On the highway to grandmother’s house? Lessons from early automobile landscapes

This week in North Philly Notes, Amy Finstein, author of Modern Mobility Aloft, considers how American cities used elevated highways as major architectural statements about local growth and modernization in the early 20th century.

Ah, the winter holidays; that time of the year so often defined by highway car-trips to see family and friends—at least pre-COVID-19. Even as many stay home this year, the basic idea of that pattern—easy mobility—remains a cornerstone of modern American identity, and one indebted to a century’s worth of choices about making landscapes accommodate the scale and pace of the automobile.

As an architectural historian, I wondered if there was a way to measure this automotive shift in the history of the built environment. Historians have documented the design and societal evolution of automobiles and car culture; design and planning scholars have detailed the evolution of streets, roadside landscapes, and Interstate highways as interventions supporting our collective automotive enthusiasm. However, most of these examples thrived outside of city centers. Were there architectural projects that brought the prowess of mobility to bear on the physical landscape of existing American cities?

I found part of the answer to this question in my hometown of Boston, MA. From the 1990s through the early 2000s, the city endured the famous “Big Dig,” an enormous public works project that buried and threaded a tunneled 10-lane highway beneath a still-functioning elevated highway, eventually deconstructing and replacing the elevated highway (the Central Artery) with a surface network of public parks. For the fifty years before the Big Dig, the green steel of the Central Artery had provided a mechanized and looming presence in city streets, unabashedly pronouncing the importance of car travel while simultaneously failing to meet the capacity or speed demands of its automotive users. This, I thought, was a landscape that dramatically demonstrated the arrival of automobility in Boston, and the complexities of its lasting impact. Thus, the genesis of Modern Mobility Aloft was born.

With Boston’s Central Artery as my starting point, I honed in on two other examples of constructed roadways whose physical presences and legacies varied from that in Boston: Chicago’s classically-decorated and still-in-use Wacker Drive, and New York’s West Side Elevated Highway, an Art Deco hulk torn down in the 1990s. All three of these examples were designed in the early twentieth century, but faced hurdles about aesthetics, route, and cost that delayed their implementation; and that ultimately provoked their later reconsideration. Modern Mobility Aloft argues that these constructed roads synthesized architecture and engineering at the scale of the American city, and announced the importance of modern mobility to drivers and streetgoers in prominent visual and experiential terms. The book connects debates about design and transportation across disciplines, showing how the infancy of the automobile age laid the groundwork for landscapes and challenges that linger with us still.

Here are some things that can be learned from studying early urban elevated highways:

  • Before federal highway legislation, many highway initiatives originated locally to respond to local concerns for socio-economic and physical progress.
  • Early 20th century architects, engineers, science-fiction writers, and municipal leaders shared enthusiasm for utopian visions of multi-level streets weaving between and through soaring skyscrapers.
  • The insertion of elevated highways in existing cities became one way of realizing pieces of these utopian schemes.
  • Elevated railroads foretold some of the organizational, visual, and experiential problems of elevated highways, but did not dissuade planners from pursuing them.
  • Architects design more than buildings: high-profile designers planned highway superstructures, on-ramps, guardrails, sculptural reliefs, light fixtures, and balustrades.
  • Connections matter: design and transportation consultants brought similar ideas from place to place, spreading certain patterns across diverse landscapes.
  • Architectural modernity can be conveyed by many different visual languages.
  • The examples in Chicago, New York, and Boston define a pattern that is also visible in many other American cities.
  • Early elevated highways foreshadowed patterns of automobile prioritization and social displacement that came to characterize later federal road-planning approaches.
  • Impacted cities still sport the vestiges of early elevated highways—with varying incarnations of automobile dominance, architectural denial, and visible scars defining 21st century urban landscapes.

So, in many ways, American cities served as the testing grounds for new ideas about modern transportation, architecture, and urbanism. Early elevated highways combined these concepts in singular forms. Before highways stretched across the national landscape, they soared above individual cities, providing exciting yet contradictory visions of expected futures.

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