The Brunner Plan for the Harrisburg Capitol Complex
In 1915 the commonwealth began a massive urban project providing government offices and a public park to replace the Eighth Ward of Harrisburg just to the east of the Capitol building. The organizing design was the Brunner Plan, created by architect and planner Arnold W. Brunner (1857–1925), a champion of classically inspired civic spaces. The ambitious plan reflected the ideals of the City Beautiful movement and made Harrisburg's Capitol Park one of the best designed capitol complexes in the country.
Harrisburg, Brunner Plan, Pennsylvania state capitol, Arnold Brunner, city planning
The Pennsylvania Capitol complex occupies approximately forty-five acres of ground south and east of the Capitol building. The result of decades of planning and building, much of the development reflects the organizing design principle of the so-called Brunner Plan, created by architect Arnold W. Brunner (1857–1925). Brunner's buildings, which extend perpendicular to the Capitol to create a long three-sided park that recalls Daniel Burnham's great Washington, DC, mall, were ambitious for its day. The execution of the plan beginning in 1915 and implemented systematically until 1930 (and sporadically after that) put Harrisburg in the forefront of the City Beautiful movement.
The Brunner Plan followed on the heels of the Capitol Park Extension Bill (P. L. 1027), passed by the state legislature in 1911. The commonwealth and the city agreed that the state would gradually buy up and raze properties within the older sections of the Eighth Ward to make room for government buildings. Home to nearly 1,500 people, this part of the city contained many kinds of residences, businesses, hotels, churches, and synagogues. It was the center [End Page 155] of Harrisburg's African American population and eastern European Jewish immigrant community (see Rachel Williams, "History and Memory of the Old Eighth Ward," and Bruce Bazelon, "The Trek Uptown: The Migration of Harrisburg's Jewish Community in the Early Twentieth Century," in this issue).1 This type of "slum clearance" evident in the bill was not uncommon in major cities, though it was more common in older and denser European cities. For example, Baron Haussmann's clearance of major sections of Paris in the nineteenth century was followed by the demolition of the Ghetto in Rome in 1888, and then the clearance of the Old Jewish Quarter of Prague between 1893 and 1913. Until the early twentieth century, most American urban demolition programs had been private decisions, usually undertaken for financial gain, not public ones for reasons of access, health, and beauty. A notable exception was the clearance of African American, Irish, and other settlements in Uptown Manhattan for the new Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. The rise of the city planning profession and the contemporary and sometimes overlapping City Beautiful movement quickened this process. Harrisburg became an important demonstration of this new public power.
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By December 1915 the hundreds of buildings in the Capitol Park extension zone had been removed. The park commission acquired 517 of the 557 properties in the district by "amicable proceedings." Condemnation proceedings took another twenty properties. It was argued that eliminating outdated and cramped tenements would allow Harrisburg to plan a campus of state buildings. Thus, on November 9, 1916, the Board of Public Grounds and Buildings engaged New York architect Arnold W. Brunner and Boston landscape architect Warren H. Manning (1860–1938) to make recommendations for a new park and series of state office buildings to enhance the neighborhood's visual and physical appearance while respecting the existing capitol building, but also to provide much needed space for the expanding state bureaucracy.2 Capitol building architect Joseph Miller Huston was surely not considered, being convicted of graft in 1911 related to the building's construction.3
Arnold Brunner was a nationally known architect and leading practitioner of the new field of urban planning. He was especially adept in planning public spaces and in the efficient interior arrangement of buildings, including schools, laboratories, public baths, hospitals, university, religious and community buildings. Two of his most prominent designs were for the Cleveland Federal Building (1903–10) and the Adolph Lewisohn Stadium, an amphitheater and athletic facility on the campus of the City University of New York (1915).
Since 1903 Brunner had served as one of three architects behind the much-publicized Cleveland Group Plan, just coming into full realization in the early teens. John Carrère and Daniel Burnham, Brunner's partners in the project, had died in 1911 and 1912 respectively, leaving Brunner to carry the project forward and also as torchbearer for large-scale Beaux Arts urban civic spaces. Brunner also was consulted about urban redesign for the centers of Baltimore, Rochester, Albany, Denver, and of other cities, but much of the inspiration for the Harrisburg Plan derives from the Cleveland experience.4
Manning had worked for Frederick Law Olmsted and in the early twentieth century became a proponent of "wild landscape" and took a role in the campaign to preserve American open lands.5 Manning's aesthetic was fundamentally different from Brunner's preference for Beaux Arts design and formal and monumental civic centers, but in their careers both men adapted to and adopted elements of both approaches. From 1907 Manning worked on projects in Cleveland and it is likely that he and Brunner were well acquainted. Manning's Harrisburg work included consultations about Bellevue Park, the riverfront, and parks, and he and Brunner consulted about the Capitol Park. [End Page 157]
The planners had a major restraint: the location, scale, form, and decoration of the existing capitol building, completed in 1906. Matlock Price, who clearly conferred with Brunner, described the situation in Architectural Record,
Mr. Brunner had not the advantage of planning an entire new Capitol group, but was confronted with the problem of carrying on with the present building as a point of departure, and adding to it such extensions or related buildings as would meet the needs of the State's growing business. … [T]he new plan, as Mr. Brunner visualized it, must be at all events courteous to the old building, and, if possible, tend even to glorify it and make it, by approach and setting, look better than it actually is.6
Brunner pointed out deficiencies of the Capitol, and that "little thought had been given to the eastern front … facing as it did a neglected neighborhood of mean streets, but in the new order of things what had formerly been its back door will now become the garden front."7 Brunner extended new buildings perpendicular to the Capitol, which he viewed as detached wings, creating a long three-sided park recalling Burnham's great Washington, DC mall. New office buildings complemented the Capitol but did not compete. They are classical in design, but austere and functional. [End Page 158]
The South Office Building (now the K. Leroy Irvis Building), built in the early 1920s, along with four barrack-like temporary buildings for state agencies. Completed in 1929, the North Office Building was followed by the Forum (or Education Building) in 1931, and the Finance Building in 1940. The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Bridge, planned in honor of all Pennsylvania's veterans in 1919, was not completed until 1930. Between these buildings was the great Capitol Park, viewed as a force for public good for citizens of all ages. Brunner wrote:
The dominant idea of the design of the Capitol Park has been to make it not only stately and beautiful, but useful for the people. Under the great rows of trees which in time will meet overhead and provide grateful shade, will be gravel walks, seats, and small fountains—real playgrounds for the children and for us grown-ups.8
Twentieth-century reformers promoted the benefits of parks. Besides the late nineteenth-century Olmsted parks, Brunner knew of William Penn's "Greene country towne" of Philadelphia and, close to home, Gramercy Park in New York, the private green space across from his own apartment.9
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By July 18, 1919, following the completed demolition of the old Eighth Ward, and the conclusion of the First World War, Act No. 420 (P. L. 1049) authorized the construction of the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Bridge (State Street Bridge). Designed by John E. Greiner (1859–1942) and Brunner, the bridge would span Paxton Creek, Cameron Street, and several railroad lines to connect the new Capitol Park to the area around Reservoir Park. Greiner worked for bridge and railroad companies before forming the J. E. Greiner Company in 1908.10 The Memorial Bridge was not completed, however, until after Brunner's death in 1925 and was modified by Brunner's associates, William Gehron and Sydney Ross. Plans for a memorial museum under the bridge never materialized. It was used instead as office and storage space.
The Historic American Engineering Record describes the bridge as: a monument to the heroism of both Pennsylvanians specifically. … The western approach is marked by two 143′ pylons topped with carved war eagles [by Lee Lawrie] representing the army and the navy. Each pylon measures 25″ by 16′ at its base and 13′-6″ by 22′-6″ at its top. … The dates of all major wars in which the United States had participated by 1930 are incised into the pylons beneath the eagles. [End Page 160] Around the base of each pylon is a limestone terrace. The names of pivotal battles in U.S. military history up to 1930 are inscribed around the walls of this area.11
In the 1930s the state laid out Fisher Plaza and Soldiers and Sailors Grove. Subsequently several new post–World War II modern buildings affected the stately order of the plan. Only in the 1980s, when a new Capitol East Wing replaced an open parking lot, was a final but important piece of Brunner's plan implemented.
Changes through the decades demonstrate that the best-laid plans may go awry or be unappreciated. But in the twenty-first century, following a
[End Page 161] half century of impersonal modern architectural design, Brunner's mix of monumental building, human-centered spaces, functionality, and symbolic elements again take their place as a great achievement in civic design.
samuel d. gruber is an architectural historian and historic preservation consultant based in Syracuse, New York. He has written about Brunner's designs of synagogues in American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community (Rizzoli, 2003), and in "Arnold W. Brunner and the New Classical Synagogue in America," Jewish History 25, no. 1 (2011): 69–102. He is presently at work on a monograph about Brunner among other projects.
. In memory of Jacob W. Gruber (1921–2019), chairman of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1976–78.
1. James Wilson, "Out with the Old 8th: A teeming Neighborhood Once Stood on the Grounds of the Capitol Complex," The Burg: Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine, August 29, 2013. For primary accounts at the time of demolition, see Michael Barton and Jessica Dorman, eds., Harrisburg's Old Eighth Ward (Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2002).
2. "Millions Needed for Big Buildings. Architect for State Planning Building Projects for Board of Public Ground that Cost Enormous Amount," Altoona Mirror, December 3, 1915.
3. "Huston Goes to Prison" New York Times, May 24, 1911, 1.
4. Baltimore: Arnold W. Brunner, John Carrère and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., Partial Report on "City Plan" (Baltimore: Municipal Art Society of Baltimore, 1910). Rochester: Arnold W. Brunner, Frederick Law Olmsted [Jr.], and Bion J. Arnold, A City Plan for Rochester: A Report Prepared for the Rochester Civic Improvement Committee (1911); available online at https://archive.org/details/acityplanforroc00commgoog/page/n9. Albany: Arnold W. Brunner, "Studies for City of Albany, New York," American Architect 106 (August 26, 1914): 113–20, 123–26; Arnold W. Brunner and Charles Downing Lay, Studies for Albany (New York: Bartlett-Orr Press, 1914). Denver: Frederick Law Olmsted [Jr.] and Arnold W. Brunner, "Preliminary Report on Denver Civic Center to Board of Park Commissioners," City of Denver, August 3, 1912.
5. R. Karson, "Warren H. Manning: Pragmatist in the Wild Garden," in Nature and Ideology: Natural Garden Design in the Twentieth Century, ed. Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn, vol. 18 of Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium on the History of Landscape Architecture (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1997).
6. Matlack Price, "Capitol Park, Harrisburg, Pa.: Arnold W. Brunner, Architect," Architectural Record 53 (April 1923): 286–306.
7. "Arnold Brunner, Capitol Park, Harrisburg, Pa.," Architecture 41, no. 5 (May 1920): 127.
8. Ibid., 129.
9. Brunner lived at 1 Lexington Avenue in New York, facing Gramercy Park. He frequented the Players Club and the National Arts Club, both situated across the park.
10. "Greiner, John Edwin (1859–1942)," Philadelphia Architects and Buildings, https://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ar_display.cfm/79966.
11. For more information, view the HARB/HAER page at http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hh:@field(DOCID+@lit(PA3574)).