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Big plans for city started in 1880s

Wednesday, December 19, 2007
By Patricia Lowry, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When it comes to civic planning in Pittsburgh, Renaissance I has gotten all the glory.

But in the first half of the 20th century, Pittsburgh also was on the cutting edge of progressive planning, Edward K. Muller and John F. Bauman write in their revealing book, “Before Renaissance: Planning in Pittsburgh, 1889-1943” (University of Pittsburgh Press, $60 hardcover; $27.95 paperback).

“I think people, because of the story built up around the Renaissance, don’t appreciate the engagement with planning before the Renaissance,” said Muller, historian and urban geographer at the University of Pittsburgh. “We’ve built this huge story about how the Renaissance stopped decline and built things and ergo, what happened prior to that didn’t have much value, except maybe Oakland. But we found a different story.”

What Muller and Bauman, history professor emeritus at California University of Pennsylvania, found was that Pittsburgh attracted some of the most influential figures in the emerging field of urban planning, men who strove to bring order, efficiency and beauty to a city dominated by heavy industry and plagued by traffic-clogged streets, lethal smoke and substandard housing.

Many Pittsburghers “are shocked to find out today that in the census of 1920 we are the fifth or sixth largest metropolitan area in the country. We are one of the big guys, one of the wealthiest cities,” Muller said. “We’re not leading [the city planning movement] but we’re right there at the edge.”

Ultimately, planners here met with only limited success.

“A lot of progressive things never got adopted,” Muller said, “but a lot did.”

The national movement for city planning was fueled in part by social reform and in part by the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, its “White City” and the City Beautiful movement it inspired. In Pittsburgh, its Beaux-Arts principles and Classical styles found a home in Oakland.

“The argument that we put out ultimately for the creation of Oakland as a civic center in the 1890s was a surprise to me,” said Muller, who had embraced the widely held notion that Schenley Farms developer Franklin Nicola was the leading light. But Andrew Carnegie, with his museum and library, and public works director Edward Bigelow with Schenley Park and Grant (now Bigelow) Boulevard leading to it, were there before him, Muller said, and after 1893 they had even bigger ideas.

“I think it’s pretty clear that Bigelow and Carnegie communicated and were inspired by the Chicago World’s Fair and wanted to create something of civic interest below Fifth Avenue.”

But while Oakland was shaped by a vision, it wasn’t born of a plan. As Oakland blossomed, Pittsburgh, like most cities, continued to grow on an ad hoc basis, without benefit of a comprehensive plan. That began to change when Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., whose father had been the “White City’s” site planner, was hired to study Pittsburgh’s Downtown and main thoroughfares. At the time, his assistant discovered, “the city does not even possess reliable ordinary street maps.”

Olmsted Associates’ work in Pittsburgh by now is fairly well known, thanks mainly to Muller and Bauman, whose two articles in Pittsburgh History magazine in 1993-94 detailed Olmsted Associates’ private estates in the East End and Sewickley, the town plan for Vandergrift and other projects, including the 1911 plan for Pittsburgh. It proposed a Downtown civic center and public garden next to the courthouse and made 80 recommendations for street, bridge and tunnel projects, including tree-lined riverfront parkways Downtown that also would accommodate promenades for pedestrians, “where they can watch the water and the [industrial] life upon it.” There was never any question that rivers and waterfronts were primarily for industry: In the Olmsted plan, the City Beautiful was married to the City Practical.

Legacies of the Olmsted plan include the Parkway, Liberty Bridge and Tunnel, Schenley Plaza, Washington Boulevard and removal of the Grant Street “Hump,” all suggested or endorsed in it. But the civic center idea never took off.

“It’s too visionary for our practical-minded civic leaders,” Muller said.

“Before Renaissance” also investigates the work of architect Frederick Bigger, the city’s first professional planner, who shepherded the Citizens Committee on the City Plan and helped prepare its first comprehensive plan of 1923. He was part detail-obsessed bureaucrat, part visionary who understood the need to work with conservative civic leaders.

“We had no idea that Frederick Bigger was as prominent as he was outside the city in the world of urban planning,” a profession he helped to shape, Muller said. “He was a quiet, shy man who did not seek the limelight but he was very thoughtful and wrote some important articles.” The book gives voice, character and motivation to him and to many of the city’s civic leaders, men who have long been only names on a page.

In 1939, the city turned to New York City highway and parks czar Robert Moses, who recommended removing trolleys and most of the train lines and stations from Downtown and backed Olmsted’s plan for an elevated Fort Duquesne Boulevard.

In part, Muller sees the book as a corrective to the way planners, whom Moses often maligned, are depicted in the late historian Roy Lubove’s two-volume “Twentieth-Century Pittsburgh.”

“If you read Roy, they’re a bunch of bumbling idiots, but just because things don’t get built right away doesn’t mean they’re not embedding the notion of civic planning in the city” and laying the foundation for the Renaissance, Muller said. “One of the reasons more didn’t get done on a design level is that Pittsburgh had to retrofit itself to the automobile,” something with which it still struggles.

Lessons for today? “One is to have a broad-scale vision periodically as a city, even though that’s not a blueprint, in order to have a public conversation,” Muller said. Another is that “it takes vision and leadership. Without the leadership it’s very hard to get things done.”

Here’s hoping that “Before Renaissance” lands in lots of Christmas stockings on and off Grant Street.

Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.
First published on December 19, 2007 at 12:00 am

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