Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

City in a Park: A History of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park System
by James McClelland and Lynn Miller
Temple University Press, 392 pp., cloth $39.50

A substantial, richly illustrated book highlighting the significance of Fairmount Park and its place in the larger urban parks movement has been long overdue. City in a Park has finally arrived to fill that void. Augmented with 150 photographs, McClelland and Miller’s text is crystal clear and comprehensive, covering the story of America’s largest urban park, from its origin at the founding of Philadelphia in 1682 to the expansive green jewel it has become today. This book is Fairmount Park’s answer to Sara Cedar Miller’s tome Central Park, an American Masterpiece (Abrams, 2003).

Frequently identified as Philadelphia’s Central Park, Fairmount has a much more complicated story. It includes Central Park designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, whose plan for Fairmount was not simply another one of their romantically landscaped parks; while influential, their design was ultimately rejected. Far more than Central Park, Fairmount was impacted by nearly every movement in the history of American urbanism. Following the Georgian fashions of England, 18th-century country villas lined the Schuylkill River as if it were an American Thames (some still grace the park). Early water-powered industry crowded the banks of cascading Wissahickon Creek before its incorporation within the park’s leafy confines. And the need for a pure water source for an industrializing metropolis fostered the development of Fairmount’s Grecian-styled Water Works, as well as the drive to protect it by surrounding the Schuylkill with a naturalist park. Preceding the urban parks movement, the opening of romantically designed rural cemeteries occurred early at Fairmount with Laurel Hill Cemetery, as did the introduction of neoclassical urban designs with the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, long before the City Beautiful Movement some two decades later. City Beautiful also shaped Fairmount in substantial ways with the building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the neobaroque Benjamin Franklin Parkway as the new 20th-century gateway to the park. The authors deftly knit these stories together in 18 chapters that go beyond telling how Philadelphia became enveloped in a park by explaining how the evolution of the American city came to be expressed in Fairmount’s naturalist landscapes, historic structures and public art. If you have a shelf of books about Philadelphia, City in a Park needs to be on it.

 

Kevin Patrick is professor of geography and regional planning at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.