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City Beautiful Movement

Location

United States

Description

The City Beautiful movement emerged in response to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The fundamental idea expounded at the fair was that the city was no longer a symbol of economic development and industrialization, but could now be seen as enhancing the aesthetic environment of its many inhabitants.
The fair, coordinated by architect Daniel Burnham, deeply impacted the way that Americans saw the urban landscape, and brought the United States to the level of its European predecessors in terms of architectural design 1. New York architects such as Richard Morris Hunt and McKim, Mead and White, together with the Chicago school of architects such as Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham created an ideal city made up of classically designed monumental buildings. The "magical white city" that Chicago embodied demonstrated for the first time that cities could be planned2. Artists and architects were deeply impacted by the beautiful designs at the fair that upon returning to major cities like New York, Detroit and Washington, D.C., they took notice of the austere and cluttered landscape in their own cities. During the height of the Industrial Revolution, technological advancement paid little attention to the visual elements of urban cities. Smoke billowed from factories, dirt sooted buildings, and streets were merely symbols of progress.
Once visitors returned to their cities and they realized that it was essential to the public welfare of the people to take heed of the urban landscape, many American cities embarked on public building and art projects in order to beautify their cities.
In Washington, D.C., this led to the creation of the McMillan Plan (named after Senator McMillan), the first governmental plan to regulate aesthetics. The plan included the major players behind the planning of the Chicago World's Fair: Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., Charles F. McKim, and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens3.

They revived Pierre L'Enfant's original city design plans for Washington, D.C. The results can still be seen today. The McMillan Plan led to the construction of the tree-lined National mall, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial4.
Many American cities lacked governmental regulation of their urban infrastructure. For instance, New York City at the turn of the century was described as a "ragged pin cushion of towers."5 Massive immigration to the city combined with the overcrowded tenement housing created the vision of a discordant urban environment marked by poverty and social injustice. Jacob Riis' telling portrayal of tenement living in How the Other Half Lives, published in 1891, describes the urban plight of emigrant slums which characterized American cities during this time period6. The City Beautiful movement promoted the idea that beautifying the city is beneficial. It spurred the creation of the Municipal Art Society in New York City, which works to promote public art in the city and also led to the development of legislative means for the city to control the physical environment of the city7.

The City Beautiful movement led to the creation of numerous art societies seeking to obtain legislative means for aesthetic regulation in the city. This idea eventually led to the preservation of historic structures for the public good with the passage of the Bard Act and the New York City Landmarks Law.


Municipal Art Society
Upon returning home from Chicago after the World's Fair, prominent New York artists and visitors realized the potential for New York to gleam as a beacon for the arts and urban design. On a more fundamental level, artists took with them the idea that art was not just for the elite but was to be shared with the public8. These artists, including William Vanderbilt Allen and Evageline Blashfield decided to form the Municipal Art Society. Their mission was to promote the idea that public art was for the benefit of the public and promoted an enhanced state of being9.


Albert Bard
Albert Bard played a pivotal role in the City Beautiful movement in New York City. He was a lawyer with an affinity for the arts. Like his contemporaries, the World's Fair had also provided him with the idea that a city could be regulated for aesthetic purposes. He joined the Municipal Art Society in 1901, joined its board in 1911, became Secretary in 1912 and President in 191710. Albert Bard's influence on the City Beautiful movement would lead to drafting the Bard Act, which enabled municipalities to pass laws for aesthetic regulation of private property11.


Billboard Advertisements
New York City at the turn of the century had no laws protecting the physical fabric of the city. By the 1870s, large billboard advertising signs dotted the urban landscape12. There were some nascent efforts to control billboard signage. In 1896 for instance the Parks Commissioner passed a law removing billboards from public parks13. However by 1911, New York City was reported to have 3.8 million square feet of billboard advertisements14. Art societies including the Municipal Art Society and the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society began to use the the billboard regulation as way to beautify the city. The Municipal Art Society along with Albert Bard worked on legislative measures to regulate the billboard placement in the city15. In 1913, the Mayor set up a commission to find methods for billboard regulation called the Billboard Advertising Commission of the City of New York. Robert G. Cooke, head of the Commission claimed that the advertisements "rob[ed] the people of their rightful heritage of natural beauty"16. Eventually the 1916 zoning resolution which divided the city into specific areas or zones worked to set up rules for billboard signage on public property17. The problem, however, appeared to be regulation of private property for aesthetic reasons for the benefit of the public. The initial efforts waged by Bard and the Municipal Art Society served as a "progenitor" of the Bard Act eventually leading to the passage of the Landmarks Law18.


Bard Act
The Bard Act in many ways owes its existence to the City Beautiful movement19. The fundamental idea of this movement was that the livability of cities was essential to the health, welfare and safety of the people. By beautifying the city, the government was providing a benefit to the public overriding private interests. The Bard Act passed in 1956, and permitted local municipalities enabling legislation to pass laws that regulate the aesthetics of the city. The 'police powers' were extended to mean that the regulation of the physical environment promoted the health, safety and welfare of the people.


Landmarks Law
The passing of the Bard Act paved the way for the New York City Landmarks Law because it gave the power of the city to pass legislation for aesthetic regulation. Historic buildings were now seen as enhancing city blocks and promoting a charming feel to neighborhoods. Preserving historic structures would soon be included in these aesthetic regulations when the New York City Landmarks Law was passed. This idea was predicated on the 'police powers' in which preserving structures of cultural and historic significance was providing a service to the public by enhancing the aesthetic environment of the city20.

Archives, Personal Files, and Ephemera

C.D. Arnold photographic collection, 1892-1901
(47 platinum print photographs from the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago 1893)
Avery Drawings and Archives
300 Avery
Columbia University
1172 Amsterdam Avenue, MC0301
New York, NY 10027
McKim, Mead, and White Architectural Records and Drawings, circa 1879-1958


Avery Drawings and Archives
300 Avery
Columbia University
1172 Amsterdam Avenue, MC0301
New York, NY 10027

  • 1. Bolotin, Norm and Christine Laing. The World's Columbian Exposition: the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 University of Illinois Press: Chicago, 2002.
  • 2. Hall, Peter Geoffrey. Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Gilmartin, Gregory. Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society. Clarkson Potter/Publishers: New York, 1995: 1.
  • 6. Hall, Peter Geoffrey. Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design
  • 7. Wood, Anthony C. Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City's Landmarks Routledge: New York, 2008.
  • 8. Gilmartin, Gregory. Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society. Clarkson Potter/Publishers: New York, 1995.
  • 9. Gilmartin, Gregory. Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society. Clarkson Potter/Publishers: New York, 1995.
  • 10. Gilmartin, Gregory. Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society. Clarkson Potter/Publishers: New York, 1995.
  • 11. Gilmartin, Gregory. Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society. Clarkson Potter/Publishers: New York, 1995.
  • 12. Gray, Christopher. "Streetscapes/Billboards; The Battles Over Outdoor Ads Go Back a Century." New York Times. June 17, 2001.
  • 13. Ibid.
  • 14. Ibid.
  • 15. Wood, Anthony C. Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City's Landmarks Routledge: New York, 2008.
  • 16. Gray, Christopher. "Streetscapes/Billboards; The Battles Over Outdoor Ads Go Back a Century." New York Times June 17, 2001.
  • 17. Ibid.
  • 18. Wood, Anthony C. Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City's Landmarks Routledge: New York, 2008.
  • 19. Ibid.
  • 20. Staff. "A Landmark Decision." New York Times December 20, 1975.