Arnold Brunner

Proceedings of the Eighth National Conference on City Planning, Cleveland, June 5-7, 1916. (New York, National Conference on City Planning, 1916):14-34.

A Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, Arnold William Brunner (1857-1925) graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1879 and began architectural practice in the New York office of George B. Post. From 1883 to 1885 he studied abroad, returning to New York to begin a partnership with Thomas Tryon that was dissolved in 1898. That year he won the competition for the design of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. In 1901 he was declared the winner of the competition for the Cleveland Federal Building, and the following year became, with Daniel Burnham and John Carrère one of the three members of the commission appointed to develop a civic center--the so-called Group Plan. In addition to this project, Brunner's work as city planner took him to Baltimore, Denver, Rochester, and Albany.

In this conference paper Brunner describes at length the development of the Cleveland Group Plan beginning in 1902. This involved the design of a monumental civic center between the lake front and the large public square that was laid out when General Moses Cleaveland founded the city at the end of the 18th century. The Group Plan was obviously inspired by the Senate Park Commission plan for Washington, D.C. published at the beginning of 1902. Daniel Burnham chaired the Commission and his appointment to that position in Cleveland was in recognition of his powers of leadership and persuasion. The state legislation that authorized the creation of the commission whose members were not citizens of Cleveland became the model a few years later when a city planning commission was established for Columbus, Ohio, all of whose members were from other places.

The Board of Supervision for Public Buildings and Grounds in the City of Cleveland, generally known as the Group Plan Commission, was created by Governor Nash on June 20, 1902.

The Governor selected Daniel H. Burnham, John M. Carrère and myself to serve as members of the Board and our first meeting was held in Cleveland the following July 15.

Still fresh in our minds is the memory of the tragic accident that ended the life of John Carrère, and the untimely death of Daniel Burnham. These distinguished men, my dear friends and valued associates, were great architects, strong men, loyal citizens and American gentlemen in every sense. They gave their best efforts and their finest inspiration to big causes. A narrow point of view was foreign to their nature, they had a broad vision and a firm belief in the splendid future of our country. The City of Cleveland especially owes to their genius more than I can tell. Their places in our profession cannot be filled.

The problem presented to us was to devise a plan which would combine in some harmonious manner Cleveland's public buildings and provide them with a proper setting and approaches.

Ordinarily a city is apt to realize its artistic possibilities only when it is too late and the opportunity has been lost, but Cleveland with unbounded faith and a deep conviction in its ultimate development was anxious to make every preparation for it.

Fortunately it was about to build a City Hall, a County Court House, a Public Library and a Railway Station, and sites for these buildings had not yet been selected. Only the position and design of the Federal Building had been determined and it was desired that this building, of which I have the honor to be the architect, should be included in the group. This was our starting point.

We began our work by a series of meetings, which were arranged by Mr. Edward Roberts, our very efficient clerk. These meetings were for the purpose of consulting the public officials and the various boards and committees interested in the buildings to form the group. We discussed with them the needs and character of their individual projects, and after we had mastered their requirements we spent much time studying the topography of the land and considering the problem on the field.

We found that there had been a tendency to place the new buildings somewhere in the district between the Public Square and the Lake, using as much as possible of the Lake Front, and the Chamber of Commerce after giving the subject much thought had favored it. However, we seriously considered every other solution of the problem that we could think of and made careful studies of the various possibilities.

We finally decided that the most advantageous grouping and development would be obtained in the territory that the Chamber of Commerce had considered. As this property had been neglected and was only slightly developed it had the additional advantage of being inexpensive.

The main axis of the composition naturally ran North and South, and the secondary axis East and West along the Lake Front. We finally placed the main axis on a line with the centre of Wood Street and developed the Mall on each side of it.

To give absolute symmetry to the head of the Mall and to form an adequate and imposing termination, we provided a site for a Library, to be similar in size and character to the Federal Building.

These two structures were too near each other to be dissimilar except in minor details and we intended them to be twin buildings alike in composition, treatment and scale.

We took for our inspiration the Place de la Concorde and recalled the two beautiful buildings with which we are all so familiar. Wood Street is about the same width as the Rue Royale, which separates Gabriel's masterpieces and we included in our report a photograph of them with other views of Paris.

The North end of the Mall was a subject of prolonged study and we finally placed the County Court House and City Hall in the positions they now occupy so that they balance each other. As they are so far apart, approximately 600 feet, it was not necessary for them to be identical in design like the Federal Building and the Library, only the general mass, height and treatment were to be the same, and the facades that now face the central axis will be seen to balance extremely well notwithstanding some difference in treatment and the fact that one has an Ionic order and the other Doric. Each one of these buildings is on the axis of an important street, the City Hall on that of Bond Street, the Court House on Ontario Street, so that good vistas of their central features are obtained from the South.

The position of the Railway Station presented serious difficulties The building was so large and important in character that it had to be absolutely part of the group, or entirely out of it, and the practical difficulties of railway engineering strongly affected our decision. The curves on the West made it impossible to move the Station far enough in that direction to take it out of the boundaries of the Group Plan, and even if the grades on the East could have been overcome the Station would have to be moved too far in that direction to be entirely out of the composition. Accordingly, we finally placed it at the North end of the main axis, closing this end of the composition, somewhat as the great Court of Honor was treated in the Chicago Exposition of 1893.

The railroad to-day has practically replaced the highway and the Railway Station as the City Gate, the vestibule of the town. The visitor to the future Cleveland will arrive in an imposing building, and his first sight of the City will be a view of a great Civic Centre.

The co-operation of the railroads and the city that is becoming evident throughout the country is most gratifying. It is now understood that the railroads need the city just as much as the city needs the railroads, and on the other hand the city needs the railroads just as much as they need the city. It is absurd for one to be the declared enemy of the other.

We believed that the city should extend all necessary facilities for the railroads to carry on their business properly, but it can reasonably demand that this business be so conducted that the streets are not disfigured nor the beauty of the town destroyed.

In this case the station will express its dignified function as the City Gate and will add to the group an attractive monumental building, whose size and beauty will justify its commanding position.

Careful study was given to the proportion of width and length of spaces and treatment of detail of the scheme. On each side of the Mall next to the buildings a roadway is provided for local traffic and the two other and wider avenues lined with formal clipped trees are for general through traffic.

There were to be sidewalks on the outer edge and a gravel walk with seats and drinking fountains under the trees the whole length of the Mall. These virtually form a park where children can play in the shade and which we hoped would also be appreciated by adults.

The parking space between the inner rows of trees is treated simply, the central portion being depressed to form a sunken garden where statues and individual large trees alternate with each other.

The fountain at the South end of the Mall was intended to be rather a monumental structure and suggestions for its treatment were included in our report. This fountain, the two subordinate monuments on the axis of the main driveways and parterres of flowers, etc., were to furnish an attractive foreground for the Library and Federal Building, and they were designed to be the special features of a Court which is defined by the termination of the trees at the end of the Mall, giving the impression of a large open space.

We considered this Court an important feature of our scheme as it forms the immediate approach to the two buildings at the head of the Group, and with this in mind I restudied the northerly facade of the Federal Building, not only to make it as important as its Superior Street facade, but to make a front that could be successfully duplicated.

At the north of the Mall between the County Court House and City Hall the effect of an open square was secured by a rich treatment of gardens with space in the centre for a fountain or monument, and this in connection with the steps and terraces leading to the buildings was intended to give special character to this part of the plan without destroying its relation to the whole scheme.

On the Lake Front from what was then Erie to Seneca Street we developed a broad strip of parking and rows of trees, and we had in mind a masonry wall with columns to partly screen the smoke from the trains below and shut out from view the railroad yard with its activities.

We also indicated viaducts on the lines of Seneca and Erie Streets over the tracks which would lead to piers on the Lake Front, and a waterside park.

The development of the buildings on each side of the Mall was considered and we pointed out that some control of this property was most desirable, a consideration that is now of pressing importance and should receive immediate attention.

Some alternate schemes for the treatment of the railroad were shown but we realized that the solution of this problem was an extremely complicated one, and that many decisions would have to be reached before it could be studied intelligently. Accordingly, we stated in our report that whatever scheme might eventually be reached we recommended that the portion of our plan which included the Federal Building and the Library, and extended to the northern boundary of Summit Street, should be adopted, and that the treatment of the railroad, the embankment and land on the lower level, be a subject of future study.

Stopping for a moment to look back I recall the numerous meetings and discussions that the Commission held covering a period of years. All the points that I have mentioned were considered many times with the city officials. Our report was presented to Mayor Johnson and the Directors of Public Service on Aug. 17, 1903 and formally accepted by them for the city. On the following Sept. 15 we explained our plans at a monthly meeting of the Chamber of Commerce in this room, and we displayed a model of the Federal Building which I had made to study its detail and which clearly showed the type of architecture that we recommended for the entire group.

Probably the most popular service that our Commission rendered the city at this time was to report that $7,000,000, the proposed cost of the County Court House, was excessive. After making careful calculations we found that the building need not cost more than half that amount and our recommendation was received with enthusiasm.

On June 18, 1902, the City Council had adopted a resolution which referred back to the act of the legislature that provided for the appointment of our Board by the Governor, and the second section reads as follows:

"Said Board, by the terms of said Law, shall have the supervision and control of the location of all public, municipal and county buildings to be erected upon ground acquired within the limits of said City, and shall have control of the size, height, style and general appearance of all such buildings for the purpose of securing in their location and erection the greatest degree of usefulness, safety and beauty;..."

Accordingly, we were consulted not only about the design of the Court House and City Hall in which we made numerous modifications but also of many minor public buildings, schools, branch libraries, markets, bathhouses, etc., and projects such as the treatment of several miles of the Lake Front, the terminus of the high level bridge, and a proposed Lake Shore Boulevard. In fact we performed in part the function of an Art Commission to the City.

In June, 1907, a second edition of the report was published containing a statement of the progress made at that date.

Final plans for the Court House had been approved and preliminary drawings for the new City Hall had also been accepted by us.

The Federal Building was well under way. Substantial progress had been made in acquiring land for the Mall, and besides other parcels of property the city had secured the site for the Library, then the old city Hall, and considerable land on both sides of East Third Street.

There was a period in the history of the Group Plan when the progress of the work was interrupted by what seemed to us inexplicable legal obstructions, but after much loss of time these obstacles were removed.

Then there were suggestions, prompted by false economy, to make the Mall smaller and reduce the scale of the undertaking, but they were rejected by the City authorities. Of course, there was the inevitable proposition to substitute commercial skyscrapers for monumental buildings because they were cheaper and more practical, but happily it did not meet with favor and generally the public faith in the Group Plan remained unshaken.

The delays incidental to a great city enterprise were sometimes discouraging, and there were periods of depression due to postponements and inactivity, but on reflection the scheme has progressed as fast as could be expected. It is not wise to force a development of this kind, but on the contrary the growth both of the idea and the physical expansion of a city must be natural.

On the whole the civic pride of Cleveland has manifested itself splendidly. The Press has encouraged the labors of the Commission, and the Chamber of Commerce, always so efficient, has freely and continuously given us its assistance and support. The Group Plan is now an assured part of the City of Cleveland and is identified with its history. It has found a place in contemporary literature and no reference to the activities of the Sixth City is complete without a description of it.

Our Commission has strongly urged that granite be employed for all the buildings. The historic fight for the use of this enduring stone for the Federal Building was successfully made by the Chamber of Commerce, and it was a triumph that will not be soon forgotten. We believed that a noble material was essential and that the buildings should be of classic design and of the same scale.

It was of the first importance to maintain the cornice line of the principal buildings and the general mass and height of the buildings on the east and west of the Mall were to be the same and as uniform in design as possible. We also stated our belief that all the buildings erected by the City should have a distinguishing character, that it would be better to hold their design within certain lines, and that uniform architecture be maintained for each function that would make it recognizable at a glance.

In other words we urged the public authorities to set an example of simplicity, order, system and reserve. We made a plea for dignity and uniformity, believing that the "constructed picturesque" had no place in a great composition like this, and that symmetry and balance need not produce monotony. Also that the architectural value of these great buildings does not only lie in their immediate effect upon the beholder but much more in their permanent influence on all the future buildings of the city.

In designing the Group Plan we were not unmindful of the rest of the city. We had dreamed of a comprehensive plan, but the time had not yet come for its preparation. However, the group was always considered in connection with the City Plan and its expected development, and in our report we stated:

"It also seems to your commissioners that the outlying parks, which are now being made about the City of Cleveland, and the other parks and squares within the City itself, should be developed with as much harmony as possible and that a study should be made with a view to utilizing the most important avenues connecting these parks, by making parkways of them as distinctive from the ordinary street, so that in traveling from one to another, there may always be some avenue of travel, not necessarily the shortest in distance, which will be attractive and agreeable, and afford recreation and pleasure to those traveling upon it. Your commissioners will take up the study of this problem with a view to suggesting some solution, but it did not seem best for them to make any more detailed suggestion at this time....

The time for this study, and in fact the preparation of a complete City Plan, has undoubtedly arrived. In view of the rapid growth of Cleveland the necessity for its regulation and provision for a still greater development seems obvious. In 1911 Mr. Frank B. Meade, and in 1912 Mr. Frederick Law Olmsted were appointed to fill vacancies on the Board, and our work has continued as I have described it. We have consulted with the authorities about many projects and have given our advice about numerous matters, some connected with the Group Plan and others entirely independent of it.

Our next task will be to prepare the working drawings for the entire scheme of landscaping and parking, and especially to design that portion of it affected by the Railroad Station. Negotiations have been satisfactorily concluded between the city and the railroads and the sum that the railroads pay for the property they acquire and on which the Station will be built is to be expended in securing the remainder of the land needed for the Mall and in its development.

As you will see on the plan exhibited here the position of the Station has been changed as it has been found necessary for engineering reasons to place it further south than was first intended. The grade at this point has also been lowered and while this introduces a new complication it was agreed upon only after many conferences and discussions. The subject has been under consideration for many years and each step has received careful thought. The problem now before our Commission is a most difficult one. The Station must not only be a building worthy of its position, but it must meet the necessities of the railroads and from a practical point of view satisfy the wants of the people of Cleveland. It must be designed with reference to its surroundings and these surroundings must be designed in connection with the Station so that the forecourt or approach will form a harmonious part of the whole scheme.

All that portion of the plan shown in white must now be considered anew so that these demands may be met. The final drawings for the Station can not be made until our studies are complete. So far, the general scheme, or preliminary drawings only, have been approved.

The importance of careful design at this stage of the work cannot be too strongly emphasized. While our enthusiasm for the Group Plan is, if possible, greater than ever, we realize the extreme difficulty of making architecture, sculpture and landscaping harmonize so as to form a consistent and beautiful composition and to secure successfully the effect indicated in the original design.

In these days of accentuated individualism the majority of our cities present a restless appearance and an air of incompleteness.

Our homes must express our personal taste and our individual preferences.

Fine residences grouped in a single facade like a small palace, such as we see in some of the London Squares, or in Dublin or Edinburg, do not find favor with us. Each unit stands alone and declines to acknowledge any relation to its neighbors.

In the turmoil of city life the clash of commercial interests, the fierce competition, the struggle for supremacy, have made our business streets ugly and chaotic.

Buildings quarrel with each other, each trying to overtop and outdo its neighbor. To be more conspicuous is thought to be more successful. Our streets become crowded to the point of danger and intersections of important thoroughfares become centres of congestion.

Many of our cities suggest some of the cubist--or postimpressionist--or super-impressionist pictures that one sees, an extra number of arms and legs but no recognizable head. So we find miles of streets extending in all directions but with no distinctive features or evidence of individuality.

The Civic Centre is where the city speaks to us, where it asserts itself. Here the streets meet and agree to submit to regulation. They resolve themselves into some regular form, the buildings stop swearing at each other, competition is forgotten, individuals are no longer rivals--they are all citizens.

Petty struggles for prominence, small successes and failures disappear. Here the citizens assume their rights and duties and here civic pride is born.

The City of Cleveland, always public spirited and progressive, will not stop short of the full achievement of its dream, a great Civic Centre and comprehensive plan to guide triumphant development. 

    Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: