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October 9, 2008

The City Beautiful

Filed under: 150 Best Minnesota Books — Pat Coleman @ 12:52 pm

Another one of those beautiful “must have” Minnesota books is:
Edward H. Bennett. Plan of Minneapolis: Prepared Under the Direction of the Civic Commission… Edited and Written by Andrew Wright Crawford. Minneapolis: Civic Commission, 1917.

In 1909, Daniel Burnham [chief architect for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and the subject of the 2003 bestseller, The Devil in the White City] and Edward Bennett published their Plan of Chicago. It was dubbed “Paris on the Prairie” by wags who couldn’t help but notice the influence of the École des Beaux-Arts where Bennett studied from 1895-1902. Also in 1909, a Civic Commission was formed to discuss a city plan for Minneapolis, consisting of a dozen Minneapolis organizations from the Woman’s Club to the Trades and Labor Assembly. They hired Bennett, who as Chicago’s chief proponent of The City Beautiful Movement believed that cities could be “White” like the Columbian Exposition and that people would be uplifted through their contact with art and beauty and order.

The author and editor of this work, Crawford, always gets short shrift so let me rectify that. He was a lawyer and art connoisseur who is most often associated with his hometown Philadelphia. Crawford was civically active with a strong interest in city planning and in the development of city parks. His interests made him the perfect choice to author Bennett’s Plan of Minneapolis. Crawford’s avocational interest in architecture earned him an honorary membership in the American Institute of Architects. For a bit of his prose and the rationale for the plan, let me present a few lines from Chapter 1 “The Coming Metropolis:”

  • Minneapolis is the commercial and officially designated financial capitol of an empire greater in size than Great Brittan, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Denmark and Switzerland combined.
  • Minneapolis is now a large city. The greater city that the future is so surely and so swiftly bringing must be a more economic, a more convenient, a happier and a more generally beautiful city.
  • City planning is the exercise of municipal imagination. It is the scientific and expert vision of inevitable city growth, and the preparation of plans to provide for that growth. It is municipal prevision, municipal prevention and municipal preparedness. (bloggers note: The 3MP’s of planners?)

Ultimately very little of the Plan [of which 1,000 were printed and distributed] could be implemented because, in spite of the emphasis on science and imagination, none of the planners anticipated the most important shaper of 20th century American municipalities: the automobile. Still, it seems to me that they anticipated a refocus on the riverfront by 70 years and had countless other ideas that we might wish had been implemented.

I hate giving this much attention to Minneapolis, so allow me to mention the less grandious but 11 years earlier St. Paul eqivilant, Report of the Capitol Approaches Commission to the Common Council of the City of St. Paul, 1906. This would be another fine addition to a complete Minnesota book collection but at 31 pages we can not nominate it for our list of best books.

I would love to hear from architects, city planners, and the Met Council on our selection of Bennett’s work for our greatest Minnesota books list. Does anyone think about the issuses raised by the Plan? Know about this book? Study it? Still look at it from time to time? Click on “Comment” and let us know.

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9 Responses to “The City Beautiful”

  1. sarah pace Says:

    but not to forget the more recently added 4th MP of city planning … Mumbly Peg

  2. Lori Williamson Says:

    These are absolutely beautiful…what a vision. Thanks for sharing them with us,and especially for including Saint Paul! (Clearly the more beautiful of the two actual cities, not judging by their plans.)

  3. cam Says:

    Your comment about a focus on the riverfront reminds me — wasn’t there also a plan for the U of M that had the mall extending to the river? I think it was discussed when they were doing the major rehab of Coffman Union. (And I’d strongly endorse reading ‘Devil in the White City’ — it’s a good book.)

  4. Patrick Coleman Says:

    Thanks CAM and thanks for the tip on the U’s “Campus Beautiful” plan created by our own Cass Gilbert. Same idea/same time period. I copied the link below. By the way, I loved the “White City” part of Eric Larson’s book and hated the “Devil” chapters. I guess half a good book is better than none. Anyone who wants my beat up copy can have it; just reply.

    C:\Documents and Settings\colemanpk\Local Settings\Temporary Internet Files\OLK29\uofm-campus-plan.htm

  5. Lori Williamson Says:

    Did you mean this for a link to the Gilbert plan, Patrick?


  6. Matt Anderson Says:

    Glad to see someone else thinks “Devil in the White City” is only half a good book. I take pride in having bought my copy in the bookstore at Washington’s Union Station – one of Burnham’s greatest works. The Federal City might be our best surviving example of City Beautiful planning. I’ll take it over postmodern any day.

  7. Alex Says:

    It is a (hopefully) motivating shame to note that Minneapolis still lacks a central square, the need for which was recognized nearly a century ago and the likes of which can be found in great cities around the world. Instead we have parking lots and freeway ramps, along with a mediocre town.

  8. Patrick Coleman Says:

    Have sports stadiums become the new town square or simply the money pit that prevents cities from being able to create one?

  9. Phil Freshman Says:


    I agree with you about Devil in the White City. I was fascinated by the Burnham chapters and repelled by the Devil ones–not b/c of the subject matter but because it pandered shamelessly to the Hannibal Lecter crowd from behind the thinnest of “non-fiction” veils. My son read it last year and got all fired up about Burnham. When we took his sister back to school in Chicago this past September, he and I tramped Jackson Park and the surrounding area (including the Midway Plaisance) to trace out the site of the 1893 World’s Fair—at his urging. it was clear he held many details of the book in mind and couldn’t get enough of the landscape, trying to picture what it had been like in the 1890s. The book made the time, and Burnham, come alive for him.

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