Sunday, February 25, 2007

'Springfield Present and Prospective (1905), The Visible Charm, As It Was, Is, and May Be,' Excerpt II

Here is another excerpt of the book 'Springfield Present and Prospective' (Pond & Campbell 1905). From the chapter 'The Visible Charm: As It Was, Is, and May Be,' authored by Eugene C. Gardner, this second section, 'From Center to Circumference,' continues the chapter's first part, 'Looking Backward.'

Continued from 'I. Looking Backward, 1. Nature's Legacy.'

I. Looking Backward

2. From Center to Circumference

Doubtless the most conspicuous element of natural beauty in Springfield is the river; while the most essential and permanent characteristic of the city's material development is the manner in which its growth has beeen adapted to the almost faultless site. Unlike St. Petersburg, many a western town and some nearer home, it has not been necessary to remove mountains of rock or sand, either by faith or dynamite; to fill up marshes and bogs that Nature evidently intended for saurians and other croakers; nor to build dykes to keep out the aggressive ocean - not to any great extent. Almost from the first, the streets and thoroughfares, whether for residence or business, have followed the lines of the least resistance. Not the traditional meandering cattle paths of Boston, but the slightly and gracefully devious ways which an ardent lover or a guest sure of his welcome would naturally follow to reach the end of his journey, in the good old days when safe and swift arrival was not the only charm of travel.

The intersection of two main lines of travel, virtually at right angles, gave from the first an advantage not only in convenience of traffic and travel, but in the way of aesthetic possibilities which could hardly have existed under other conditions. One of these lines loosely paralleled the river, as in so many old New England towns and villages, and constituted in its earlier years the main axis and substance of the settlement, with farms and holdings on the west side, running back to the river which formed their rear boundary. The other thoroughfare gradually evolved from the eastward trail, encountered Main street near State and crossed it in a somewhat irregular fashion, proceeding over the river and the old West Springfield common. Eastward and westward these lines of travel stretched out across the country over bluffs and plains into the narrow, crooked valleys through which the smaller tributaries find their way to the large river. It hardly need be said that in this discussion of Springfield, both sides of the river are included and whatever we choose to claim toward the north and south.

A city by the sea unless it encircles the head of the bay is one-sided, and the same is true of those that are confined to either side of a large river, or barricaded at the back by inaccessible mountains. Like men of genius such cities command the greatest admiration for their preeminent merit - for instance, nothing can be finer than the magnificent setting of Holyoke against the southern side of Mount Tom - but they lack the broader and far more enduring charms of all-round excellence. This latter quality Springfield possesses in a marked and literal degree. Whether we take the wings of the morning and fly to Indian Orchard, Chicopee Falls and Ludlow, or dwell in the uttermost parts of Tatham, we can walk beside still waters and lie down in green pastures, as well as in fertile meadows and cornfields. Everywhere there are pleasant walks, and the state roads are good for man, beast, and automobile. If all our suburban highways and so-called roads were perfect, there would be nothing for future generations to accomplish, or give to the present generation that wholesome dissatisfaction which is the necessary precursor and incentive to improvement.

It seems to have followed naturally from the conditions of the birth and subsequent growth of the city, that the obvious civic center has scarcely changed its geographical location. The centrifugal forces have been almost equally strong in every direction. Ward One, Forest Park, the Hill, and West Springfield -north, south, east and west - who shall say which is the most delightful suburb?

As in the old New England towns, almost without exception, the first church erected was the point from which all things emanated, toward which all things tended, and around which everything revolved. It not only dominated the green turf in front, and the sometimes dreary burial ground behind, or at one side, but it set the pace for all other local affairs, social, political and educational as well as religious. It has not always happened, however, as here, that this ethical and business center has remained the visible aesthetic center. And although but a comparatively small part of our best architectural growth has been adjacent to Court square, and other churches have shared the burdens and responsibilities of directing our temporal as well as spiritual concerns, the characteristic, though by no means ornate, or altogether graceful, spire of the First church remains, as regards locality, the civic center of gravity. A skeleton map of the situation as it is today is fairly represented by the foregoing sketch.

It is obvious at a single glance how much greater are the opportunities for a beautiful city with such a ground plan than if it were helplessly constrained to the lines and the squares of a chess board. By filling the spaces between these variously curved diverging streets with small parallelograms a very complete map of the city would be produced, and it is easy to see that if all the main thoroughfares were straight and intersected each other at right angles, the chief charm of the plan would be lost. The natural point for minor public squares and open spaces is at the junction of these larger avenues, and many such already exist, so that from whatever quarter or direction we approach the center of the city, we encounter these ornamental oases.

The general picturesqueness is still farther enhanced by the uneven surface of the site which, of course, does not appear on the map. There are constant surprises in the way of charming vistas, either looking down across the valley or up toward the woody heights of the bluffs, that are not found in cities where all things are doomed to remain on the dead level. It is no wonder that the ancient Egyptians found their greatest enjoyment in building pyramids, and the Babylonians hung their gardens high in the air. We all like something to look up to and to look down upon.

Whether the attractiveness of the city's plan is thought to be due to happy chance, to the foresight of those who accidentally, or otherwise, determined the course of the principal highways of travel and trade, or to that overruling Providence which compels men to build better than they know, it is evident that the result is most excellent. So excellent, in fact, that we may seriously question whether the larger matters of business traffic and actual convenience, as well as of ultimate landscape architectural effect, could have been more wisely arranged if the genius of L'Enfant himself, instead of the domestic, commercial and social needs of our ancestors, had determined the first outline sketch of the city and its environment. By this irregular plan, small parks and open spaces are easily established without large outlay or sacrifice of public convenience. Trees, turf and flowers give an almost rural appearance even close to the very center, and render possible that dignified and sympathetic union of landscape and structural architecture which constitutes the most refined and exalted expression of civic aesthetics. Beauty in buildings alone is cold and costly; landscape without architectural embellishment belongs to rural life. The wise combination of the two - the color and grace of tree and shrub, of leaf and flower, the music of falling water and the silver light on river and fountain, all allied and inseperably blended with the artificial structures that minister to the needs of men and accompany human activities - is and always has been the constant aim and, when achieved, the crowning glory of the noblest civic art.

Continued: 'Section II. Plan of the Ground Floor, 1. The Inner Circle.'

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