By the 1900s, the dismal local politics of city and suburb notwithstanding, Boston had become something “entirely new” in the western world according to historian Sam Bass Warner Jr. “A mass, suburban metropolis like Boston had never existed before anywhere in the world”, that historian has written, concluding at the end of the day, so to speak, what Lewis Mumford had caught sight of in early days, when he observed that Boston’s sorrounding dependencies all had a bit of Brookline about them, all seeming to him “more like country towns than dormitory suburbs.” Thus the subject of my last online essay. Thus too the subject of Keith Morgan’s forthcoming book: “Communiy by Design: The F. L. Olmsted Office and the Making of Brookline, Massachusetts, 1880 – 1936”. ( I must add, however, that Morgan’s working title also couches the problem of city/suburb under discussion in this series in different terms than would I, who would prefer “the Making of Boston’s Premiere Suburb”, or, perhaps, of “America’s First Elite Suburb”).
The “country” Mumford saw owed everything, of course, to landscape architect Charles Eliot’s skill at enhancing and preserving the natural beauties of the parks and reservations with which the suburbs were so so entwined.
As I see it, just as Olmsted and Richardson seem such apt partners in shaping the urban-suburban visual image of the 1870s and 1880s, so in the decades following do Eliot and John Singer Sargent emerge similarly; Eliot’s artistic enhancement of the suburbs finding its most telling parallel in John Singer Sargent’s enhancement of the city core. What Eliot did for the Boston suburbs, what Sargent did for Boston’s core, was not, strictly speaking, in either case necessary; but was so much more than merely decorative that it now seems essential in both places to their character; so much so that the loss of murals or parks would make either city or suburb much less compelling.
Both men drew heavily on European sources. In Sargent’s case, he “engaged in an unprecedented artistic and cultural exchange with an important group of Boston art patrons who encouraged him to realize his greatest ambition, to become a mural painter in the tradition of Michelangelo”, a thrilling purpose in the American intellectual capital, “a city” historian Jane Dini of California State University, Los Angeles, observes “that delighted in the notion that it was the center of the appreciation of the Italian Renaissance in America”, the issue of which, of course, scholars like University of Virginia historian Richard Guy Wilson have christened the American Renaissance,
In Eliot’s case it was the landscape design of the former Prince Pucker estate at Moskau in Silesia that was his Vatican, “a prototype for all that [he] did in America” in Keith Morgan’s words, it having “presented Eliot with a lasting lesson on how to capitalize on the inherent qualities of site and celebrate the ability of man to enhance nature.”
Both men also strongly channelled American sources, however. Eliot, who worked under Olmsted, was always quoting Emerson, and his “proto-environmentalist viewpoint grew” according to Morgan “naturally out of his contact with the Transcendentalist[s]”. Of Sargent, who always insisted anyway on the importance to his work of his “New England conscience”, Dini notes that “Sargent’s perfect man” turned out to be “an African-American bellhop”, who became his chief model for the art museum murals. Sargent’s Boston milieu, furthermore, more friendly by far to Italian than to Irish immigrants in this period, was vitalized as Dini put it by the “possibility of creating an Italian/New England hybrid, possesing the skill of Paul Revere and the ingenuity of Michelangelo.”
Finally, Eliot and Sargent both wrestled from all these sources much that was very original indeed. It was in Boston, Dini insisted, that the painter “achieved in his public commissions his geatest personal breakthrough in representing the sensuality of the [human] figure.” Of Eliot’s originality in his Boston landscape work enough hymns perhaps have been sung here already.
Key to it all is to notice that Sargent’s murals — at the Copley Square Public Library, at the new Huntington Avenue Museum of Fine Arts of 1909 and then at Harvard’s Widener Library — are alike to Eliot’s parks in that they define Puritan become Emersonian Boston in the same way Michelangelo’s and Raphael’s define Imperial become Papal Rome, not least in the way they bypass the quite secondary capitoline status on the one hand of Boston in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and on the other hand of Rome in the Papal States and, later, in the Kingdom of Italy, for what is, as it were, the bigger story, in Boston’s case the vision of “the city upon a hill” Boston’s founder, John Winthrop, first invoked in his shipboard sermon on the verge of the New World.
Not for nothing does Dini entitle her chapter in “Sargent in Italy” “Boston’s Michelangelo”, a theme I picked up on in an article I wrote for the Anglican Theological Review in 2002. It was an essay that like so many which appear in print in scholarly journals in recent years, has perhaps not reached the wide readership I had hoped for. Entitled “Renaissance Rome and Emersonian Boston: Michelangelo and Sargent, Between Triumph and Doubt,” the article uses Universiy of Maryland historian Sally Promey’s brlliant book on Sargent’s Copley Square library murals, which make Sargent Hall what one critic has called “the American Sistene Chapel”, as a point of departure for a discussion very like the one we are having here. These library murals are the response of a great American master to Michelangelo’s and Raphael’s work at the height of the Italian Renaissance, work Sargent saw as the “quintessential mural cycles of western art,” work Promey noted Sargent went on to “assimilate and substantially rework aspects of, [setting] up Rome and the Vatican in particular as the artistic and religious foil for his Boston enterprize.” What greater glorification of Boston’s monumental new civic center and American agora of faith and learning could be imagined? Never mind the fact that when compared to John LaFarge’s mural cycle at Trinity Church across the square, what was achieved was one of the most striking (indeed, contradictory) episodes in the history of western art and religion in the modern period.”
One has only to walk two blocks north of the same square, to Commonwealth Avenue, to access the “emerald necklace” of Olmsted and Eliot which leads into their metropolitan-wide park system, and only across the square to the birthplace of MIT, where as we’ve seen Eliot launched the plan for the Trustees of Public Reservations, to startle the mind into realizing the interconnections between what may be called the crowning achievements of city and suburb, Sargent’s murals, Eliot’s parks . In each case city is becoming metropolis/megalopolis, Athens becoming Rome.
Indeed, Eliot’s work it is that in the first place suggests my comparison with Sargent’s in that in his landscape work he proved in fact his own idea that a stand of oaks in the Boston suburb of Belmont, carefully preserved and enhanced, as much a treasure worth treasuring as any painting in the art museum by Sargent or anyone else. Witness the attention paid in Paris at the great exposition there in 1900 to the huge plaster model, eleven feet in diamater, which depicted the Boston park system. Later the model travelled as many thousand miles west as it had east, exhibited as it was also in Portland, Oregon.
Wherever seen, the achievement that model represented was almost entirely Charles Eliot’s, so dedicated and heartfelt were his efforts in aid of his vision. Eliot, in fact, doubtless advised by Baxter, exhibited the deftness and brilliance, and the political skills, that so escaped the elected offcials of Boston and its suburbs in this era.
Eliot knew very well the terrain he needed to master. He knew it from inside, son as he was of the uber Brahmin founder of modern Harvard. Wheras the Brahmins had taken the lead in developing the Back Bay as a highly ornamental city quarter within the core city, even though it involved beating back the much more commercial district middle class Yankee’s wanted and putting up with the liklihood of unfriendly Irish Catholic local politics, Eliot knew his Brahmin cousins were wary if not outrught hostile to metropolitan political ambitions, inconvenient as they were to their own idea of their own suburban fiefdoms. Eliot knew too that the Yankee middle class would follow the ruling class to the suburbs. Boston might be Athens becoming Rome. but Eliot knew what was meant by those who Warner quotes: “Boston, they said, would share the fate of Rome if the middle class, which hitherto had provided the governance of the city. . . abandoned the city for the suburbs.” Eliot knew the urgency of ameliorating that development.
The young man did not need to read David Hackett Fischer’s compelling work on the Boston character at the cutting edge of the American revolution, when Bostonians determined in Bernard Bailyn’s famous phrase, to “begin the world anew.” However, we do.
Smith describes well, for example, Paul Revere’s genuis, as well as his limitations, when he writes: “[Revere] regarded British imperal measures as ‘newfangled innovations’ and believed he wa sdefending the inherited folk rights of New England; its ancient custom of self government.” General Gage, meanwhile, the Royal Governor, worked for “the reform of American institutions especially in New England . . . . [He] deeply disapproved of the folkways of New England Town Meetings in particular, which the Whigs of Boston regarded as the palladium of their liberty”, in Smith’s words, and “the ark of their ancestral rights.” Gage, indeed, urged his masters in London “to abolish town meetings altogether and replace them with . . . borough government”.
A century and more later it was perhaps no accident that the junior partner of the New York/Brooklyn model of annexationist metropolitanism would be a case of city becoming borough, while the junior partner of the Boston/Brookline model would be a case of town remaining town. Meanwhile, in the later period, opponents of annexation [to the city of Boston] countered”, according to Warner, “with the ideal of small town life . . . the town meeting . . . the traditions of New England”, things that incited Paul Revere to revolution in the previous century. ( With later day New Englanders there was also the rather more problematic aspect that Warner quotes them as “frankly stat[ing] that independent suburban towns could maintain native [i.e.,Anglo Saxon] American life free from Boston’s wave of immigrants, by which they meant, Warner makes plain, “the special suburban form of popularly managed local government”. It is hard to miss the localism there; nativism too, never mind ethnic bigotry. )
Is it a bit of a reach comparing the 18th century revolutionary Bostonian with the 19th century suburban Bostonian? In a wide ranging text about the development of the modern American suburb in all fifty states, “Crabgrass Frontier”, Kenneth Johnson, would put the annexatonist struggle in terms both Revere and Gage understood very well: “with the exception of Boston” — significant exception — “the thrust of [American] municipal government was imperialistic [emphasis added]”, Johnson insisted, ” and the trend was clearly toward metropolitan government.”
It is in this context that I am so taken another hundred years later, with the very different language of Charles Eliot, so much more suave and unthreatening. For example, of his goals for the enormously radical idea of the Trustees of Reservations, Eliot wrote that the board should consist of “citizens of all the Boston towns, and empowered by the state to hold small and well distributed parcels of land . . . just as the Public Library holds books and the art museum pictures.”
“All the Boston towns”. What a lovely, almost lyrical phrase. What a harmonious prospect. Eliot’s words deferred graciously to the cherished independence of the town meeting in every town, while at the same time catching hold with a certain flair of the equally evident if often surpressed feeling as to whose towns they were! Boston’s towns! (Chorus of “go Red Sox” today.)
Eliot’s diplomatic and political skills were exceptional. He “lobbied ceaselessly, through prolific letter writing, frequent public speaking, appearances before legislative committees and regular contributions to popular magazines”, Morgan writes; adding: “political and social action were two of the tools Eliot wielded brilliantly . . . . Eliot innately understood how to inform and influence”.
Never was this clearer than in the first Boston Park Commission report of 1893. Denying any political ambition for “control of suburban development,” Eliot couched the metropolitan dismension of his cause frankly enough — “envision[ing] an ‘Emerald Metropolis’, ” — but with “emerald”, so to speak, seeming to take much of the curse off “metropolis”; within which, furthermore, Eliot’s vision focused not on city splendors but on suburban natural beauties. ” The Emerald Metropolis,” Karl Haglund notes, “would help Bostonians feel at home by preserving “the rock-hills, the stream banks and the bay and the sea shores of greater Boston.” Eliot all but set it to music, his pitch so melodious to Victorian and Edwardian suburbanites it persuaded everybody.
The lulaby was also carefully considered. There was real substance to Eliot’s plan, substance in respect to city (town?) planning thatt was bound to appeal to those who bought into the idea od country life. In Eliot’s vision, according to Haglund, ” natural features of the area — the hills, the rivers, and the shores — should establish the armature for urban development . . . . The park commissioners plan offered the citizenry of Boston” — urban and suburban — “to see the metropolis in an entirely new way. The natural features, not the built environment, would constitute the visual structure of greater Boston”. The suburbs, as it were, not the core city, would set the tone and suburban values drive development.
Eliot was on safe ground in all this because the City Beautiful movement had already achieved its great triumph in the Copley Square library — the only rival of which in that respect was the Capital in Washington — and Bostons splendid new civic center having come first, Eliot’s emphasis on the suburbs was not only politic but timely in the metropolitan context. Indeed, a well known popular painting like Winslow Homer’s of the Waverly Oaks (now in a museum in Madrid) must have popped into more than one mind reading Eliots persuasions, linking city and suburb most effectively and , too, the Copley Square museum and his suburban parks, in just the way Eliot wanted. The day trips the park commission sponsored for municipal officials surely didn’t hurt either, full as they were of examples of how “town boundaries often bisected the most scenic areas”, examples that convinced others as Eliot had become convinced that “local interests would have to be drawn together.”
In fact, Charles Eliot must be seen as alike prophet and apostle of the Boston metropolis, more perhaps than anyone else. Thus it is not surprising that Eliot’s results have been lauded as often in the literature of town planning as in the literature of horticulture and landscape design; in Matthew Dalbey”s “Regional Visionaries and Metropolitan Boosters”, for instance. “Charles Eliot’s work in the Boston metropolitan area demonstrated as much political and organizational talent as it did forward-looking design innovations”, Dalbey wrote, while “the Trustees of Public Reservations provided the foundation for cross-jurisdictional action.”
It was action that must have had many heads spinning. The 1890 Copley Square conference at MIT authorizing the campaign for the Trustees led the following year to enabling legislation, and the year after that to alliances that “led to the creation of the Metropolitan Park Commission and the first metropolitan system of parks in America” in the words of Norman Newton, who hardly exagerated in his history of American landscape architecture when he called Eliot’s creation an “epochal historic fact . . . . the first of its kind.”
What Eliot was giving to his fellow citizens — in the highest tradition of the Brahmin elite — were the keys to the Emerald Metropolis. And, again, as at Mount Auburn a half century earlier, the gift was unrestricted. As Dalbey observes, in the usual meaning of the word, “Eliot’s regional park system plan could not be criticized as elitist, for he also called for “the incorporation of public transportation systems to shuttle the ‘masses’ to and from the preserves”.
Midst the chirping of birds there would distinctly be heard the squeal of the trolley car. Next time.
S O U R C E S
Boston Park Commission Report (1893) — see Morgan, ELIOT
Dalbey, Matthew. REGIONAL VISIONARIES AND METROPOLITAN BOOSTERS (Kluwer) 2002
Dini, Jane. “Boston’s Michelangelo” in SARGENT IN ITALY (Princeton) 2003
Eliot, Charles. “Waverly Oaks” in GARDEN AND FOREST (March 5, 1890) — see Morgan
Fischer, David Hackett. PAUL REVERE’S RIDE (Oxford) 1995
Haglund, Karl. INVENTING THE CHARLES RIVER (MIT Press) 2002
Johnson, Kenneth. CRABGRASS FRONTIER (Oxford) 1987
Morgan, Keith. CHARLES ELIOT, LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT (Massachusetts) 1999
Newton, Norman. DESIGN ON THE LAND (Harvard) 1971
Promey, Sally. PAINTING RELIGION IN PUBLIC (Princeton) 1999
Shand-Tucci, Douglass “Renaissance Rome and Emersonian Boston: Michelangelo and Sargent, Between Triumph and Doubt” in ANGLICAN THEOLOGICAL REVIEW (Fall) 2002
Wilson, Richard Guy. “The Great Civilization” in AMERICAN RENAISSANCE (Brooklyn Museum) 1979