Harland Bartholomew, circa 1931-1941 (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Missouri History Museum)
First of two parts
"This is A MASTER PLAN, not a DREAM. If you hastily consider it as such, you are doomed to disappointment.”
The emphatic declaration opens Richmond’s first citywide master plan, drafted in 1946 by Harland Bartholomew, considered at the time to be the nation’s foremost authority in such matters.
He founded Harland Bartholomew and Associates (HBA) in 1919. By the time of his 1961 retirement, the firm created plans for more than 500 cities and counties. He helped design the Metro subway system in Washington, D.C., and he assisted the John D. Rockefeller Jr.-led reimagining of a near-dead Tidewater town as Colonial Williamsburg. Known for his methodical, exacting approach, Bartholomew became a preeminent city planner at a pivotal moment.
His mixed legacy includes surrendering significant portions of the city fabric to expressways and parking, while also supporting neighborhoods anchored by schools and parks. Bartholomew, in a way, anticipated the “New Urbanism” of walkable neighborhoods.
When confronting poverty and urban blight, he and his peers favored removing dilapidated housing viewed as an impediment to progress. This led to the wholesale destruction of blocks of historic property. In Richmond, that often meant majority African-American neighborhoods. Ardent preservationist Mary Wingfield Scott derided Bartholomew and his ilk as the “bulldozing brotherhood.”
As John Moeser, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor emeritus of urban studies and planning, and Bonner Center fellow at the University of Richmond, told Richmond magazine in an interview a few years ago, “The Bartholomew plan was in some respects very progressive, in other respects contradictory and racist.”
In 1946, Bartholomew observed that “the improvement of conditions for Negro housing is the most serious problem facing this community.” By the late 1950s, 4,700 housing units in predominantly black neighborhoods underwent demolition. (Image courtesy City of Richmond Planning Commission)
An opponent of sprawl, Bartholomew championed managed growth and opposed expansion beyond Richmond’s then-existing boundaries. He described the dislocation of population to the outer suburbs and efforts by the city to expand outward as “an extravagant waste” destined to bankrupt Richmond.
The Rutgers University-trained civil engineer was a 19th-century man confronting the growing problems of the 20th-century city. He was born in Stoneham, Massachusetts, in 1889, a year after Richmond inaugurated the world’s first unified electric transit system, and arrived here in 1945 as the expert consultant in time to usher out the trolleys, which he viewed as in the twilight of their efficiency after more than 60 years of service.
When funds ran out while attending Rutgers, he left and took night classes at Columbia University, but never completed a degree. He instead learned on the job, first in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, where he worked on inland waterways improvements. That led to a position with E.P. Goodrich, a renowned engineering firm, where his projects included building and modifying terminals and docks.
When Goodrich secured a 1912 contract to make a comprehensive plan for Newark, New Jersey, the company dispatched Bartholomew to live there, oversee the implementation and act as liaison between Goodrich and the George Ford consulting firm. The assignment disappointed him, as it seemed to Bartholomew a sidetrack from his civil engineering course. Newark instead changed his life.
Bartholomew “oversaw a staff of two dozen field workers gathering data and conducting analyses of population distribution, traffic flow, transportation systems, parks use and revenue streams,” writes Joseph Heathcott in a November 2005 article published in the Journal of Planning History. Even after Newark terminated Ford’s participation and Goodrich went to reconfigure the Los Angeles harbor, the city retained Bartholomew as the nation’s first full-time, public-sector planner.
He completed his plan for Newark in 1915. That year, Ford, architect Henry Wright and urban reform lawyer Luther Ely Smith sent Bartholomew to St. Louis to translate the city’s 1907 plan, devised by the Civic League of St. Louis’ Executive Board, into reality.
The ’07 draft reflected “The City Beautiful” planning movement. It was a descendant of the 1904 “Meet Me In St. Louis” World’s Fair, but not — as Bartholomew viewed the document — a practical means of urban design or modern management. Bartholomew, then 27, arrived in St. Louis seeking to prove his ideas.
Authors and professors Eric Sandweiss and Mark Abbott, who studied Bartholomew’s extensive St. Louis career, concluded that his grand ideas in efficiency didn’t possess the interior complexity to hold up against “real-estate speculation, small-time home building, and the jumbled regulatory framework.”
Sandweiss and Abbott see Bartholomew’s concept of the comprehensive plan as “a dead letter” that didn’t jibe with cities that were fast “abandoning long-term planning approaches in favor of major blockbusting projects such as urban renewal and public housing. In each case, the picture that emerges of Bartholomew’s work in St. Louis is one of continual frustration, setback and disappointment.”
Bartholomew, the Protestant New England farm boy with great notions, went to work in St. Louis for “rich, urbane patrons — many of whom were Catholic and harbored a living memory of slave owning,” according to the book “St. Louis Plans.” He was also a lifelong Republican working for Southern Democrats who clashed with Bartholomew’s middle-class, managerial ideal of a city of operational efficiencies.
Next month, Harland Bartholomew “fixes” Richmond.