100 Years Later, A Vision Lives On

Thomas MacMIllan PhotoImagine 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?

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posted by: Booger on July 30, 2010  10:53am

The short trip along Union Ave and George St isn’t bad, but the I-34 underpass kinda kills the experience.  It’s dark, dreary, and not so nice.

Believe it or not, Union station is actually one of the better RR stations around.  For a station that was design many decades ago, it’s still very functional in it’s layout today (albeit, the traffic of cars can get a congested at times).

posted by: Uncle Egg on July 30, 2010  11:50am

I remember walking up the stairs of the Edinburgh train station in Edinburgh many years ago and practically dropping to my knees when I saw the sweeping vista of the city that greeted me.

In New Haven, we step off the train and get a sweeping vista of the projects. Nothing against the projects, but this never struck me as particularly inspired urban planning.

posted by: Uncle Egg on July 30, 2010  12:15pm

... oops. That’s “Waverly Train Station in Edinburgh.” *blush*

posted by: NHArch on July 30, 2010  12:16pm

Olmsted doesn’t have an “a” in it!

Fascinating article, though.

posted by: Josiah Brown on July 30, 2010  2:53pm

The “City Beautiful Movement” in New Haven was treated in a 2008 Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute seminar that Edward S. Cooke Jr. of the History of Art and American Studies departments led on New Haven history through its art and material culture:

Examples of the curriculum units New Haven Public School teachers developed as Institute Fellows in that seminar, as well as a photo of participants on the New Haven Green, can be found in this New Haven Independent account:

Below are other examples of curricular resources related to history, including local history.

New Haven and the nation in the 19th century (seminar led by Howard Lamar):

“History in the American Landscape: Place, Memory, Poetry” (seminar led by Dolores Hayden, with units by history teachers including Justin Boucher of Career and Judith Goodrich of Troup)

Civil rights (seminar led by Robert Burt)

The Supreme Court (seminars led by Robert Burt)

Latino cultures and communities (seminars led by Stephen Pitti)

These and many other seminars—on history and numerous other subjects—were led by Yale faculty members, with New Haven teachers participating as Institute Fellows and developing curriculum units for their students.  These and other Institute-developed curricular resources are available for non-commercial, educational purposes.

posted by: Toni on July 30, 2010  6:03pm

Ah, the pity of it all. Such a lovely little town: always dreaming of being a New York or a Boston and failing to be satisfied with being a small, pretty college town with a vibrant regional port.  When I think of how many schemes were tried and what they have cost the city in money and people, it makes me sad

posted by: Sabrina on July 31, 2010  10:18am

Josiah - Thank you for reminding me of the amazing work happening at the Teacher’s Institute - I read the unit you posted by Judy Goodrich and wished I was an 8th grader in her classroom. Excellent.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on July 31, 2010  11:33am

Not aggressively implementing this plan was perhaps the biggest mistake in the city’s history. The City Beautiful Movement was an actual effort to address the problems associated with rapid-growth industrial urbanism.
Frank Rice was lucky enough to have the ability to only worry about unifying sidewalk materials in the city and not be looked at like an incompetent. Unfortunately, the problems of overcrowding, pollution and car congestion were exacerbated during the 20s and 30s. The opportunity to fix these urban issues was missed and by the 40s, the national consensus was that cities are bad and unlivable and need a replacement. In New Haven County, this meant that old small towns and rural, farming towns would become the new living quarters of our growing middle class. These new suburbs were separate municipalities and so the ability to do successful regional planning is nonexistent.
Not only was the city unbearable by itself, it now have independent suburbs making it much worse with no overarching jurisdiction to address any of these problems at a proper scale.
Enter Urban Renewal, the total acceptance that urbanism is evil and must be destroyed and replaced with suburban design standards. Instead of getting a grand gateway to the city designed by two of the most important urban planners to ever live that would have rivaled the Avenue des Champs-Elysees in Paris, we got stuck with a 6 lane asphalt eye sore that kills people, a scattered assortment of brown cinder-block housing, a brutalist police head quarters set in a built environment unworthy of human habitation.
The level of urban design present in the 1910 plan is something completely lost to us today. This is made clear by the city’s reactionary planning where we wait for proposal than try to work within a defined box. Instead, we need to be proactive and create a city plan that accurately describes the city’s desires along with a detailed plan with lot sized, build heights, building street frontages, street widths and material list.
When we look at plans like Downtown Crossing, it becomes clear that we still accept that cities are evil and the automobile still has control over design standards.
In the 20s, Dudley Seymour developed Tower Parkway, Norton Parkway and Edgewood Avenue in the model of the City Beautiful movement. Unfortunately, tower parkway was turned into a one way street and the green median was replaced with another lane of traffic. Many people in the city seem to understand the importance of adequate green space in the city, what people don’t seem to get is the even more important part of dense urban fabric with small, intimate spaces that are completely paved. We hear a lot about greens and parks, but we lack usable, defined plazas.
The city needs to work to set up a regional design commission that makes unified decisions at the county level. Right now, the DOT is the only regional level designer and all they’ve managed to do is be more efficient at exporting bodies to the morgue.

posted by: abg on July 31, 2010  3:21pm

It’s easy to be cynical about the somewhat grandiose ambitions of the City Beautiful Movement, especially in light of later mistakes like over-zealous “urban renewal.” But the vision put forward by Olmsted and Gilbert—one of parks, playgrounds, pedestrian-friendly boulevards and other civic spaces designed to bring together New Haveners of all different economic strata and walks of life—is a vision that can and should still guide us today.

posted by: NHArch on July 31, 2010  4:00pm

@Jonathan Hopkins:

How is the Downtown Crossing plan proof that we still accept the fact that cities are evil and the car is king? The link to Downtown Crossing in this article only shows renderings of 100 College Street, which is but one phase of the Downtown Crossing project. The project as a whole is designed to replace the “6 lane asphalt eye sore” that is CT-34 with organic, urban, walkable city blocks. See the city’s description of the plan here: http://www.cityofnewhaven.com/economicdevelopment/Projects/ReadMore.asp?ID={3A09FAF4-FF33-41E3-B653-6F0D33FBD761}

posted by: johniluvnh on August 1, 2010  4:19am

Toni, sorry to say but “what a pity” New Haven cannot stay a “lovely little town” That is that type of mentality that has stumped New Haven’s growth for years. It is good we are trying to be like a New York or Boston! Trying to densify the city with the filling of the rt 34 connector, allowing New haven to have a more walkable city with restaurants,housing and theaters sure. If you are referring to us having tall buildings like NY or Boston that will never happen. If I am not mistaken Hartford and Stamford have more tall buildings than New Haven..  Being situated between 2 major cities,at the crossroads of 2 Major Highways and having a vibrant port,it cannot afford to stay a little city. Here’s an idea…move to State College PA…a vibrant college town in the middle of nowhere and not pressed for being like Pittsburg or Philly….you will be happy there….

posted by: Toni on August 1, 2010  11:47am

Dear johniluvnh- I love NH too. The 1900 plan was beautiful and incorporated my idea of what we could be and never followed through on. It was in later 20th century years that NH tried to become a big city, de-densify, knock everything down,  & drive people out. Now, they want people to come back but lack the amenities that would attract the mix of people they want. NH now wants downtown for Yale and Yalies, not the average citizen like myself. Their grandiose plans to be NY or Boston have already failed- more than once but they are back with a vengeance, always at taxpayer expense.
This city lacks a long term vision and swings from one extreme to another; never achieving any dream at all and leaving a city in limbo. That was my complaint. NO VISION &  NO COHERENT PLAN. And no desire to stick to a plan.    Yale has a plan for NH and they are realizing it with every piece of property thay appropriate from us.

posted by: The Count on August 1, 2010  12:20pm

And, in maybe 100 years, some future mayor may act on improving Tweed-New Haven Airport. Hey, ya never know…

posted by: Zalman Alpert on August 1, 2010  4:10pm

For now how about using these brainy interns to come up with a civilized plan to allow standing in the RR station to pick up and discharge passengers and a more civilized taxi system, Keeping the bathrooms in the sattion clean would also be welcome !

posted by: oh no on August 1, 2010  4:58pm

Check out 100 College St. in these plans (about 9 slides in).  Classic 1980s industrial park look….

http://www.cityofnewhaven.com/CityPlan/pdfs/PlanningPrograms/June 24th Presentation.pdf

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on August 1, 2010  8:10pm

The plan is to turn a 6-lane limited access highway into an 8-lane limited access divided highway with on street parking and large, boxy towers on top of an elaborate infrastructure of parking and underground car access roadways. The city is calling it a Boulevard but that just to stir up emotions and has no real basis in good boulevard design. Downtown crossing will be as much a bouldevard as the Ella Grasso is.
The city is creating economic development plans from the standpoint of auto-centric design that is encouraged by our archaic zoning laws. It’s absolutely ridiculous and beneath our capabilities. Its shameful to know that urban design was better one hundred years ago than it is today.

posted by: NHArch on August 1, 2010  10:35pm

I wouldn’t call the two proposed four-lane boulevards with stop lights, at-grade pedestrian sidewalks, and on-street parking an eight-lane “divided highway.” Using that rubric, Elm Street and Church Street - two lively avenues - would also be deemed unacceptable. Whatever goes there is going to be better than what’s there now.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on August 2, 2010  12:15pm

Elm Street and Church Street are great examples of wonderful urban avenues turned into highways. The sidewalks and planters around the green were shortened to accommodate more one-way travel lanes, and parking was banned on one side of Elm Street for the same reason. Both those streets should be narrower with larger sidewalks, parking on both sides, narrower lanes and two-way traffic. If you think they’re nice now, then it would blow you mind what they’d be like if they were designed even to a half-way decent urban standard.
You’re description of Downtown Crossing is accurate, which is why I have a tough time seeing why you think it will be pleasant to inhabit on foot. Route 34 west of York is at grade already and its a miserable experience on foot, in a car, on the bus and on a bike. On top of this, the proposal is adding an additional lane! Some buildings and sidewalk planters aren’t going to make this another Chapel Street, it’s going to create another Renaissance Center. I suppose it will be better than what is there now, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s completely unworthy of our capabilities.

posted by: Thomas on August 2, 2010  3:49pm

This plan might have developed along the lines of New York’s Park Avenue. The success of the third (current) Grand Central Terminal how real estate could add to the railroads revenues. It would have been interesting how New Haven would have developed in the 20th century. Would it have stayed a park or would office or luxury apartments line the boulevard? How would it have fared during the Lee years? The history of the great railroad stations many built with trans-continental travel in mind, ended at the end of the 20’s Stations in Detroit and Buffalo had been built outside traditional commercial areas hoping development would grow towards the station in most cases it did not.

I am not sure what the fate of the 34 connector is I am sure with the new ramp being put up will not allow any radical changes. However I’d like to see the MTA and State look into make more use of the State Street Station. What would it take to allow Metro-North Trains to pick up and drop off passengers at State Street on a regular basis? This would clear some parking spaces and save cab fares, if that’s a good thing?

posted by: anon on August 2, 2010  8:53pm

Elm and Church are “lively boulevards”?  Think again.  In reality, they are among the most hated streets in the entire city.  They were massively widened during the period of urban renewal, have high traffic speeds and very little to keep residents there.  That’s exactly why you often see them deserted, and they have very little successful retail, whereas streets like Chapel, Upper State, College, Orange, Crown, and Temple are lined with nice cafes and residences and people talking with their neighbors.  Elm and Church do more to kill New Haven’s downtown than Route 34 ever did.

Hopefully Elm Street will be improved with the addition of a cycle route (in the Dept of Transportation’s 2010 plan) and Church Street will be more livable when it is converted back into a two way street… but I won’t hold my breath.