NC must eschew ‘efficiency,’ invest in public places

The North Carolina State Capitol celebrates its 175th anniversary in downtown Raleigh.
The North Carolina State Capitol celebrates its 175th anniversary in downtown Raleigh. tjohnston@newsobserver.com

Our State Capitol turned 175 last weekend, which got me thinking about Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park and a lifelong advocate for investment in public spaces.

Traveling through Raleigh in the winter of 1853, Olmsted noted the kingly sum of $500,000 spent on North Carolina’s new capitol. He admired our civic forbearers for doing something well rather than doing it cheap.

“The State-house is, in every way, a noble building, constructed in brownish-gray granite, in Grecian style,” he wrote. “It stands on an elevated position, near the centre of the city, in a square field, which is shaded by some tall old oaks, and could easily be made into an appropriate and beautiful little park.”

At the time, the Capitol grounds were used as a public hog pasture. All of that fine masonry didn’t leave much of a budget for landscaping apparently.

“According to the plan and design of the present State House, it has been predicted that it will be the most chaste and beautiful building in the southern part of the country,” reported the magnificently named American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge. “Those who were opposed to the plan of so large and expensive a building are now said to be pleased with its appearance, and have ceased complaining of the expense.”

That may be overselling it a bit. But it’s worth remembering in our efficiency-obsessed age, when complaining of public expense has become a matter of high principle, that judicious investment can go a very long way.

Half-a-million dollars might have seemed like an extravagance in Olmsted’s day, when North Carolina was still a desperately poor state, but it is a pittance when weighed against 175 years of continuous service and civic pride. Today, even as we celebrate the classical temple at the center of our capital city, our politics and economics too often fail to account for public goods that endure over generations.

A few weeks ago, there was a celebration in Umstead Park to mark the restoration

of a 1930s-era camp, featuring rustic lakeside cabins and a beautiful wooden mess hall. The place was built through the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program that put millions to work during the Great Depression.

The goal of the WPA wasn’t to build the quickest and cheapest set of buildings possible, but to put idle men to work on worthy public projects. What they created in Umstead was sturdy enough to survive years of service as a YMCA camp for North Carolina youth, decades of neglect and abandonment following 1980s funding cuts, and now a slow but promising emergence as an event center for one of the state’s busiest parks.

Contrast that sort of far-sighted thinking with the recent proposal to sell parcels of Umstead to private developers, trading posterity’s parkland for today’s quick profit. Or consider the massive maintenance backlog for our state and university buildings, many of which could serve for decades or centuries if given proper care.

It was only after a bitter fight with the state legislature that the City of Raleigh was able to secure the Dorothea Dix property against short-term interests. Many lawmakers were all too eager to see that magnificent piece of public land brokered into one-time revenue. That might have been more efficient than preserving our inheritance for future generations, but ultimately less valuable.

“Whatever happens to the present generation, it should not be allowed to go on heaping up difficulties and expenses for its successors, for want of a little comprehensive and business-like foresight and study.” That’s Olmsted again, arguing in 1870 for the preservation of parks and green spaces in growing cities.

Heaping up difficulty is exactly what we do in choosing short-term efficiency over patient investment. So let’s celebrate our beautiful State Capitol, restore our neglected public buildings and resist the temptation to sell off land that belongs to all of us.

Maybe then people will say nice things about us in 175 years.

Eric Johnson is a writer in Chapel Hill. He works for the University of North Carolina, serves on the N&O’s Reader Panel and speaks only for himself.