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Placemaking in the 19th Century: From Vick’s Monthly 1882

March 21, 2013
A cover from Vick's Magazine from the 1880s

A cover from Vick’s Magazine
from the 1880s

This article is the first in a dedicated series in the Virtual Scrapbook about the concept of Placemaking.  Later entries will include modern definitions and reports on the Highland Park Neighborhood Association’s own presentations and projects  that have been influenced by what has become an exciting trend in the design and re-engineering of public living spaces.  Today, many of the best efforts have been started by and for the people who live in or frequent an urban area – with results that their common space becomes refreshed and more livable because of Placemaking in action.  Our own BoulevART 2012 project will be included in several entries telling the tale of how members of the Highland Park Neighborhood Association came to adopt this important planning philosophy and found willing partnership with City Officials.  As  the leaders of Placemaking will confirm, many Placemaking concepts have a fairly old heritage in Old and New World Plazas and Piazzas, Town Greens and Central Markets.  In that spirit, we are re-publishing a story that was printed in 1882 in one of Rochester’s most beautiful Horticultural  Journals,  Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Magazine.    As part of the world of 19th century  Botanical Art, this magazine is known for a fourteen year run where every month’s frontispiece was a Chromolith Print, The subject of these were mostly  flowers, but also other flora such as grasses, fruits and vegetables.   And as this article illustrates, the magazine often had timely advice on gardening, both in public and private spaces.  This article also speaks to issues of quality of life among the rapidly developing urban areas of its time.  I think it is the perfect introduction to the highlights within our local history that we might honor as we examine Placemaking opportunities in our neighborhood.

Small Parks and Squares

from Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Magazine – January 1882

A park, or small square, in the midst of a busy city is like an oasis in a desert.  How much freer one breathes there than in the counting-room or the warehouse!  How the clerk and shop-girl, as they pass through, straighten up and glance skyward.  There may be no rainbow in sight, but the hope-inspired heart rejoices under the influence of the open sky, the free breeze, and the verdure.  We do not now refer to such places as Central Park, in New York, or Fairmount Park, in Philadelphia, but to those small places, or squares, to be seen in some of our cities and larger villages.  Large parks, when well-managed, are worth all they cost, and where they can be maintained, are most worthy subjects for the citizens’ pride.  However, these large tracts of land, of several hundred acres, can be properly kept up only at a great expense, and, consequently, must be rare.  Not so with parks of one to five acres in extent; the annual expense of maintaining them is inconsiderable.  By wise prevision of the early inhabitants, many of the towns that have sprung up within the last hundred years in all parts of the country have small plots of ground, secured in central positions, where they are of greatest value.  But, with the exception of small villages, these grounds are inadequate.  As a rule, when a village begins to increase in size, so that its population numbers upwards of fifteen or twenty thousand, and the ambitious spirit of a city takes possession of it, the value of land increases to that extent that it is considered too costly to devote to ornamental purposes.  A liberal expenditure, however, would prove the best economy.

Original Illustration from 1882

Original Illustration from 1882

When villages are being established, land-holders donate land for park purposes.  In regard to this matter, however, cases are comparatively few where landholders, in such circumstances as are now being considered, have areas sufficiently broad to allow them to devote portions of their grounds to parks with any pecuniary advantage to themselves; but they often testify their recognition of the value of such places by opening wide streets under the name of parks, and compromising the difference between a street and a park by a strip of grass through the center, or by wide margins of grass between the walks and the roadway, and by planting these spaces with shade trees, making broad avenues, delightful for residences, and for the pedestrian.

02 View in Monumental Park

View in Monumental Park
(From Original Article in 1882)

These park-avenues, are, in a sense, private, but open to the public, like any street, and every owner of a lot upon such an avenue feels responsible for the good care of the space in front of his own premises, and, as a general rule, these park-like streets are kept in the most perfect order, equally as well as the lawns of which they seem to be a part, while many of the little parks trusted to the care of village or city corporations are sadly neglected, often nothing more than waste land or cow-pastures.  We have endeavored to show one of these park-like avenues, one with grass on each side near the walk.  The grass, if on the side, should not be less than fifteen feet in width.  Another advantage of these park-like streets is the fact that usually being main thoroughfares we can enjoy them when walking on business, the ladies when on the way to do their shopping or calling, and the children when going to school, while to visit the park proper requires an hour of leisure.  It is often easy to make a street of this kind when it would be impossible to obtain an appropriation for a public square.  In a city not far from us the owners of property held a meeting and agreed to widen the street four feet on each side, and plant shade trees in vacant places, and now this avenue, a mile in length, is one of the prettiest in the world.  While riding through it with a gentleman on a visit from Germany, he remarked, “With such avenues you need no park; your street is a park.” It would have taken years of discussion and petitioning to obtain a park, while this matter was arranged at one meeting of those interested, and the work done in a few weeks.

There is, however, a sense of freedom and proprietorship in a public park, and one may walk at his leisure, or may sit, if he prefer, or lie on the grass in the shade, and the children know that they can freely indulge in their sports and romps without danger from passing vehicles, or annoyance to others by their gleesome shouts.  In large cities the healthfulness of open spaces where the wind can sweep free is unquestioned.  Even in sparsely built villages, and where the open country is easily reached, the desire for parks and pleasure grounds is felt, as the fact that they are frequently possessed by such places is sufficient proof, and for all purposes of diversion and recreation they are as serviceable in small places as in larger ones.

In regard to the location of a park the first consideration is, probably, availability or accessibility.  Nearness and ease of approach by the greatest number will ensure its popularity and usefulness; but these conditions are not absolute, and should not always govern in deciding upon a location.  Where water may be secured, either as a stream or a pond, its advantage should  not be overlooked; so, also, an elevation above the surrounding country may give a peculiar fascination to a piece of ground that no other spot in the vicinity can have; villages can often have choice of location to a far greater extent than cities, but we are obliged to say that, with a few exceptions, the most desirable spots have not been selected.

(Another) View in Monumental Park

(Another) View in Monumental Park

In compact cities it is not infrequent that a built-up block, or square, that is somewhat dilapidated may be better cleared and turned into an ornamental ground than to remain for scores of years in an unsightly and unprosperous condition.  By converting a square, or block, into a park a large amount of adjacent property on each side may become available for business purposes which otherwise would have been so far one side of the main travel of the place as to be comparatively of little use.  The new value of the surrounding property may be quite equal to the whole expense of clearing and converting the square.  As an illustration of the benefit of an open square to contiguous property in a business place, we refer to a small park in the city of Cleveland, formerly known as the public square but for some years past as Monumental Park.  The square has streets on all sides of it, and it is also intersected at right angles by two streets dividing it into four equal parts.  The street running through from west to east, represented in the diagram by A D, is Superior Street.  Euclid Avenue, famous for its handsome residences, starts near the southeast corner of the park, at D.  In the early times of the city, Superior street was a principal business street, and it is now occupied by business houses from the center of the town to some distance below the park.  If the park had not been opened the space, A B, on this street in the park would undoubtedly have been used for business purposes on both sides; now, however, by means of the square, twice as much frontage is secured and all the space represented by F C, C D, D E, and E F is devoted to business, and this comparatively cheap property is greatly enhanced in value.  Small, triangular blocks of land, caused by the intersection of two streets at an acute angle, as seen in most cities, mere deformities, might profitably be used for little parks.

Grid Plan of Monumental Park - See Above Article

Grid Plan of Monumental Park – See Above Article

Monumental Park of Cleveland is not presented as in all respects a model, as it certainly is not; but it is so highly in contrast with the ordinary village or city square, and so much taste is shown in its arrangement, and so much care exhibited in keeping it, that it is worthy of particular notice, and it may assist us greatly in forming a proper conception of what a small park should be.  The four sections of the park are traversed by walks in different ways, and each presents some peculiar feature; the views from different points are greatly varied, and all are beautiful scenes.  One section is crossed diagonally by walks from each corner and the central part is surrounded by a circular walk, into which the diagonal walks enter.  In the middle of the central plat stands a handsome granite monument in commemoration of Commodore Oliver Perry and his famous naval battle on Lake Erie, September 10th, 1813.

A few Elm trees in the interior of this section, and a few others, with some young Maples near the outer lines, constitute the planting of this part.  There is a great deal of passing through this section, as it is a near way to reach Euclid Avenue and streets leading to the southeastern part of the city.

Another of these sections, or small squares, contains some good-sized trees of Elms and Maples, under which are comfortable seats where, in summer, many stop for a few moments to rest and enjoy the shade and the beautiful prospect.  Here is a rock fountain and a pool with some little streams.  The pool, which is of partly irregular form, is bordered with rocks, and in some places the margin shows thrifty aquatic and water-loving plants, and higher up low-growing shrubs.  The pool is stocked with goldfish and is enclosed by a low railing and surrounded by a walk.  Plats of grass lie between the walks, having beds here and there near their margins.  The stream running from the pool has a pretty fall at a place where its sides are rock-walled, and just below this point is crossed by a handsome bridge.  The border of the stream when we saw it last was planted with Cannas and Caladiums.

A third section has some Elms and Maples with seats underneath, with a large fountain in the center and beds of foliage plants in the grass, while the fourth one, besides the shade of the trees, offers to those who would seek retreat from solar rays and human gaze the shelter of a vine-clad summer-house.  The grass is well kept, and the walks neat and smooth.  The variety in this place is such as to make every part of it interesting, and in warm days of summer its merits are gratefully acknowledged by those who linger within its borders.

Our readers have, probably, now mentally made the contrast between this place and the usual type of village or city square, which is, at most, only a plot of ground of square, or oblong, form, either fenced or not, with some trees large or small, as the case may be, with limbs starting ten to fifteen feet from the ground, and oftener than otherwise planted in straight lines, and frequently so close together as to remind one of a primeval forest.  There may be much grass or little, it is never mowed, there is no need to do so, since so few resort there, unless, perchance, the boys tramp a place hard and clear for their play-ground.  This picture we believe to be fairly drawn.  Are we willing that such public grounds, in their present condition, shall continue to be the exponents of the horticultural taste of the community?

The public square should combine, to as great extent as possible, the best ideas of horticulture; the lawn, the trees, the shrubbery, the arbors, the walks, and the drives, every arrangement and the whole effect should express the best conceptions of one of the most beautiful and ennobling of arts.  In this condition it would be a public educator.  With such a silent teacher day by day exerting a constant influence the private places all about will begin to remodel and improve, and citizens will be able to point with pride, not only to their public grounds, but to the homes everywhere around.

Why should one or two kinds of Maples’ and of Elms everywhere suffice for park planting? Is the flora of the country or of the world so poor that this is all we can have? The only thought of those who have formed our public squares appears to have been that of producing thick groves.

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