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Detroit's City Beautiful and the Problem of Commerce

Daniel M. Bluestone
Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians
Vol. 47, No. 3 (Sep., 1988), pp. 245-262
DOI: 10.2307/990300
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/990300
Page Count: 18
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Detroit's City Beautiful and the Problem of Commerce
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Abstract

Edward H. Bennett and Frank Miles Day's plan for Detroit's Center of Arts and Letters in 1913 culminated the local City Beautiful movement. Cass Gilbert's Detroit Public Library and Paul Cret's Detroit Institute of Arts were built on axis, on either side of Woodward Avenue, in the middle of the center. In scrutinizing the center's origin and form, this essay outlines a broader interpretation of the City Beautiful movement, one that goes beyond explanations that focus primarily upon the formal model presented by the design of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. In late 19th-century American cities, commercial forms increasingly disrupted a traditional hierarchy in which civic, cultural, and religious buildings had dominated the cityscape and the skyline. Looking at the earlier architecture and the urban context of the institutions housed in the Center of Arts and Letters, this essay argues that the City Beautiful represented a powerful and conservative attempt to restore the dominance of civic buildings and landscapes in the face of commercial monumentality. The City Beautiful in Detroit set out to redress the "most unworthy contrast" presented to the civic landscape by commercial forms and interests.

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