Tenets of City Beautiful
In response to the disorganized growth of cities, massive immigration, and squalor of late 19th century tenements, the City Beautiful Movement attempted to overlay order and the grand structure of neo-classical European cities onto the existing urban fabric of America. Ecole de Beaux Arts-trained architects, working in conjunction with urban industrial elites, were allied with the Progressive Movement’s political reformers. “There was more at stake than aesthetics -- city beautiful aspirations aligned with wider themes of efficiency, technocracy, morality, loyalty and autocracy.”1 The architects viewed City Beautiful as a means of imposing uniformity by placing civic institutions at the heart of the city. Broad diagonal boulevards, handsome landscaping, accessible cultural institutions, and great public architecture were thrust upon neighborhoods that were previously overcrowded with (often poor) residents with the goal of advancing social control and order.
A well known example of this type of planning was Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as “the White City.” It showcased the broad avenues, Beaux Arts buildings, and glimmering facades that indicated a social order absent from American cities of the 1880's. The Fair was both a formal celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas, and an informal pronouncement of the closing of the United States’ western frontier. Frederick Law Olmstead was responsible for the layout of the fairgrounds, and Daniel H. Burnham for the architecture based on European classical architecture, with its ideals of balance, symmetry, and unity.
Not long after, in 1901, Senator James McMillan (Michigan) commissioned a study of the Washington, D.C. Mall based on the 1791 L’Enfant Plan for the city. Burnham headed up the commission with Frederick Law Olmstead and Charles McKim and their plan called for removing the rail lines and slums that blighted L'Enfant's original plan and replacing them with a central corridor filled with monuments and lined by national museums, as exists today.
1 Freestone, Robert, “The Internationalization of the City Beautiful”, International Planning Studies, vol. 12, No. 1 p. 22.