Lewis Mumford’s Phallic City

Lewis Mumford, that grandiloquent titan of the urban planning field, detailed urban development in his magnum opus, The City in History. In it, he wrote about the transition from Neolithic villages into the modern day human settlement, the city.

Neolithic villages, Mumford wrote, were architecturally rounded, or womb-like – essentially feminine. Replacing those settlements, the modern city brought:

. . .male symbolisms and abstractions now become manifest; they show themselves in the insistent straight line, the rectangle, the firmly bounded geometric plane, the phallic tower and the obelisk. . .

In Mumford’s view, the feminine design of the neolithic village was a vessel for life. This was overtaken by the masculine drive for dominance and power, as expressed through the ziggurat, or bell tower, or modern day skyscraper.

My daily bike commute takes me from the North End of Springfield up through Chicopee and then to where I live in Holyoke. Along the way I ride past two city halls, and am not too far from a third. Mumford’s words echo as I whoosh past.


Holyoke City Hall
Holyoke City Hall

Holyoke City Hall first struck me as unusual because it looks like a church. What you can’t see in this picture are the stained glass windows, the ornate slate roof, or the hunchback in the belfry.


Chicopee City Hall

My next stop is Chicopee City Hall. Wait, is that a church? No, it’s city hall. It also kinda looks like a German castle with that unexpected turret protruding from the clock tower.


Springfield city hall
Springfield City Hall, with Miles Morgan in the foreground.

Finally, a little bit out of my way, is the Springfield Municipal Group (AKA city hall). It doesn’t look like a church, but it does have a rather, ahem, masculine feature – a really huge clock tower. And right outside in the courtyard is another dude, holding that most masculine of items – a gun! I think that gets double points for reinforcing Mumford’s thesis.

The Time of Men Most Manly

Holyoke City Hall and Chicopee City Hall were both built around the same time, in the early 1870s. While Holyoke City Hall is in the Gothic Style, Chicopee City Hall is built to model the city hall of Florence, Italy. Springfield’s Municipal Group is built in 1913 as a Greek revival, though I don’t know how many Grecian buildings have an enormous clock tower included.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a time of rapid economic, military, and political expansion. The North was high off the glory of the Civil War and the destruction of slavery, that great blight tarnishing the promise of America. This was the time period where America conquered its overseas territories, like Puerto Rico and the Philippines. It’s the time when rapid technological and material improvements promised to spread America’s liberty forth across the continent and, indeed, across the globe.

It’s the time when Teddy Roosevelt gave his speech, “The Strenuous Life,” with oratical gems like:

[If the US were to abandon the Philippines and Puerto Rico], Some stronger, manlier power would have to step in and do the work, and we would have shown ourselves weaklings, unable to carry to successful completion the labors that great and high-spirited nations are eager to undertake.


The man must be glad to do a man’s work, to dare and endure and to labor; to keep himself, and to keep those dependent upon him. The woman must be the housewife, the helpmeet of the homemaker, the wise and fearless mother of many healthy children.

And it was the time when Mumford’s Phallic Cities erupted across the landscape of the Pioneer Valley. Three different City Halls, three different architectural styles, and three things in common – those imposing towers.

Of course, as many psychologists have noted, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”


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