Thursday, December 13, 2018

Design of American Public Spaces - Greens & Squares

Public pleasure grounds existed for centuries before colonial Americans adopted the concept. In Ancient Rome, the landscaped Gardens of Sallust (Horti Sallustiani) were developed as a private garden by the historian Sallust. Roman Emperor Tiberius took over the gardens for public use. Containing many pavilions, a temple to Venus, and monumental sculptures, the gardens were open to the public for centuries.

John Warner Barber (1798-1885) Town Green in Woodstock, Connecticut

The more modest concept of the village green was common in Europe for centuries, before the British American colonies were settled.  Immigrants to the new world frequently planned their towns around a common area. The early public green or town common or town square often was a shared piece of land used for grazing livestock.

Ralph Earl (American artist, 1751-1801) Houses Fronting on New Milford Green in CT 1796

In 17th & 18th century New England, this type of public space & the church were the center of community activity for both people & their animals. It was not, however, the best land, that was saved for growing crops. 

Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania, by Thomas Holme. London, 1681

Squares differed from the single town common or green, in that squares were usually planned as multiple public spaces within a town plan.  In 1683 Philadelphia, William Penn planned that "in each Quarter of the City, is a square of eight Acres to be for the be for the like uses as the Moor-fields in London."

City of the City & Harbour of Savannah in Chatham County state of Georgia, 1818 Detail

In 1733, Savannah, Georgia, was designed by social reformer James Edward Oglethorpe (1696-1785) to have no central square; no central axis; & no single civic, religious, or governmental edifice to dominate the town. Savannah's trustees hoped to create a plural & open civil society.  A ward in Savannah would contain one common green square, surrounded by 4 groups of tythins (each consisting of ten 60' by 90' lots - one for each settler family) and 4 trust lots (180' by 55' to be used for institutions.)  In Savannah, the plan was that no design or human hierarchy would exist to impede the colonists' shared rights & responsibilities.  In 1751, Savannah & the rest of Georgia became a Royal Colony, & Savannah was made the colonial capital of Georgia.

John Warner Barber (1798-1885) East view of the public square or green in New Haven, Connecticut.

In most New England towns, the center area of the communal green usually served as a border for the main street & the site of the Congregational meetinghouse, the geographical & psychological center of the Puritan community.

George Washington Felt (American artist, 1776-1847) Fireboard depicting Courthouse Square Salem MA c 1810-20

Commons spaces surrounding center parcels were used for grazing, militia parades, marketplaces, and burying grounds.

George Ropes Jr. (American, 1788-1819) Salem Comon Parade Day 1808

During the colonial period in smaller towns, the green also was the predictable location for the schoolhouse, tavern, blacksmith shop, jail, and the "Sabbaday houses" used as winter warming huts by chilled churchgoers.

John Warner Barber (1798-1885) Town Green in Thompson, Connecticut

The land used as the town green or common was generally set aside for public use when the town was first laid out. Some greens were regular & mostly geometric in design, but others were irregular tracts shaped by the underlying topography.
John Warner Barber (1798-1885) Central Part of Concord, Mass
As decades passed, most greens developed into public parks or squares & many survive to the present day.  Many greens were transformed into parks with decorative shade trees & shrubbery.
John Warner Barber (1798-1885) , Public square or green, in New Haven, Connecticut
In the 19th century, Leonard Bacon, American Congregational clergyman (1801-1881), summed up the reasons behind the establishment of the New Haven Green. He described it as: "designed not as a park or mere pleasure ground, but as a place for public buildings, for military parades and exercises, for the meeting of buyers and sellers, for the concourse of the people, for all such public uses as were reserved of old by the Forum at Rome and the ‘Agora’ (called in our English bibles ‘the market’) at Athens, and in more recent times by the great Square of St. Mark in Venice; or by the ‘market place’ in many a city of those low countries, with which some of our founders had been familiar before their coming to this New World."
John Warner Barber (1798-1885) Center of Taunton, Mass

1839 The Cleveland Ohio Grays in the Public Square by Joseph Parker

1847 Ohio Historical Collections of Ohio by Henry Howe  Public Square Mansfield Ohio

1839 Second Cleveland Ohio Courthouse and Public Square by Sebastian Heine.