Visions of the City Beautiful – The Portland Maine Park System in the Gilded Age

The park movement of the Gilded Ages sprung from many influences. The goals of businessmen, politicians, reformers, and the working class melded to lead to the creation many of the nation’s famous parks. The public has long held the parks of Portland Maine in high regard. Visitors have come to enjoy the tree lined streets, picturesque promenades, and sylvan parklands of the city for generations. What were the motives driving Portland mayor and philanthropist James P Baxter’s push to form the park system we recognize today?

Portland’s park system literally began from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1866. No formal parks existed before the Great Fire. The Evergreen Cemetery was the closest thing Portland had to a park. The Portland City Council purchased an area of burnt land, now bordered by Pearl, Franklin, Market, and Federal Sts. James P. Baxter called this purchase, “…one of the best exhibitions of wise enterprise which Portland has ever made.”

The park provided the city with a fresh green space at a time when Longfellow compared the devastated Portland to Pompeii. Originally christened Phoenix Park, After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Portland changed the name to Lincoln Park. Lincoln Park provided a place for a stroll and a fountain for children to splash in. That was not the parks only purpose. To prevent another sweeping firestorm, like the one experience during the Great Fire, the city needed fire barriers. Lincoln Park would slow a fire moving through the city, hopefully giving the newly established fire department time to stop the flames. The park also helped “promote the public health” , a justification Baxter will employ later in his push for an extensive park system.

James Phinney Baxter moved to Portland at the age of 10. The son of a doctor, Baxter traveled to Boston to study law. After returning to Portland, Baxter became involved in a canning business, the Portland Packing Company. The Portland Packing Company turned out nearly two million cans of corn yearly. The wealth the business generated for Baxter propelled him into Portland’s high society. Baxter held the office of mayor in Portland from 1893-96 and again from 1904-05.

Before becoming mayor, Baxter spent time traveling in Europe. There he visited many grand parks in France, Austria, and other influential European countries. These European parks influenced Baxter, as they had impacted many others of his time. Landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing had written that despite their political differences, “the French and Germans seemed greater practical “republicans” than Americans because their cities had parks and gardens “provided at public cost, maintained at public expense, and enjoyed daily and hourly by all persons of class.”

Frederick Law Olmsted, whom Baxter would later employ, spoke highly of the municipal park movement. Olmsted stated the park movement of the United States was, “spontaneously engendered by the ‘Genius of Civilization’”. His creations would come to include the park system of Buffalo New York, Milwaukee Wisconsin, and Boston’s Emerald Necklace. Baxter toured the Emerald Necklace after it’s completion. Olmsted’s plan had taken old dilapidated buildings, demolished them, and turned the lands into parks. Baxter wished Portland to follow Boston’s lead. Baxter incorporated European aesthetics and emerging cosmopolitan views into his vision of the “City Beautiful”.

The City Beautiful combined elements of culture, economics, and strong city management to achieve a cosmopolitan sophistication. According to Baxter, the values held encompassed by the City Beautiful directly influenced a city’s prosperity. To reach the goal of City Beautiful, a city needed to acquire and maintain certain elements. The City Beautiful should contain “beautiful mansions with well kept grounds, public buildings of architectural importance, art galleries, statues, fountains, public squares and gardens, parkways, playgrounds, and parks.” Baxter would go on to claim “no city with any claim to enterprise is worthy of existence which does not provide its inhabitants with generous park privileges.”

Influential Portlanders had claimed parks were a wicked extravagance. Baxter countered that the parks were well worth the cost. Increases they brought in property value would help to ease tax issues for the public. Baxter also advocated the park’s benefits to Portland’s poor.

Nor are parks now built for rich alone…but also for the poor, who are confined a large portion of their lives within narrow limits, and to whom an opportunity…to breathe pure air and enjoy the beauty of green lawns…is a boon of incalculable value.”

Baxter’s view was common. Americans widely accepted that cities of the time were noisy, crowded and dirty. Parks gave city dwellers a place to escape all that and return to nature. A physician noted in 1869 that, “apart from considerations of sanitary economy public parks may be regarded as an unerring index in the advance of a people in civilization and refinement.”

When Baxter took the mayor’s office in 1893, he began to implement a vast expansion of Portland’s park system. The Deering family left much a great deal of land to the city in 1879. The city had christened the area Deering Oaks Park. Yet the city did little to improve the forested area. The mayor at the time, William Senter, had seen no need to do more than maintain the existing park.

The name ‘the Oaks’ or ‘Deering Oaks’ for this public breathing place seems to have become well established. It is scarcely ever termed the ‘Park’, and is a name so much fitter and better than the latter that special care should be taken to retain it. The place can probably never become a park with expensive park-like structures and accessories, but will always be ‘the Oaks’ whatever may be done about it.

Baxter, who had played in the Deering woods as a youth, encouraged landscaping of the park and surrounding streets. The city would make Park Ave., then called Portland St., bordering Deering Oaks wider and more beautiful. Baxter felt “wide streets and spacious parks [projected] an image of a wide-awake progressive growing city”. Visitors entered Portland by way of Park Ave. Beautifying this area would “attract urbane new residents” and in turn further Baxter’s goal of turning Portland cosmopolitan. Portland’s Park Commissioner at the time, Alanzo Smith stated owners of “handsome equipages” would appreciate the Park Ave expansion. Widening the street would also give real estate a “tremendous boom”. Baxter owned a home on Park Ave.

Portland’s middle and working class citizens were less than pleased. Fore St. badly needed repairs at the time. Citizens petitioned that the money spent on Park Ave. go instead to Fore St. Baxter ignored their calls. Some began to wonder how far would Baxter go to transform Portland into the “City Beautiful”. The park system Baxter envisioned would test how far the public’s limits.

The city owned much of the land that now comprises the Western and Eastern Promenades of Portland before Baxter’s term as mayor. When Baxter took office he set out to acquire the rest. Baxter was concerned that developers would buy up land on the northwestern slope of Bramhall Hill leading up to the Western Promenade. Baxter worried these developers would build “cheap structures” on the hill, ruining the Western Promenade’s aesthetic view.

Who would live in these “cheap structures” that Baxter disliked? Working class families would. The elite of the city had staked their claims on the areas immediately bordering the two Promenades and Deering Oaks. The working class did not fit with Baxter’s vision of Portland. The City Beautiful was an aesthetically pleasing commercial and residential one. Dirty manufacturing ruined the beauty of the city, as did the people who worked in those factories.

What can be derived from an ignorant foreign population, which every manufacturing city attracts to it? The perils which such a population brings to a community are seen every day in the columns of our newspapers, which depict in lurid terms the anarchy, strife and bloodshed…which result from gathering together large numbers of ignorant men…in towns where manufacturing enterprises predominate.

Baxter wanted to attract wealthy, cosmopolitans to Portland. Unrefined lower class workers would encourage the wealthy to find another haven. To keep the necessary workers in check Baxter used the parks to placate them. In his 1895-96 Mayoral Address, Baxter called the public grounds “property of the people”. Even the poorest of Portlanders could enjoy the feeling of ownership.

The Parks system had another use as well. Tourists regarded Portland as one of the great summer destinations during the late 19th – early 20th century. A beautiful city attracts more visitors. More visitors meant more money. This too motivated Baxter’s push for a citywide park system.

Currents in city planning had influenced Baxter’s park system plan. Planners had begun to imagine wide boulevards and belt parkways connecting parks throughout cities. Boston and Chicago “furnished striking examples” of this new approach to city planning. The new park systems did not “superimpose one oasis of beauty on a big city aimed at changing the aspect of its entire life.”

The park system would contain Portland’s principle parks, Deering Oaks and the two Promenades. A newspaper editorial said the new park system would “attract summer visitors who would go away and advertise the place and return with their friends to leave money with [Portland’s] railroads, hotels, and tradesmen”.

A series of tree-lined parkways would connect the parks. The parkway would run from the Western Promenade down Bramhall Hill to Cumberland Ave. From there the parkway continued down High St to Deering Oaks. To connect Deering Oaks to the Eastern Promenade Baxter proposed a grand boulevard around the Back Cove. The Back Cove at the time was an “illodered spot” “dangerous to the public health”. Low tide exposed odorous tidal flats as well as the city’s sewage, which emptied there. Baxter wanted to change that. The city would transform the road around the Back Cove to be included in Baxter’s new park system. A wide elegantly designed boulevard lined with parkland would wrap around the Back Cove. The city would dam the mouth of the Cove to “preserve the water depth”. Baxter envisioned the Back Cove teaming with sailing yachts and steam launches. After the work on the Back Cove was finished Portland would have “the finest sheet of water for regattas and other marine sports.”

The City of Portland could not afford to purchase the land for the proposed boulevard. Baxter convinced landowners around the Back Cove to give the land needed for the project to the City. Baxter knew these rich landowners were concerned Baxter’s building projects would raise their taxes. The boulevard would increase the property values in the area. The increased property value would lower tax rates. The high ground surrounding the Back Cove would become prime real estate.

Middle and working class voters however had had enough. Baxter had not respected the interests of the working class majority in Portland. Many felt he was pursuing these city improvements for his own benefit and the benefit of the Portland elite. Their suspicions were not unfounded. Only the rich could afford a carriage to ride along the new parkway system. The working class did not have the leisure time to enjoy such a long drive. Baxter had begun to lose the true egalitarian spirit of the park movement: “[to] meet the numerous interests of the neighboring community rather than to fulfill in the highest measure any single want of the whole city.”

The citizens voted Baxter out of office in 1897, but voters have short memories and Baxter had deep pockets. Still, the election was hard fought. Baxter’s opponent Nathan Clifford wielded a great deal of his own political power. Clifford had been United States Attorney General under President James K. Polk and President James Buchanan appointed him as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. The Portland Socialist Party trusted neither candidate. Clifford, they felt, exemplified the “Wall Street Wing”, while Baxter represented an “obstructionist to municipal progress”. The Socialists highlighted the true costs of Baxter’s civic projects. “In place of fuel at cost”, said the Socialist Party, “[Baxter] gives us ornamental grass plots; in the place of water at cost, a visionary boulevard.” Despite the challenge of the opposition, Baxter rallied his political influence. Voters reelected him in 1904.

The Portland City Council put the Back Cove project on hold in Baxter’s absence. Anyone hoping that Baxter abandoned the undertaking had their hopes dashed. Baxter resumed work on the Back Cove Boulevard immediately upon returning to office. In his 1904 Mayoral Address, Baxter attempted to ease the fears of the high costs associated with his parkway system.

Nothing adorns a city so much as well kept esplanades. They are permanent additions to a street, and with half their cost paid by the abutters the City can well afford to encourage their construction.

This time Baxter would draw from his own funds to raise interest in his parkway system. Baxter paid for the entire City Council to travel to Boston to view its “unsurpassed” park system.

When the election of 1905 came Clifford was ready. Clifford called Baxter on his claim that the parkway system would lower taxes. Clifford claimed this work to “increase property values for the rich” left “wretched streets and sidewalks for the poor.” The Portland Argus called the vote between Clifford and Baxter a choice “between the prose of good streets and the poetry of the Boulevard” respectively. Clifford won the election. Clifford halted work on the Back Cove Boulevard indefinitely along with the parkway system.

I do not believe that the interests of the city, or the wishes of a majority of the citizens thereof, warrant a further extension of work on the boulevard until, at least, the sidewalks and streets of the city are kept clean and put in proper condition

Clifford felt the City’s money would be better spent in keep its streets clean and maintained. Unkempt streets would create a bad impression on visitors. Dirty streets reflect on the city’s administration. Visitors would not want to return to live in a dirty mismanaged city.

Baxter used the spirit of reform for his own ends. Baxter was not a reformer, but a petty politician. Baxter pushed the building of the Portland Park system to further his own goals. Baxter wished to raise real-estate prices on land he and other wealthy Portlanders owned. Gunther Barth states cities created parks during the Gilded Age to “meet the numerous interests of the neighboring community rather than to fulfill in the highest measure any single want of the whole city.” Baxter however intended Portland Parks to attract the wealthy to Portland and keep the city free of what he saw as unsavory lower class elements.

James Phinney Baxter’s legacy is still with Portland. From the boulevard renamed in his honor to Portland’s cherished green spaces, Portlander’s can still feel Baxter’s influence in the “Forest City”. The lesson of Baxter’s grand park system plan should not be forgotten. Baxter forged his park system at the expense of other city planning needs. Baxter alienated the middle and working classes of Portland who could have been his greatest supporters. To survive a city needs balance. That is how a city truly becomes the “City Beautiful”.


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