Harrisburg’s City Beautiful Movement has an important place in the history of urban reform in America. Among the very earliest progressive reform movements, it was also among the most successful in moving the population to reform. A compelling lecture by the conservationist Mira Lloyd Dock to the Harrisburg Board of Trade in December 1900 incited the elite to organize the League for Civic Improvements, assemble a group of renowned city planners, and rally citizens to vote in favor of a bond issue in February 1902 that funded an extensive program of urban revitalization. In short order, the filthy industrial center along the Susquehanna River was remade as a modern and beautiful city with extensive green spaces, miles of freshly paved roads, water filtration systems, and a glimmering state capitol.
This significant story, however, is neither widely known nor fully explored. William H. Wilson wrote a path-breaking article in Pennsylvania History four decades ago, concluding that Harrisburg’s improvement campaign was both successful in implementing urban improvements, and influential nationally in spurring other cities to embark on similar programs.
Yet, important questions remain unanswered concerning the causes and character of the improvement campaign.
What were the underlying conditions of the city that made an improvement campaign so palpable to its population? How the burning of the old state capitol in 1897 contribute to the movement?
Why did some groups and precincts of Harrisburg residents support the vote in favor of a $1 million bond issue (loan) while others did not? Is it really true--as Wilson’s analysis highlighted--that City Beautiful in Harrisburg was an elite-driven movement led by mostly white Protestant men? What about the women’s groups (Civic Club), African American educators and pastors, Catholic bishop, and Jewish rabbis who rallied in support of the movement?
Other questions relate to the effects of the reform movement. How did City Beautiful transform the city in a short order of time through new parks, paved streets, and clean water, as well as neighborhood and demographic changes? Who were the long-term economic winners and losers in property value following reform? Why did those in the Old Eighth Ward, the city’s poorest multi-ethnic neighborhood, experience the significant costs of losing homes, businesses, synagogues, and churches to the buildings of an expanding state Capitol?
This website offers a series of exhibits that aim to address some of these questions. Produced by David Pettegrew’s Digital History students at Messiah College, and based on original research at the Pennsylvania State Archives and the Historical Society of Dauphin County Archives in 2014, 2015, 2018, and 2020, the classes have aimed to shed new light on the context of these reform while also providing digitized images of primary sources online.
For more information about Messiah College's broader explorations and publications related to the City Beautiful Movement, visit the About page of this site.