Lucy Fitch Perkins

The Chautauquan 36 (February 1903):516- 527.

Best known for the many children's books she wrote and illustrated, Lucy Fitch Perkins (1865-1937) studied art in Boston and taught design for several years as one of the first faculty members of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. During her long courtship with Dwight Perkins, an architect who studied and then taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she widened her understanding of architecture. Dwight Perkins played a leading role in promoting civic improvement projects for Chicago, and the two must have discussed this subject at length. Her concept of municipal art went well beyond the idea of beautification. The first part of a section in this essay on the vital role played by the plan of the city indicates her understanding of the subject: "The plan of the city is then of primal importance. This would seem sure of instant recognition, yet has been ignored in nearly all city building. All structural design, or design in three dimensions, is dependent for beauty primarily upon plan, and in city building it is the consideration which should take precedence of all others." What prompted the article that follows is uncertain, and apparently she never returned to this subject in her long subsequent literary career. Her early life up to the period when the article appeared is lovingly recounted by her daughter in Eleanor Ellis Perkins, Eve Among the Puritans: A Biography of Lucy Fitch Perkins (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956).
In searching for the expression of his idea, the modern reformer rarely needs to go farther than to the pages of his Emerson. There, compactly enclosed in one of the rare sentences of the Serene Sage, he is quite sure to find the vital germ of his though clothed in pungent words, and proportionately related to other phases of thought. The first consideration of the modern advocate for municipal art is well expressed in this passage:

"Beauty will not repeat in America its history in Greece.... It is in vain that we look for genius to reiterate its miracles in the old arts. It is its instinct to find beauty and holiness in new and necessary facts, in the field and roadside, in the shop and mill.... It will raise to a divine use the railroad, the insurance office, the joint-stock company."

In his triumphant optimism he even includes "law, primary assemblies, and commerce" among the activities to be redeemed by art from the clutches of avarice.

"All the virtues", he insists, "range themselves on the side of prudence, or the art of securing a present well-being, and, begin where we may, we are pretty sure, in a short space, to be mumbling our ten commandments."

The believer in the artistic redemption of civic life find here the fundamental article of his creed, for he recognizes that the ordered beauty of a modern city must of necessity rest upon the ethical foundation of good municipal government. Given the basis of honest and efficient administration, and municipal art is already more than half accomplished since order is the first law of beauty as well as of heaven, and cleanliness is as near a neighbor to art as to godliness.

Municipal Art in the sense of conscious effort toward beautiful results in city building is a comparatively new arrival among the progressive movements of the age. While there have been in the past sporadic cases of such community effort, a new spirit seems to be manifesting itself in these millennial days, and cities all over the country are arousing themselves to the necessity for beauty. They are demanding it, not as a luxury, but as a fundamental need. They are beginning to look upon ugliness as both unnecessary and undesirable, and no more to be tolerated than unsanitary conditions. Some element of beauty in environment is as necessary to sanity of mind as wholesome conditions are to health of body, and since the trend of population is distinctly urban the necessity for meeting this need becomes more and more apparent.

Jacob Riis tells us that the poor suffer not so much for the so-called "necessities of life," as for some element of beauty to relieve their monotony. Since the element of design enters into every constructed thing, and that design must perforce be either good or bad, it becomes evident that taste, rather than money, must be called upon to secure our redemption, and that beauty makes common cause with economy in securing this end. Extravagance lies not in spending money to secure the rights of the eye, but in doing without taste and foresight things which must eventually be done over again in a better way....

Beauty is an excellent investment, a wise commercial policy, but it must be a beauty inherent in the nature of our own life, the artistic expression of our own needs, the beautiful way of doing necessary things. We must "serve the ideal in eating and drinking and in the functions of life."

To hope for civic beauty merely by building here and there a fine building or by securing some extraneous and artificial attraction is like wearing jewels upon soiled hands. Equally inadequate is the effort to secure beauty by importing the art of another people. History shows that transplanted art does not thrive. Not having grown from the life and needs of the people it remains unrelated, or becomes so changed as to be no more the same thing.

In America we have sought vainly to secure an artistic environment by copying for alien purposes the architectural forms of other lands and other times. For example, we multiply an Italian palace to a hundred times it original size, remove it from its setting, and use it for a department store. Or we take infinite pains to copy a Roman temple for a city bank, seeking vainly to crowd our modern needs into form they were never meant to fit, and distorting the edifice in the attempt.

The same mistaken judgment leads us to other attempts at putting new wine into old bottles. We desire to build a suitable memorial to the general whose skill and foresight set a people free, and we construct a tomb after the imperial models of the ancients. Or we wish to commemorate the character of that "first American" who is written upon our national history as the "liberator and preserver of his people", and this man, the exponent of our democracy, the pioneer of pioneers, we honor with another classic temple expressive of a civilization and of ideals as remote as possible from those for which he stood in life and in death. In our memorial to Washington better counsel prevailed. Nothing could be more typical of his place in history than that unadorned shaft rising above its surroundings until it pierces the clouds.

Dante astonished and grieved his generation by writing his great poem in the vernacular, and by the achievement rendered the vernacular classic. We today are equally skeptical of any architectural effort which is not expressed in the dead language of art. The Dante of-the building arts will yet arise to demonstrate that the highest beauty, civic or other, does not come from wearing borrowed splendor, nor from slavish dependence upon ancestral forms. It is not long since any statue of a public character to receive approval must be draped in a Roman toga. St. Gaudens's Lincoln has taught us that the true spirit of art is independent of such borrowed properties. Such real beauty as we have must be the natural outgrowth and expression of our own character and unique ideals. "A respect for the present hour will reveal that it is as worthy and dignified as another, and as capable of sincere and beautiful expression."

A right understanding of the message of Greece and Rome will show us that it is quite as hopeless to seek to secure public beauty in America today by the device of copying their buildings, as. would be an attempt to bring art into the common activities of life by wearing classic draperies to business! The idealism of the mind is such that things seem desirable in proportion to their remoteness, and we continually disappoint ourselves by trying to secure the beauty which we admire in foreign lands by means of inappropriate reproductions of their monuments. This tendency of ours to accept something "just as good as the real" was unflatteringly recognized by an enterprising Italian firm, which, at the time of the World's Fair in Chicago, offered to build upon the grounds a copy of the leaning tower of Pisa, only it was to be "higher and leaning more".

This dependent and imitative spirit finds a rebuke in the attitude of such foreign cities as have made conspicuous success in redeeming civic conditions. The most familiar and wholesome example in this respect is that of Paris, where historic buildings, hoary with tradition,were unhesitatingly destroyed to make way for the boulevards which are now her pride and the envy of the world.

Whitman declares that America "initiates the true use of precedents", and nowhere is there more desirable opportunity for proving the truth of this statement than in the city building and rebuilding which we are undertaking in the beginning of this twentieth century. In carrying out this work we need not throw away any beautiful idea which suits our modern purposes simply because it belongs to the past. The experience of ages has much to teach him who combines wisdom with knowledge. The trouble is that in seeking to secure for ourselves the beauty which so appeals to us in historical art, we have copied it, defects and all.

In respect to precedent we have followed the logic of the Chinaman in Lamb's story of the origin of roast pig, who felt it necessary to burn his house with the pig in it to taste this delicacy, because it was first introduced to him by such a casualty. We have discovered that it is possible to gratify a taste for roast pig without sacrificing a house each time, and we may yet learn that it is possible to have all the advantages which the past offers us without at the same time accepting its unsuitable conditions.

Intelligent discrimination should prevent the blind reproduction of the mistakes of the past, and should show us where emulation is fitting and where it is not. It should show us, for example, that the element of picturesque effect, which constitutes so large a part of the charm of foreign cities, is not an object to be consciously sought in modern city building. Picturesqueness is an accidental effectiveness which is often the accompaniment of ruin and decay and all unwholesome conditions. It is a beauty which appeals to superficial standards and is desirable when it results naturally, but which has no roots in order and convenience.

There is in Plymouth, England, an ivy covered ruin of a most romantic type, which was built a few years ago to satisfy this morbid demand for a picturesque feature in the landscape. This is but a barbarously candid example of a common mistake, and is really not so different in essence from the more refined practice of copying feudal castles for modern dwellings upon our city streets, or patterning modern college buildings in democratic America after the inconvenient and outgrown plans of university buildings in Europe. An Oxford professor said, sadly, to an American, "Why do you copy our medieval buildings in America ? For myself, I would gladly give you the originals for something more convenient".

The principles underlying all good building in all ages are permanent, and cannot be too much valued. Our difficulty has been in mistaking means for ends, and copying forms instead of studying principles.

Such considerations as the foregoing make it evident that municipal art, whatever it may be, must rest upon an ethical basis, that it is a wise commercial policy, and that it cannot be secured by placing precedent before principle, by copying the efforts of other peoples or by transplanting their monuments,-but this does not define the thing itself. It is hardly more than a negative statement of the case. What is Municipal Art?

May not this term be used as synonymous with its civic beauty, and does it not mean the orderly fitting and appropriate manner of carrying out all civic enterprises? Is it not meeting our common problems in a way pleasing to the eve in addition to satisfying their practical demands? Is it not "solving the problem of utility in terms of beauty"? Is it not the art of doing necessary things in an effective way, yet never doing anything "for effect"? Is it not creating the City Beautiful by directly and beautifully meeting its real needs in a dignified and orderly manner ?

Municipal Art in this sense can hardly be expected to result merely from such excellent palliative expedients as tend to do away with positive nuisances and to rectify initial mistakes. Such enterprises as regulating sign-boards, putting up statues and fountains, building great public buildings and having them decorated with mural paintings are excellent and necessary, but Municipal Art, in its broader sense, goes deeper and concerns itself with the whole city as an organism.

Mr. Albert Shaw points out that our great cities have sprung into being as "mere hives of industry", without plan or forethought in their construction. Boston we know still loses her thousands of miles annually in following the deviating path of the historic calf which laid out her main thoroughfares, and other cities lose equally great opportunities for convenience by planless growth. For this reason a courageous iconoclasm is often the first step in municipal progress, for past mistakes must be rectified before constructive enterprise can be carried on.

It is of course impossible to any but the eye of Omniscience to foresee all the needs of a great city. "Somewhat incalculable always affects results", yet it is possible to exercise a degree of foresight which will enable a city to grow along right lines. Municipal Science and Municipal Art are both based upon the conception of the city as more than a mere aggregation of people and pursuits. They are the outgrowth of the perception that taste and scientific knowledge may be applied to the problem of city building.

Once houses were built by simply adding rooms here and there as they were needed. The work of the architect demonstrates that convenience, economy, and beauty arc better served by planning than by leaving results to chance. The city is, in a sense, a larger family with an infinite variety of diverse demands and a nucleus of common needs. Each community must have streets; these streets must be lighted, paved, and cleaned. It must have waterworks, public buildings for governmental, educational, religious, and social uses. As the community grows its common demands multiply. There must be parks, intramural transportation, libraries, theaters, and art galleries to meet these growing needs.

The laying out of streets, the choice of sites for parks and public buildings, the arrangement of transportation facilities may be systematized and planned with as great advantage in the economy, beauty, and convenience of the result, as is gained by careful planning in the building of a house. It is the same principle applied to greater issues.

The key to the study of Municipal Art is the conception of the city as an organism, as something more than a mere aggregation of units. There is a common life, which expresses itself in different function. To him who lies upon the ground idly watching the apparently aimless activities of an ant-hill the life of the ant seems an inexplicable confusion It is only as he studies the ant-hill as an organized community that he gets an intelligent idea of the life of the individual ant. To attack the life of modern cities wholly from the personal end is equally fruitless. The city must be spread out before our inner vision in bird's-eye view. Its life must be felt as organic and functional, and if an answer is needed for the critic who asserts the impossibility of plan and prearrangement in civic life none better could be devised than that offered the sluggard, "Go to the ant"--and see what organized communal activity means. "Consider her ways, and be wise."

The plan of the city is then of primal importance. This would seem sure of instant recognition, yet has been ignored in nearly all city building. All structural design, or design in three dimensions, is dependent for beauty primarily upon plan, and in city building it is the consideration which should take precedence of all others. A conspicuous example of beauty resulting from plan may be found in the Champs Elysées in Paris. In walking through these beautiful gardens the eye is met at every turn by charming vistas. These effects one ascribes at first to the view, or to the flowers, or to some incidental feature, when in reality it is the masterly relation of each feature to every other in the ground plan of the whole which produces the inspiring and monumental effects. The woods of Versailles are equally remarkable for the same thing.

A nearer illustration may be found in the World's Fair, whose lessons are perhaps not yet wholly learned. The secret of its perfection was not so much the beauty of individual structures as their perfect and studied relation to each other. They were so planned that each building held an integral relationship to the ground scheme of the whole. The buildings were all designed upon a common mathematical unit, or module, thus proportionally relating even the final details of each building to the entire plan. This did not appear on the surface, yet it was the chief source of beauty and illustrates the fundamental nature of plan. It was possible in such an enterprise to foresee and prearrange results to a greater degree than in the ordinary growth of a city. Yet permanent cities may profit greatly by such experiments

The choice of site and the arrangement of the plan in a way to enhance all its natural advantages were hints which Chicago is already appropriating. It made her realize the esthetic value of her lake front, and the opportunity she had lost in yielding her unique physical feature to a private corporation. The only way to reclaim her lost opportunity was to go to enormous expenditure in building parks and driveways upon made land outside the Illinois Central tracks, and this work is already begun.

Streets must be laid out in some fashion from the very first in any city. Mr. Albert Shaw points out that the natural and effective arrangement for Chicago would have been a wheel plan? with the main streets converging toward a central open area upon the lake shore, where ample space for public buildings could have been provided. This would have been quite as feasible and infinitely more beautiful than the gridiron plan which was actually used. Mr. Shaw also points out that Chicago lost her second opportunity when the fire reduced her first plan to ruins, and gave her the possibility of rearrangement.

The history of Chicago in this respect is not different from that of nearly every city in the Union, but since Chicago had fewer advantages of site than most cities, the penalties of her mistakes in resultant ugliness are greater and more distressing. The fact that wise planning might have resulted in a beautiful city even upon the flat and treeless prairie gives both warning and encouragement.

Of all American cities, Washington has the most instruction and inspiration to offer the student. It seems strange that we go to Paris for inspiration in regard to city planning, when Paris herself, in all probability, received her chief inspiration from Washington. The great boulevards of Paris were not projected until years after Washington had been laid out by L'Enfant--a French architect--upon the plan of radiating streets, and Washington had a predecessor in Annapolis, which is said to have been modeled after the plan which Sir Christopher Wren drew for the rebuilding of London after the great fire. Sir Christopher's plan was not carried out in London, but was made the basis for city building first of all in America.

The beauty of our capitol city is in itself a monument to the far-sighted wisdom of George Washington, who, with the architect, made a careful selection of the site, and studied the plans for a city equal in size to the London of that day, at a time when our entire population was but 4,600,000. Subsequent generations less wise failed to profit by this, foresight, however, and the wonderful plan of L'Enfant suffered modifications in later years. It is a matter for congratulation that the commission entrusted with the plans for the artistic development of modern Washington should have realized the superb qualities of the original plan, and have carried on their work in accordance with its provisions.

The superiority of the wheel plan in simplicity and directness as well as in monumental effects is evident to the most casual observer. The eye is constantly delighted by charming vistas leading to the government buildings, which are thus provided with monumental sites and magnificent approaches. A variety in building sites is provided by this arrangement which is impossible in the gridiron plan, while open spaces make spots of beauty at street intersections quite easy of attainment.

No more inspiring document can be offered the student of Municipal Art than the history of the making of Washington. It is a humiliating reflection that with such a conspicuous example so near at hand American cities should so generally have failed to profit by it. although we have had greater opportunities than other countries in that our cities have sometimes been founded by deliberate intention and in that we were less hampered by tradition, our esthetic awakening has come too late in most instances to prevent our adhering to the waffle-iron idea of symmetry and beauty in city plans.

What may be done by careful study of the advantages of site, and planning to conserve every advantage and make new ones, is illustrated by the World's Fair and the city of Washington. The disastrous results of ignoring both are well illustrated by Chicago and other cities of similar type. We may also see what morals we can extract from a brief glance at one of our most conspicuous Eastern cities, Boston. The growth of Boston was even more accidental and planless than that of Chicago, and that she is not so ugly is due not to foresight, but to a kind providence which gave her such exceptional advantages of site that neither carelessness nor ingenuity could nullify them all. Her views must always remain beautiful by reason of the contour of the land and the ragged nature of her water line.

Boston was foreordained to picturesqueness, and she has also accomplished good results by pure inertia, and by standing by her ancestors through thick; and thin. The ancient graveyards to which her conservatism has made her cling have lost their original significance and have become merely grateful spots of green in the midst of some of her most unsightly streets, while many of her commonplaces have acquired a halo of romance by the mere process of years. The cows to whom she is said to owe her magnificent Common and her city plan are vindicated by events, and deserve a traditional respect and interest like those accorded the fabled wolf or the geese of ancient Rome, and beside them it is no wonder that Mrs. O'Leary's cow lacks perspective and spectacular effect and is as yet unembalmed in the amber of tradition. Boston's conservatism has worked distinctly to her advantage, and her good luck has of late been augmented by good design. Perhaps no city can teach us better the art of seizing upon natural advantages, and even turning disadvantages into features. A few years ago Boston had a wonderful mayor, through whose energetic action most of her greatest municipal improvements have been achieved. Like most great men, Mayor Quincy met with opposition, and the taxpayer is still groaning over the bills, but Boston through his efforts and that of its metropolitan park commission has become in some respects the most beautiful of cities.

It would require weeks of strenuous living to get any complete idea of the enterprises which have been carried through in recent years, but a casual glance serves to show how well distributed these efforts have been. The city map is dotted with playgrounds and small parks. New boulevards have been projected into all the beautiful surrounding suburbs, while all the unimproved land within a radius of ten miles of the state-house has been appropriated for great natural parks. She has improved her city plan through draining unhealthful marshes, and turning a waste and unsightly district into a series of beautiful drives, bordered with picturesque lagoons.

A great feature of the work in Boston has been her success with made land. She has filled in large areas, and made beautiful residence districts out of unwholesome flat lands which were left uncovered by the tide. She has dredged the River Charles and confined it within magnificent embankments, so that it is more impressive than either the Seine or the Thames. The results show a wonderful average of beautiful effects, and now not even the poorest of her citizens can be wholly shut away from inspiring scenes and wholesome surroundings.

What if the Bostonian of today does maintain a scornful attitude toward the rest of the world! There is Justification for his civic pride, even if he sometimes fails to discriminate between the credit due to Providence and to himself. This arrogance is not wholly confined to the East. A Western guide is accustomed to respond to the enthusiasm of tourists by saying, with a comprehensive sweep of his hand toward the Grand Canon, "I dug it myself!"

Boston encourages us to efforts even when there are many mistakes to undo. Her own work was accompanied by great difficulties but no one now doubts that it was worth the doing. Her greatest message is appreciation of the value of natural advantages and their preservation at any cost. She has accepted the hint of her environment in her use of the luxurious growths of New England soil. However reluctant it may be in its response to the overtures of the farmer, no land produces more magnificent trees, shrubs and vines than that of New England.

The different cities mentioned illustrate in different ways the importance of plan as the first consideration of Municipal Art. In the redemption of modern cities the architect, landscape architect, and engineer must work in harmony to secure the best results. The best laid plans of architect and engineer would bring but barren results without that trained nurse of agriculture--the landscape gardener--to embellish and complete their most fundamental work.

The architect should show how order can be brought out of chaos by wise planning, and in addition to the laying out of the city he becomes responsible for the architectural effect of buildings--their respect for building lines, and mutual relation to each other. The engineer must solve all problems of utility-- lighting, wiring, transportation, paving, etc., without offense to the eye, and the landscape architect must cover all defects and enhance all virtues by the cultivation of natural beauties in the midst of artificial surroundings. The heaviest responsibility rests undoubtedly with the architect, and no study of Municipal Art can be complete without attention to some of the fundamental principles of architectural design.

The part assigned to the public in the work of securing more beautiful cities is the essential one of intelligent demand. A recognition by the public of civic beauty as a necessity will bring the desired result as surely as effect follows cause, and therefore the first step in municipal reform along any line must be the education of the public to a demand for the best things. 

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: 
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