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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 that face Central Park cannot be matched for breadth and height and prospects. Hardenburgh was the author, also, of the Plaza Hotel, which, although it has been bought by the Hilton chain and its cuisine has been debased, is a joy and we hope it will be one forever. The pretty fountain that plays before it and the horse-drawn carriages that wait in its precincts for romantics to hire for drives through Central Park, the blessed space and comfort of its dining rooms transport the patron or the onlooker backward into a Parisian leisure and style. (The Americana, on the other hand, jet-propels him to Miami Beach.) What must have been in its time (1836) one of the handsomest structures in the city was La Grange Terrace, or Colonnade Row, on Lafayette Street below Astor place. It was a succession of uniform, privately owned Classic Revival houses with Corinithian columns behind which long windows gave on to balconies. Now the neighborhood is down-at-heel and only the central part of the original building remains; shabby and lacklustre as it is, it loftily puts to shame the Wanamaker warehouse and a contemptible bright blue and bright orange establishment concerned with freezers that flank and attempt to insult it. The Ansonia on Broadway at 72nd Street, once blithe Beaux Arts, has not entirely lost its outer air but its French dash is now no more than a whiff.

Nothing can be done to stop the lightning-paced accumulation of luxury slums and office buildings of spurious sturdiness and doubtful efficiency, and nothing can be done to bring back treasures that have been yanked out by the roots. The Fifth Avenue Branch of the Morgan Guaranty Trust Company at 44th Street was not a memorable masterpiece but, until a few years ago, it was solid, dignified, somewhat umbrageous, having the air of authority that befits a bank. Now it is glassily outspoken—a bank should have profound secrets—and indistinguishable from an airline terminal. Its parent, on lower Broadway, dates from 1911 and is Roman in inspiration, having a noble Ionic facade and an equally commanding colonnade on the Liberty Street side. Here and at the Stock Exchange (Broad and Wall Street), also colonnaded and having a sculptured pediment, one is in the presence of power—not filthy lucre—but the remarkable, omnipresent abstract mystery of Money that topples governments and causes wars and, far more than love, makes the world go round.

To repeat, what’s done is irrevocably done, but, with diligence, extant houses and public buildings of historic meaning or of architectural value can be preserved and, in some cases, restored to their original design to remind us that New York was not born yesterday. Fortunately, to lessen the labors of future Schliemanns and to gratify present antiquarians, a guardian of the city’s sacred remains exists in the Municipal Art Society of New York whose Committee on Historic Architecture has published New York Landmarks. This is an impressive compilation of photographs of “notable structures,” together with an instructive introductory text by Alan Burnham that acquaints the reader with the multiple styles borrowed, modified, and revived, that are scattered throughout the five boroughs from the Battery to the Bronx and from Flatbush to Staten Island. There is a comprehensive bibliography and there are indices of architects and of “buildings in greater New York designated worthy of preservation.” The Committee has broken down into categories the buildings that should, at all costs, be saved because of their national importance (George Washington’s bed-chambers like Robert the Bruce’s caves, must stay), those of regional importance, and those of intrinsic architectural excellence. Brenden Gill, in his preface to the whole study, argues for the salvation of the city’s helter-skelter soul as it manifests itself in brick and ironwork, but at the same time he proposes that the bewitchery of New York may very will lie in its inconstancy and that the lover’s heart would miss a beat if the wreckers missed a day. He and Mr. Burnham agree that, appalling as they are, the third-rate apartment houses that blight us now are not more hideous than the dispiriting row on row of identical brownstones put up by the venal landlords of the eighteen-sixties (lineal ancestors of the modern mountebanks); these were frights so self-complacent, so bromidic, so spitefully brown that they blinded Edith Wharton to everything else (James at least admitted that the harbor was a wonder of good looks) and she, born stuck-up and spoiled rotten by Europe, flew into a tantrum as if she had been directly affronted by rude words. “Out of doors,” she wrote in A Backward Glance, “in the mean, monotonous streets, without architecture, without great churches or palaces, or any visible memorials of an historic past, what could New York offer to a child whose eyes had been filled with shapes of immortal beauty?—How could I understand that people who had seen Rome and Seville, Paris and London, could come back to live contentedly between Washington Square and the Central Park?” Her home town now was “cursed with its universal chocolate-colored coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried, this cramped horizontal gridiron of a town without towers, porticoes, fountains or perspectives, hide-bound in its deadly uniformity of mean ugliness…”

Certainly Mrs. Wharton and her master, James, would never have accepted the rectilinear new buildings, their fenestration stunningly boring and simultaneously aggressively glaring, their ceilings low, their facades unbroken by any conceit to attract the eye, their lobbies fitted out with ersatz palm trees, dotted with archipelagoes of chairs and loveseats covered with hygienic plastic, their walls covered with murals perpetrated by moonlighting billboard painters from Canarsie. One wonders, however, if even this instransigent pair might not have applauded Lever House and the Seagram Building, set back from the avenue and given an amplitude of light and air by plazas that divert the mind from the frankly mercantile nature of their purpose. Probably not; they wanted a kind of eloquence that was never New York’s talent; its vigor they might acknowledge—at arm’s length—but they would always find its timbre harsh. (Digressing further, one wonders how such arbiters elegantiarum would like the new American Embassy in their beloved London with its Neanderthal brow, its clumsy windows, and its eagle that lowers over Grosvenor Square, looking much closer kin to a New Orleans cockroach than to a bird.)

New York has never had perspectives, a fact that Mrs. Wharton failed to observe or did not choose to recognize. Unlike Paris or Rome or Washington, it is not a city of vistas terminating in splendors but, rather, as Mr. Burnham says, “freestanding master-pieces, hidden bits of the picturesque, often surrounded by mediocrity and lost in a sea of monotony.” In a place that was once hilly and here and there precipitously so, we are conscious of elevations only from the upper stories of tall buildings and the panoramas from these manufactured heights are no more particularized than those on scenic post cards photographed from airplanes. Except for the view of the rivers, the harbor, and the islands, the only advantage in being atop the Chrysler Building over being in the street is that one doesn’t see the Chrysler Building. Still, at certain times of day, in certain parts of town, there are unexpected and enchanting prospects, not majestic, not exalting, but very pretty—I am thinking now of standing on Fifth Avenue and looking toward Sixth on Ninth or Tenth or Eleventh Streets on a fair morning or during the end of a clear sunset, past the kind, modest houses that absorb the indirect nuances of the light.

On the corner of Tenth Street and Fifth Avenue stands the Gothic Revival Church of the Ascension, built in 1840, whose interior was the combined work of John La Farge, St. Gaudens, and Stanford White; it has stained glass of especially rich subtleties that respond to the shifting atmospheres with great finesse, and on the next corner, at Eleventh Street, the First Presbyterian Church, restrained and reassuring, also Gothic Revival and built at about the same time, is surrounded by a lawn and peaceful trees grow there. East, on Second Avenue and Stuyvesant Street, amid our dreadfully familiar admixture of old, damp rattiness and new synthetic glassiness that won’t fool the rats for long is the lovely Georgian church of St. Marks-in-the-Bouwerie; built in the seventeen nineties, its Georgian purity was felicitously added to by a Greek Revival steeple and an Italian iron porch. If business or wrong directions take the walker north from this oasis up to Second Avenue and Fifteenth Street, there his eyes will fall upon a modern church of such strident ugliness that one cannot help feeling it is committing a felony and could be haled into court if only one could find the name of its misdeed in the municipal statutes. Its windows appear to be the work of cretinous children who have been given sheets of paper and blunt shears to fold and snip holes in any old way and see what happens. There is, on the façade, an outsize mosaic which I do not choose to go into. The bell is normal enough but it is caged in a metal doodad of non-representational design and topped by something that has either to do with television or with radar, although the cretinous children’s caretaker perhaps intended it to simulate a cross. No light at any time of day, not even if it came directly from a celestial hemisphere, could alleviate in the least degree the pain this brutish thing inflicts upon the eye.

The city has always grown in violent spurts, planlessly, each new boom partly or altogether obliterating the idiosyncrasy of its predecessor, and there are no parts that are predominantly of a period or of a style. In 1643, according to “a contemporary report” (I quote the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica which is not more explicit) eighteen languages were spoken by the four or five hundred inhabitants. By this time the Dutch had extended trade privileges in the province to friendly European countries and had, as well, begun to offer land for sale. Even assuming that some of these languages were closely related and that not all the immigrants were permanent enough or chauvinistic enough to transplant the individual roofs and chimneys and doorways of their motherlands, there must all the same have been considerable diversity among the first huts to appear after the Indians decamped with their wigwams and their $24.

The cultural incoherences and the physical distances that separate the landmarks from one another present to the protective societies a problem that does not exist in Boston or Philadelphia or Providence, whose history is incorporated in its architecture and whose geography is neither so extensive nor so complex. There can be, in New York, no restitution of the integer because there was no integer, and no fixing within boundaries of a nucleus that can be declared the nucleus. If such were the case, if a Williamsburg could be fenced off (and a mercy that it can’t be) and officially declared the repository of our heritage from the first known Dutch builder down to Philip Johnson, the task of preservation would not be so Herculean or so expensive. The cupidity and the fortunes of the land sharpers are limitless and public passion for vanished lore and the fruits of past epochs is not widespread. Pennsylvania Station did not have a ghost of a chance for survival; sentimentality is not a personality trait of the pluckers of plums like that. The Victorian Gothic Jefferson Market Courthouse and its watch tower, all that is left of an aggregate of buildings on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Tenth Street (property worth its weight in gold, every inch of it appreciating by the hour), was saved from extinction because it was owned by the city and will be occupied by a city tenant, a branch of the Public Library. The redeemers are confronted not only by the initial purchase price of a monument to be kept, but then by the selection of an appropriate and responsible tenant, and thereafter by the cost of maintenance; recapturing the past is a costly enterprise. But there is a heartening general awakening of pride in national tradition and there can be hope that prestige will withstand the invasions of the barbarians, that in New York the tentacles of Madison Avenue will not reach out far enough to strangle the best of our Dutch and Georgian, Federal and Greek revival, Italianate and Gothic, French and Romanesque heirlooms and that the tasteful architects and historians will flourish in their aim to display our continuity at least in fragments.

Despite the fact that the Dutch got here first, there are only a handful of their buildings left, farm houses in Brooklyn and Queens and the Dyckman House at West 204th Street. The earliest colonial architecture in this country was not indigenous, although the settlers who brought their ancestral idioms with them adapted them to the materials at hand and the differences of climate and typography, achieving the style that is roughly known as “Early American,” examples of which are found largely in Queens and on Staten Island. (The Austen House in Rosebank on Staten Island, part of which overlooks the Narrows appears in its photograph to be altogether cordial.) Later on, the Georgian period, which lasted from the early to the middle of the nineteenth century and was ubiquitously represented throughout New England, was characterized by beautiful detail of Palladian windows, pilasters, broken pediments, rich Corinthian columns and entablatures. Following the Revolution, we extended our political independence to our architecture and produced the Federal style, much simpler than the English Renaissance (the capitals now were Doric and pediments gave way to elliptical fan lights), and by far the most urbane in our history; derivative still, it nevertheless was frequently marked by radical originality and is perhaps the closest thing we have to native design. The Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary at 7 State Street is an impeccable souvenir of that era.

Subsequently, in the mid-nineteenth century, architects became traveled and literary and their amours resulted in a mélange of turrets and loggias and porte-cochères, whimsical ensculptured grotesqueries and machiolations, some of them successfully reminiscent of their sponsorship and others preposterously out of place. Of these exotica, the best were Greek revival: at 70 Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights, the Adrian Van Sinderen residence is an austere perfection, and less stern but more imposing is the Twenty-Seventh Avenue House in Astoria. Warmed-over Egyptian did not catch on except in the Tombs and a few other prisons throughout the country and some gates to cemeteries.

The one objection I have to this book, minor and mechanical, is that the dates of the buildings photographed are not given in the sketches that accompany the plates and it is a nuisance to refer to the general index and then, for the name of the architect and his school, to the appendix. One hopes that this trifling impediment will be removed in future publications of the Committee: what one hopes most is that there will be future publications. New York Landmarks is too cumbersome to be carried about as a vademecum and expeditions to all its recommended sights would take a month of sunny Sundays, but it is invaluably instructive and prepossessing.

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