Lovely town main streets

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Staunton, Va., founded in 1747. (Joe Rebello/Getty Images)

Architectural Digest has posted “The 30 Most Beautiful Main Streets Across America,” and they are beautiful. I examined each photo and saw no buildings identifiable as modern architecture. For while civic beauty is primarily the presence of lovely old buildings; it is also the absence of ugly new buildings. So, it seems that all of these small-town – that’s the qualifier – main streets qualify as beautiful.

Which street is the most beautiful? Hard to say. Most looked so much alike they could have been anywhere – Anytown USA. That is not a criticism. As Tolstoy said, “All happy streets are alike; each unhappy street is unhappy in its own way.” The novelist was channeling families not streets, but the principle is the same. Just look into any textbook of urban planning.

I don’t mean to sound the same note here as the Anyplace USA formed by cookie-cutter glass-box modernism or cookie-cutter big-box stores. You could say both downtowns and the suburbs are alike in their unhappiness, too, but each in their own way. And nobody wants to go there.

The only street among the 30 that is not part of a historic district – or at least historic without any official designation – is Rosemary Beach, Fla., a New Urbanist community founded in 1995 on the Panhandle just a few miles from Seaside, the original New Urbanist community. Seaside might have made it onto the list, but its founders decided to undermine its brand, for some reason letting quasi-modernist buildings go up on the main street of that otherwise magically beautiful resort village. Not so in Rosemary Beach. It kept its chic wannabe in check.

That no small-town main street was unjustly excluded from this list is unlikely. Surely Westerly, here in Rhode Island, ought to have made the cut, unless Westerly constitutes too large a metropolis – a town rather than a small town. But hold on! The population of Paducah, Ky., 25,024, is larger than Westerly’s 22,787. It made the list. So, that having been mathematically established, the top photo on this post is my favorite one from among the 30 assembled by AD. The shots below, since no small town in the Ocean State made the list, are of Westerly. I could not find Westerly’s inspired classical Post Office shot amid a grouping of buildings, but mark my words, it occupies a princely spot downtown.

I admit that I was swayed in favor of Staunton, Va., by the quality of the photograph, so evocative, so suggestive of the verticality of the best streets. But other towns showed much appeal in that their photographers captured the hard-to-define quality of a miniaturized big-city downtown. The best of this lot is difficult to identify, but you’ll know which ones I mean as you scroll down the list. Below, however, is Westerly.

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About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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4 Responses to Lovely town main streets

  1. Ron Thomas says:

    David -agree with your Seaside assessment. Did a photo assessment on a visit last year and decided they mixed their design playbook for the commercial center using the Italian Giorgio de Chirico forms in the monumental arcade. Did a photo overlay of the wood obelisk on the ocean front which aligns with the one recurring in Giorgio de Chirico’s drawings. Wonder what Italian futurism has to do with million dollars shotgun shack cottages.

    On the road Ron

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    • Thanks, Ron. Yes, at least a couple of those buildings along the semicircle do not really fit, leaving aside their massing. Some of their elements seem unnecessarily clunky due to the absence of detailing on square columns upholding the arcade and along some upper regions. What is the big idea?

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  2. Ferd Berfle says:

    The reason Westerly doesn’t make the list: the street is too wide. Look at the Main Streets that work and then compare: there’s a relationship between the building heights and the street width – nominally the height is about the same as the street width. On successful streets this creates an intimacy, a sense of enclosure, that is akin to being in a ‘room.’ Westerly doesn’t have it – the buildings just aren’t tall enough for the street width. In the photographs, you see four lanes of automobiles (two traffic, two parking), too-wide sidewalks, and one-to-two story buildings that may be quaint and historic but don’t have the ‘mass’ to create the street walls that are necessary to define space. It’s really not about the architecture, despite what you say about modernism. Modern buildings that understand the rules of place-making can be just as effective as old ones. But in your town, because of the size of the cartway and the repose of the buildings, the ‘street’ feels like a thoroughfare, the province of the car as opposed to the foot. This is worsened by the road striping, which looks like a highway, so here it feels like the cars won. Staunton’s Beverley Street, by contrast, is probably 20 feet narrower.

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    • Agree with your assessment, Ferd. Andres Duany has long made that very point, and cites Westminster Street as having the perfect width/building height ratio. But the magazine’s editors don’t seem to have got the memo, and in their intro they seem to praise the idea of overwide streets. So that can’t be why they left Westerly out!

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