A Sense of the Past

New York Landmarks

edited by Alan Burnham
Wesleyan, 428 pp., $12.50

When Henry James revisited America in 1907, after an absence of twenty-five years, he found New York “a terrible town.” He saw it as a prodigious, thrashing lout incessantly developing neoplasms, each more unsightly than the one it had bloodily excised to make room for the new one. History could not patinate the members of the monster because history had no time to evolve. Changing his metaphor and substituting a robot for the sub-human roughneck, he wrote in The American Scene that the city was in danger of becoming “some colossal set of clock-works, some steel-souled machine-room of brandished arms and hammering fists and opening and closing jaws.” The skyscrapers were “impudently new,” raucous, unapologetically “triumphant payers of dividends.” Sites and buildings of honor and elegance remained, he granted, but they were so nudged by vulgarities and so diminished by the stalagmitic towers of commerce that they had to be hunted down with care and did not, as they had been intended to do, burst with surprise upon the delighted eye. Lamenting the obfuscation of Trinity Church, he wrote, “Where, for the eye, is the felicity of simplified Gothic, of noble pre-eminence, that once made of this highly pleasing edifice the pride of the town and the feature of Broadway? The answer is, as obviously, that these charming elements are still there, just where they ever were, but that they have been mercilessly deprived of visibility.” If James were to rise from his grave today and if he were not speechless with indignation, his jeremiads would be a thousand times more sepulchral.

This sort of complaint did not begin with James nor will it end with thoughtful newcomers in the future (visitors to the World’s Fair this summer, being on the whole a different breed, will see what they are looking for and be undismayed), and nothing can be done to undo the damage. The spire of Trinity will not soar again and it will never emerge from its eclipse; the volunteer spears of asparagus that mysteriously appear sporadically among its gravestones will forever be as achromatic as if they had been deliberately hilled against the sun. Heights will, if anything, grow higher and the ravines beneath them darker and, through optical illusion, narrower. Rapacious speculators will continue to raze whole blocks and whole neighborhoods—some of them, indeed, crying for demolition—and to raise from the rubble new blocks and new neighborhoods, substantial looking by their very bulk and altitude but in fact scandalously gimcrack and obsolescent before the first moving vans arrive with pianos to hide the fissures that have already appeared in the walls of the already settling brand-new building.

A scant handful of old apartment houses remain: the Dakota at 72nd Street and Central Park West, recently saved from destruction by its conversion into a cooperative, was within living memory an alp upon the skyline. Designed by Henry J. Hardenburgh in the German Renaissance style, it is built around a generous courtyard and its apartments …

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