- Perfecting Space:J. Horace McFarland and the American Civic Association
In 1900 Charles Mumford Robinson's publication of The Improvement of Cities and Town provided a blueprint to how U.S. cities could correct urban congestion.1 By 1910, more than two thousand groups for civic improvement existed in the United States.2 In each city, "a gradual crystallization of the civic improvement efforts" led to a "comprehensive grasp of the whole problem" facing that city and pushed residents toward "the concrete realization of the dream of the city beautiful."3 The widespread popularity of the City Beautiful Movement combined aesthetic concerns, a new approach to municipal control, and social uplift ideology in an effort to improve society on both physical and social grounds. The emphasis on expanding the public sphere challenged the traditional political, social, and economic order. This new public space was built on ordinary citizens contributing to civic discourse, reformers demanding accountability, minorities seeking inclusion, ending gender inequality, and protecting exploited workers. Looking at urban beautification within this framework, the push for greater planning represented a means to bolster middle-class power through a new regulatory routine.4
According to historian William H. Wilson, civic beautification rested on a holistic belief in beauty, an inclusive "improvement" framework, and links between functionality and aesthetics.5 McFarland's work and life highlight these points. For McFarland the first step in city planning was not design, it was political activism. As he explained in a 1906 Outlook Magazine column, the "good citizen" was not one that hoped for municipal improvement; instead he explained intelligent citizens ". . . are informed at least upon the fundamental facts of the finance of their immediate municipalities."6 As a taxpayer, the active citizen was a stockholder in a municipal corporation required to use their knowledge to promote civic betterment. In an attempt to address both physical congestion and societal upheaval associated with city life, middle-class Americans turned to city planning. This shift was neither accidental nor uniform; instead civic groups and concerned individuals educated themselves and struggled to define the aims associated with planning. [End Page 486] For concerned citizens motivated to act, but unsure how to achieve results, national civic organizations provided crucial guidance and support.
My participation in the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Scholar-in-Residence Program was dedicated to understanding the impact of the American Civic Association (ACA) and its president, J. Horace McFarland, on the development of city-planning activism in the United States. The examination of the J. Horace McFarland Collection at the Pennsylvania State Archives allowed me to highlight McFarland as an under-appreciated figure in the Progressive Era. The archive's vast holdings represent a unique opportunity for scholars interested in reform. The collection, which includes personal correspondence, organization papers, photographs, pamphlets, and other materials allows us to situate McFarland's legacy within a broader context and place new emphasis on the practice and ideology associated with comprehensive planning as expressed through the ACA.
In many ways, McFarland was the ACA, acting as president for twenty years, from the organization's inception he guided its agenda. McFarland and the organization he led became crucial agents for spreading planning and conservation ideas in the United States. A conservationist as well as a planning advocate, he helped to defend Niagara Falls from power company interests, worked with John Muir to preserve Yosemite Park, and pushed for a National Park Service. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft recognized McFarland's expertise as advocate for conservation and beautification. In addition, he became a recurring adviser to interior secretaries throughout his long career. A lifetime resident of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, McFarland's reputation began with activism to develop a comprehensive city plan that transformed the city into a nationally known urban planning success story. From there, McFarland pursued political reform, planning development, and efficiency in other American cities.7
While other leading lights of the City Beautiful Movement were self-styled planning professionals, McFarland stands apart as a lay advocate for planning and conservation. Respected in many circles and emulated by concerned citizens, McFarland and the ACA provided important inspiration and practical information to grassroots campaigns in countless...