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Charles Mulford Robinson, part 2

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As mentioned in February’s column, Charles Mulford Robinson arrived in the Third Ward as a two-year-old child when his parents moved to Rochester from Rockland County in 1871. He grew up in the house at 67 South Washington Street.

Charles Mulford Robinson home

The brick house on the left, 67 South Washington Street, is where Charles Mulford Robinson grew up with his parents, Arthur and Jane Robinson. After his marriage to Eliza Ten Eyck Pruyn in 1896, he lived in the frame house on the right, #65, until his death in 1917.

As a student at the University of Rochester, he demonstrated a talent for writing, serving one year as class poet and the next as historian for the Class of 1890. He had a friend from Scranton, Pennsylvania named Allan Gold Robinson who boarded at 37 South Washington, the Jonathan Child mansion, which was at that time a fashionable boarding house.

I have not found a family connection beyond the coincidence of their last names, which they duly noted in the title of a comic opera they created during their student days: “Robin Hood by Robin’s Sons.” Men filled all the roles including Maid Marian. There were three other Maidens, named First, Second and Third. Those numerical “ladies” sang a song, “Three little maids from ‘Coll’ are we,” indicating a debt to Gilbert and Sullivan; perhaps additional music was purloined from other composers as well. Most of the roles lampooned faculty members, although the university’s founding president, Dr. Martin B. Anderson (about to retire), was discreetly spared any such silliness.

After graduating from the University, Charles became writer and editor for the Rochester Post Express, a newspaper owned at the time by another Third Warder, William Kimball. In the coming years, Robinson would also write or edit other publications— Philadelphia’s Public Ledger, Harper’s Monthly, The Atlantic Monthly and Architectural Record. That last publication speaks directly to Robinson’s primary mission throughout his professional life.

In the 1890s, American cities were becoming overcrowded due to a high birth rate, immigration from other lands and the influx of many people from rural areas. In response, a movement called the City Beautiful began to rethink the design of cities, proposing monumental public buildings, recreational areas and more efficient transportation systems as solutions. The first great example of this movement occurred in 1893 when Daniel Burnham created the White City for Chicago’s Columbian Exposition.

Robinson had spent four months traveling in Europe during the spring and summer of 1891 and took note of how its capitals were ahead of the United States in civic design. When the White City opened, he was once of its earliest visitors and praised its design in a report entitled The Fair of Spectacle, extolling “the wondrous beauty of its outward form.” Over the years he continued to advocate the City Beautiful Movement; his 1901 book The Improvement of Towns and Cities became its Bible. He attacked practices that ignored “all teachings of the past, unconscious of all the possibilities of the future. We are laying out the new districts of Greater New York, not as the ideal city, nor the city beautiful, nor even as a city of common sense. We are merely permitting it to grow up under the stimulus of private greed and of real estate speculation.”

One chapter in Robinson’s book is entitled “The Tree’s Importance,” describing it as a “highly useful and decorative part of street furnishing, which years of growth are required to create, though an hour’s thoughtless work may destroy…. How comes it,” he wondered, that “the tree’s planting and care are still so neglected, that rich cities submit to miles of treeless thoroughfares and that good neighborhoods have been content with a few straggling specimens?”

He advocated municipal ownership of trees and was pleased when, on January 1, 1900, Rochester passed an ordinance putting its trees under the supervision of the Park Commission. For years, Robinson would serve as our city’s park commissioner and it is likely through his association with the man who created New York City’s Central Park, also a proponent of the City Beautiful Movement, that we have four Frederick Law Olmstead parks in Rochester.

Advocates of the Movement believed it could bring social harmony by improving a city’s quality of life. Critics thought it put too much emphasis on structures—an “architectural design cult”—while ignoring the need for social reforms to address underlying causes of poverty and crime. Nonetheless, many city officials turned to Robinson for help and he designed Denver, Colorado Springs, Omaha, Honolulu, Los Angeles and others, including my home town of Fort Wayne, Indiana!


This article was first published in the Corn Hill Gazette April 2020