Planners: John Nolen
Excerpted from Neighborhoods: Charlotte's Neighborhood Planning
by Dr. Thomas W. Hanchett
Photo from Mary Norton Kratt and Thomas W. Hanchett,
Legacy: The Myers Park Story (Myers Park Foundation, 1986).
Three of the most important city planning firms in the United States
helped shape Charlotte. They were the Olmsted Brothers, John Nolen, and
Earle Draper. All worked in the city during the boom years of the 1910s and
1920s. They gave the city new ideals in urban design which are still
followed today. In addition, Nolen and Draper took lessons learned in
Charlotte's neighborhoods and applied them in hundreds of cities throughout
the nation, giving Charlotte's early planning efforts special importance.
When Charlotte's original hundred acre tract was laid off in house lots
in the 1770s the city fathers chose a gridiron street pattern. A surveyor,
either hired by the village or supplied by the colonial government, laid out
the streets at right angles to each other. Many cities of the era were not
planned at all, with streets growing up from trails and cowpaths running in
every direction. The grid was the most popular alternative because it was
orderly and easy to understand, and its straight lines meant that it could
be created quickly and broken up into lots easily. Charlotte's reliance on
the grid continued throughout the nineteenth century.
In the 1910s Charlotte's New South leaders, as part of their drive to
make Charlotte a modern city, hired John Nolen, the Olmsted Brothers, and
Earle Sumner Draper who turned the city forever from the grid pattern. The
very idea of having a landscape architect/city planner design streets was
unusual. In progressive Dilworth, Latta had hired Joseph Forsyth Johnston, a
landscape architect from New York City, to create Latta Park and evidently
also asked him for suggestions on the surrounding street pattern. Most
areas, though, were laid out methodically by surveyors or civil engineers.
Nolen, the Olmsteds, and Draper were part of a generation with a strong
appreciation for nature. America's first National Parks were established in
the era and the conservation movement blossomed, extending even to President
Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09). Landscape architects sought to bring this
consciousness to city planning.
John Nolen's first job in Charlotte was the design of Independence Park
in June of 1905. 7 Independence was the city's first public park,
and it was also Nolen's first public commission after his graduation from
Harvard University's School of Landscape Architecture. Nolen went on to
become one of the nation's top city planners, designing more than 400
projects across the nation and helping to found the first city planning
professional organization. 1
Nolen was part of a movement in the decades around the turn of the
century that sought social reform in America's cities, a movement that
included such well-known figures as social worker Jane Addams and muckraker
Lincoln Steffens. Born in lower-middle-class circumstances in Philadelphia
in 1869, Nolen graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's prestigious
Wharton School majoring in economics and public administration. 2
He spent ten years as executive secretary of the American Society for the
Extension of University Teaching, a "people's university" which brought
college-level night classes to the urban working class.
By 1903, after visits to Europe's "Garden City" experiments, he became
convinced that the new profession of city planning was more effective way
for him to improve urban conditions. 3 The Garden City idea,
begun in England in the 1890s, proposed medium-sized new towns surrounded by
greenbelts. The new communities were to be carefully planned by professional
designers to include the best features of both city and country, and to be
self-sustaining with commercial and industrial areas as well as residences.
No university in the United States yet offered a city planning degree, so
Nolen enrolled in Harvard's School of Landscape Architecture and graduated
in 1905 at age thirty-six. 4
It is not known how Nolen came to be engaged by the Charlotte Park and
Tree Commission to design
Independence Park. The job proved quite fortuitous to Nolen's career.
While he was in town a young real estate developer named George Stephens
commissioned him to design the grounds of Stephens' own residence. 5
Evidently the result greatly impressed Stephens, and he became Nolen's
patron for a substantial number of projects all over North Carolina. 6
In 1909 Nolen drew plans for Stephens' Kanuga Lake resort colony
Hendersonville, North Carolina, now a religious retreat for the Episcopal
Church. 7 In the early teens, possibly as a result of Stephens'
influence, he planned Greensboro's country-club suburb of Irving Park in
Guilford County near where Stephens had been born. 8 Nolen did
the 1918 plan for the expansion of the campus of Stephens' alma mater, UNC
Chapel Hill. 9 In the 1920s he prepared a city plan for Stephens'
adoptive home town of Asheville, North Carolina, a document that received
national attention as one of the first thorough small city plans in the
Southeast. 10 Later projects included a new town development
called Penderlea in Pender County, North Carolina, for the U. S. Farm
Service Administration, and a western North Carolina regional plan
undertaken in connection with Stephens' advocacy of the proposed Blue Ridge
At the same time, John Nolen continued his activities in Charlotte.
Between 1905 and 1907 he designed grounds for private residences of
Stephens' partner F. C. Abbott, Chamber of Commerce leader Wade Harris, E.
R. Russell, P. M. Brown, A. J. Crowell, W.B. Rodman. L.A. Dodsworth,
R.A.Dunn, F.O. Hawley, and O. A. Robbins. 12 In April 1907 Nolen
visited the city and gave a slide lecture on "Parks and Playgrounds"
illustrated with stereoptican slides. 13 That June, the Park and
Tree Commission hired him once again, to provide designs for the area around
the city Post Office, known as Vance Square, and for the old cemetery behind
First Presbyterian Church, then known as Cemetery Square and now called
Settlers Cemetery. 14
In 1911 John Nolen returned to Charlotte at George Stephens' behest, to
work on his greatest project in the city, the suburb of Myers Park. 15
Stephens spared little expense, and gave Nolen free rein to plan a
state-of-the-art "unified suburban design."
Myers Park gave the city curving tree-lined avenues, grand boulevards
with landscaped medians, and the beginnings of a system of greenway parks
along creek banks. The results will be discussed in a later section of this
report, but suffice it to say here that Myers Park has proved to be
Charlotte's most lastingly successful suburb, and a model for similar
developments across the South.
Nolen's final job in Charlotte was preparation of preliminary studies for
what would have been the city's first master plan. The Charlotte Chamber of
Commerce hired him in 1917 to gather and map data on existing land use,
population densities, racial patterns, industrial location, transportation
corridors, land values, water and sewer lines, and parks. 16 The
resulting Civic Survey is an extremely comprehensive and meticulous picture
of this Southern city at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The Civic Survey was intended to lead to preparation of a full scale
plan. Such a plan was vital to Charlotte's orderly growth; Charlotteans had
given up the old grid city with its easy understandability and it was
necessary now that some other form or organization be developed to tie
together all the new suburbs. At the end of the Civic Survey field
supervisor Earle Draper sketched an indication of what the plan might look
like. He extended Nolen's Independence Park and Edgehill Road Park into a
city-wide network of greenways along stream beds. Boulevards radiated from
the center of the city to carry commuters, and a belt road ringed the old
urban core to provide easy cross-town travel.
The Chamber never appropriated the money to allow Nolen to turn his data
into a master plan. Nolen watched sadly as potential greenways were cut up
into residential backyards, and as expanding development made the
possibility of new radial and belt roads more and more expensive. He wrote
Chamber official Clarence Quester in 1924, "I think Charlotte is slipping so
far as city planning goes. There are examples in the city of errors that are
costly and more or less irremediable. Other errors will follow without a
city plan." 16
Charlotte remained without a coherent development scheme throughout its
early twentieth century boom years. No comprehensive plan was adopted until
1960. 18 Ironically, its proposals were very similar to Nolen and
Draper's in concept. During the 1970s the city finally completed a belt
road, dubbed "Charlotte 4", and in the 1980s is struggling to buy up
John Nolen's work in Charlotte and North Carolina in the 1900s through
1920s was only part of his growing national practice. From his start in
Independence Park, Nolen went on to be one of the nation's busiest planners,
with projects ranging from private estates to some of America's first
regional plans. By the time he began Myers Park he had already had private
commissions all over the East Coast from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Havana, Cuba.
19 In the teens and twenties he became sought after by
municipalities. He delighted in drawing city plans to guide small
Charlotte-sized places with great growth potential. His designs for such
places as Wisconsin's capital city of Madison, and California's capital of
Sacramento and port of San Diego, among many others, are important factors
in the shape those cities retain to this day.
In addition to his planning work, Nolen was a major leader in the
creation of a network of professional planning organizations. In 1917, just
as he was completing Charlotte's Civic Survey, he helped found the American
Institute of City Planners (later the American Institute of Planners).
20 He also participated in creation of the American Society of
Planning Officials and the National Housing Association, and was the first
American president of the International Federation of Housing and Town
Planning. 21 The honors underscored the fact that Nolen was
considered a leader of his profession. When he died in 1937 the New York
Times praised him as an "internationally known architect and pioneer in
modern city and regional planning." 22
Along with the Olmsted Brothers and a handful of other early twentieth
century practitioners, John Nolen helped transform American city planning.
23 Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., had developed the principles of
sensitive urban design in the nineteenth century, but it was Nolen's
generation that created "city planning" as a full-fledged profession to
carry out those principles, with its own educational background and
professional organizations. John Nolen helped set up planning schools at
major universities including Harvard and M.I.T. and his six books, dozens of
articles, and thousands of speeches aided in "spreading the gospel" of city
planning. By the end of his life, cities no longer saw planning as a rich
man's luxury, but as an integral part of municipal growth, and many large
places had their own planning departments. John Nolen's far-ranging impact
as a city planning pioneer makes his early Charlotte work of special
interest to students of urban development.
1 John L. Hancock, John Nolen: a Bibliographical Record of
Achievement (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University, Program in Urban and
Regional Studies, 1976), pp. 13-17. See also Scott, p. 738.
2 Hancock, John Nolen: a Bibliographical Record. . .,
pp. 15-16. John L. Hancock, "John Nolen and the American City Planning
Movement: A History of Cultural Change and Community Response, 1900-1940"
(Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1964), pp. 1-20.
3. Hancock, John Nolen: a Bibliographical Record. . .,
p. 16. Hancock, "John Nolen and the American City Planning Movement. . .",
4 Hancock, John Nolen: a Bibliographical Record..., p.
5 "Draft of Preliminary Finding Guide: Papers of John Nolen,
Sr., 1869-1937," collection 2903, Cornell University Department of
Manuscripts and Archives, Ithaca, New York. The "Finding Guide" includes a
copy of Nolen's "job book" listing all his projects chronologically.
6 Hancock, "John Nolen and the American City Planning
Movement. . .," p. 42.
7Charlotte Observer, December 15, 1943.
8 Stephens' connection with the Greensboro project needs to be
explored. Plans for the street layout and gates are in the Nolen collection
at Cornell. It has not been possible to determine exactly when Nolen created
the streetplan. A draft essay by Ray Manieri of Greensboro, "From City
Beautiful to City Useful: the Development of Civic Improvement Activities in
Greensboro, North Carolina, 1900-1923," April, 1982, places the design in
1911, based on an undated promotional booklet. One large scale street plan
in the Nolen papers is undated, but the rest of the documents were produced
in 1915 and 1916.
9 Hancock, John Nolen: a Bibliographical Record. . .,
10 Ibid., pp. 26, 30, 64.
11 Ibid., pp. 14, 66.
12 "Draft of Preliminary Finding Guide. . .," job list.
13 Charlotte Daily Observer, April 20, 1907.
14 "Draft of Preliminary Finding Guide. . .," job list.
According to Kathleen Jacklin at the Cornell archives, Nolen's office
discarded all material from these earliest designs.
16 John Nolen, "Civic Survey, Charlotte, North Carolina:
Report to the Chamber of Commerce" (Cambridge, Massachusetts: typescript,
1917). The only known surviving copy of this document is in John Nolen's
papers at Cornell.
17 John Nolen, letter to Clarence Kuester, March, 1924, in
Nolen collection at Cornell.
18 Charlotte Mecklenburg Planning Commission, "The Charlotte
Mecklenburg Comprehensive Plan (draft)" (Charlotte: Charlotte Mecklenburg
Planning Commission, 1973), p. 4.
19 "Draft of Preliminary Finding Guide. . ," job list.
20 Scott, p. 164.
21 Hancock, John Nolen: a Bibliographical Record. . .,
22 New York Times, February 19, 1937.