Special to The Herald-Mail
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'
— "Ode on a Grecian Urn" John Keats (English, 1795-1821), written 1819, published 1820.
From the late Victorian 19th century into the first three decades of the 20th century, city planning, city park development and fine arts museum buildings emerged in a widespread nascent period of American urban planning.
High-minded ideals, such as those written by Keats, undergirded America's City Beautiful Movement, and Britain's "Garden City" movement. The development of Hagerstown's City Park and the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts were local examples of this enthusiastic era.
By the late 19th century, American cities had become overcrowded, unsanitary, even dangerous, and citizens urged a call to action.
To show how cities could improve and even remake themselves, during the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, a model city of grand scale was built. Known as the "White City," it presented classical architecture, gardens, public art, modern transportation, all in orderly streets, blocks, and plazas.
The creation of master plans for a number of major cities resulted directly from this important exposition. Chicago, Detroit, and downtown Washington, D.C., formed teams of architects, landscape designers, horticulturists and gardeners to develop beautiful cities with gardens and museums. It was believed that beauty, not only for its own sake, would inspire moral and civic virtue among urban populations and would help battle poverty.
In the nation's capital for example, the McMillan plan, was enacted to provide a means of completing and expanding upon the original L'Enfant plan of 1791. In the context of the McMillan Plan, President Theodore Roosevelt created the Council of Fine Arts by executive order in 1909. He appointed 30 painters, sculptors, furniture designers, architects, landscape architects and garden designers to this aesthetic review board.
In Hagerstown, planning for City Park and the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts followed the lead of the major cities. The City Park was formed from the acreage known in the 19th century as "Heyser's Woods," where the Heyser Family had built their home (now the Mansion House). It was also the site of the first Hagerstown Fair, held in 1852, where a half-mile horse-racing track was later built, and where both Union and Confederate troops camped during the Civil War.
In 1890, the West End Improvement Co. acquired the land that would become City Park. By 1916, public pressure paved the way for the City of Hagerstown to purchase land and develop it as City Park.
Two years later, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill creating a five-member Park Commission and in 1921, landscape architect George Elberton Burnap (1885 to 1938) was engaged to design the park. Burnap had served as a landscape architect for the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, Washington, D.C., between 1912 and 1917. He studied architecture and landscape architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell University and the University of Paris. He was responsible for the design and redesign of many beloved public spaces, including the Tidal Basin and Montrose and Meridian Hill Parks in Washington. He wrote the book, "Parks: Their Design, Equipment and Use."
During the development of City Park, the husband-wife team of Anna Brugh and William Singer Jr. determined to donate their museum of fine arts to the park. They negotiated a unique private-public agreement with the City of Hagerstown and Washington County and chartered by the Maryland General Assembly. The museum and its surrounding neighborhoods, including Oak Hill, embodied the ideals of the City Beautiful movement. The museum's architects, Hyde and Shepherd of New York City, subscribed to the prevailing Beaux Arts architectural style of the City Beautiful movement, and based their design for the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts on Classicism.