The Charles Mulford Robinson papers

The Charles Mulford Robinson papers composed a landmark collection for me in many ways.  It was the most extensive collection I’d worked on in terms of variety of materials, it was the most initially disorganized, and it was my last.  I completed it on Monday, July 28, 2014, my last day working here at the Van Pelt Library.  Bittersweet as it is to leave, I am very pleased with the challenge and topic the Robinson papers presented me.

Charles Mulford Robinson (1869-1917) is an interesting example of a lauded celebrity from his own time who has since virtually disappeared from popular and even historical recollection.  During his life, Robinson was celebrated as the first American city planner and an early advocate of the “City Beautiful” movement.  After about a decade as a newspaper editor based out of Rochester, New York, Robinson developed a reputation for thoughtful ideas and judgments on city appearance and improvement.  Soon he was being invited by various cities and town in the capacity of “civic adviser” to tour them and offer suggestions on their improvement and beautification in line with the “City Beautiful” principles developed initially by Daniel Burnham in Chicago.  He produced reports and newspaper articles containing his advice for communities as different in size as in geographic location from Freeport, Illinois and Hannibal, Missouri to Syracuse, New York, Denver, Colorado and Honolulu, Hawaii.  The esteem he received from this earned him a professorship of urban planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a post in fact created especially for him, and the second of its kind in the country, the first being located and filled at Harvard.  He died suddenly at Albany at the young age of 48 from pneumonia in 1917.  Now, 97 years after his celebrated life, our nation’s first native-born city planner who was recognized as such is probably a new name to most of you, and his Wikipedia article is only three short paragraphs in length.  I find that to be a good warning for those who worship and seek celebrity: even if it is obtained based on the merits of your accomplishments, there is no guarantee that any number of people will remember you after your death.  To adapt some recent terminology, in the long-haul, those who join the ranks of Cicero and St. Paul are the 1%.

As an aspiring classical archaeologist interested in comparative urbanism across the ancient Mediterranean and Near East, I was very pleased to work with the papers of a city planner.  However, as I worked through the quasi-organized documents, I realized the collection would more reflect Robinson himself than his city planning activities.  The collection contains a few of his civic advising reports, but for the most part contains newspaper articles about him, personal papers, and personal items.  As such I got to know Robinson the man more than Robinson the city planner.  No matter, for Robinson was an interesting, agreeable individual who approached the Platonic ideal of a late 19th/early 20th-century gentleman.  His papers show him to be a conscientious, learned individual involved in his community.  The set of papers I eventually organized as the collection’s first series consists of a number of newspaper clippings and letters Robinson collected related to the 1912 controversy in Rochester over the planned construction of tenements under the auspices of George Eastman, the philanthropic founder of Kodak.  Eastman’s move was heavily opposed by elements of the Rochester community, including Robinson, who solidly believed Rochester should remain a city of single-family homes. In addition, he objected to safety hazards inherent in the tenements’ design, such as no fire escapes, no fireproof (i.e., brick-encased) interior stairways, and a complex which would have made heavy use of wood as a construction material.  In the end, Eastman lost and the tenements were not built.  Through this, Robinson showed himself to be possessed of the predominate sensibilities of his time, namely that the comparatively underprivileged of society should be taken care of and that civic virtue and integrity should be preserved and encouraged via a beautiful city.  Indeed, his correspondence and other papers show him to run in the Progressive circles of the time.  We have preserved letters from such Progressive personalities as the economist Richard T. Ely, Unitarian minister and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and outspoken labor leader Samuel Gompers.  One of the newspaper clippings from 1916 contains a photograph of pacifists attending an annual conference the year before the United States entered World War I, in which Robinson can be seen standing in the second row.  For some reason also preserved in the collection was a number of excised autographs of Susan B. Anthony, apparently clipped out from letters.  Now personally I’d prefer the letters had been preserved in their entirety, because I’d like to know what Susan B. Anthony was saying in them, but here we have another example of what different time periods and individuals find valuable.

Even more than the correspondence (which was littered with club acceptance cards and other ephemera which only let us track Robinson’s social involvements), I enjoyed the poems, prose, and hymns Robinson authored in his spare time.  We have a number of them in various states of progress, from fully published ones to manuscripts on scrap paper with strike-throughs and corrections.  Proving Robinson had a gentlemanly sardonic humor, one poem is in fact the text of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” with humorous lyrics about the stock market and other present-day institutions.  The most memorable piece of Robinson’s prose for me was his piece entitled “Westward Ho!” about his trip to California on the Transcontinental railroad, advising Denver and Salt Lake City on the way, and which reflects upon the trip through the Great Plains and the Rockies.  In it, he used most every fancy turn of phrase I could imagine for a period gentleman to describe the purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain.  In addition to the stories and hymns (which unfortunately were not have set to music, so as far as far as I know none have yet been sung in the pews), I rather enjoyed the librettos from two plays Robinson co-authored, “Ye Gods and Goddesses” (an 1889 mythical romp with the Greco-Roman pantheon with 19th century accoutrements, such as Jupiter using opera glasses to observe the chorus), and “Dream Camp,” (an 1890 production in which a bust of Plato watches the antics of then-present day college students).  We also have an interesting “Reference” book of Robinson’s, containing lists of books he means to read on any number of topics from Roman law to archaeology, economics, and the philosophy of Seneca, his notes on those topics, and an impeccably organized index at the front guiding the reader to any topic.  That Robinson was so multi-talented (or at least dilettantish enough) to compose his own verses and chapters and keep up his learning in addition to his day-job as a newspaperman and eventually civic adviser and professor of city planning, thoroughly impresses me and convinces me of the possibility of living a lettered and learned in addition to a professional life.  I don’t think I’d be writing poetry or plays, but just the fact that I have this example of a man who lived out his interests in tandem with his career is inspiring in and of itself.

In addition to the correspondence, conflicts, creative writing, the collection contains a number of books, scrapbooks, and articles which provide a testament to Robinson’s life.  The scrapbooks contain snippings from the Arts & Books column of the New York Times, several volumes of clippings from the “Chat and Clippings” columns of an unidentified newspaper (possibly the Rochester Post-Express or the Rochester Courier), a boyhood scrapbooks containing clippings on any number of topics of interest from faith to a limerick meant to help children memorize the order of the English monarchs back to William the Conqueror, and any and all articles that mentioned his wedding to Eliza Ten Eyck Pruyn of Albany.  Indeed, the number of clippings Robinson collected about his wedding is only rivaled by the number of clippings a hired service(!) collected for his estate on the matter of his death, which is by far the most common topic in all the collection’s loose newspaper clippings.  Others include Robinson’s advising visits to Denver and Honolulu, reviews on some of Robinson’s published works, and, following his death, the successful efforts to establish a memorial to him in Rochester (including a renamed street in Highland Park, Robinson Drive, which maintains that name to this day).  Several books are also native to the collection which, again, do more to shed light on Robinson’s personal than professional life.  There are a couple professional books, a city planning progress report from 1917 and a book on horticultural landscaping.  The rest are a mix with sentimental value.  We have two darling, small devotional books, containing a daily Scripture reading and portion of a hymn, owned respectively by Robinson (a lifelong Presbyterian) and his wife Eliza.  Both books had been given to them as children, as Robinson notes in the front flap of his on the date he “entered” the church, and as Eliza proved with her innocent doodles and inscription of “Satan trembles when he sees a poor sinner on his knees.” There is a children’s novel called “Doctor Papa,” which after a month in Italy on a dig earlier this summer and hearing much about “Papa Francesco” while there, immediately made me imagine the novel was about a Pope-cum-Doctor of the Church, though somehow I doubt a book in the “Flaxie Frizzle” (actual name!) series was about St. Gregory the Great.  As Robinson’s description in the beginning attests, “Doctor Papa” was given to him as a school reward for “Good Deportment.”  We also have a book of “birthday gems” that belonged to Eliza, with a proverb and Bible verse for each day and an adjacent column for entering friend’s names (so as to bless them with the advice of their birthday) and a small book of good-night thoughts for children by the Anglican hymnist and poet Frances Ridley Havergal.  Wonderfully, the Van Pelt Library has Havergal’s companion volume to this, a book of good-morning thoughts for little ones to reflect upon when rising for the day.  Supposing Franklin is accurate, we did not previously have the evening volume, and now we do!  Nice saving throw from the past there, Mr. Robinson!  Thank you.  We also have a copy of Robinson’s own rip-roaring fun small book “The Third Ward Catechism,” a humorous look at Rochester’s Third Ward, and a pamphlet written by Frederick Law Olmsted (a friend of Robinson’s) called “The Smoke Nuisance,” which is basically New York having fun at Chicago’s expense for not having a smoke ordinance.  Chicago was a legendarily filthy and sooty city at the turn of the century due to heavy industry and lack of a civic smoke ordinance.  My maternal grandmother, who grew up in Chicago, recalled simply going outside for a day and returning home filthy just for being outside, the soot in the air was so heavy.  Perhaps the best part about the pamphlet was its cartoons, including ones making fun of “Cinderitis (a Chicago disease)” (caption of a drawing of a gentleman having an entire cinder of coal removed from his eye) and another poking fun at Daniel Burnham, who in the cartoon is presenting his “City Beautiful” plan for Chicago to local dignitaries.  The plan, due to the smoke-pumping factories outside the window, is covered up completely with soot in the seconds it takes Burnham to go to the door and welcome the gentlemen in, much to their and Burnham’s consternation!

As you can tell, we have in the Charles Mulford Robinson papers a most engaging collection shining a light into the life and character of our nation’s first city planner to be hailed as such.  While the comparative lack of professional materials is a tad disappointing (those can be found at Harvard, as an extensive correspondence in the collection between Mrs. Robinson and the Widener Library attests), the collection more than makes up for that in personal attestations and quirks.  Indeed, this collection ended up with the largest “Miscellaneous” section of any I’d had the pleasure of working on, containing items ranging from Robinson’s personal stamp and papers related to a club (“The Humdrum Club”!) headed by Robinson, to the (without any explanation I could divine) schematics of the steamer Kaiserin Auguste Victoria and the dried and pressed remains of different plants!  Yes, we are in possession of an interesting hodgepodge here, thanks to which Holly, with good reason, has laughingly proclaimed Robinson “whack-a-doodle,” which in some regards may not be off the mark!  I personally think of him as an eccentric, accomplished gentleman and was very pleased to make his acquaintance across time by way of this, my final collection at the Van Pelt Library.  Farewell to all, and Godspeed!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s