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City Beautiful Movement

The City Beautiful Movement was inspired by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, with the message that cities should aspire to aesthetic value for their residents.

People: William Vanderbilt Allen, Albert S. Bard, Evageline Blashfield, Daniel Burnham, Robert G. Cooke, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Pierre L’Enfant, Richard Morris Hunt, Charles F. McKim, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., Jacob Riis, Louis Sullivan 
Places: Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, National Mall, 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition
Public Policy: Bard Act (1956), McMillan Plan, New York City Landmarks Law
Above: World's Columbian Exposition; Courtesy of BackStory

The City Beautiful Movement emerged in response to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. 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 planned.2 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, soot covered 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-Gaudens.3

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 Memorial.4

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’s 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 period.6 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 its physical environment.7

The City Beautiful Movement led to the creation of numerous art societies seeking to obtain legislative means for aesthetic regulation in New York 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.

The Municipal Art Society was one organization that was formed as part of the City Beautiful Movement. 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 public.8 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 being.9

In addition, Albert S. 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 its Secretary in 1912, and its President in 1917.10 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 property.11

The City Beautiful Movement inspired residents of New York City to fight for the regulation of 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 landscape.12 There were some nascent efforts to control billboard signage. In 1896, for instance, the Parks Commissioner passed a law removing billboards from public parks.13 However, by 1911, New York City was reported to have 3.8 million square feet of billboard advertisements.14 Art societies, including the Municipal Art Society and the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, began to use billboard regulation as a way to beautify the City. The Municipal Art Society, along with Albert Bard, worked on legislative measures to regulate the billboard placement in the City.15 In 1913, the Mayor set up a commission to find methods for billboard regulation called the Mayor's Billboard Advertising Commission of the City of New York. Robert G. Cooke, head of the commission, claimed that the advertisements "rob 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 property.17 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 Law.18

The Bard Act in many ways owes its existence to the City Beautiful Movement.19 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.

In turn, 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 City.20

  • D. Arnold photographic collection from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition
    Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library
    Columbia University
    1172 Amsterdam Avenue, #3 MC0301
    New York, NY 10027

    McKim, Mead & White Architectural Records and Drawings
    Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library
    Columbia University
    1172 Amsterdam Avenue, #3 MC0301
    New York, NY 10027
  1. 
Norm Bolotin and Christine Laing, The World’s Columbian Exposition: the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002).
  2. 
Peter Geoffrey Hall, Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design, 3rd ed. (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002).
  3. 
Ibid.
  4. 
Ibid.
  5. 
Gregory F. Gilmartin, Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society (New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 1995), page 1.
  6. 
Peter Geoffrey Hall, Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design, 3rd ed. (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002).
  7. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), pages 25-26.
  8. 
Gregory F. Gilmartin, Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society (New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 1995).
  9. 
Ibid.
  10. 
Ibid.
  11. 
Ibid.
  12. 
Christopher Gray, “Streetscapes/Billboards; The Battles Over Outdoor Ads Go Back a Century,” The New York Times, 17 June 2001.
  13. 
Ibid.
  14. 
Ibid.
  15. Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), pages 26-28.
  16. 
Christopher Gray, “Streetscapes/Billboards; The Battles Over Outdoor Ads Go Back a Century,”The New York Times, 17 June 2001.
  17. 
Ibid.
  18. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 26.
  19. 
Ibid, page 26.
  20. 
Staff, “A Landmark Decision,”The New York Times, 20 December 1975.