American Architect and Building News 2 (June 16, 1877):186; (June 23, 1877):195-96; and (June 30):203-04.
The first paragraph of the material to follow appeared as an editorial comment in this new American journal of architecture. The writer incorrectly credited Frederick Law Olmsted with the plan for improving the campus of Williams College and the town of Williamstown, Massachusetts. Olmsted corrected this error in a letter that the journal published in its June 30 issue: "Please state that the designer of the admirable work at Williamstown, incorrectly referred to the undersigned in your last number, is Mr. B. S. Olmsted of Rye, N.Y." The essay that follows this initial paragraph provided the journal's readers with a longer and morel elaborate statement of some of the problems and issues in city planning, civic improvement efforts, and urban designAmerican towns, like most modern towns, are apt to be unfortunate in their adaptation to the natural advantages of their sites. They have usually been laid out or grown up at haphazard and straggling, without concert between the men who built them and with no general plan; or else have been roughly adapted to some special notion of convenience, perhaps nothing better than the right angles of the surveyor's compass. Even where attempts have been made to beautify them, it has been mostly by disconnected and arbitrary projects with no reference to any general scheme, or to suggestions offered by the peculiarities of the sites themselves. A special interest will attach to the scheme that is in hand for beautifying the pretty town of Williamstown, Mass., as perhaps the first instance in the country where a town already existing has been taken up with the purpose of making the most of its natural characteristics, and applying a decorative landscape treatment to the whole town. Not long ago, Mr. Cyrus W. Field, a graduate of Williams College (which gives its name to the town), gave ten thousand dollars. for the improvement of the college grounds and the adjacent parts of the town; and the committee to whom he gave the matter in charge wisely put the planning of it into the hands of Mr. Frederic[sic] Law Olmsted. The town is a small one, of some four thousand inhabitants, and lies on prettily broken ground in the picturesque county of Berkshire. The houses are chiefly collected about the colleges, stretching for a mile along the main street of the village, which is two hundred feet wide, and planted with elms in the good old fashion. Mr. Olmsted has prepared a plan for bringing all this part of the town into a single scheme of decorative treatment, terracing and planting and turfing, and adapting the whole embellishment to the suggestions which the lay of the land naturally furnishes, as well as to the convenience of the inhabitants; taking away fences and hedges, damming up a convenient stream to form a lake and waterfall, and converting the whole into a continuous park. The people of Williamstown have pride in their town; and it would seem that they take this project for embellishing it in good part, and second it kindly.
The effort that is making for the systematic improvement of the town of Williamstown, of which we spoke a week ago, is in its systematic character and breadth of aim so unlike what it is common to do in management of towns, and so suggestive of the kind of forethought which might be used to improve the condition of almost all of them, great and small, that it tempts one to moralize on the neglect under which most of our towns are allowed to grow up and the inconsiderateness with which they are planned. The subject is one that concerns every person in the community, and yet one of which nobody ever thinks; while the evils that result from the neglect of it are very serious, and often entail an unpardonable sacrifice not only of natural beauty, but of permanent convenience. A heavy burden of expense is often the result of sheer neglect to provide in advance for the most obvious needs; and all travellers can point to towns in which natural opportunities have been recklessly thrown away or natural beauties perversely sacrificed. The greatest enemy is private "enterprise," which for the sake of momentary advantage and under guise of personal liberty is often allowed to entail ruinous injury upon neighboring property, upon whole towns permanent deformities which it would seem that a tolerable forethought and a reasonable exercise of public authority were sufficient to prevent.
It falls to Americans as to no other people in the world to take the responsibility of deliberately laying out their towns. Every year sees some new one founded, which soon accumulates considerable population; and the experience of older cities, showing how difficult it is to cure the evils of faulty growth when towns have become large and densely built, ought to teach us to be careful not to so plan them that they will by and by have to be replanned. It is not only the old cities of the world, which grew into shape under a different civilization from that of our day, that have been obliged to undertake very serious and expensive changes to suit them to modern uses. American towns which in comparison are the children of y yesterday have hardly reached a mature growth before it is found that much of what has been done in laying them out has to be undone, and that much of what cannot be undone is permanent injury. The city of Paris is a standing example of the appalling expense that may be incurred in adapting an old city to modern uses.
It is true that the changes of centuries in the ways of civilized life are not to be forecast; but the experience of two or three generations in American towns shows that costly alterations have constantly to be undertaken which a reasonable forethought might have provided for in advance. Chicago had hardly become a town of some importance when it was found that to get even a tolerable drainage, it would be necessary to raise the level of a great part of it by several feet. The inhabitants with characteristic enterprise undertook the work as soon as they saw the need of it; but already, we believe, they wish it had been carried further. In most cases it is the natural characteristics of the sites that determine the changes that have to be made at last; and these characteristics can be as fully seen in the beginning as at the end. These and the means and directions of communication with their surroundings compel in a great degree the ultimate form of any city. A considerate observer could have foreseen a hundred years ago, as well as the inhabitants see it to-day, that the town of Boston, with its close connection with Charlestown on the north, and its access from the main land by the neck on the south, would absolutely require a great continuous thoroughfare from one of these regions to the other: yet it is only within two or three years that such a thoroughfare has been carried out by expensive alterations of the oldest part of the city. New York is a marked example of the irresistibly controlling influence of situation. Set as it is on a long narrow island, a fine harbor opening down from the southern end, and with a deep water-way on the east and west sides, it was a foregone conclusion that if it grew to be a large city the shipping and commerce would advance up its sides, and that as fast as this happened the tide of business would fill its narrow width from river to river, rising to the upper stories of its houses, and drive the residences northward before it. It was inevitable that the main avenues should run north and south, and that the residence quarters should steadily retreat to the upper end of the island and to the main land In fact, in that city there were but two or three things in which the inhabitants could fail to obey the necessary laws of its growth, and could go wrong. In two of these they did go wrong. One was in the provision of a proper system of sewerage, of which in spite of almost unequalled advantages in the disposition of its surface New York made a wretched mess; and the other in not reserving means of quick railway communication from end to end of the island. A third critical matter was the reservation of proper breathing space in the form of a park; and here the people of the city were wise enough to take the thing in hand just at the right time, and provide themselves with a park, ample, well placed, and unspoiled that will always be priceless to them.
It is not often that the position of a town so imperatively dictates its plan as does that of New York; but it is less often still that there are not some determining influences in its topography which will greatly control the manner of its growth, and which ought to have careful study in laying it out. Chicago, for instance, has probably as neutral a site as can be found in any city of consequence: yet there the position of the lake shore and of the forked stream that divides it, the directions of the great lines of communication with other cities and with the producing regions of the neighboring country, are enough to have fixed the leading points in the disposition of the town, and probably enough, if they had been carefully studied, to give indications for a much more convenient planning than the present. It is only in such towns as are dropped at random upon the flat and featureless prairies along our western railroads that the natural surface has no advantages which deserve study; and even then the winds and the sunshine remain to give their hints. But in the ordinary course of civilization, such characteristic sites are not the ones to which populations cleave. Some convenience of access by a natural highway, or some advantage of ground, or sometimes mere beauty of position, determines the placing of a city. The directions of the valleys or ridges which form highways or barriers, the points at which routes reach it from different directions, every slope of a hill or curve of a bluff, the directions of the winds and of the midday sun, all these are elements which should be taken carefully into account, and may give valuable suggestions to serve the convenience of business and residence, or if not these, still the high convenience of beauty. But the surveyor who lays out a new town cares for none of these things. He plots his rectangular streets, so many to the mile, on a sheet of cross-section paper, and applies them to his site. If elevations and slopes come the way of his right angles or his grades, he pares off the hills and fills up the plains till he has a tabula rasa to work upon. The popular idea of a model town is one all whose streets are at right angles and whose whole territory is as flat as a floor. Now leaving beauty out of the question, in spite of certain manifest small advantages a rectangular town is not, on the whole, a convenient town, and involves--in the aggregate an enormous waste of time in going round long corners to get from one point of it to another; and a flat town is, other things being equal, an unwholesome one.
When towns are left to grow up wild, as most of our older towns have grown up, they naturally adapt themselves to their circumstances, and are seldom without a considerable degree of both convenience and picturesqueness. They are nevertheless subject to all sorts of untoward accidents and very likely to be permanently injured by distorting their growth to suit momentary and unimportant exigencies, or in favor of private schemes. Instances are many where the best parts of a town for residence or for business uses have been allowed to fall into squalid degradation, to remain a permanent disfigurement and injury, or to be afterwards reclaimed at wasteful expense. It is but a few years since London recovered at great cost a part, and only a small part, of her river-front in the very heart of the city from dirty inaccessibility. The rest is still a disgrace to her. She is now attempting to open a new avenue in the same neighborhood to connect two of her most fashionable and busiest quarters,-- Oxford Street and Trafalgar Square, but to do this she must cut through one of the vilest quarters of the town, the famous parish of St. Giles, which yet defiles this favored region. All our readers will remember instances where some speculator has permanently injured or ruined a desirable neighborhood, or where a few dirty cabins, inconsiderately allowed a lodgement, have repelled the better residents from the finest part of a town, and permanently devoted it to filth and neglect. Most of our cities sooner or later wake up to the fact that they have missed their opportunities, and allowed things to go wrong which they have got to set right at an excessive cost, unless indeed they are frightened away from all attempts at improvement by the difficulty of it. And finally, when they do set to work, they do a little bit here and a little bit there, one administration undoing what another had begun, or passing to a different scheme, or else the authorities stand at bay amid the attacks of a hundred private interests, all clamorous for different things, till the labor of improvement becomes herculean.
These difficulties could be in a considerable measure guarded against if they were looked out for carefully and continuously. A great proportion of the annoying things that have to be undone, and the still more annoying things that cannot be undone, might be prevented. Unhappily, since what is everybody's business is nobody's business, there is no one to look out for these things. Under strong permanent and personal governments such things are provided for; it will be one thing more to the credit of the habit of local self-government when they are cared for among us. The whole subject of the distribution of people in towns, their means of transit, their thoroughfares, parks, places of recreation, regions of business and residence, deserves serious study, and should no more be left to the mercy of accident than should draining or lighting; but it has been almost entirely neglected. It is a matter which it seems to us might well be the special charge of distinct officers, commissioners, conservators, or what not, who should be beyond the reach of party influences or frequent change, and who should be specially trained to watch over the growth, development, and improvement of their towns. If the grading, drainage, paving, cleansing, and policing of towns are worthy of careful and systematic control, so are also the general shaping of the towns, the preservation or destruction of the natural features of their sites, and the distribution of their population and residence. Just what are the proper limits of public interference in such matters is a political question upon which we cannot venture; but public neglect has shown itself to be both costly and pernicious.
One of the most serious inconveniences that men are subjected to in our large cities is the necessity of travelling long distances, and spending a great deal of time between their homes and their work. For the New Yorker, for instance, whether he takes a ferry-boat to Brooklyn or Staten Island, or a horse-car to an up-town house, or a steam-train to a suburb up the river, an hour each way is the least time he must allow for his daily transit. New York is the worst of our cities in this respect, and there the waste of time and annoyance thus caused have long been a matter of great complaint, and its remedy of eager discussion; but others of our towns are not greatly better off. To wealthy men whose business does not press them very hard, and who are willing to pay for the charms of a suburban life, the burden is not so great; but to the greater part, who must be at their business pretty early, and make a long day, it is a heavy one. The endeavors that are made to meet the difficulty are all in the direction of quickening the transit, a thing for which thus far no satisfactory means have been found. For cities which are already in this trouble, there is apparently no other relief; but for those which have their growth before them, it is important to consider whether there may not offer some natural ways of avoiding it.
In some cities, of which Paris may be taken as the type, the difficulty is avoided by superposing residence and business premises over pretty much the whole territory, so that there is always a home to be had in or near any quarter to which one's occupation may lead him. It has been the English and American habit, however, to keep the commercial and the residence quarters of a town distinct. In many busy towns this is in some degree a necessity of their sites, but it is also the result of a strong sentiment, so strong in fact that wherever in an American city business gets a foothold upon a street or square, the better class of residents, those who hold to the English tradition of a house to themselves, flee before it as from a pestilence, leaving between it and them a neutral zone of boarding-houses. For people of this temper it is an essential condition in the arrangement of their towns that the residences and the commercial quarters shall be distinct. When there is no natural barrier the tendency of business to is spread itself out thin, and cover a good deal of ground in every direction, so driving habitations far on all sides from the centres of business. We are in the habit of tacitly assuming that any thing which checks or confines this tendency in any direction must necessarily be an injury. Yet it may happen that a barrier which offers some check to the spread of a business quarter in one direction, if it does not fence it to inconvenient crowding, will on the whole be an advantage to a town both by compacting its business into close compass, and by resisting its tendency to drive dwellings into the distance.
One means of combining at once proximity and ease of communication with distinct separation between places of business and dwellings, and a means which is in many respects the most convenient of all, is a difference of level. It is the means, in fact, which secures insulation between house and business with the minimum of distance. This insulation is got artificially in Paris, and in other cities of like arrangement, by reserving the one or two lower stories of the buildings over the greater part of the city for shops and offices, and the upper stories for dwellings which have no connection with the business premises below, so that such cities are stratified, as it were, in commercial and domestic layers. This arrangement is very serviceable, perhaps the most serviceable on the whole, in large towns which have no marked difference of level in their natural situations. It is, however, not in accordance with any habits yet formed in American or English communities; and in a great many towns there are natural differences of level that may be availed of to secure the kind of insulation which Englishmen and Americans prefer, that is, an actual separation of quarters as well as premises, with almost as great proximity as the other system gives. A tolerably abrupt elevation, for instance, of some fifty or sixty feet, or even less, may prove as effectual a barrier as a mile or two of level distance; even more effectual, because more permanent, if it is rightly employed. Such an elevation, high enough to lift the houses on it well above the buildings below, may be compared in its convenience to a promontory or cape running out into deep water. It may, of course, be so placed as to be only an impediment and a disadvantage; but where there is room enough for growth and communication, the bluff that constrains its business plain on one side may be in the end as real a convenience to a town as the water-front that confines it in another. The one, however, being an obstacle which challenges removal, the community is apt to attack it as soon as any of its inconveniences are felt, without waiting for a considerate weighing of its advantages and defects. A strip of elevated land a mile long and half a mile wide, bordering upon the commercial region of a city, might with a proper distribution of inhabitants provide fifteen or twenty thousand people with house-room, where the men of the families could, on an average, walk down to their places of business in ten minutes. Fifty feet of rise would lift this platform above the danger of invasion of trade, while stairs and inclines would make it accessible to foot passengers in a minute or two, and a circuit of only a quarter of a mile would be enough to lift carriages and wagons to double the height.
A great difficulty in the way of this convenience is the unreasoning prejudice against ups and downs. The very man who would think it fortunate to have a house within a mile of his counting-room, and would disregard the hundred feet which his road might rise in that distance, would be very ready to set the pick and shovel at work upon an elevation of a third the height if it lay directly before him, without stopping to think of the mile or two of distance it might save him if he would climb to its top and dwell there. Our forefathers prized such situations and seized them in as vantagegrounds; but to us they are intolerable, and exist only to be levelled. All this is at the very time when we are beginning to think nothing of carrying our buildings a hundred or a hundred and twenty feet into the air. The same use of elevators which makes this sort of building worth while will provide an easy way of overcoming differences of level in streets or squares for the weak-kneed or the indolent. It is not altogether a disadvantage that the routes for carriages and traffic have, in such a case, to be separated from those of foot passengers. The circuit of a quarter or a half mile which would be required simply to overcome a height would probably, at first suggestion, appear an intolerable nuisance to a people impatient of circuitous routes; but the same length of road and difference of levels between distant points would seem a trifle.
When we leave the points of convenience for business and residence, and turn to salubrity we find many things in favor of variety of levels in towns. Not only do slopes and elevations give advantage in respect of light, air, and outlook to the houses, but they tell greatly in favor of cleanliness, and of the ventilation and disinfection of streets. We have one large city, Baltimore, in the United States, which prides itself on the surface drainage which its uneven area secures for it, to that degree that it neglects to provide itself with sewerage. Whatever may be thought of this choice, it is clear that if a hilly town can do better than a flat one without subterranean drainage, it has equally the advantage over it that its sewers will keep cleaner and deliver their contents more freely, and also that the surface of the streets will be more easily cleansed, whether naturally or artificially. Moreover, by providing shafts in the elevated points, the cardinal need of ventilating the sewers can be met to the best advantage. The one public service which is liable to be much impeded by irregularities of level is the water service, to which elevations are often a difficulty; Nevertheless the introduction of standpipes and high service supplies have overcome this difficulty in all cities where it has been felt to be serious.
We are far from arguing that inequalities of site are necessarily and in all cases a blessing. This would be as unsafe as the converse notion we are combating, that they are necessarily a disadvantage. But we wish to draw attention to the fact that they often have great advantages; and that so far from being looked upon instinctively as enemies, to be got rid of if possible, as we Americans do commonly look upon them, they should be carefully scrutinized for the benefits they may offer, and with the understanding that they may prove to be the best of friends. It is not to be imagined that the inhabitants of Edinburgh or Genoa would find the convenience or comfort of their cities enhanced, or that any thing but regret would follow, if the heights that engirdle and diversify them were levelled. Yet if sites of equal promise were now occupied for the first time, it is only too likely that the instinct of the day would lead to their being degraded into something as near flatness as engineering could secure, with sacrifice of their native convenience, as much as of their beauty. We have not spoken of the question of beauty, because this is one on which there can hardly be two minds, and because it is beside our present discussion. But the questions of convenience are questions which do not bring their decision as matter of course, and in which it seems to us the notion that commonly influence people are not well considered as a misfortune that questions of business and residence should be so habitually studied apart as they are. In respect of comfort as well as of beauty, they ought to be regarded a parts of the same problem; and the best total result is not to be obtained by giving either of them undisputed and unmodified predominance. The problems which they bring up a problems which concern all people, but which architects by virtue of the bearings upon them of their professional work have especial reason to consider, as by virtue of their training they have special opportunity to study them. In a matter in which not many people have clear convictions, the few who have them may often exercise a controlling influence and though democratic communities are not apt to make their towns to order, and it is not easy to compel the direction of general growth when every one is his own master, it may be in the power of architects by vigilance and intelligent advice to save a good deal not only of disfigurement, but of more practical injury, to the towns with which they are concerned.