Civic improvement : Chautauqua and Progressive Era aesthetic reform

Posner, Avrom, Department of Art and Architectural History, University of Virginia
Wilson, Richard, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia
Zunz, Olivier, Department of History, University of Virginia

Progressive Era Reformers (the 1890s - 1920s) shared a common ideology, seeking to foster positive societal change through the aesthetic manipulation of the decorative and built environment. The theme of Civic Improvement united the different aesthetic activities in which they engaged, just as their various projects drew on a wide range of styles.

Despite the many facets of Civic Improvement — or perhaps because of them — most scholarship does not address the breadth of its manifestations, preferring to select one or several to explore. Architectural historians separate these efforts into discrete classifications, while classic political or economic historians at best make brief mention of aesthetic reform. An examination of the American League for Civic Improvement and its influence on the built environment of the Chautauqua Institution and the reformers' year-round communities demonstrates, however, that the reform activities, although complex and sometimes contradictory, belong to a continuum. The tum-of-the-century grounds of Chautauqua, were conceived as a Model Summer City of Improvement and should be read as an example of varied but complementary styles coming together as an integrated whole to improve the quality of life.

Chautauqua offers an ideal lens through which to view the aesthetic activities and attitudes of the Progressive Era for two reasons. First, the Chautauqua summer season was an important, highly visible venue for the dissemination of a relatively complete spectrum of reform ideals and issues; these in tum prepared the ground for the commissioning of a master plan to position Chautauqua as a "Model Summer City." The subsequent building campaign, with its array of styles, scales, and functions, was the built representation of these ideals. Second, Chautauqua's reformers were typically summer residents who were active during the majority of the year in their home communities throughout the country. The best approach to facilitating an exploration of the multiple aspects that comprise Civic Improvement is to examine their lives using the methodology of collective biography. This ancillary examination of the breadth of the year-round activities of some of these reformers provides a useful gauge of the many pursuits that should be viewed under the rubric of Civic Improvement.

Note: Abstract extracted from PDF file via OCR.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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