Charles Mulford Robinson.

Report on the improvement of the City of Dubuque, Iowa : to joint committee representing Dubuque Commercial Club, Civic Division of Dubuque Woman's Club, and Trades and Labor Congress online

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Online LibraryCharles Mulford RobinsonReport on the improvement of the City of Dubuque, Iowa : to joint committee representing Dubuque Commercial Club, Civic Division of Dubuque Woman's Club, and Trades and Labor Congress → online text (page 1 of 3)
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The Improvement of the City of
Dubuque, Iowa









Mr. G. A. Grimm, Chairman; Mrs. H. E. Tredway,
Secretary; and Members of the Joint Committee:

You have asked me to make suggestions for the
improvement of the City of Dubuque, and to embody
these in a preliminary general report. The purpose, as
I understand it, is to learn the possibilities of the city
from the standpoint of municipal aesthetics.

The conditions that give rise to the problem must
be influential in determining its solution. Let us con-
sider first what these are.


Dubuque is a river town, of moderate size as
American cities go. For many years it has had a
steady and healthy growth, but not a rapid or spectacular
one. Therefore it has been one without the accom-
panying danger of collapse. The city is one of home
owners, and of well distributed wealth. There are
neither the extremes of poverty nor of riches. It occu-
pies a wondrously beautiful location, nature not only
pressing it around with varied and picturesque scenery,
but thrusting beauty of bluff or river or view into its
very street system, so that throughout the whole city
one can hardly ever be forgetful of the natural beauty
of the site. With these opportunities, there is in the
Dubuque citizenship a naturally park-loving element
which is of especially large proportions.


4 The Improvement of the

Dubuque would thus seem to be the city of cities
for a comprehensive and beautiful park system. Yet
there is not even a park commission, and the "park"
possessions of the city are confined to a couple of little
triangles at street intersections, and two little city
squares good enough of their kind, with the brighten-
ing flowers and the play of light and shade on the tree
dotted lawns; but exercising none of the recreative
functions of a municipal park system, and with the
radius of their aesthetic influence not extending beyond
the property directly abutting upon them. They are
squares such as any town on the prairie might have,
for no beauty of bluff or river has been set aside for the
people, and view points have been parted with for what
they would bring. The citizen who would enjoy the
beauty that should be the right of those who live in
Dubuque is compelled to trespass on private property.
To these anomalous conditions there must be added,
as a handicap to their prompt correction, the fact that
the city has not a great deal of money to spend for
other than the most commonplace improvement pur-
poses of which the need is still considerable and that
it is one in which a mortgaging of the future by a long
term bond issue for park requirements ought to be
undertaken with conservatism.

Obviously a peculiarly interesting and difficult
problem is presented. Here is a city in great need of
parks; a city exceptionally endowed by nature with
opportunities for very beautiful and varied popular
pleasure grounds, a city that has practically nothing to
start with in the way of park possessions and that must
measure its undertakings not by the opportunities
offered, but by its capacity to pay for them to buy
lands and then to develop and maintain them. It would
be very easy to picture the scenically ideal Dubuque;
but such a report would have no practical value. It
would be pleasant to select every beautiful spot and
gratify its friends by asking that it be made a park ; but

City of'Dubuque, Iowa. 5

to do so would be advice to bankrupt the city. It is
necessary to choose and weigh and choose again; to
consider the claims of each possible park site, not by
itself but in its relation to the whole, to discard sites
that other cities would envy; to choose A rather than
B, not because one is blind to the beauty of B, or even
prefers A to B from the scenic standpoint; but because
in the algebraic total of all the factors that go to make
or spoil a park site, A fares better than B. At the same
time, it is essential in this choosing not to look only to
the immediate future: the recommendations are not to
be confined to what could be done this year or next.
The suggestions are to give a plan that may be worked
toward through many years, with the idea that if at
last they are all carried out, the city will then become
worthy of its singularly beautiful location, the units of
its park system well distributed and making a compre-
hensive and harmonious whole; while, as a result of the
change, the city itself should be not poorer, but more
prosperous, bigger, happier and busier than ever.


Dubuque's natural environment offers three great
features: (i) The river; (2) the bluffs, with their river
views; (3) the western highlands with their views of
rolling country. These three features extend through
the whole length of the city from north to south. Over
against these features, the park needs of a modern muni-
cipality may be grouped under five general heads: (i)
Small, ornamental spaces; (2) local, or neighborhood
parks, which may be advantageously scenic parks;
(3) playgrounds and recreative fields; (4) large country
parks that, inviting people out of doors, give to
them the greatest possible change from urban condi-
tions; and (5) connecting boulevards or parkways that
bind the park units into a system and make possible a
pleasant passing from one park to another. The imme-
diate problem in Dubuque is to what extent these

' The Improvement of the

requirements may be best and most practically met from
the physical conditions offered. After that, we shall
note various other respects in which the city may be



Taking up the park needs of Dubuque in the order
in which they were named as the needs of a typical
modern municipality, we come first to the small orna-
mental spaces. In some respects this is the least inter-
esting of all the groups, but there are two factors that
give to it dignity. Though primarily of purely local
effectiveness, these irregular little spaces may become
by sheer force of numbers of general influence, so that
if sufficiently numerous they will do much to make a
city beautiful, to give it an air of prosperity a "well
dressed" as distinguished from a "down in the heel"
aspect; and then to affect the taste of the people them-
selves, so that house gardens look better, have more
flowers, better kept lawns, and better grouping because
of the influence of the city's example. The second con-
sideration is that Dubuque, owing to its irregular street
system, does offer an exceptionally large number of such
opportunities and that they are especially interesting.
As yet, only two of these have been availed of; the tri-
angle between West and South Main Street below First,
and that at Fifteenth at the side of the High School.
The first might well have been made larger by exten-
sion northward before the pavement was laid. Even
now it should be carried to the fountain, and the foun-
tain itself made worthier the proffered setting.

There are dozens of other similar opportunities.
An important one is at the intersection of Eighteenth
and Clay streets. Here the city has an engine house,
well placed, at the end of a long business street. Behind
it and to one side rises the bluff ; on the east, a narrow,
triangular strip of ground municipally owned is now

City oj Dubuque, Iowa. 7

given up to billboards, where, in connection with the
little fountain, the city at small cost could make a very
pretty spot that would really be more conspicuous than
costly Washington or Jackson parks. In the broad
plaza before this space, there is an old horse-trough. It
is clear that at this central and very prominent spot
Dubuque has not made the best of its opportunities,
and that a remodeling of the space is invited. There is
room for a bit of central parking in the plaza, a charm-
ing street feature in which Dubuque is totally deficient;
and the little fountain at the side of the engine house
suggestive of an Italian shrine even now in its construc-
tion might well be made an invitingly cool and shaded

Other exceedingly important opportunities of simi-
lar kind are proffered, for example, at the terminus of
the Eighth street car line, and at various Grandview
avenue intersections, as at Dodge street, South Dodge,
and Delhi road. There is room for a little middle-street
park at each of these points. Near the latter, the stand-
pipe of the municipal water works also offers an oppor-
tunity for civic embellishment. The far conspicuousness
of the pipe, and the fact that the land is already owned
by the city, would justify some expenditure for aesthetic
effect alone. With your cheap rock, a stone tower on
which vines should grow, might be constructed around
the tank, and the little space remaining should be
beautified with planting.

Now, such improvements as these are only aesthetic
in effect. They are not parks in a strict sense, and are
called so only because most cities find it convenient and
economical to place their care in the hands of the depart-
ment which is charged with the care of the parks. This
department is nominally the park commission, a separate
bureau; and until Dubuque has such a commission,
especially charged with responsibility for work of this
kind and eager to improve every opportunity that is
offered, it cannot expect to have that civic beauty which

8 The Improvement of the

it ought to have, and which would give to it the aspect
of an up-to-date and progressive city. Mere beauty of
site is something apart, and does not make up for defi-
ciency here. For the gifts that nature has showered so
generously on Dubuque, the city itself deserves, and
from strangers receives no credit. The question is what
does Dubuque do for itself, and by the answer it is
judged as a city. If the larger aspects of the park ques-
tion were never gone into here, it would still be worth
while, for the good name of Dubuque, for the city's greater
attractiveness, and for the constant pleasure of its own
citizens, as well as for the delight of visitors, that such
opportunities as there are be availed of and improved.
They involve the purchase of not a single inch of
ground; they much more than pay their little cost by
the increase in the value of the property abutting upon
them, and they are peculiarly needed in a city that is
almost unique in its lack on residence streets of broad
ornamental strips of lawn between walk and curb.

But in addition to this work, so essential to muni-
cipal completeness that it is familiar in cities, there is
the chance for Dubuque to do something spectacular,
unusual, and individual in the way of ornamental spaces,
and at very little cost, something that will count in
giving to the city its own special stamp of beauty. This
would be to acquire, not for gardening or other develop-
ment, but simply that they may be preserved in their
own natural beauty, those walls of rock and bluff that
are too steep for building purposes, and that now and
again, rising above the city streets in rugged picturesque-
ness of wall or verdure, are so striking a feature of the
city landscape. Such bluffs are those on South Locust
street and Southern avenue between Railroad avenue
and Dodge street; are those on either side of Dodge
street itself; are those behind the Franklin school; those
on West Eighth street ust above the Wales Hotel,
where the billboards now partially hide them ; on
Twelfth street at the turn as it goes up the hill ; or at
the end of Main street, at Seventeenth.

City of Dubuque, Iowa. 9

For the city to acquire title to these bluffs would
cost very little, while no money would need to be spent
in their development, nor would their withdrawal from
private ownership absorb from the market valuable
building sites. In nearly every case they cannot be
built upon at all, and when it is possible to obtain a
foothold, either on the side or in a very shallow lot at
the base for I do not refer to those bluffs well back
from the street there is room only for the shacks which
it is to the city's best interests not to have so conspicu-
ously located. In Cincinnati similar steep hillsides have
been shorn of their beauty of verdure, and have become
so hideous with billboards that, as a result of a recent
park plan, the city is now taking measures to buy them
at an immediate cost that will be large because of their
remunerative utilization; and then to replant them that
there may be restored to Cincinnati the beauty that still
is yours, and that by so little forethought may forever
remain yours more striking and preciously beautiful
the larger the city grows. Do this, and no one can ever
criticise Dubuque for lack of "ornamental spaces."
You will have something better than can be put into
any street gore or vacant space; while part of Dodge
street, where the bluffs rise on botfr sides at once, would
be thereby transformed, at this small cost, into the like-
ness of a stunning parkway.

Enough will be done if the city simply acquires
the title to these walls of rock and verdure, but there
are possibilities beyond, if it will go so far. Owning
these hillsides, the wooden stairways that now climb
them with so slipshod and temporary a look, could be
gradually supplanted by rock-hewn steps and natural
paths, or by steps of rock supplemented with concrete,
their borders made beautiful with vine and shrub; and
here and there across the face of the bluff a safe trail
could be cut to a vantage point with inviting seat. But
the great gain would remain the aesthetic.

10 The Improvement of the

The second park need of a modern municipality

was described as local or neighborhood parks, which it

Local or was said, might advantageously be scenic parks. The

Neighborhood advantage of choosing view-points for such parks is that

their necessarily small area seems all the smaller when

rj 1

8 shut in, and is the more difficult advantageously to de-
velop; while if the reserved area can be a view-point, all
the country in view from it contributes to its effect on
the frequenter, and as his gaze is directed away from the
park itself, there is need of very little elaborate treat-
ment there. If he be made physically comfortable, the
attractiveness of the view will be the park's sufficient
merit. For that reason, it is often cheaper in the end
to pay more, if necessary, for a scenic vantage point to
be used as a neighborhood park than to purchase an in-
expensive tract shut in by city streets, since the latter
tract must then be improved at large outlay, and at large
cost each year maintained.

Because the neighborhood park is supplementary
to the ornamental spaces, it must find its reason in its
social use. It must, therefore, be suited to the neighbor-
hood in which it is. Nearly always its function is that
of a public room out of doors, where children can play,
where mothers can sit to sew and talk, where neighbors
can meet in the evenings. Necessarily there is some
overlapping of function in these arbitrarily divided
groups of parks, and in a small city such as Dubuque
where, if the main parks be well distributed, there is
always one at no great distance from the house, the need
for local parks is not imperative.

The public demand that requires the establishment
of them is likely also to designate their location and
character, but as a suggestion of what they may be, it
may be noted that the little space at the top of the ele-
vators, reserved to the free use of the public and made
beautiful, would offer convenient view-points as would
the vacant lot at Wilber avenue and Olive street ; that
as to the older part of the city, below the bluffs, Jackson

City of Dubuque, Iowa.


and Washington parks now sufficiently serve the pur-
pose; and that back on the hills and in the long stretches
of the city northward, a demand for such provision
would not be unreasonable. There are an abundance of
suitable sites, and land values are not high. But the
whole matter is of local rather than of general signifi-
cance, and with the city's far more pressing needs, the
satisfaction of them may safely wait some years ; or for
special opportunity such as that which may be offered
at the triangle at the entrance to Linwood cemetery;
and for popular demand.

* *


Playgrounds and recreative fields are a special form
of local or neighborhood parks. Of all the kinds of
park development, the children's playground is just now
the most popular elsewhere, and is receiving the most
attention. It is very elaborately fitted up, with sand-
piles and a wading-pool for little children, with outdoor
gymnastic apparatus for older boys and girls, with pro-
vision for basket ball and other games, with a "field
house " containing toilet facilities, dressing rooms, a re-
freshment stand, books and magazines from the library,
and a playroom for rainy days. The function of the
playground is well illustrated, indeed, by the fact there
must always be one or two " play-directors " on the
ground, and that the conduct of the place is coming to
be quite generally transferred from the park commission
to the board of education, for in the long summer months
it is designed to supplement the school work, keeping
the children off the streets, and often affording element-
ary instruction in industrial handicraft.

The playground as thus developed is by no means
confined in its influence to the congested populations of
large cities. But it is usually started in city or town by
private philanthropy, and in Dubuque, with its more
urgent needs, the municipal provision of playgrounds
as in the case of the other local parks might, I think,
properly be delayed for the present. In going around



12 The Improvement of the

the city, my attention has been called to a level tract a
couple of blocks long between Sanford and Twenty-
second, Jackson and Washington streets, as a possible
park site. I do not recommend that use of it, but if it
were desired to establish a playground such as I have
described, this site would seem to me well adapted for
the purpose, both in itself and in the location. But half
of the tract would be amply large.

The recreative field is an interesting and wholly
legitimate park development for the modern industrial
city. Its object is to furnish a place where the employes
of shops and factories can have healthy and enjoyable
exercise in the open air. It must therefore be located
near the work shops, and it requires very little develop-
ment simply a large even tract, laid out with base ball
diamonds, cricket fields, etc. In locating it a safe rule
is to look for the field already and informally used for
these purposes. I find such a field near the Great
Western shops, on the car lines, and in every way well
adapted to its purpose. Large employers of labor in
Dubuque could not do many more appropriate things
for the city than to purchase this or some similar tract
there is one on the near side of Peru road that might
do as well, though it lacks the fine trees and handsome
bluff and present it to the municipality, to be main-
tained as a playfield for operatives.

Summary of

Smaller Park


Before we take up the urgent matter of large parks,
it may be well to review the recommendations regarding
the smaller parks, so that knowing just how much or
how little Dubuque ought to do for them, we may take
care not to ask too much of the city in respect to larger
reservations. Recapitulating fhen, under the head of
" Ornamental Spaces" it has been advised that the city
improve certain street intersections waste ground
already municipally owned, and that it acquire title to
the walls of rock and steepest hillsides. These should

City of 'Dubuque, Iowa. 13

cost very little to buy and some of them should be
given. No development of those tracts is immediately
advocated. Under the head of u Local or Neighborhood
Parks," some advantageous sites were noted; but the
present need was stated to be "not imperative," if there
shall be well distributed large parks. And as to u Play-
grounds and Recreation Fields," these were described as
of such philanthropic excellence that private means
might well supply them. In short, this report has as
yet asked so little of Dubuque as a municipality that
such resources as are available for the satisfaction of
park needs have been practically uncalled upon, in
spite of the considerable program of improvement which
is outlined.

Coming now to large parks, we reach the question
most urgent and of most popular interest in the present The Large
study of the improvement possibilities of Dubuque. p ,

The city's need of such parks is so generally recognized

that there is happily no necessity for arguing the point
here. Our whole attention may be given to the difficult
and very important problems concerning their character
and location.

In the science of modern city building, the follow-
ing are accepted principles: (i) A city should have at
least one large park, so extensive in itself and in the
vistas it affords as to seem a bit of country, thus pre-
senting to tired city dwellers the greatest possible urban
contrast. (2) Two or more such parks, so separated as
to serve different parts of the town, are more effective
than one park of double the size. (3) If there can be
three or more such parks, they should present contrasts
of scenery. (4) Cities that are not confined to one pub-
lic pleasure ground of this character should distribute
the reservations as widely as may be. (5) The reserva-
tions should be located on land that is not of much
importance, or at least not of equal importance, for other
purposes; or where their presence will so benefit other

14 The Improvement of the

property that the increase in the taxable value of the
latter will wholly or partially compensate for the expen-
diture for park purposes. (6) Experience has shown
the exceeding advisability of securing one or more large
public reservations at what is now a long distance from
town this tract not to be expensively improved, but to
be held as a picnic ground where people may go for the
day, until the city's growth demands its more intensive

I have enunciated these principles in order that
they may be a guide in choosing the larger park sites of
Dubuque, since Dubuque is so wonderfully situated that
instead of having one or two perfectly obvious park
sites, choice must be made from a dozen or more.

Of these the one that seemed most prominently
before the public on my arrival was Ham's island, in
the river. There is to be said in its favor that it is land
now of very little use for other purposes and inexpen-
sive, that it presents a large river frontage, and that
Lake Peosta, which separates it from the city, is already
municipal property. From various sources, on the even-
ing of my arrival, before I had seen the island or any
other part of the city, I was asked to consider the possi-
bility of making there such a park as Belle Isle at
Detroit a possibility that had at once occurred to me.
On investigation, however, I find the conditions abso-
lutely dissimilar, (i) While Detroit had no other park
site, Dubuque has many; (2) Detroit with its large popu-
lation was able to make enormous expenditures for
development; and (3) the Detroit river is of constant
level, while here there may be fifteen feet between low
water and high water, and when the river is high the
entire island is flooded. Belle Isle, in short, has no
value as establishing a precedent of what could be done
at Ham's island. Furthermore, the mere fact that
there is an island lying opposite part of Dubuque estab-
lishes no convincing argument for placing a park upon
it. Boston, which has the most complete park system

City of Dubuque, Iowa. 15

in the country, including very popular water front res-
ervations, has made no such use of any of the islands in
the harbor, attractive as is the ceaseless panorama of
shipping which is visible from them. Nor has New
York, with the large investments it is now making in
water front parks, turned to Blackwell's Island or to

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Online LibraryCharles Mulford RobinsonReport on the improvement of the City of Dubuque, Iowa : to joint committee representing Dubuque Commercial Club, Civic Division of Dubuque Woman's Club, and Trades and Labor Congress → online text (page 1 of 3)