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John Nolen


John Nolen, Landscape Architect, City Planner [1869-1937]

Nolen's considerable achievements continue well past the period covered in the excerpt below (to 1913). Not the least of these include the design of the City of Venice, Florida (1925) and the publication of a seminal work (1927), "New Towns for Old: Achievements in Civic Improvement in Some American Small Towns and Neighborhoods."

Portions of the text, below, were adapted from a book by Samuel Atkins Eliot, "A History of Cambridge Massachusetts (1630-1913)" [1] Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.

John Nolen, landscape architect, city planner, civic lecturer, writer, observant traveler in old worlds and new, is, in the thoughts of many, now occupying the desirable position in public estimation which those who knew best the lamented Charles Eliot, son of Ex-President Eliot, expected him one day to have.

Mr. Nolen's career has been unusual. He was born in 1869, was graduated in 1893 from the University of Pennsylvania, studied at Oxford, Munich and Harvard, which gave him its A.M. in 1905.

Practice and theory have found in his life the blending which invariably spells out success. Before college he had a fruitful business career; after college — in fact, until 1903 — he combined lecturing and administrative work for the University Extension Society in Philadelphia. He thus became a fluent and effective speaker, and at the same time learned to organize men, direct activities, and deal with multitudinous details. He acquired the art of influencing minds in the mass and also one by one. He developed the habit, whether in a crowd or in the quiet of an office conversation, of stating unwholesome truth without dilution and also without hurt to the most sensitive. When as city planner or re-planner he is to speak about the city's needs before the citizens en masse, he makes his diagnosis as carefully as any doctor called to a sickbed, and then reports exactly what he finds. Mr. Nolen has written many articles, published many reports, given many addresses, and advised in the formation of many organizations for the betterment and beautifying of our cities. His attitude toward practically every civic problem with which he has had to deal, is clearly indicated in his latest book, "Replanning Small Cities," perhaps the most important single contribution to city improvement literature ever made by an American: In reading it one sees that Mr. Nolen always has in mind in his writing and work the three essentials: (1) The influence of comprehensive city planning on the civic spirit; (2) the relationship of the specific plan to better housing, proper schooling, well-planned playgrounds, spacious parks, grade crossings, waterfronts, a true wage-system, and better living; (3) and the urgent necessity that American cities, like Dusseldorf and other German cities, should be able to borrow large sums to make their plans effective.

As one reads the list of Mr. Nolen's activities, creations and publications, most of which belong within the last decade, one is amazed at both the quality and quantity of his good work. Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects, first vice-president of the American Civic Association, member of the Executive Board of the National Conference on City Planning and of the Boston Metropolitan Plan Commission, and of such clubs as the Boston City Club, the New York Harvard Club, and the Appalachian Mountain Club, Mr. Nolen has been counselor to more than a score of representative American cities, many more educational and philanthropic institutions and private estates, and official landscape architect to such municipalities as Madison, WI, Montclair, NJ, Reading, PA, Roanoke, VA, San Diego, CA, New London, CT, Savannah, GA, and Schenectady, NY. In Massachusetts alone ten cities are the better and the fairer for his touch. It is evermore the man behind the guns that wins the victory. Back of all of Mr. Nolen's intelligent, artistic and amazingly abundant work is a simple, quiet, tactful, friendly but extremely forceful personality, gathering inspiration all along the way of life, from chance acquaintances, from friends whose name is legion, and most of all from a happy home made possible by his marriage in 1896 to Miss Barbara Schatte of Philadelphia.

Mr. Nolen lived in Cambridge, but his main professional fields have been South and West. His strong preference for public work has been expressed most often perhaps in the case of the small city, sometimes regardless of compensation. He has kept the standard of his comparatively new profession ever far ahead of mediocrity and mercenary interests, and his motto ever is "The beautiful is as useful as the useful."

  1. Adapted from: Samuel Atkins Eliot, A.M., D.D., A History of Cambridge Massachusetts (1630-1913) Together With Biographies of Cambridge People, p. 230-231, The Cambridge Tribune, Cambridge MA, 1913


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