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Charlotte Planners: John Nolen

Excerpted from Neighborhoods: Charlotte's Neighborhood Planning Tradition
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 Parkway. 11

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.

Edgehill Park

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 floodplain greenways.

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. . .", pp. 21-37.

4 Hancock, John Nolen: a Bibliographical Record..., p. 16.

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. . ., p. 20.

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.

15 Ibid.

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. . ., p. 16.

22 New York Times, February 19, 1937.

For more information...

Neighborhoods: Charlotte's Neighborhood Planning Tradition