Imagine stepping out of the New Haven train station after a long journey by rail. A large open plaza greets you outside the doors. As you look north, a wide boulevard beckons you to the heart of the city, where another public square awaits.
This unfulfilled vision of New Haven s spelled out in a landmark 1910 plan for the city drafted by two leading urban planners of the day, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and Cass Gilbert. That document turns 100 this year, and it continues to inspire dreams and planning.
City Hall intern David Eisenman (pictured) has been coming across a century’s worth of ideas like the proposed plaza—some realized, some not—as he prepares for the centennial anniversary of the Olmsted-Gilbert plan. A look back shows at least one urban design problem has persisted in New Haven through the ages: how to connect the train station to downtown.
In 1910, when Olmsted and Gilbert issued their comprehensive plan for New Haven, the 138-page document featured an ambitious plan to construct a wide boulevard from the train station to a new public plaza to be built at the junction of Temple Street and Congress Avenue. The plan would have created a bold new gateway to the downtown for rail passengers coming to New Haven.
A hundred years later, plans are underway for a different new urban boulevard, to replace what is now the Rt. 34 corridor. The project is intended in part to reconnect downtown to the area around the train station. In a case of history repeating itself, the heart of that proposal, dubbed Downtown Crossing, would rise exactly where planners envisioned the new public plaza a century ago.
As the 1910 plan’s centennial approaches, Eisenman, a Yale summer intern in the City Plan Department, is spearheading anniversary preparations. On Thursday morning, in the library of the City Plan offices on the fifth floor of City Hall, Eisenman laid out the history of the comprehensive city plan—literally. Wearing a dark vest and striped tie, the 21-year-old recounted the City Plan creation story, using old maps, drawings, and letters, and a copy of the original city plan spread out on a table as points of reference. Eisenman said he’s also drawn on the work of architectural historian Eric Vogt.
It all started with a letter published in the New Haven Register on June 2, 1907. George Dudley Seymour, a prominent New Havener, wrote “An Open Letter To The Mayor and Aldermen and Citizens of the City and County of New Haven,” in which he called for the city to create a plan for the development of the city.
Seymour’s letter came out of a national urban planning trend called the City Beautiful Movement, Eisenman said. The idea, which began in the late 1800s, was that grand monumental architecture would enliven cities and enlighten citizens.
Although the movement was later criticized as being impractical and overly focused on aesthetics, at the time, Seymour’s letter captured the imagination of New Haven. “He wrote the letter and people got excited,” Eisenman said.
On June 19, 1907, New Haven Mayor John Studley called for a public meeting to discuss Seymour’s letter. A committee was formed to commission a master plan for New Haven.
The committee invited architect Cass Gilbert and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr (son of the famous designer of Central Park) to draft a plan for the improvement and development of the city. At the time, these were famous names in their fields. Gilbert later designed New Haven’s train station and downtown public library.
Seymour raised $8,000 through $100 subscriptions from, in his words, “citizens of known public spirit,” to pay Olmsted and Gilbert’s fee, and the pair set to work.
During this time, Seymour also organized a series of public lectures on civic improvement and urban planning. The city was abuzz with enthusiasm for city planning, Eisenman said.
Just over two years later, in September 1910, the plan was submitted to the mayor and published as a book three months later, in December. The 138-page plan outlinined the current state of the city and presented some 92 proposed improvements. It was accompanied by a new city map with corresponding numbers.
“This is it. This was the book,” Eisenman said. He picked up a narrow volume of yellowed pages no longer connected to their spine: an original copy of the plan, one of only a few that still exist.
In its opening paragraphs, Olmsted and Gilbert present the plan as a guide for New Haven during its transformation from a “pleasant little New England college town” into a “widespread urban metropolis of the 20th century.”
The first part describes the city’s current problems. Page 32 shows a photograph of a busy Church Street, with a caption describing it as “choked with overhead wires, taken up by cars, and made hideous by an incongruous jumble of signs.” On Page 37, Olmsted and Gilbert call for “more small parks for local purposes.” Two pages later, the pair warn, “tenements, unsanitary shacks, crowding, secrecy, and filth are the results of crowding poor and ignorant people into a region where each of the insufficient number of dwellings has a long piece of waste land tucked in behind it out of sight.”
In the second section of the document, Olmsted and Gilbert enumerate the specific changes they recommend, starting with the “Heart of the City.” Near the top of the plan’s list of proposed improvements is a proposal for a new public plaza at the junction of an extended Temple Street and Congress Avenue, an area now occupied by Route 34. That plaza was to be connected by a broad boulevard to another plaza, outside Union Station.
That station was yet to be built at the time of the comprehensive plan, but Gilbert’s sketch of the station is included in the book. Gilbert and Olmsted call for a large plaza outside the station. “A generous open space is needed,” they write. “The first impression of most visitors to the city will be gained on emerging from the station ... upon this impression will be largely based the opinion of the city as formed by its visitors.”
Following the publication of the plan, in 1913, the City Plan Commission was established. In 1914, Olmsted designed a new landscaping plan for the Green, where the city planted a double row of elm trees.
Most of the plan, however, was never completed. “By 1916, things had slowed down,” Eisenman said. “The City Plan Commission ground to a halt.”
“Erik Vogt says there was a lack of understanding and interest by Mayor Frank Rice,” Eisenman said.
Vogt, the architectural historian, also points to a shift in schools of thought regarding urban planning. During the two years that Gilbert and Olmsted had been drafting the plan, the City Beautiful movement had fallen out of favor and planners sought to emphasizes pragmatic over aesthetic considerations. “The fact that New Haven’s plan emerged in the midst of this transitional period spelled trouble from the start,” writes Vogt, in his history of New Haven’s 1910 city improvement plan.
“Rice thought it was just about aesthetics,” Eisenman said. Mayor Rice reduced funding for City Plan projects. (Rice would reemerge nine decades later, posthumously, as a central character in Douglas W. Rae’s landmark book City: Urbanism And Its End. Rice represented nuts-and-bolts “sidewalk” governance as a foil to urban renewal Mayor Dick Lee’s grand-vision approach.)
Seymour eventually resigned from the City Plan Commission in 1924. He left his quest the way he started it, with a long public letter to the mayor, in which he complained about a lack of support for his vision. He wrote also that he had been misunderstood, that his urban development proposals were driven by a desire to address practical problems, not grand visions.
Now 100 years later, Eisenman is working out a way to celebrate the legacy of Seymour, Gilbert, and Olmsted. He said he’d like to help New Haveners realize the impact of comprehensive planning, that it can last for decades. Among the centennial celebrations, he’s considering having dramatic readings of the urban planning lectures Seymour organized and guided tours of city parks by landscape architects.
Eisenman said he hopes New Haveners will ponder the fact that the city is still facing many of the issues it was 100 years ago—like how to integrate the train station into town. It may be a century later, but who knows?