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Almanac: Mapping Out A Profession and a City

November/December 2013
NOVEMBER marks the anniversary of the founding of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the oldest national engineering society in the United States. The Society was founded in New York City on November 5, 1852, when twelve engineers met at the offices of the Croton Aqueduct.

On October 23rd, 1852, a notice was sent to practitioners of civil engineering in and near New York City, stating “A meeting will be held in the office of the Croton Aqueduct Department, Rotunda Park, on Friday, November 5th, at 9 o’clock P.M. for the purpose of making arrangements for the organization, in the city of New York, a Society of Civil Engineers and Architects. Should the object of the meeting obtain your approval, you are respectfully invited to attend.”

There were twelve respondents to this invitation. Julius W. Adams, J. W. Ayres, Alfred W. Craven, Thomas A. Emmet, Edward Gardiner, Robert B. Gorsuch, G. S. Greene, James Laurie, W. H. Morell, S. S. Post, W. H. Talcott, and W. H. Sidell gathered at the appointed time and place in the office of Alfred W. Craven, chief engineer of the Croton Aqueduct Department. On that day, these twelve became the Founders of the first national engineering society created in the United States, the American Society of Civil Engineers and Architects.

The Founders declared the objects of the new Society to be "the professional improvement of the members, the encouragement of social intercourse among men of practical science, the advancement of engineering in its several branches, and of architecture, and the establishment of a central point of reference and union for its members." James Laurie was elected as the Society’s first President and served from 1853-1867. At the Society's January 5, 1853 meeting, President Laurie presented the ASCEA’s first paper, "the Relief of Broadway," a proposal for an elevated railroad above the New York City streets to help alleviate traffic problems in the city.

In 1869 the "Architects" was dropped from the name, as the architects formed their own society, the American Institute of Architects, in 1857. The Society was incorporated as the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1868.

On June 16, 1981, the ASCE Metropolitan Section unveiled a plaque on the site of ASCE's founding near the southwest corner of Chambers and Centre Streets in City Hall Park. This plaque commemorates the 1852 the meeting. The plaque reads:

“A small, domed Roman style building named the Rotunda stood on this site, 1816-1870. It was the City's first art museum and was erected to display panoramas painted by the artist John Vanderlyn. At times the structure housed a post office, courts and various city agencies. On November 5, 1852, in the offices of the croton aqueduct department, the American Society of Civil Engineers was founded. The society is the oldest national association of engineers in the United States.”

 Founding Plaque
ASCE Founding Plaque

The Society remained in New York until 1996, when headquarters moved to Reston, Virginia.

 General James Oglethorpe
General James Oglethorpe

DECEMBER marks the birth of General James Oglethorpe (December 22, 1696 – June 30, 1785), a British general, Member of Parliament, philanthropist, and founder of the colony of Georgia. Among Oglethorpe’s accomplishments was the founding of city of Savannah, Georgia in 1733 and the development of what has become known as “The Oglethorpe Plan.”

Oglethorpe's plan for settlement of the new colony of Georgia had been in the works since 1730, three years before the founding of Savannah. The plan sought to achieve several goals through interrelated policy and design elements, including the spacing of towns, the layout of towns and eventually their surrounding counties, equitable allocation of land, and limits to growth to preserve a sustainable agrarian economy.

The Savannah city plan is distinguished from those of previous colonial towns by the repeated pattern of connected neighborhoods, open space squares, streets, and designed expansion into lands held by the city. The genesis of many of the Oglethorpe Plan’s design details can be found in Roman colonial town planning and Renaissance concepts of the ideal city. The original plan resembles the layout of contemporary military camps, which were familiar to General Oglethorpe, and was also a reaction against the congested conditions that fueled the Great Fire of London in 1666.

The city of was laid out in 1733 around open squares, each surrounded by four residential ("tything") blocks and four civic ("trust") blocks. The layout of a square and eight surrounding blocks was known as a "ward." The ward, approximately 600 feet by 600 feet, is the basic plan unit of the Oglethorpe Plan with the square, approximately 200 feet by 200 feet, centered at each ward. Street and building lots are organized around the central square. A tything consisting of ten house lots, with each lot measuring 60 feet by 90 feet, occupied each of the four corners of a ward. Each tything was assigned a square mile tract outside of town for farming, and each family farmed a forty-five acre plot within that tract. Families were also assigned five-acre kitchen gardens near town. On the east and west flank of the square were positioned four larger Trustee Lots, reserved for public structures such as churches, banks, or government buildings. The streets bounding the wards allow uninterrupted movement of through traffic while the internal streets are interrupted by the squares to create a pedestrian scale.

 City Plan of Savanah
City Plan of Savannah
Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library

Savannah's plan reflects political and organizational considerations of the day. Each ward had tythingmen, who shared guard and other duties. The repetitive non-hierarchal placement of wards, squares, and equal-sized lots points to the utopian ideals of the colony. The city plan also proved to be very adaptable and allowed the city to grow and develop. Oglethorpe originally laid out six wards. By 1851 there were 24 squares in the city, following the pattern established by the original 1733 plan.

As a synthesis of planning ideals that respond to social, military, environmental, and philosophical needs, the Savannah city plan stands out among American colonial town plans. The model produced a city internationally known for the beauty of its neighborhood square. Savannah is the oldest city plan in the United States to use a repetitive modular grid with mixed residential blocks and multi-purpose public areas, a concept that is emulated by urban planners today.

The City Plan of Savannah was recognized by the American Society of Civil Engineers as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1977.