This spring the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore will spend more than six million dollars to revamp Preston Gardens, a three-acre strip of park that runs along St. Paul Street between Mt. Vernon and downtown. As a park, it’s a little strange. It’s got fantastic Beaux-Arts details and a grand stairway, but it’s also sandwiched between two high auto-traffic roads and is much longer than it is wide. This odd bit of green space is a leftover of Baltimore’s brief flirtation with the City Beautiful movement, a urban design philosophy that was all the rage at the turn of the century. The second chapter of Dream Cities, Monuments, discusses how the City Beautiful movement and it’s boosters Daniel Burnham and Frederick Olmsted deeply influenced the shape of cities across the world. Baltimore is no exception.
The origin of the City Beautiful movement is usually traced to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The fair, which hosted nearly 30 million visitors over the few months it was open, was centered around the White City built on the outskirts of Chicago. Designed by Burnham in collaboration with other leading architects, the White City was constructed completely from scratch which allowed it to conform to the exact vision Burnham had for the model city. Rejecting the modern skyscrapers and cleaner facades beginning to appear in American skylines, Burnham opted for building in a stately neoclassical style. The final product was a vision of a new type of city. Gleaming white buildings complete with massive domes and imposing columns were arranged along broad promenades and set among lush gardens.
The architecture and design of the fair were widely praised. The grandiose buildings recalled classical Rome and other European capitals, which spoke many American’s rising desire to be seen as a world power. Additionally, the wide boulevards, parks, lakes, and plazas were seen as cures for the stifling crowds and dirty streets found in America’s growing cities, which made the design appeal the ascendent progressive movement. If the United States was to become a respected imperial power and do away with it’s social ills, it’s cities should look like the White City. They should be massive, and monumental, and inspire civic pride through powerful architure.
From here the movement took off. Throughout the early 1900s many cities tore out entire neighborhoods—unsurprisingly, usually the homes of minorities, immigrants, and the poor—and replaced them with broad boulevards and civic centers. These civic centers were supposed to inspire a more dignified and productive citizenry with imposing courthouses, art museums, banks, and monuments. The most famous of these projects are the National Mall in DC, the Group Plan in downtown Cleveland, and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway museum district in Philadelphia. These reforms and aesthetic adornments did inspire civic pride and provide new much-appreciated greenspace. However, they mostly did so for the elites, at the expense of marginalized groups. Which leads us to Baltimore.
In 1910, Baltimore was still rebuilding from the 1904 fire when Frederick Olmsted was hired to work with the architecture firm Carrère and Hastings to put together a master plan for the city. Like many City Beautiful plans, the final design called for creating a monumental civic center based around City Hall (which ended up as War Memorial Plaza) and a grand boulevard up what is now the JFX (which never came to fruition). The plan also included Preston Gardens, which was supposed to serve as a monumental connector between the plaza and the Washington Monument in Mt. Vernon.
While this plan would create a picture-perfect scene you could slap on a postcard, constructing Preston Gardens required removing anything in it’s path, which in this case was Gallows Hill, a wealthy black neighborhood. As Antero Pietila points out in his book Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City, this was not a problem for then-mayor James H. Preston. Preston, a proud defender of segregation, broke new ground in the field of racist city planning. In 1917 he condemned large swaths of the neighborhood as slums arguing that the black population “constitut[ed] a menace to the health of the white population.” In the ensuing years, he forcibly relocated the residents and make way for his gardens.
But here’s something: There have recently been calls to rename Preston Gardens, dropping the name of our racist former mayor and instead honoring Henrietta Lacks. While the change wouldn’t do much to remedy the material harm caused by Preston, it would be fitting as a monument. The gardens were supposed improve the health of Baltimore’s citizens, and on this front, Lacks certainly contributed more than Preston ever did.
This post is part two of a series that uses Dream Cities as a guide to explore how different urban planning ideas have shaped Baltimore.