Abstract: Elbert Peets (1886-1968) designed some significant town plans in the early to mid-twentieth century. His design work was successful and well regarded at the time, and his plans for Greendale, Wisconsin and Park Forest, Illinois were influential for post-World War II suburban developments. These town plans, and others such as Wyomissing, Pennsylvania and Washington Highlands, Wisconsin have continued to be vibrant and successful neighborhoods. Peets also wrote widely, and most notably was the co-author of The American Vitruvius; An Architect’s Handbook of Urban Design. However, though these contributions were notable, Peets has been largely neglected in the historiography of twentieth century urban and landscape studies. Histories of the period have tended to focus on a few heroic figures and major movements like the advent of International Style modernism. This study adds to the history of the period by showing that the appearance of a monolithic narrative of the time is incomplete and that including alternative points of view like Peets’s provides both a more accurate and more interesting history. There are three primary arguments for this study. The first is that the quality of the work itself merits recognition. Beyond noting that there was interesting work being done, the qualities that made Peets’s work notable, emphasis on user-centered humanistic designs, inclusion of site-specific ecological features, and concentration on the primacy of social streets as the centerpiece of neighborhood plans, were distinctly at odds with the dominant narrative of the modernist agenda. The second argument, and the one that has not received attention, is that the plans incorporate sensitivity to ecological concerns that grew from the growth of scientific forestry, the rise of ecological science, and the growing conservation movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. Peets was exposed to these trends from his education at Harvard’s Landscape Program, and to a greater degree than his contemporaries, he incorporated those concepts into his town plans in the form of riparian protection zones and greenways. Finally, this study will interrogate the reasons that Peets has been overlooked. His association with the Garden City movement and with a precedent-based design approach at the time that European modernism as advocated by Le Corbusier, Gropius, and Hilberseimer resulted in his being associated with a traditionalism and historicism that was falling out of fashion. This study will recognize Peets’s contributions, and more broadly will investigate how the vagaries of fashion in design trends result in a significant figure being overlooked. This study will challenge the dominant narrative of the rise of modernism by recognizing an alternative and competing path for urban design. Peets’s work, along with other critiques of the modernist agenda that noted the anti-urbanist implications of modernist urban renewal and its devaluing of social streets, illustrates an overlooked and valuable episode in the trajectory of mid-century urban planning practice and urban theory.
Keywords: International style modernism, Peets, Elbert