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Charles Mulford Robinson (1869-1917)

We should be in the midst of a centennial appreciation for the City Beautful movement of the early 20th century–but we’re not.

Two years ago, during the summer of 2009, Chicago celebrated the 100th anniversary of its Burnham Plan with the premier of an oratorio “Plans” based on the writings of Daniel Hudson Burnham in which he so famously urged us to “Have no little plans,” for they have no power to stir our souls, not to mention the short-term good they might do for the infrastructure and the long-term benefit for the improvement of urban life. I attended the second performance (of two; the first occurred in the rain, which I happily avoided) of Torke’s work for chorus, tenor and soprano soloists and orchestra in Millennium Park and had the good fortune to say hello to Torke himself as he circled the seating area to assess the park’s sound system.

Some months before that June 2009 performance, I’d wondered how the City Beautiful had touched Agincourt and conceived a modest project initiated by a lecture sponsored by the Civic Club. The speaker was Charles Mulford Robinson, a New York native and journalist who had become the voice for urban beautification (read “civic improvement”) and had more than a little influence here in the Midwest, particularly at cities such as Cedar Rapids in Iowa and Stillwater, Minnesota. Why not a brief guest appearance in Agincourt.

The consequence of Robinson’s lecture was a work of enlightened self-interest on North Broad Street–not unlike this image of a similar project in Spencer, Iowa of about the same time.

Boulevard001

I had imagined the residents of a two-block stretch of Broad Street (from Fennimore to Ralph avenues) initiating a redesign of those two blocks with narrowed roadways and landscaped central boulevard, underwriting the cost and ongoing maintenance as a special assessment on their property taxes. A short article appeared in The Plantagenet to that effect.

No project is wholly good, however, no matter how altruistic it may seem. Because a few days after the two or three paragraph item (commenting on Robinson’s lecture and the project that grew from it) there appeared a letter-to-the-editor suggesting other motives, more self-serving than altruistic: the Northwest Iowa Traction Company (builders of the interurban line from Fort Dodge through Agincourt and on its way toward Sioux City) was also negotiating a franchise with the city for a local trolley route. That route–the anonymous writer noted–might logically have run north on Broad toward the city limits and then swung west to the Normal School campus on its way back to the terminal at Broad and Louisa. But the writer saw a sinister plan to divert the noise and property devaluation a trolley route might bring to those large homes of prominent citizens onto an adjacent street of more modest means and less political clout. What may seem good and just and beneficial to some may be anathema to another.

So, the two-block boulevarding of North Broad Street–a grand place-making gesture of the early 20th century’s City Beautiful movement–was not without its detractors. Might we interpret this as an example of trickle-down aesthetics?


1 Comment

  1. R.H.L.M. Ramsay says:

    It’s been a long dry spell, not entirely caused by the holidays. The muse has been elsewhere, apparently, and her absence has sown more than a few seeds of doubt in the future of the entire project. I have much to consider at the approach of a new year.

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