Teaching guide
The City Beautiful Movement

Complexity and contradiction in the Progressive Era

Frederick MacMonnies, Civic Virtue Triumphant Over Unrighteousness (1922) and Monument Avenue and the Lost Cause (1890–1929) will be useful in the study of:

  • The Progressive Era
  • City planning and design at the turn of the 20th century in the United States, notably the City Beautiful Movement
  • The civic role, reception, and stewardship of public sculpture in American cities
  • History of voting rights
  • The development of the Lost Cause Mythology

By the end of this lesson, students should be able to: 

  • Describe how the City Beautiful Movement and the commissioning of public sculpture reflect the broad goals of the Progressive Era in the United States.
  • Compare the results of the City Beautiful Movement in two U.S. cities, one in the north and one in the south.
  • Using examples of both public art and other primary sources, discuss the complexities and contradictions of the Progressive Era.

1. Look closely at Civic Virtue and Monument Avenue 

Frederick MacMonnies (sculptor), Thomas Hastings (architect), and Piccirilli Brothers (carvers), Civic Virtue Triumphant Over Unrighteousness, 1919, marble, more than 17 feet high (Originally City Hall Park, Manhattan, then Queens Borough Hall, now Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn but without fountain basins; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Frederick MacMonnies (sculptor), Thomas Hastings (architect), and Piccirilli Brothers (carvers), Civic Virtue Triumphant Over Unrighteousness, 1919, marble, more than 17 feet high (Originally City Hall Park, Manhattan, then Queens Borough Hall, now Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn but without fountain basins; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Civic Virtue, 1922 (zoomable images, also available for download for teaching)

Questions to ask:

  • Look at this sculptural group from all sides. What details can you identify? 
  • Based on what you see, can you describe the relationship between the figures, their actions, and their setting?
  • The sculptural group, which has suffered significant damage from long-term exposure and neglect, was originally positioned in the center of a large fountain. Can you try to imagine the experience of this fountain when it was first completed? What do you think the sculptor wanted people to feel when seeing the fountain? What do you see that makes you say that? 

Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Monument Avenue and the Lost Cause, 1890–1929

Questions to ask:

  • Look first at the image of the grassy island that runs through the middle of Monument Avenue. What words would you use to describe this setting? Look next at the aerial view of Monument Avenue. How can you expand on your description of the boulevard and its design? What stands out as distinctive?
  • Continuing looking at the images of Monument Avenue. What do you notice about them as a group? What do the various monuments have in common, both in style and in how they are positioned in the setting?
  • Imagine that the monuments, and the homes and buildings around them, were brand new. What impressions and/or questions would you have if you were driving down this boulevard? 
  • Now look back at the pictures of the monuments and the avenue today. What has changed? What new ideas and questions do you have about this historic area of the city of Richmond, Virginia? 

2. Watch the videos

The video on the sculpture Civic Virtue is only seven minutes long and the video Monument Avenue and the Lost Cause is just six minutes long. Ideally, the videos should provide an active rather than a passive classroom experience. Please feel free to stop the videos to respond to student questions, to underscore or develop issues, to define vocabulary, or to look closely at parts of the artworks that are being discussed. Key points, a self-diagnostic quiz, and high resolution photographs with details of Civic Virtue and Monument Avenue are provided to support each video.

3. Read about Civic Virtue, Monument Avenue, and their historical contexts

The Progressive Era: advancing opportunity, rights, and beauty

As industrialization and immigration expanded in the late 19th century, cities in the United States grew rapidly as did the economic and social divides among their inhabitants. Unregulated labor (there was no minimum wage until 1935) created conditions of terrible poverty and inequity. Greedy, corrupt industry leaders only got richer as these circumstances continued. Local and state governments often contributed to the corruption and the resulting disempowerment of workers and immigrants through their ties with private industry and/or by turning a blind eye to its unethical practices. Reformers, under the banner of progress, began to actively expose these ills and work for change. They believed that government, instead of reinforcing corruption, could be an agent for social and economic good through regulation, protections, and legislation that promoted greater opportunity for a wider swath of the population. Labor laws, taxation and election reform, and women’s suffrage were among the most notable achievements of the Progressive Era.

Concurrent with the push for social, political, and economic reform was the belief that a more organized and beautiful city would be an inspiring environment in which to pursue and sustain the common good; it could serve as a symbol of civic pride to all who lived and worked there. Sparked by the “White City” of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and modeled on the modernization of many European capitals in the 19th century, cities across the U.S. embarked on beautification and urban planning efforts starting in the 1890s. This City Beautiful Movement brought about new street layouts and civic architecture along with public parks, transportation, and art. In many cases, lawmakers also introduced regulatory systems to guide the construction, use, and preservation of these new developments. New York City and Richmond, Virginia offer two unique and quite distinct examples of the manifestation of the City Beautiful Movement.

New York City

Like many U.S. cities at the turn of the 20th century, New York was no stranger to corruption and inequity in government, industry, and the urban infrastructure. Tammany Hall, the Democratic political organization that largely controlled elections and political activities in New York City and the state capital of Albany, was known for regularly engaging in illegal political patronage and bribes during the late 19th century. Simultaneously, the impact of unfair practices in labor, housing, and public services in the city was palpable, as documented in sources like Jacob Riis’ 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives. Reform efforts in New York were difficult and inconsistent even into the 20th century as progressive groups pushing for different causes didn’t always operate in a unified way. Nonetheless, reforms did happen. And, in the 1890s, a number of organizations and initiatives emerged to support the beautification of the city for the betterment of all its inhabitants. Among these entities were the New York City Municipal Art Society (founded in 1893) and the New York City Art Commission (established in 1898). By 1902, the Art Commission had the power to review plans for all public works, including art, for the city. Their oversight included Frederick MacMonnies’s Civic Virtue.

Between 1901 and 1922, the Art Commission and city officials worked together (and occasionally around each other) to move forward the plans for this monumental fountain dominated by a massive sculptural group, the funds for which had been bequeathed to the city in the 1891 will of Mrs. Angelina Crane. Like numerous other public sculptures created as part of the City Beautiful Movement in New York and elsewhere, the choice of an allegorical subject was motivated by the spirit of both precedent and the values of the Progressive Era. MacMonnies, in consideration of the City Hall Park site for Civic Virtue, wanted to convey the honesty, strength, and dignity of (male) city leaders who would do right by the city of New York and not be tempted by corruption. He believed this was best illustrated by the personification of a young, male figure of virtue triumphant over vice. MacMonnies cited images of the archangel Michael and Saint George who both slay evil in the form of the dragon, as well as the battle between David and Goliath, as part of his inspiration.

Richmond, Virginia

Further south in the United States, Progressive Era reform efforts in Virginia also sought to address lack of governmental regulation, equitable financial support, and protections for civic and social systems (like elections and public education). City planning was a key strategy for state Progressives, notably in the city of Richmond. In 1886, Governor Fitzhugh Lee shared a proposal with the city council to create a new real-estate development on Richmond’s west side.

. . . the said city of Richmond will, from the passage of an act of the Legislature conferring on the city the necessary power lay out, grade, and set trees along the said avenues, and within five years from the passage of said act, the said city of Richmond will curb, pave the sidewalks, and put gas and water along the same, all of which shall be free from cost to the owners of property on the said avenue. description of the city council meeting in the Richmond Dispatch, October 12, 1886

Since governor Lee also served as ex-officio president of the Monument Association which sought to create a memorial to the Confederate general Robert E. Lee , this real-estate development proposal and the monument were directly linked. The city of Richmond would eventually line the main thoroughfare of this new neighborhood with public memorials to former Confederate leaders. The Lee monument was the first among them. It was completed and officially dedicated on May 29, 1890 at the east end of the new Monument Avenue, a 140-foot-wide boulevard lined with trees and new homes. In his remarks for the dedication, Richmond business leader and former Confederate staff officer Archer Anderson vowed that the monument would inspire generations and “stand as the embodiment of a brave and virtuous people’s ideal leader!” [1] Over the next 39 years, an additional four Confederate monuments were positioned along the avenue. 


Not really progress for all

Closer examination of each of these two examples of the City Beautiful movement reveal their limitations in inspiring all who experienced them and in contributing to the common good, both aspirations of the Progressive Era. As such, they reflect the complexities and contradictions of the period. 

In the case of Civic Virtue, the sculptor Frederick MacMonnies embraced a rather conservative approach in his representation of virtue escaping the grasp of vice, a choice which was quickly eclipsed by certain progressively minded perspectives of the day. For the sculptural group, he chose to portray virtue as a strong young male and vice in the form of the female temptress. As he describes it, the honorable youth:

. . . looks out into the distance so concentrated on his great ideal that he does not even see the temptation. To suggest this temptation, its dual nature which dazzles while it ensnares, its charm and insinuating danger, one thinks of the beauty and laughter of women; the treachery of the serpent coils of a sea creature wrapped around its prey. These lovely sea women coil themselves about their victim. Their scaly, sinuous tails entwine him. With one hand, each one draws about him the net disguised in tangled seaweed; with a smile on her lips one holds, half hidden, a skull, sinister suggestion of disillusionment and death. The other hides her face as we hide all dark designs. They entirely surround him, but he steps out triumphantly and places his foot on a firm rock. Below him lies the wreck of a ship which had sped gaily, its proud figurehead of victory overturned—torn shreds of hope.—Frederick MacMonnies [2]

While this gendered characterization might have been accepted as appropriate in the context of allegorical imagery in the 19th and early years of the 20th century, by the time Civic Virtue was completed in 1922, the sculpture was read more literally by those who saw it. In particular, women activists who had worked hard to realize the passage of the 19th amendment—considered a key achievement of the Progressive Era—perceived Civic Virtue as an out of date and offensive representation of women. Their concerns catalyzed the sculpture’s eventual removal from City Hall Park and relocation to Queens in 1941. These initial objections to the sculpture, however, obscure the fact that even the women’s suffrage movement contradicted some of the social justice ideals of the Progressive Era, at least from our modern perspective today. While the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution granted women the right to vote, Black women (and men), other people of color, poor whites, and many immigrants were still left disenfranchised by voting restrictions imposed in the form of literacy tests, poll taxes, and other measures implemented around the country during the Progressive Era. 

Such regulations were specifically cemented in the southern United States via a rash of new state constitutions ratified around the turn of the century. Virginia’s 1902 constitution, like others, instituted convoluted new election rules in order to significantly limit voting by Blacks and impoverished whites. These moves, supported by southern Progressive reformers, ensured the continued dominance of white culture and reinforced segregation. Under this broad umbrella of white supremacy, the development of the Monument Avenue neighborhood in Richmond—hailed as an exemplar of the City Beautiful Movement—was designed to explicitly bar Black residents through the use of restrictive covenants (legal agreements that prohibit certain groups from buying, renting, or occupying real estate). All of the new urban infrastructure of this part of town would be available only to whites, while Blacks continued to live in sections of Richmond that lacked adequate services, such as sewer lines, garbage retrieval, and paved streets. 

The values of white supremacy were further reinforced by the erection of additional memorials to Confederate leaders along Monument Avenue. This resurgence of pride in the Confederacy was part of the Lost Cause mythology (the promotion of the false belief that the Civil War was fought by the Confederacy not over the issue of slavery, but rather to honorably uphold the virtues of the Southern way of life). The common good, in this way of thinking, was therefore to be found in the model of Confederate leaders. This belief is reflected throughout Archer Anderson’s 42-page written address for the 1890 dedication of the Lee Monument, where he extols Robert E. Lee as a great hero, a model patriot, and an icon of civic virtue:

A people carves its own image in the monuments of its great men . . . so to-day, in every part of America, the character and fame of Robert Edward Lee are treasured as a “possession for all time”. . . . 

Let this monument, then, teach to generations yet unborn these lessons of his life! Let it stand, not as a record of civil strife, but as a perpetual protest against whatever is low and sordid in our public and private objects! Let it stand as a memorial of personal honor that never brooked a stain, of knightly value without thought of self, of far-reaching military genius unsoiled by ambition, of heroic constancy from which no cloud of misfortune could ever hide the path of duty! Let it stand for reproof and censure, if our people shall ever sink below the standards of their fathers! Let it stand for patriotic hope and cheer, if a day of national gloom and disaster shall ever dawn upon our country! Let it stand as the em-bodiment of a brave and virtuous people’s ideal leader! Let it stand as a great public act of thanksgiving and praise, for that it pleased Almighty God to bestow upon these Southern States a man so formed to reflect His attributes of power, majesty, and goodness! [3]

In Richmond, one dominant voice of dissent towards the Lee Monument was John Mitchell, Jr., editor of the city’s Black newspaper, The Richmond Planet, and member of the Richmond city council from 1888 to 1896. Mitchell and others among the dwindling number of Black elected officials voted against financial support for the monument, but to no avail. As Mitchell wrote in his coverage of the 1890 dedication of the monument, “The rebel yell, reinforced by a glorification of the lost cause was everywhere manifest.” [4] White Supremacy was, in fact, inextricably linked in the south to Progressive politics and, by extension, the City Beautiful Movement. Those that would benefit the most from “progressive” reform would be white.

Over 130 years later, however, in recognition that white, Confederate leaders do not in fact reflect the ideals of leadership valued by most Americans and in response to significant public protest, the monuments have now all been removed from their pedestals.


[1] Robert Edward Lee: An Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Monument to General Robert Edward Lee at Richmond,Virginia, May 29, 1890 by Archer Anderson (Lee Monument Association 1890). 

[2] Michele Bogart, Public Sculpture and the Civic Ideal in New York City, 1890–1930 (University of Chicago Press,1989/1997), pp. 264–65.

[3] Opening and closing statements from Robert Edward Lee: An Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Monument to General Robert Edward Lee at Richmond,Virginia, May 29, 1890 by Archer Anderson (Lee Monument Association 1890), pp. 3; 45. 

[4] “The Moving of the Lee Statue,” The Richmond Planet, May 10, 1890.

4. Discussion questions

  • Civic virtue is demonstrated by citizens contributing to their society in ways they believe will support the common good. Civic virtue is deemed essential to democracy. How do you see it in action today? Are there public monuments in place today that you feel inspire civic virtue in our modern society? How do they align with or differ from the monuments featured in this lesson?
  • Consider the different representational approaches of the sculptures featured in this lesson: Civic Virtue uses allegorical personification and Monument Avenue’s sculptures depict specific individuals. In both cases, however, the monuments rely on a kind of mythology to convey their intended meaning. How did this mythology operate in each instance, and what were its benefits and limitations? Is there a place for a mythologizing approach to public sculpture today? Why or why not? Give examples if you can.
  • Do you agree with the assertion that a beautiful, ordered environment enhances life for all? Have a debate and consider the arguments for or against this precept of the City Beautiful Movement—and be sure to address the role of public sculpture therein.
  • The monuments featured in this lesson have either been moved to new locations or removed from public display. Use these and other examples to reflect on the ways a community or nation can approach public art that no longer reflects their dominant societal values. You may want to watch this video about Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War (2019) in Richmond, Virginia to support your discussion. 

5. Research projects and creative response activities

  • Continue to research the City Beautiful Movement by investigating the movement’s efforts in your city or another U.S. city you would like to study. Share your results with your class. In presenting your findings, answer these questions with evidence from your sources:
    • Do you think the City Beautiful Movement could be considered a success? 
    • How did it effectively support Progressive ideals and how did it work against them? 
  • Do you believe the City Beautiful Movement could succeed in a different socio-political context in United States history?
  • Hold a design competition in your class to answer the question: what would make your city or community more beautiful—and, as such, supportive of the common good—today?

6. Bibliography

The Progressive Era and the Progressives from Khan Academy.

The Progressives and Direct Democracy from the Constitutional Rights Foundation.

The Progressive Movement in Virginia from the Encyclopedia Virginia.

The Municipal Art Society of New York. 

More about the City Beautiful Movement from the New York Preservation Archive Project and the Encyclopedia of Chicago.

The New York City Art Commission from the New York Preservation Archive Project.

American Public Sculpture, 1865 to 1915 from the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Read about how “Richmond’s Confederate Monuments Were Used to Sell a Segregated Neighborhood” from Kevin M. Nevin for The Atlantic (June 11, 2020). 

Explore “On Monument Avenue” a resource produced by the American Civil War Museum.

More about John Mitchell, Jr., “The Fighting Editor” of the Richmond Planet from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Chapter 12, “The Rise and Demise of Civic Virtue,” from Michele Bogart, Public Sculpture and the Civic Ideal in New York City, 1890–1930 (University of Chicago Press, 1989/1997).

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.