Posts Tagged ‘White City’

On September 6th, at some o’clock in the evening, it is very likely that you can view a film entitled “Make No Little Plans: Daniel Burnham and the American City.” Here in Rochester, our local PBS station, WXXI, will carry the film at 10:00pm. I know – it’s late. But it’s worth it.

To take a look at some clips about the film, you can check this out:


I was fortunate to spend over ten years in helping this project reach the screen – doing interviews in Chicago and New York, and being interviewed in Washington by friend, colleague, and former architecture critic for the Washington Post, Ben Forgey.

Judith McBrien and her Archimedia Workshop authored and produced this terrific film. Our goal in the work was to recover Burnham’s life and work, and to reassess his role in shaping American urbanism.

Here in Rochester, two of Burnham’s colleagues, Arnold Brunner and Frederick Law Olmsted the younger, authored “A City Plan for Rochester” in 1911. Sponsored by the Rochester Civic Improvement Committee, the plan is squarely situated in the City Beautiful Movement begun by Burnham. None of the Rochester plan was constructed – their greenways are now expressways. Sigh.

Brunner and Olmsted worked with Burnham in Washington in 1900, and were good students of his urbanism.

Take a look – I hope you enjoy the film.

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A procession begins in White City, in the summer of 1909.

We speed through the spaces of our lives as quickly as we can – rushing through the city, rushing to the mall, rushing 20 or 30 miles without blinking an eye. We have to, after all – we have spread out all over the place.

But stop rushing for just a minute. Think with me about how changes in our perceptions of time, speed, and distance have radically altered this urban place we call home.

Sooner and faster and further have wrecked us. Our cities are increasingly empty ruins. The countryside is filled with what’s left. None of this is good, none of this is our future, none of this is sustainable.

In Rochester, this shift in our perceptions of space and pace, and the physical places that are a result, has led to what I call the 40 mile life: 20 minutes in any direction, on an expressway, is the diameter of our daily existence. We all lead 40 mile lives. O, to lead a 4 mile life!

But the 40 mile life wasn’t always so, and it shouldn’t be so today. I want to explore a special place in our city, because I think this place can teach us lessons about our perceptions and our cities, lessons that we need to learn, or should I say relearn. Take a moment, please.

On the shore of Lake Ontario is a place we know even today as White City. You can find it on the 1912 map – a few streets and a dense cluster of buildings where the map reads “Windsor Beach.” 

In those days, the lakeshore was a distant 8 miles or so from downtown Rochester – about a three-hour walk. The city then was much more dense than today – at least twice as dense, and occupied much less land than the city today – about a third less. As the map will show you, there was a six mile gap between the most northerly street of the city, then Norton Street, and the beaches at the lake.

Take a closer look. Those rows of buildings along the tiny streets at Windsor beach? A canvas city, and thus a White City. And in the gap between the city and the lake? Farms. One of the city’s breadbaskets.

During the fall and winter and spring, you lived in the city. In your neighborhood. In 1910 or so, it’s pretty unlikely that you had a car. A bike, perhaps, or a horse and wagon. But the scale of this mobility, and the pace of this mobility, guaranteed that you led a local life. Close to neighbors, close to work, close to the market, the schools, the churches.

A local life. Let’s say a 4 mile life.

In the summer, it was time to get out of the city so you could enjoy the nature of the city’s wonderful larger setting, the good weather, and your friends and family. So you used the only means it was likely you had – the streetcar – and you headed to the lakeshore, and White City.

White City was filled with tiny shotgun cottages, with roofs of canvas. In reality, the tent cottages were quite dense on the six or so lanes they occupied.

It was, in fact, like being at camp. Maybe the family left at the end of school in June, and Dad commuted by streetcar from the city on weekends. Or maybe you just came out for a couple of times a summer for a week or two to enjoy the water and the solace of family and friends.

Near Windsor Beach was a range of resort  hotels – eleven in all. By the middle of the 20th century they were all gone – most burned to the ground for one reason or another. But while they were there, there were fun times….

Check these two out, at the beach at nearby Sea Breeze (great name, yes?). I love the look on his face – barely concealed smugness: “I am not at work, I am with people I care about, and I am wet. Yippee!”

Resort hotels bloomed in these times. Here is the massive Hotel Ontario.

And here the more intimate Hotel Windsor. Everybody is hanging out on the porch.

Or the Hotel Bartholmay – a giant resort complex. This is a view from 1888 – this business of going to the lakeshore went on for quite a while. Please do note the trains.

In 1910, how did you get out there? One guess – streetcars. And even when the weather turned its back on vacations.

Interestingly, the street car companies were the real heavy lifters of this story – they paid, for example, for all the electricity and water at all the hotels and resorts. All aboard!

If you were fortunate to own an early car, you could drive north on Culver Road to the beach. The road, in 1917, looked like this. Orchards on the left, farms on the right. Pretty nice drive, I guess.

And today, the view on the road to Sea Breeze looks like this. Ah, the 40 mile life. Better, right? Progress, right?

And White City today looks like this, at a point very, very near where Albert Stone took that picture of the procession of children in 1909.

Yes, the tents became cottages, the cottages homes. Go and take a stroll there if you can, and capture the slower sense of time and speed and distance that once made a city a city, and a vacation a vacation, year after year, summer after summer.

We need again to find local lives – 4 mile lives. We need to transfer our mobility from our cars to something else – like streetcars for example. And we need to take the time to see our home places building by building, block by block, in the best way possible – on foot.

The stories of our lives, and the lives that came before us, are impossible to discern at 40 miles an hour. But if we slow down a bit, the things we see can astound us. Our future is close at hand – go for a walk.

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Edison’s first lamp, by Robert Farrow.

I am not a luddite, but I do have a very healthy skepticism about technology representing our salvation. In the past 10 generations, we have succeeded in making an enormous mess, thanks to technology, a mess of such proportions that we are only now beginning to understand what we have done, and what the mess means for our future. Now we use technology to assess the damage, and the reports are grim.

Nonetheless, I was curious last week about technology and speed. How quickly can a new invention change our cities? So I took some time to do some fast research, in two categories. Take a look at this.

One. In September of 1878, the Wizard of Menlo Park, Thomas Edison, declared that he would provide incandescent light to New York City.  He did not have a workable light bulb, and only limited means of generating power, but he did have the financial backing of a handful of Wall Street tycoons. The race for illumination was on.

On New Year’s Eve of 1879/80, Edison demonstrated his lighting system – bulbs, fixtures, switches, wiring – to an amazed crowd of thousands, at his New Jersey laboratory. In 1882 his Pearl Street power station in Lower Manhattan came to life, and the lights went on in New York. The city, which had been in William Manchester’s words “a world lit only by fire,” would never be dark again.

In May of 1893, at the beginning of a worldwide economic meltdown of gigantic proportions, George Westinghouse’s installation of 250,000 light bulbs and 29,000 horsepower of electric dynamos (made possible in large measure by the patented inventions of Nikola Tesla) magically lit up the White City of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, pumped water in great fountains, ran moving sidewalks, and dazzled 27 million visitors. The electric city had arrived.

That’s 15 years, from Edison’s cocky boast to a city of light.


The White City, from the Goodyear Archival Collection, Brooklyn Museum.

Two. Equally astonishing in speed, and nearly equal in its impact on our cities is, of course, the car. In 1900 there were 4,192 cars in the U.S. Today there are 250,000,000.

Henry Ford started The Ford Motor company in 1903. That year he built 1,700 cars. In 1908 he started production of the soon to be ubiquitous Model T. In 1910 Ford built 19,000 cars. In 1911 he produced 34,500. In 1924, the 10 millionth Model T rolled off the production lines.

And so our cities became places for cars, eventually at any and all cost.


Henry Ford and the Model T, 1921.

I suppose the moral of the tale is clear. We can change our cities, and how we live in them, at blazing speed – the speed of light, if you will. Perhaps not as quickly now as then, when there was very limited regulation of any kind on money, manufacture, materials, or consequences. But fast. Take comfort in this, since we now, again, must make huge changes to our cities in record time.

And perhaps the second part of the lesson is that neither Edison, nor Ford, nor pretty much anybody else during those, or any other, boom times, took much of a measure of the consequences.

Then as now, Edison burned coal to make electricity, in cities that were enormously polluted, even without cars. When Edison was at work in Manhattan, there were 150,000 horses at work in Manhattan alone. The city stank and waste was everywhere – about 2 or 3 million pounds of it a day.

So in 1887, when Frank Sprague invented the electric steetcar in Richmond, Virginia, city dwellers were elated, and the horse population dwindled quickly. Then Henry Ford sped things up even more with the mass-produced automobile.

Electricity and cars, two of the most powerful shapers of our cities, changed our cityscapes completely in just twenty years – one generation. And they set us on a course for the mess we face today.

I am certainly not eager to return to candles and horses. But I did hear something that caught my attention as I was writing today. A TV ad said that the sun provides enough energy for the entire planet’s day in just 30 seconds.

Inventors – back to your labs!


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