s walk with  two other boys. As the sun passed behind the hills  the road widened before us, the footpaths strayed out from the wheelway, stone walls and pasture lands gave place to picket fences, front dooryards, and houses. Gradually the opening way took the character of a narrow common in which there were great trees standing not at regular distances, not in lines quite straight. In the midst ran a narrow and rather dusty track for wheels, from which now and then branched loops and crossways. Near the fences the turf had been trodden out in broad footpaths from which others prim and straight led squarely off to the house doors. The houses were some of one story, none of more than two. They were neither steep nor flat-roofed. They were without verandas, porches, umbras, awnings, hoods, or other outworks. Their gables had no overhang or emphasis, no verge boards, brackets, scroll work, or finials. Neither their windows nor the panes in them would be called large or small. Their glass was neither clear, stained, nor wrinkled. Their wooden walls were thin and weak and had been painted white. There were blinds to the windows painted green, but no sign of interior drapery. Yet with these common characteristics no two were quite alike; each had a certain air of unassertive individuality.

“There were two houses like unto the others in form, roof, windows, and paint but larger and with belfries and spires showing them to be meeting-houses. An ‘academy’ and schoolhouses, an engine house and a hearse house, two or three small gambrel-roofed stores, were alike crude, simple, and uncouth. In the background there were barns and small outbuildings generally painted red, well—sweeps, martin-boxes on masts, orchards, and glimpses of green fields and distant low mountains. Barefoot boys were driving cows through the streets loiteringly, and most of the grass had been cropped short by these wayfarers.

“There was a graveyard in which an old horse was seeking out such forage as could be found among the abundant asters and goldenrods, burdocks and mulleins, and boys and girls were looking for blackberries in the thickets obscuring the enclosing walls.

“We came to the house where we had been invited to ‘pass the Sabbath.’ Its occupants were three old maids, — two of them accounted rich. The third, their ‘help,’ sat with us at the table, and at our repast between meetings the next day made sharp comments on the sermon, starting a little discussion when one of the ladies read the ‘actual words of God’ in the original Greek; for these ladies were scholars, corresponded with scholars beyond the sea, and had fitted several poor young men for college, aiding them also in their after studies for the ministry.

“When we first came to their home, one was painting the kitchen floor, the other was carrying a basket and trowel, and snipping with garden scissors the straggling shoots of the bushes in the front dooryard. There was no man or boy about the house, yet at night the front door was left unlocked. There were nicely trimmed box borders, and rows of beautiful flowers, as well as tall bushes between the door and the street, and in a similar plat in the rear many more, mingling with current and raspberry bushes, fennel and asparagus.

“No rural cemetery, no village improvement association, no branch of the Art Decorative, no reading club for the art periodicals, no park or parklet, no soldiers’ monument, no fountains, no florist’s establishment, not a single glass house, no bedding plants, no ribbon gardening, no vases, no lawn mowers, no rustic work, nothing from Japan, in all the long street.

“Since then, I judge, all these things have come; the village is connected with the metropolis by railroad, it is enriched by summer visitors, a large hotel has been built, several retiring men have built very unretiring villas on the street, several of the old houses have been ‘fixed up,’ many fences have been taken down, tar walks have been laid, and correspondents of the press fill columns with reports of improvements.

“And yet no village abounding in the beauty that has come to us with these is as beautiful to me as was this of which I have described the more prominent objects. None has the attraction for an artist. None so engages the admiration of thoughtful travelers.

“The reason is no doubt a little complicated, but more than in anything else it lies in the fact that there was one consistent expression of character, and that character simple, unsophisticated, respectable.

“I confess that while I am pleased with all these things that have come in of late, and praise the work of architects and gardeners, engineers, and sanitary engineers, decorators, and esthetes, I do not think that the villages which have gained most from them, or from the admirable labors of beauty-organizing women, are likely to impress visitors of the best intuition and the highest culture as pleasingly, gratefully, and hopingly as those of the general character and aspect I have endeavored to recall.

“There were then hundreds of villages of this general description, every one of which would now excite great admiration from men of good taste. They have now, at some points, taken on town airs, killing what remains of their former character; at other points, they have become neglected and slatternly. Lastly, the pursuit of beauty through decoration has set back any character they had, either as a local distinction, or as a class, which if found in Norway or Java would have been known as the beauty of an American village. The beauty, on the other hand, that they have acquired is largely a common, extrinsic beauty, which might as well have been produced anywhere else. Much of it even would have been attainable, and may even be found in greater degree and measure on the outskirts of large commercial towns, and in European or Australian towns, as well as in New England or Maryland.

“What was the ancient beauty of an American village, with its bare, bleak, cheap, utilitarian structures, its cramped dooryards, its meagre and common ornaments, its fences and straightlacedness? The answer may be suggested by another question.

“Let a thing he supposed, of greater bulk than the largest of our fine Fifth Avenue private habitations, to have been made for a mere common purpose of trade by the work of many men, not one of them ranking among artists, not one of liberal education, men not at all delicate, not nicely fingered, not often even clean-handed; muscular, sweaty, and horny-handed; no small part of them rude and clumsy in their ways, tobacco-chewing, given to liquor, slang, and profane swearing. Suppose the thing so produced to have no beauty of carving or color, to be mainly smeared black and white, and any touch of decoration upon it to be more than barbarously childish and clumsy.

“It can hardly be easy for those who best represent what we have been more particularly gaining of late in aesthetic culture to believe that such work can have given the world a thing of supreme beauty. It will be still harder to realize that the coarse, rude, sensual men producing it had in general a deep artistic sense of its characteristic beauty, so that they would protest in stronger terms than Mr. Ruskin ever used, against the putting upon it of anything by which the rare refinement of it might be marred.

“Alas! that I must speak of this as of a lost art, for it is of the Baltimore Clipper of fifty years ago, the like of which will never again be seen, I speak. Will Mr. Peabody’s bequest to Baltimore, or Johns Hopkins’, lead ever to one thing as beautifully adapted to its special purpose?

“I have seen a high-bred lady and dull, low, degraded, and sodden seafaring laborer animated at the same instant the same impulse of admiration, each exclaiming, ‘The beauty! the beauty!’ at the sight of a sailing ship. What is this admirableness, dependent on no single thing done for admiration, no decoration, no ornament, no color of splendor, of a sailing ship?

“Whatever else it may be in the last analysis, it cannot be separated from this fact, that a fine clipper ship, such as we had in America just come to build and rightly sail, when the age of such things passed away, was as ideally perfect for its essential purpose as a Phidian statue for the essential purpose of its sculptor. And it so happened that in much greater degree than it can happen in a steamship, or in the grandest architecture, the ideal means to this purpose were of exceeding grace, not of color, but of form and outline, light and shade, and of the play of light in shadow and of shadow and light. Because of this coincidence was possible to express the purpose of the ship and the relation and contribution to that purpose of every part and article of her, from cleaving stem to fluttering pennant, with exquisite refinement. These qualities, with the natural stateliness of the ship’s motion, set off by the tuneful accompaniment of the dancing waves, made the sailing ship in its last form the most admirably beautiful thing in the world, not a work of nature nor a work of fine art.

“If any reader doubts the fascination of this seafaring beauty, the grandeur of it, the refinement, the spur it gives to the imagination, let him read the stories of Clark Russell. But no writer, poet, or painter can ever have told in what degree it lay in a thousand matters of choice—choice made in view of ideal refinements of detail, in adaptation to particular services, studied as thoughtfully and as feelingly as ever a modification of tint on painter’s palette. One needed but a little understanding of the motives of seamanship to feel how in the hull every shaving had been counted, and how in the complicated work aloft every spar and cloth, block and bull’s-eye, line and seam, had been shaped and fined and fitted to do the duty required of it in the most sinewy way. Phidias could not have told the special duty of every curve and line more beautifully. I have seen a boy rope’s-ended for leaving on a rope’s end a fray of twine that could not have been seen two yards away. Such untidiness was shockingly incongruous with the lovely form and fine array of the Anne McKim, and the mind too indolent to see this needed a stimulant.

“The beauty most to be desired in a chair is not beauty of carving, of penciling, or of weaving; in a house, not of jigsawing, chiseling, or painting; in a lawn, not of shaven grass, of flowers, of twiggage, or of leafage; in a road, not of flagging, curbing, guttering, and paving. The beauty most to be desired in towns and villages is no more the decorative beauty of our present flurry than that of a ship or of a horse.

“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.