City Planner

G oogling “George Dudley Seymour” may lead you to George Dudley Seymour State Park in Haddam, a popular spot for hiking and birding on the banks of the Connecticut River. But the influence of the man, who was born in Bristol in 1859 and moved to New Haven as a young lawyer in 1883, stretches far beyond this 334-acre park. An amateur historian, writer and concerned citizen with a vision for New Haven’s future, Seymour is credited with ideas that continue to shape the structure and livability of New Haven.

His first foray into city planning happened in 1906, as the Board of Aldermen considered building a new home for the public library with a $300,000 gift from Mary E. Ives. The proposed site was the Upper Green behind the three churches, roughly on the spot where the old statehouse had once stood. In a letter to the committee considering the proposal, Seymour objected—not because he didn’t support a better library than the cramped space it then occupied on Church Street but rather because he believed a big, new building on that site would detract from the “great open green space,” impose on the well-balanced churches and, finally, block the view of Old Campus and “the fine four-square mass of the Phelps Gateway” on College Street.

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Instead, Seymour wrote, “a library building in the classical style, with a marble colonnade, facing south and placed on Elm Street between the corner of Church and Temple streets, would meet more of the ideal requirements than anything else to be thought of.” New Haveners will note that his description strongly resembles the Ives Main Library we know, constructed on Elm between Church and Temple and dedicated in 1911.

A national “City Beautiful” movement was underway early in the 20th century, and though Seymour would later eschew the term “beautiful” in favor of “practical,” he was instrumental in getting New Haven to think about both. He convinced lawmakers to create a city improvement commission and later a permanent city planning commission, designed on a model from Hartford, the first in the nation to do so. In New Haven, he served on both bodies and, from his seat on the improvement commission, successfully lobbied the city to hire notable architect Cass Gilbert and city planner Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (son of the famous designer of Central Park), who would “devise a comprehensive report on how best to improve New Haven’s physical environment and infrastructure,” writes Mark Fenster in a piece for The Yale Law Journal.

Gilbert and Olmsted’s report, finished in 1910, advocated for “wider streets on the most important and traveled paths of traffic,” Fenster recounts, as well as “the creation of a powerful department of public works with authority to use the power of eminent domain to widen streets at its own discretion.” It also called for greater attention to “the maintenance of shade trees; unsightly overhead wires; … unsightly billboards and commercial signs; the sewer system; and the park system.”

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However, Seymour’s hopes for his adopted city were thwarted more often than not, leading to his resignation from the city planning commission in 1924. “Although a few of the Gilbert-Olmsted suggestions had been carried out—four important public buildings had gone up and a number of schools and parks were under construction—Seymour was frustrated by the haphazard nature of this development and by the commission’s failure actively to promote a comprehensive development plan,” write Ralph L. Pearson and Linda Wrigley in the May 1980 edition of Journal of Urban History. Seymour’s letter of resignation includes 28 sections—“Harbor Improvement Plans Dropped,” “New Sewerage System Should Precede Showy Marble City Hall,” “City Enterprises Fail without Support of Proper City Officials”—detailing failures from political stonewalling to underfunding to refusal to follow through on projects that Seymour considered no-brainers. Some of the complaints in his letter are particularly prescient. Referring to Yale and the broader consequences of its tax-exempt status, he wrote, “While the University—the largest owner of realty in the City, as I am told—has perfected plans for the future development on a great scale of the realty of the University, the City has no corresponding complementary and coordinated plan. This puts the City in a bad position, and is likely to mean the loss of real opportunities and the imposition of heavy burdens of expense and inconvenience upon the City in the future.”

In 1942, three years before his death, Seymour self-published an 805-page book, titled simply New Haven, in part to “record my prolonged, though ill-fated, attempt to induce New Haven to adopt systematic ‘City Planning’ and to provide her Harbor with ample terminal facilities…” In it, he collected a hodgepodge of essays, editorials, letters, history sketches and ephemera related to his life’s work. The impression is of a man making a final effort to be heard.

Later historians credit Seymour with a great deal more than he did himself. A list of his accomplishments in Michael Sletcher’s 2004 book New Haven from Puritanism to the Age of Terrorism includes parkways around the city, the acquisition of Fort Hale and Lighthouse Parks and influence on the designs of the post office, courthouses, Ives Main Library and the Union Trust Company (now the Union Apartments). Seymour also argued for protecting the city’s ill-fated elm trees as early as 1909. Historian Rollin G. Osterweis credits him as well for revitalizing the Chamber of Commerce, encouraging “town-gown harmony” and for “a general renewal of civic consciousness.” Statewide, Seymour made additional contributions; he purchased Nathan Hale’s birthplace in Coventry in order to preserve it, and he acquired the land for all or part of eight state parks that remain to this day, including the one that bears his name.

Less than a decade after Seymour’s death in 1945, mayor Richard C. Lee came to power and undertook what Fenster calls “far more intrusive efforts to redevelop through massive relocation, destruction, and public and private construction,” which Seymour and his compatriots could not have imagined possible. Many of their goals were the same, though the results likely didn’t align with Seymour’s antiquarian aesthetics, which are still declared today by the Shakespearean epitaph chiseled onto his stone at Grove Street Cemetery: “O, call back yesterday, bid time return.”

It’s tempting to wonder what might have happened had the city more decisively followed Seymour’s lead. In a turn-of-the-century photograph, the attorney, then in his 30s, trains a piercing gaze at the camera and holds a pocket watch. It’s as if he’s already contemplating the future of the city, imploring anyone who will listen to join him.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image provided courtesy of the New Haven Museum.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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