Walkabout with Montrose: The City Beautiful Movement

At the turn of the 20th century, reformers in American cities were aware that the great advances of industry and technology had both made tremendous wealth and advancement possible for many, along with the intensification of horrific poverty, and abominable living conditions for many more, as documented in NYC by Jacob Riis. Civil unrest, strikes and riots persisted, and city fathers were getting worried, because the rich were leaving the central cities. The City Beautiful Movement was rather grandiosely designed to combat these problems through architecture and city planning. The widely held social belief was that the poor were poor because they were morally and socially deficient, an attitude that lingers to this day. It was thought that building a beautiful city would inspire all of its inhabitants to moral and civic virtue, and social ills would dissolve into pride and loyalty to this beautiful new city, thereby inspiring the poor to better themselves. The City Beautiful would have parkland, where everyone could escape the streets to enjoy nature, this feature was especially important to one of the earliest proponents – Frederick Law Olmsted. The new classically inspired Beaux Arts architecture was also designed to show Europe that America had arrived, and was no longer a cultural backwash. And most importantly, the rich would then stop moving to the suburbs and stay in the central cities, and spend their money there. The Movement had its largest success in the civic areas of newer cities like Denver, but its most impressive and lasting success was the transformation of Washington DC, spearheaded by Daniel Burnham, the architect in chief of the Columbian Exposition. What we see today in central Washington, the Capitol area, the Mall, the lake and the monuments, is the White City, the City Beautiful, most fully realized. Tragically, the same social ills, supposedly banished, surround it, as well.

What about New York?

Copyright Brown - Brownstoner
Contact Us