Small town character should repeat a theme often, but with many variations. If you took a basic music appreciation course highlighting how music enunciates a theme and then delights us with many variations (before the 20th century, at least), apply that principle to making a great small town.
You need to strive for an intriguing mixture of the town's historical remnants, some new buildings in sympathy with the original architecture, and a few surprising buildings.
These might include a few very handsome contemporary buildings that whisper "quality" in the same way as classic vintage construction details do.
We built this page around the outstanding example of New Harmony, Indiana, a town of under 1,000 population with an important heritage of utopian experiments and some enlightened historic preservation and arts patronage, all of which intertwines with ordinary agricultural and small river town living.
New Harmony presents several lessons in small town character.
1. The repetition of particular elements makes the town seem cohesive. In this case, watch for interesting doors and apertures, trees and gardens, a vigorous religious or spiritual emphasis, and blending of the public and private spheres almost to the point of being very unsure of where one ends and the other begins.
2. Historic buildings from the 1820s are preserved, but startling new architectural statements from two world-renowned 20th century architects add a huge amount of interest to what would be in the town otherwise. Some people find these very modern elements just bring discord, but we think they are signs of a living, functioning town.
3. As surprising as it is to see some large-scale buildings in a small town, it all fits together because there are several really old buildings, several modern pieces that would seem out of place otherwise, and a core commercial street and residential district that are archetypal for small Midwestern towns.
4. Very visible to tourist and resident alike, public art and interpretive signage everywhere contribute greatly to the ambiance. These vary from tributes to friends to sayings of well-known figures. While not essential to all small towns by any means, every town needs to think about what it is famous for, what reflects its history, or what natural features are outstanding, and build a theme from those.
Certainly this example shows the fragility and vulnerability of small towns to the surrounding social forces and major economic trends. For example, since we first wrote this page, New Harmony lost its independent public school district after a valiant fight. There is no longer a grocery store, making a several mile drive for basic foodstuffs a necessity. Churn in the retail spaces and restaurants makes it a constant struggle to meet the needs of local residents and tourists alike. We aren't saying any of this is easy; in fact, we are predicting that a lot of effort, thought, and investment is required to keep your favorite small town vital.
We often think that the lesson to be learned from New Harmony is that a small town doesn't have to be what many people would think of as consistent, it doesn't have to be boring and predictable, and it also doesn't have to be perfect at any given moment. It does require many steps to attract a good mix of supportable businesses, to provide cultural offerings that make it unnecessary to go to the big city all the time to find something interesting to do, and to assure that buildings and basic infrastructure remain in good condition.
Some group, whether formal or informal, must spearhead this effort. Occasionally this might be the town council or the town meeting, but often a private historical association, merchant's association, or booster club of some sort will be needed. If you can attract university sponsorship, as has New Harmony, or an angel foundation, so much the better. Many small towns also have their own homegrown philanthropist, or even more likely, descendants of an earlier wealthy businessperson who lived in the town.
(If you're wondering, this applies even more to a large town, but the larger cities have a harder time establishing those few visual motifs. It's no accident that we refer to the theme and variations idea on our pages about neighborhood character in general and urban design principles also.)
Now here's the slideshow, the visual proof, that small towns can make themselves into tourist attractions and living museums.