Placemaking as a Way of Life: A Walk Through Cascadilla Park

by Peter Sigrist



While taking photos for the recent urban intersections group post, I ended up in a place that stopped me in my tracks. It was one of the most unique streets I've ever seen, for its architecture, vegetation, and natural beauty just a few minutes' walk from the center of town. I'd been told it was an "Arts & Crafts" development, and although I had a vague idea of what that meant, the thought of making things out of popsicle sticks came more readily to mind. I've since become interested in a closely related idea of civic improvement as a way of life. This line of thinking was also inspired by Rob Holmes of mammoth discussing Kazys Varnelis discussing Louis Wirth.

The Arts & Crafts Movement included a strong focus on improving social conditions in cities. It was founded by William Morris, based in large part on the ideas of John Ruskin. It is often described as a response to Victorian-era aesthetics and industrialization, with emphasis on social reform (including a rejection of consumerism), quality work by hand, and the healing potential in natural beauty. While Morris was an ardent socialist, the Arts & Crafts Movement took a more bourgeois turn in the United States. Many among the growing middle class, inspired in part by progressivism and the problems of industrialization, took an interest in societal reform through civic engagement and a return to the imagined simplicity of a pre-industrial world.

While the movement wasn't perfect (for example, those living in poverty seemed to be regarded more as needing reform or aid rather than as able participants), I wonder if some of the Arts & Crafts ideas might be resurrected and revised for our time. This wouldn't mean retreat into the past, but perhaps we can combine a similar approach to urban development with new technologies, carefully assuring that the movement remains democratic and viable for those struggling to make ends meet. As explained in a remarkable thesis on Cascadilla Park by Seth Bergstein, the Arts & Crafts Movement was also a lifestyle that included civic improvement as an extension of quality craftsmanship and stewardship emanating from the home. Thus craftsmanship applied to every pursuit and it was everyone's responsibility to take good care of their living space first, and then the city as a whole.


Advertisement for an Arts & Craft style bungalow from Ladies' Home Journal, February 1913 (full citation below). Women's organizations were a key constituency of the Arts & Crafts Movement.

Although a Ruskinesque vision of natural beauty and quality work doesn't guarantee an end to social problems, I see promise in the continuous development of healthy and attractive environments through individual and collective craftsmanship. This might be defined broadly as quality work for the democratically conceived good of society. I wonder why the Arts & Crafts approach to civic improvement didn't last, giving way instead to sprawl, mass production, outsourcing, globalization, and a disconnect between our daily work and the direct process of shaping the places where we live?

Cascadilla Park is located along the northern edge of the Cascadilla Gorge, linking the center of Ithaca with Cornell University. The houses were built between 1909 and 1922. Nearly every one reflects Arts & Crafts elements such as bungalow architecture, traditional materials, and harmonious integration with their environment. Each is unique but cohesive with the whole. They were designed with the help of pattern books and journals such as The Craftsman. The eminent landscape architect Warren H. Manning designed the neighborhood plan. Earlier in his career, he worked for Olmsted and was responsible for landscaping the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He was highly dedicated to applying art and design towards civic improvement.


Survey map of Cascadilla Park by Edward Hayes, Civil Engineer, June 15, 1909 (full citation below).

In Manning's design for Cascadilla Park, a main road follows the meandering path of the gorge, though with a more extreme curvature (see map above). This creates a simultaneous feeling of comfortable space and proximity; houses are nestled carefully into the curves, providing yards as well as views onto the gorge and town. When walking along the road, different angles of the houses emerge from above and below, offering engaging scenes at every turn. In keeping with Arts & Crafts principles, Manning sought to link the homes coherently with local geography. The result is a stunning natural setting within close walking distance of urban amenities. To give a clearer sense of the neighborhood, I've included a series of photos taken on a sunny day last December.

Walking north from the Carriage House Cafe on Stewart Avenue...



there's a bridge across Cascadilla Creek, which flows towards the center of Ithaca...



the houses of Cascadilla Park are visible through the trees...



just after crossing the bridge, you can turn left onto a walkway that follows the gorge into town...



Cascadilla Park Road begins here...



it winds down the hill, switching back and forth between houses...



each with a unique design...



many have nice views down the hill...



there are gambrel roofs...



wild landscaping, stucco, large windows...



more curves in the road...



cozy front porches and dormers...





note the upside-down wheelbarrow on a pile of stones, a home improvement project in progress...





approaching the walking path, which was included by the developers to provide open access for all citizens...



turning around, houses on different levels come into view...





returning along the walking path...



looking down...



a porch overlooking the ravine...



catching sight of the bridge we crossed to get here...



impressive latticework on the left...



return to the bridge at sunset...



looking down on the other side...



wishing I lived in one of those places...



then finding a site for the urban intersection photo...



standing near Stewart and Williams, just southeast of Cascadilla Park.

Credits: Advertisement for bungalow house in Ladies' Home Journal photographed from "Cascadilla Park, Ithaca, New York: Arts & Crafts Patronage as an Expression of Urban Reform," a thesis by Seth Bergstein, Cornell University, 2001. Survey map of Cascadilla Park also photographed from Bergstein 2001, the original source: Drawer 28 of the Tompkins County Deeds Record Office, Tompkins County Court House, Ithaca, NY. Photos by Peter Sigrist.

4 comments:

  1. Hector Fernando BurgaSun Jan 10, 11:23:00 PM EST

    Interesting set of questions at the end. Actually Ruskin, as well as arts and craft architecture provides the inspiration for many New Urbanist developments. The ideas of the Five minute walks, interconnectivity, walkability and a sense of community "democracy" also drive some of these implementations. An interesting question to add though is whether this is a solution for sprawl - a physical one for that matter, which New Urbanists also advocate, or whether it is nostalgia. Great Post. Beautiful Place.

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Fernando. Interesting question. While this is both a planned community just outside the center of town (thus it could almost be considered a precursor to sprawl as we know it) and a brownfield redevelopment (on the site of abandoned mills), the thing that interests me most is the Arts & Crafts idea of people becoming involved in shaping their living spaces.

    Civic improvement and quality work by hand seem like welcome alternatives to development that leaves us with homogeneous, low-quality housing, etc. Although this sounds nostalgic and perhaps untenable, do you think we could somehow move towards a more direct involvement in designing and even building the places where we live and work?

    I'm thinking of possibly making patterns available online (similar to the books used to design the houses in Cascadilla Park, or those described by Christopher Alexander), so that some people could build them by hand--perhaps providing a lot of employment, with a focus on quality over profit--and all of us could order the ones we need. Then they could be assembled by residents and neighbors, if they have time, or local workers. Once a combination of parts becomes particularly useful, maybe the plans could be added to the online archive to be used or adapted for use in other places.

    I know this all sounds far-fetched, but could it possibly ever work?

    As for New Urbanism, I would say it's not necessary for new designs to be inspired by quaint styles from the past. It's nice when there's some kind of visual coherency, but this is subjective, and I wouldn't want to limit diversity and experimentation. I definitely wouldn't want this to lead to precious, overpriced enclaves for the privileged set.

    Is there a way to give everyone more input in making the products and environments that best meet our needs?

    I know this isn't a finely tuned answer to your question. I just don't see Arts & Crafts housing developments as a solution to sprawl necessarily, even though this one is a relatively dense, walkable urban neighborhood. And I don't want to return to the past, I just wonder if it might be possible for us, globally, to focus more on quality and participation in civic improvement than on consumption and profit.

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  3. Also, in reference the ideas of craftsmanship and participation, everything wouldn't have to be built by hand. Using the latest technologies and most effective tools would be best, unless they're somehow ecologically harmful. This is more about a general orientation towards quality and civic engagement.

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  4. Wonderful! I love finding stuff like this.

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