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John Nolen, Paradise Planned: Wyomissing Park

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John Nolen (1869–1937) was the first American to identify himself exclusively as a town and city planner.

Nolen was orphaned as a child and placed in Girard College. After he graduated first in his class in 1884, he worked as a grocery clerk and secretary to the Girard Estate Trust Fund before enrolling in the Wharton School of Finance and Economics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1891. Nolen earned a Ph.B. in 1893, and for the next ten years worked as secretary of the American Society for the Extension of University Teaching. He married Barbara Schatte in 1896.

In 1903 Nolen sold his house and used the money to enroll in the newly established Harvard School of Landscape Architecture, under the famed instructors Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., Arthur Shurtleff, and B.M. Watson. He received an A.M. in 1905 from Harvard. He established an office in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he and his associates branched out into city planning, as well as landscape architecture. Nolen was a frequent lecturer on city and town planning, and was active in many professional organizations.

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Over the course of his career, Nolen and his firm completed more than four hundred projects, including comprehensive plans for more than twenty-five cities, across the United States. Like other progressive reformers of his era, Nolen looked to Europe for models to structure the rapid urbanization defining modern life into more efficient and livable form. His books, including New Towns for Old: Achievements in Civic Improvement in Some American Small Towns and Neighborhoods promoted the new practice of city planning and were widely influential.

In 1909, John Nolen, at the invitation of the Civic Association of Reading, was engaged by private interests to replan the town of Reading. City planning in the USA was in its infancy around 1909 but it was successfully practiced in Germany. Wyomissing conformed to the German by laying out the suburb and separating factories from residences and providing green space for people.

J. Horace McFarland (1859 - 1948) from McAlisterville, Pennsylvania, a leading proponent of the "City Beautiful Movement" in the United States, got Nolen his commission and progressive factions within the city became his supporters. Nolen wanted Reading's Penn Square enhanced by a mall as long as the square with public buildings nearby. He also wanted a belt parkway around the city, thoroughfares widened and extended, railroad crossings eliminated, new bridges built crossing the Schuylkill River, playgrounds in every neighborhood, overhead wires put underground, a sewer system completed, and housing for workers improved. His suggestion to employers to build homes for workers in the country was a harbinger of the many industrial, country-like towns the federal government was to build for workers during World Wars I and II. The idea of a beltline, eighteen miles in circumference, for pedestrians and vehicles, similar to Vienna’s Ringstrasse, was the most innovative element in his plan.

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Nolen's task in Reading in 1909 was staggering. This was a built-up, congested and constricted city of narrow alleys and streets, locked within a binding grid, with almost no restrictions on its laissez-faire development. The closer one came to the center of the city, the more destitute conditions became. Wealthier citizens, living in well-groomed wards farther away, were indifferent to the needs of workers and their children. Among these affluent people were landlords who were well aware "that overcrowding increased land values."

Reading was a grimy, smoke-belching, industrial city whose economy was controlled by owners and managers of "manufacturing plants ...handling coal iron, furniture, hardware, brewery, car and heavy machine products." These forces, in obedience to the wishes of the Reading Railroad, the city's largest employer, and with the cooperation of political parties, including the Socialist (whose members distrusted city officials) brought Nolen's plan down. Through their united efforts, on November 8, 1910, they voted against a loan to implement Nolen’s proposals, many of which had been watered down. While Nolen had other failures and while most of his plans were only partially completed, his defeat at Reading was one of his greatest disappointments.

In fairness to Reading, the city adopted many of Nolen's proposals in subsequent years, some of them after consultation with him.

John Nolen was a visionary ahead of his times. Nolen advocated for cities to grow and expand, always with guidelines and goals in mind, developing in synchronization with its population growth instead of before its time, or, even worse, after the chance for planning had passed. Nolen warned that if planning Reading’s growth were to be done haphazardly, it would lose many of the advantages that nature had gifted it. He admonished the city for having a plan that was "not thoughtful, but on the contrary, ignorant and wasteful." One can only wonder what Reading would have looked like today had city planners listened to John Nolen and prevented builders from building row homes, widening all of the streets and providing parks and green space for people.

Nolen’s plan for a paradise was realized west of Reading. Spanning the streetcar and automobile eras, Wyomissing Park (1917-21), a garden village first planned by Werner Hegemann and Elbert Peets, with the assistance of Joseph Hudnut, and later reenvisioned by John Nolen, was situated west of Reading, Though neither plan was fully realized, Nolen’s contribution promised "one of North Americas most elegantly planned suburbs" featuring some of Nolen’s most beautifully designed residential streets.

In 1913, three supporters of Nolen's plan, the textile magnates Ferdinand Thun (1866-1949), Henry Janssen (1866-1948), and Gustav Oberlaender (1867-1936), formed the Wyomissing Development Company and began three years of preparatory work leading to the selection of Hegemann and Peets in 1917 to plan a "Modern Garden Suburb" on a 500-acre site across the Schuylkill River from Reading, expressing their hope that the public will appreciate how closely the efforts made by the company towards the creation of a truly modern residential park are in harmony with the best city planning thought as recorded for instance in the memorable report on Greater Reading written by John Nolen and published by the Civic Association of the City of Reading.

Retaining the sites natural features, which included the winding Wyomissing Creek and its surrounding meadows, Hegemann, who was cited as author of the plans text, and Peets and Hudnut, who were credited with the drawings, called for housing for a mix of social classes as well as community features, including a horseshoe-shaped business center with shops and a theater, twelve plazas, courts, and squares, and parks and playgrounds. The intention, according to the planners, was to design "a living organism reflecting in prismatic variety the surrounding topographical conditions... accentuating certain features of the topography...which, with thoughtless planning, are often submerged in an unbending system of straight streets or more recently, in an altogether characterless adaptation of wildly winding streets to every whimsicality of the contours.

The plan abounded in group houses, many with rear alleys providing access to garages, anticipating that the industrial workers would own cars, although street car service was provided on Shillington Boulevard and the one- to three-mile distance to downtown Reading was touted in promotional literature as being "largely within walking distance from the heart of the City." Hegemann and Peets combined "fine framed-in squares" enclosed by row houses with the open charms of parklike districts in detached country house style.... thus securing an alternation of open and closed textures, of garden city and city square. By this procedure the moderately priced row house becomes an element of as great artistic importance as the effective setting of the millionaires residence; the beauty of the one is increased by the other. Single-family houses were to be separated by no less than 30 feet to avoid the "unpleasant effect of crowding," and in the western reaches of the community four- and five-acre lots and larger were planned and landscaped in a manner that would allow for future subdivision. The scheme preserved large amounts of the sites beautiful landscape, threading the community with a network of open spaces, and transforming a former agricultural dump into an active recreation area. The parks and recreational spaces were to be open to all, not only residents. By 1917 four of the housing groups were laid out and built more or less according to plan.

In 1923, Wyomissing Development hired John Nolen to resuscitate the project that now focused on recently acquired land to the south, a 265-acre former nursery. Portions of the original had been given over to several large estates as well as the Reading Hospital and the Reading Public Museum, for which Nolen prepared landscape plans. In addition to laying out Parkside Drive North and Parkside Drive South along parkland bordering the Wyomissing Creek valley, connecting the grounds of the hospital and museum with Wyomissing Boulevard.

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Nolen covered the former nursery with a series of wide, gently curving, tree lined residential streets accommodating large house lots, hoping to make the development seem less like a typical subdivision and more like a "residential park wherein homes may be built." Nolen provided "neighborly lanes cut through the blocks, allowing fine walks and short cuts for pedestrians, away from the automobile traffic of the street," stressing that "the plan of Wyomissing Park is one of the first to call for proper provision for the pedestrian." Now that automobiles put such intensive use on the road itself, it is altogether fitting that walks and paths and lanes should have special attention as a part of the recreation scheme. "Few people walk today," wrote Nolen, “and one reason is that attractive promenades and footpaths are not provided." Although the Wyomissing Development Company and other developers carried out most of the Nolen plan, a particularly appealing residential area around the circular Weise Lake was not realized.

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The children of Reading appear to understand the place and need of play better than their elders. In the early part of the summer of 1910 the Reading local paper offered to print brief letters from the children themselves on the subject of playgrounds. These are some of the typical ones:

SOME LETTERS OF THE CHILDREN OF READING ON PLAYGROUNDS

Arthur L. Leader, age 13.

"I think our city should have more playgrounds than we have, for our childhood days are only once, when we are little boys and girls."

Edna Groff, age 11.

"We are too poor to go to Atlantic City and play in the sand. We ought to have some playgrounds somewhere, for, if we play in the house, we will waken the babies."

Dorothy Grew, age 8.

"Here in Reading, when we want to play, we must go in the back yard, and then get a scolding if we tread the grass down. So playgrounds for me, - the sooner, the better."

Elmer M. Searfoss, age 11.

"I would enjoy a playground, because when I play on the sidewalk in front of the people’s houses they tell me to go home on my own sidewalk. I think it would learn us to love each other better, as we become more acquainted by playing together daily, and save the lives of many a girl and boy by keeping them off the street. And also fresh air and sunshine is better than medicine, and I think Reading ought not to be last in everything."

Mabelle Kreischer, age 13.

"I would like a playground near our house, so I could take my baby-brother, as he couldn’t go without I accompany him. I think that all the children of Reading would be pleased if some land would be given for a playground instead of building houses on every square inch of ground."

Gordon Cramp, age 12.

"I think during the summer the school-yards should be open to the children to play in. The school-yard at Tenth and Douglass Streets would make a fine playground."

Ruth Ibach, age 10.

"I was never at a playground yet, but, I suppose it is very nice. When we want to play, we cannot play in peace. When we skate, either the policeman or the people chase us."

John O’Neill, age 12.

"It keeps the children from troubling other people. During vacation a playground is necessary. We hear so many grumbling about vacation, and wish we had none."

G. Schaeffer, age 10.

"There ought to be a playground in every square or two, so you can take your little brothers and sisters along with you. When you play in the house, you waken the baby, and, when you play in the yard, you get the board-walk dirty. And, if you play in the street, you get the dirt on the neighbor’s pavement, and they come out and scold you."

Margaret Whitman, age 8.

"I guess if the big people would only stop and make believe they were little again for a little while, and mix with us in our play, there would not be much trouble to keep up our playgrounds where people won't try to steal you."

Lena Romig, age 12.

“Reading should have a playground because of the many poor children who have no toys, and who live on back streets. They never have any place where they can go and safely have a pleasant day. Some children are kept off the streets. They are learning bad language and bad manners by being on the streets.”

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