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Keywords:

  • 1890s;
  • environmentalism;
  • industrial restructuring;
  • George Gibson McMurtry;
  • model towns;
  • Frederick Law Olmsted Sr.;
  • steel industry;
  • western Pennsylvania

Abstract

Caught up in a dramatic round of industrial restructuring, Pittsburgh steelmaster George McMurtry hired Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr.'s landscape architectural firm in 1895 to design the model town of Vandergrift, Pennsylvania. The creation of this town highlights two significant conceptual themes in human geography: 1) industrial restructuring and its relationship to place-making; and 2) the power that landscape can exert over people. By looking at the interplay between these two themes, it is possible to explore how McMurtry influenced, and was influenced by, the late-nineteenth century rise of corporate capitalism and the articulation of a social philosophy of environmentalism. Several industrial restructuring trigger events, including a strike and lockout at McMurtry's steelworks in Apollo, Pennsylvania, prompted him to build the new town. Wanting a loyal workforce, he developed a town agenda that drew upon environmentalism as well as popular attitudes toward capital's treatment of labor. In turn, the Olmsted firm translated this agenda into an urban design that included a unique combination of social reform, comprehensive infrastructure planning, and private homeownership principles. High rates of homeownership as well as cordial relationships between the steel company and Vandergrift residents fostered loyalty among McMurtry's skilled workers and led to McMurtry's greatest success. In 1901 he used Vandergrift's worker-residents in breaking the first major strike against the United States Steel Corporation.