Shedding a Whole New Light on Harrisburg

Researching the City Beautiful Movement gave me so much more appreciation for the city of Harrisburg. I really knew nothing about it, being from New Jersey; it took me until I was in middle school to even realize that it was the capital of Pennsylvania! My sister moved there about that time, and, honestly, the more rumors I heard about it, the less I liked it: an economy of debt, a corrupt government, and high crime rates. The city seemed to have trouble marketing any of its positive parts, except for maybe Front Street. Because of the reputation that I had been sold, when I’d heard that we would be researching their City Beautiful Movement, I was skeptical. But, if there is one thing I’ve learned in my short time being a history major, it’s that everything is more intricate and complicated than it appears at first glance.

While others in my class focused on the many other achievements of the City Beautiful Movement, my main task was researching the burning and then rebuilding of the State Capitol Building. The original capitol designed by Stephen Hills burnt down in 1897, and there was no chance that it could be reused with only a few repairs; the whole thing needed to be replaced. After a bill was introduced to move the capital back to Philadelphia (since they were looking for a new building anyway), Harrisburgers knew that this building would have to stand as a symbol of their heart and dedication. Even if they were a poor and relatively insignificant city when compared to Philadelphia, they were more than capable of being a capital that Pennsylvania could be proud of. Joseph M. Huston with his team of artists, Edwin Austin Abbey, George Grey Barnard, and Violet Oakley, designed a new capitol that was so beautiful and ornate (while staying within an appropriate price range) that very few people could find anything to complain about. Reading about the building in newspaper articles was one thing, but when I found Huston’s collection of photographs from the finished product, I was blown away. I couldn’t believe that a building so beautiful could be hidden inside the city with such a bad reputation in the early twentieth century.  The citizens of Harrisburg used the capitol as a starting point, and then made the rest of the city beautiful.

The exterior of the new Capitol Building. The rotunda of the Capitol Building is the first thing a visitor would see when they enter the building. Here is an example of how ornate everything in the new building is.

If everyone could see, how I’ve now seen, what this city can look like if its residents band together, the City Beautiful Movement 2.0, started in 2013, would get the support that it deserves. Now driving through the city, I notice all of the little things, like the statues, the parks, the steps along the banks of the Susquehanna, and now I feel a special connection to the Capitol Building and I am in awe of it.




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