Browse Exhibits (5 total)

Background to City Beautiful

In the late 1800s, Harrisburg was a rapidly growing city, and it faced some extreme challenges in the last decade of the century. The previous two decades, the 1870s and 1880s, had seen the thriving, health, and growth of the city, but in the 1890s, the city’s situation began to speedily go downhill. There were floods and leaky water pipes, and raw sewage seemed to be omnipresent.  Roads needed to be paved, and the threat of disease was constantly lurking in the background. The capitol building burned, and Harrisburgers had to fight to keep Pennsylvania’s capital from moving to Philadelphia. However, though luck did not seem to be with Harrisburg at the close of the nineteenth century, its citizens were aware of their city’s municipal and political challenges, and they had a desire to see their city thrive again. The 1890s were the prelude to the City Beautiful Movement, and at the dawn of the twentieth century, the citizens of Harrisburg, following the lead of other cities across the country, decided it was their turn to beautify their town.

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The Campaigns for Improvement

City Beautiful would not have begun, nor would it have had its initial success had it not been for the campaigns for improvement. The first campaign that will be discussed in this section is the Mayoral Race of 1902 Harrisburg. In this, Democrat Vance McCormick was elected and eventually became the most influential mayor of Harrisburg. The second campaign discussed is the campaign for improvements throughout Harrisburg. Starting with the Municipal League of Harrisburg, this section will discuss the proposed improvements for the city made by the Municipal League, including a filtration system for the water supply to eliminate the threat of typhoid, and cleaning up the streets of Harrisburg. Finally, Harmony and Opposition will explore the newspaper battle within Harrisburg at this time. Newspapers, the Municipal League of Harrisburg, and Mayor Vance McCormick all fought for the future of Harrisburg, and the belief that the city could be made beautiful.

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The City Votes

Viewed in retrospect, the campaign for beauty and improvement appeared to be a result of the city’s social harmony, as though the entire people united in their support for the bond issue that funded the city’s improvements. As Wilson argued in his chapter on Harrisburg’s successful city beautiful movement (1989: 134-139), two-thirds of the population of the city voted in favor of the bonds. Yet, certain wards were more in favor of the improvements than others, which raises the question why some parts of Harrisburg’s population voted against improvements while others voted in favor. In this exhibit, we highlight the social diversity and homogenity of the population in 1900 by tabulating the data of the United States census, which we digitized from the original records presented in Ancestry. We show that support and opposition for the bonds varied considerably at the level of ward and precinct. We use two case studies—two wards strongly in favor of the bond issue, and two wards strongly against it—to explore how the population voted the way it did. The demographic data shows complex patterns of social and ethnic diversity underlying the apparent homogeneity of Harrisburg’s population in 1900.

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The Improvements

During the early twentieth century, the city of Harrisburg had poorly paved streets, buildings that lacked proper foundation, and a lack of parks. Additionally, the Susquehanna River had faulty sanitation supplies, and the river steps leading to the entrance of Harrisburg was demolished. As a result of these deficiencies, the city Beautiful Movement promoted the improvement and beautification of these areas. During the implantation of these improvements, Harrisburg's new landscape emerged with the help of J Horace McFarland, Mira Lloyd Dock, and Warren Manning. Capitol Park was expanded, concrete steps by a walkway defined the riverfront park, and sanitation levels improved. Additionally, streets were paved and installed with sidewalks, playgrounds were implemented, forests were grown, and historical buildings and landmarks were preserved.

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The Visionaries

The City Beautiful Movement needed help from people with a vision to pioneer the project. City elites such as Mira Lloyd Dock, J. Horace McFarland, and members of the city’s Civic Club were key players in the initiation and implementation of city reforms. Mira Lloyd Dock, a prominient city member, travelled to Europe in 1899. There, she was inspired to make improvements to her own city. In December of 1900, Dock gave a speech that would help bring City Beautiful into existence. Dock then founded the Civic Club, an organization dedicated to improving and beautifying Harrisburg. Dock’s friend and colleague, J. Horace McFarland, was secretary of the Municipal League and resided as President over the American Civic Association. His interest in plants and nature helped lead him to urban reform. The contributions of Mira Lloyd Dock, the Civic Club, and J. Horace McFarland were vital to the City Beautiful Movement. 

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