Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

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The City Beautiful Movement was a nationwide, turn-of-the-twentieth-century trend in urban planning to rectify the decay and demoralization of communities through the beautification of the city. Urban areas across Oklahoma and the nation were growing exponentially, and leaders increasingly realized the critical importance of community planning, not only in sustaining urban growth but also for the continued health and safety of residents and visitors. Proponents of the City Beautiful Movement believed that by beautifying an urban area with wide, elegant avenues, carefully planned landscape designs, and opulent, usually Beaux Arts style, buildings, the pride of the city would be restored, and inner cities would maintain their central position within the expanding community. The movement also sought to maintain the importance of civic buildings in an era of increasing commercial development, which manifested itself in ever-taller skyscrapers that overshadowed the previously dominant civic and religious properties.

In Oklahoma, the City Beautiful Movement endured longer than in other states. While nationwide the movement generally fell from favor in the 1910s, many Oklahoma communities, including Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Chickasha, Bristow, Norman, Edmond, Enid, and Seminole, undertook various City Beautiful campaigns in the 1920s and 1930s. While much attention was paid to park development, other areas of interest included city planning and zoning, landscape design, and creation of a modern infrastructure that included paved streets, trash removal, sewer systems, and street lighting. While the City Beautiful Movement in Oklahoma as a whole was no longer touted in the 1940s, many elements of the movement permeated city planning and development, even at the end of the twentieth century.

During the first decades of the twentieth century numerous communities in Oklahoma sought to be identified as a City Beautiful. For example, in 1927 Lerona Rosamond Morris compiled and published Tulsa The City Beautiful. While this book covered a variety of topics, many not related to urban planning and development, it declared that "Tulsa is known far and wide as the city beautiful because of cleanliness, flowers and homes that have transformed a rolling prairie waste into cool streets, pleasant gardens and peaceful waters of a thousand fountains."

In 1903 one of the state's earliest City Beautiful organizations was formed in Oklahoma City. At that time prominent members of the city's various ladies' clubs organized a Civic Improvement League. Its primary purpose was to beautify the community and to improve its sanitary conditions. In addition to hiring a scenic gardener the organization also had plans for an ordinance that would give the league authority over the design of city parks, streets, pavements, sidewalks, and location of trees, as well as other duties.

By 1915 Addington, Frederick, Tahlequah, Wilburton, El Reno, Pauls Valley, Garfield, and Hawthorne, among other communities, had formed or were forming similar local civic improvement leagues. Many of these local groups belonged to the State Civic Improvement Association, formed in about 1914 and headed for several years by Dr. Charles Evans (Edmond) as president and Anton Classen (Oklahoma City) as chairman. In addition to a variety of activities, including sponsoring flower shows and city-wide clean-up days, both levels of civic improvement leagues advocated the development of neighborhood clubs to guide the development and beautification of the various city areas. While many of these groups waned in the 1920s, they left a legacy of city and neighborhood improvements by and for the concerned citizen.

In 1909 the city fathers of Oklahoma City turned to planning professionals for aid in creating their City Beautiful. W. H. Dunn, superintendent of parks in Kansas City, was engaged to develop a park and boulevard plan for Oklahoma City. Dunn's 1910 plan, often referred to as the Park-Dunn plan, called for the purchase of two thousand acres for city parks and the construction of Grand Boulevard. Although some progress was made on the scheme, due to high costs it was not fully implemented, a common problem with City Beautiful plans.

Despite this, interest in the planned development of Oklahoma City continued so that in 1919 noted City Beautiful planner George E. Kessler of St. Louis, Missouri, was hired by the city commissioners. Within Oklahoma City, Kessler had previously designed development and landscape plans for the State Capitol environs and for Harn Park. He was also acknowledged nationwide, having designed City Beautiful plans in several growing metropolitan areas, including Denver, Kansas City, and Dallas. As envisioned by noted Oklahoma City architect Solomon Layton and developer Anton Classen, Kessler was hired to develop a fully comprehensive, city-wide plan. The objective was to address future growth, as well as to resolve existing problems ranging from street widening to getting out of lawsuits related to the inadvertent dumping of sewage in the North Canadian River. Kessler's plan was not complete, however, when he suddenly died in March 1923.

Nearly five years later city administration again turned to planning experts to finish Oklahoma City's City Beautiful plan. In February 1928 the city hired S. Herbert Hare of Hare and Hare of Kansas City, Missouri, to complete Kessler's plan and enlarge the scope to incorporate the tremendous ongoing and projected development of Oklahoma City. Hare was highly recommended by other southwestern cities, including Fort Worth and Houston, where he served as planning engineer. Among other City Beautiful recommendations, the Hare and Hare plan of 1930 called for a classic City Beautiful civic area for Oklahoma City. This included not only monumental, Classically-inspired buildings but also intricately designed landscape and street plans to connect and highlight the civic area. The buildings of the civic area, including the Municipal Auditorium, Municipal Building, and Oklahoma County Courthouse, were constructed per the Hare and Hare plan in the mid-1930s. Notably, all of the buildings were funded by grants from the New Deal's Public Works Administration, an unprecedented but timely solution to financing the notoriously costly City Beautiful plans. In 1944 the city of Oklahoma City updated their city plan, thus ending the reign of the City Beautiful Movement in Oklahoma City planning.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: The Comprehensive City Plan (Oklahoma City, Okla.: City Planning Commission, July 1949). Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 6 March 1903 and 16 October 1938. Hare and Hare, Report of the City Planning Commission Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1930 (Oklahoma City, Okla.: City Planning Commission, 1931). S. Herbert Hare, "What Do We Want, A City or Just Population?" Chickasha: Official Publication of the Chickasha Chamber of Commerce (March 1930). Mrs. Dan Morris, Tulsa The City Beautiful (Tulsa, Okla.: n.p., 1927). William H. Wilson, The City Beautiful Movement (Baltimore, Md.: John Hopkins Press, 1989).

Cynthia Savage

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