A 1924 plan for building a new Springfield
April 28, 1993
A footnote to the City Beautiful movement. The Springfield city council adopted the radically reformist plan to placate local businessmen, then proceeded, as they usually do, to ignore it. Reformers had their plan, developers had their ugly city. Everyone was happy.
The nation's architects and city planners will gather in Chicago this summer to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the World Columbian Exposition. Through its own example and its influence on Chicago's famous City Plan of 1909, that 1893 fair inspired the so-called City Beautiful movement that dominated urban planning in the U.S. and abroad until well into the 1920s.
Springfield provided a footnote to the City Beautiful phenomenon. Myron West of the Chicago firm, American Park Builders, was commissioned by a reformist Zoning and Plan Commission to draw up a plan for the improvement and extension of the capital city. The resulting document was adopted in 1924 as the city's first official city plan, and the text, along with photos, maps, and original watercolor and pen-and-ink drawings, was bound into a handsome book that perfectly imitated its Chicago model.
Essentially, City Beautiful plans were sponsored by men of commerce eager to rescue the American city from the excesses of the commercial culture that spawned them. Daniel Burnham—the works director of the World Columbian Exposition and principal author of the 1909 Plan and thus the prophet of the City Beautiful movement—reached all the way back to ancient Sparta to find a cultural focus for Chicago, which theretofore had always devoted itself more or less exclusively to greed.
Springfield, happily, already had such a cultural focus in Abraham Lincoln. West's plan for Springfield was in effect an attempt to make Springfield worthy of its famous son. West asserted that the city's sites of pilgrimage were "too much like islands, with wastes between." Giving Lincoln's memory its due, he argued, also would promote "culture, refinement, the appreciation of art, and, in general, the better things of life so that civic pride will be aroused."
The means of this miracle was a system of formal boulevards. A gateway rail station on 18th Street (now King Drive) would anchor one end of a "stately parkway"—a widened and landscaped Capitol Avenue—that would terminate on the west at the present capitol; from the statehouse a second ceremonial boulevard would run to the north to Oak Ridge Cemetery and the tomb. A seven-square-block "National Patriotic Center" would be centered on the Lincoln house, with civic buildings lining Seventh and Ninth streets amidst formal gardens complete with a block-long reflecting pool; at the northern end of this ensemble West placed an open air theater where the spoken word of Lincoln might be commemorated. The result was a composition "truly imposing in character."
West echoed Burnham's famous exhortation to "make no little plans" when he wrote, "A little plan would not meet the expectations of the public that reveres [Lincoln]." Sadly, his big plan did not meet the expectations of the public that had to pay for it. By my reckoning the Capitol Avenue widening alone would have required the remodeling or demolition of more than 150 buildings, including hotels and churches.
Regarding hotels and churches as irrelevancies is typical of City Beautiful plans. But beauty and art are hungry plants that need much nourishment. In addition to the usual Greek-ish civic centers every plan of the era contained detailed prescriptions to turn the City Beautiful into the City Functional.
The real substance of West's plan for example consists of 78 pages of nuts and bolts improvements to the city's sanitation, parks, transport, and land use planning systems. Clean water, efficient transport, and convenient freight handling were musts; schools, parks, and libraries also were essential, not only for the gloss of culture they provide but because they would attract capital and new home buyers, and imbue workmen with useful habits.
Springfield in the 1920s certainly needed some practical attention. It was a nasty place where the air reeked of soft coal smoke and privies and the water that came from the city's pipes would today be ruled unfit for a car wash, much less a drinking fountain. The transformations promised by West bordered on the magical—a system of greenbelts along stream courses of the Sangamon and its tributary creeks, a pleasure driveway that ambled along the Sangamon to New Salem, a new water supply lake, a rationalized and expanded streetcar system.
Apart from the new lake, virtually none of it was built, and West's plan has moldered as an historical curiosity ever since. City Beautiful was to be discredited as a planning approach by a national Depression that suggested other priorities; the premises of West's plans for Springfield were soon revealed as ludicrously optimistic. For example, West's proposals were aimed to helping the city accommodate massive population growth (250,000 by 1980, they thought) that never happened.
Springfield's population is not growing in the 1990s, but Springfield is. West may not have foreseen an urban expansion that was not pushed by population growth, but that doesn't make his ideas about how to handle expansion any less relevant. "The most important application of the plan has to do with the fringe of the city where development is constantly taking place," he wrote. "Here, judicial control, inexpensive in itself, may prevent mistakes which would cost millions."
Of course, Springfield has had more millions than it has had judiciousness when it comes to planning over the last 70 years. The fiasco of Iles Avenue was foreseen by West in his warning against "broken street arrangements." West also anticipated the visual blight that has accompanied scattershot development, and offered a solution in the form of public ownership of visually and environmentally crucial parts of the cityscape. For example, he proposed that the Sugar Creek valley be purchased and maintained as a municipal preserve. What West wrote 70 years ago—"Through the lack of intelligent central control on city development, conditions have grown worse year by year"—could have been written 70 days ago.
The City Beautful ideal contained a fatal contradiction. A city built for business cannot also be a city of beauty, because the practice of business is inimical to beauty. Among all his prescriptions, West offered no clue as to how business might produce harmony and beauty except by agreeing to curbs on private privilege regarding land use and architecture that they would find obnoxious. The City Beautiful is still the City Impossible. ●