The Ways of Men by Eliot Gregory
Chapter 6 - Modern Architecture
If a foreign tourist, ignorant of his whereabouts, were to sail about sunset up our spacious bay and view for the first time the eccentric sky-line of lower New York, he would rub his eyes and wonder if they were not playing him a trick, for distance and twilight lend the chaotic masses around the Battery a certain wild grace suggestive of Titan strongholds or prehistoric abodes of Wotan, rather than the business part of a practical modern city.
"But," as John Drew used to say in The Masked Ball, "what a difference in the morning!" when a visit to his banker takes the new arrival down to Wall Street, and our uncompromising American daylight dispels his illusions.
Years ago spiritual Arthur Gilman mourned over the decay of architecture in New York and pointed out that Stewart's shop, at Tenth Street, bore about the same relation to Ictinus' noble art as an iron cooking stove! It is well death removed the Boston critic before our city entered into its present Brobdingnagian phase. If he considered that Stewart's and the Fifth Avenue Hotel failed in artistic beauty, what would have been his opinion of the graceless piles that crowd our island to-day, beside which those older buildings seem almost classical in their simplicity?
One hardly dares to think what impression a student familiar with the symmetry of Old World structures must receive on arriving for the first time, let us say, at the Bowling Green, for the truth would then dawn upon him that what appeared from a distance to be the ground level of the island was in reality the roof line of average four-story buildings, from among which the keeps and campaniles that had so pleased him (when viewed from the Narrows) rise like gigantic weeds gone to seed in a field of grass.
It is the heterogeneous character of the buildings down town that renders our streets so hideous. Far from seeking harmony, builders seem to be trying to "go" each other "one story better"; if they can belittle a neighbor in the process it is clear gain, and so much advertisement. Certain blocks on lower Broadway are gems in this way! Any one who has glanced at an auctioneer's shelves when a "job lot" of books is being sold, will doubtless have noticed their resemblance to the sidewalks of our down town streets. Dainty little duodecimo buildings are squeezed in between towering in- folios, and richly bound and tooled octavos chum with cheap editions. Our careless City Fathers have not even given themselves the trouble of pushing their stone and brick volumes into the same line, but allow them to straggle along the shelf - I beg pardon, the sidewalk - according to their own sweet will.
The resemblance of most new business buildings to flashy books increases the more one studies them; they have the proportions of school atlases, and, like them, are adorned only on their backs (read fronts). The modern builder, like the frugal binder, leaves the sides of his creations unadorned, and expends his ingenuity in decorating the narrow strip which he naively imagines will be the only part seen, calmly ignoring the fact that on glancing up or down a street the sides of houses are what we see first. It is almost impossible to get mathematically opposite a building, yet that is the only point from which these new constructions are not grotesque.
It seems as though the rudiments of common sense would suggest that under existing circumstances the less decoration put on a facade the greater would be the harmony of the whole. But trifles like harmony and fitness are splendidly ignored by the architects of to-day, who, be it remarked in passing, have slipped into another curious habit for which I should greatly like to see an explanation offered. As long as the ground floors and the tops of their creations are elaborate, the designer evidently thinks the intervening twelve or fifteen stories can shift for themselves. One clumsy mass on the Bowling Green is an excellent example of this weakness. Its ground floor is a playful reproduction of the tombs of Egypt. About the second story the architect must have become discouraged - or perhaps the owner's funds gave out - for the next dozen floors are treated in the severest "tenement house" manner; then, as his building terminates well up in the sky, a top floor or two are, for no apparent reason, elaborately adorned. Indeed, this desire for a brilliant finish pervades the neighborhood. The Johnson Building on Broad Street (to choose one out of the many) is sober and discreet in design for a dozen stories, but bursts at its top into a Byzantine colonnade. Why? one asks in wonder.
Another new-comer, corner of Wall and Nassau Streets, is a commonplace structure, with a fairly good cornice, on top of which - an afterthought, probably - a miniature State Capitol has been added, with dome and colonnade complete. The result recalls dear, absent-minded Miss Matty (in Mrs. Gaskell's charming story), when she put her best cap on top of an old one and sat smiling at her visitors from under the double headdress!
Nowhere in the world - not even in Moscow, that city of domes - can one see such a collection of pagodas, cupolas, kiosks, and turrets as grace the roofs of our office buildings! Architects evidently look upon such adornments as compensations! The more hideous the structure, the finer its dome! Having perpetrated a blot upon the city that cries to heaven in its enormity, the repentant owner adds a pagoda or two, much in the same spirit, doubtless, as prompts an Italian peasant to hang a votive heart on some friendly shrine when a crime lies heavy on his conscience.
What would be thought of a book-collector who took to standing inkstands or pepperboxes on the tops of his tallest volumes by way of adornment? Yet domes on business buildings are every bit as appropriate. A choice collection of those monstrosities graces Park Row, one much-gilded offender varying the monotony by looking like a yellow stopper in a high-shouldered bottle! How modern architects with the exquisite City Hall before them could have wandered so far afield in their search for the original must always remain a mystery.
When a tall, thin building happens to stand on a corner, the likeness to an atlas is replaced by a grotesque resemblance to a waffle iron, of which one structure just finished on Rector Street skilfully reproduces' the lines. The rows of little windows were evidently arranged to imitate the indentations on that humble utensil, and the elevated road at the back seems in this case to do duty as the handle. Mrs. Van Rensselaer tells us in her delightful Goede Vrouw of Mana-Ha-Ta that waffle irons used to be a favorite wedding present among the Dutch settlers of this island, and were adorned with monograms and other devices, so perhaps it is atavism that makes us so fond of this form in building! As, however, no careful hausfrau would have stood her iron on its edge, architects should hesitate before placing their buildings in that position, as the impression of instability is the same in each case.
After leaving the vicinity of the City Hall, the tall slabs that like magnified milestones mark the progress of Architecture up Broadway become a shade less objectionable, although one meets some strange freaks in so-called decoration by the way. Why, for instance, were those Titan columns grouped around the entrance to the American Surety Company's building? They do not support anything (the "business" of columns in architecture) except some rather feeble statuary, and do seriously block the entrance. Were they added with the idea of fitness? That can hardly be, for a portico is as inappropriate to such a building as it would be to a parlor car, and almost as inconvenient.
Farther up town our attention is arrested by another misplaced adornment. What purpose can that tomb with a railing round it serve on top of the New York Life Insurance building? It looks like a monument in Greenwood, surmounted by a rat-trap, but no one is interred there, and vermin can hardly be troublesome at that altitude.
How did this craze for decoration originate? The inhabitants of Florence and Athens did not consider it necessary. There must, I feel sure, be a reason for its use in this city; American land-lords rarely spend money without a purpose; perhaps they find that rococo detail draws business and inspires confidence!
I should like to ask the architects of New York one question: Have they not been taught that in their art, as in every other, pretences are vulgar, that things should be what they seem? Then why do they continue to hide steel and fire-brick cages under a veneer of granite six inches thick, causing them to pose as solid stone buildings? If there is a demand for tall, light structures, why not build them simply (as bridges are constructed), and not add a poultice of bogus columns and zinc cornices that serve no purpose and deceive no one?
Union Square possesses blocks out of which the Jackson and Decker buildings spring with a noble disregard of all rules and a delicious incongruity that reminds one of Falstaff's corps of ill-drilled soldiers. Madison Square, however, is facile princeps, with its annex to the Hoffman House, a building which would make the fortune of any dime museum that could fence it in and show it for a fee! Long contemplation of this structure from my study window has printed every comic detail on my brain. It starts off at the ground level to be an imitation of the Doge's Palace (a neat and appropriate idea in itself for a Broadway shop). At the second story, following the usual New York method, it reverts to a design suggestive of a county jail (the Palace and the Prison), with here and there a balcony hung out, emblematical, doubtless, of the inmates' wash and bedding. At the ninth floor the repentant architect adds two more stories in memory of the Doge's residence. Have you ever seen an accordion (concertina, I believe, is the correct name) hanging in a shop window? The Twenty-fifth Street Doge's Palace reminds me of that humble instrument. The wooden part, where the keys and round holes are, stands on the sidewalk. Then come an indefinite number of pleats, and finally the other wooden end well up among the clouds. So striking is this resemblance that at times one expects to hear the long-drawn moans peculiar to the concertina issuing from those portals. Alas! even the most original designs have their drawbacks! After the proprietor of the Venetian accordion had got his instrument well drawn out and balanced on its end, he perceived that it dwarfed the adjacent buildings, so cast about in his mind for a scheme to add height and dignity to the rest of the block. One day the astonished neighborhood saw what appeared to be a "roomy suburban villa" of iron rising on the roof of the old Hoffman House. The results suggests a small man who, being obliged to walk with a giant, had put on a hat several times too large in order to equalize their heights!
How astonished Pericles and his circle of architects and sculptors would be could they stand on the corner of Broadway and Twenty-eighth Street and see the miniature Parthenon that graces the roof of a pile innocent of other Greek ornament? They would also recognize their old friends, the ladies of the Erechtheum, doing duty on the Reveillon Building across the way, pretending to hold up a cornice, which, being in proportion to the building, is several hundred times too big for them to carry. They can't be seen from the sidewalk, - the street is too narrow for that, - but such trifles don't deter builders from decorating when the fit is on them. Perhaps this one got his caryatides at a bargain, and had to work them in somewhere; so it is not fair to be hard on him.
If ever we take to ballooning, all these elaborate tops may add materially to our pleasure. At the present moment the birds, and angels, it is to be hoped, appreciate the effort. I, perhaps, of all the inhabitants of the city, have seen those ladies face to face, when I have gone on a semi-monthly visit to my roof to look for leaks!
"It's all very well to carp and cavil," many readers will say, "but `Idler' forgets that our modern architects have had to contend with difficulties that the designers of other ages never faced, demands for space and light forcing the nineteenth-century builders to produce structures which they know are neither graceful nor in proportion!"
If my readers will give themselves the trouble to glance at several office buildings in the city, they will realize that the problem is not without a solution. In almost every case where the architect has refrained from useless decoration and stuck to simple lines, the result, if not beautiful, has at least been inoffensive. It is where inappropriate elaboration is added that taste is offended. Such structures as the Singer building, corner of Liberty Street and Broadway, and the home of Life, in Thirty-first Street, prove that beauty and grace of facade can be adapted to modern business wants.
Feeling as many New Yorkers do about this defacing of what might have been the most beautiful of modern cities, it is galling to be called upon to admire where it is already an effort to tolerate.
A sprightly gentleman, writing recently in a scientific weekly, goes into ecstasies of admiration over the advantages and beauty of a steel mastodon on Park Row, a building that has the proportions of a carpenter's plane stood on end, decorated here and there with balconies and a colonnade perched on brackets up toward its fifteenth story. He complacently gives us its weight and height as compared with the pyramids, and numerous other details as to floor space and ventilation, and hints in conclusion that only old fogies and dullards, unable to keep pace with the times, fail to appreciate the charm of such structures in a city. One of the "points" this writer makes is the quality of air enjoyed by tenants, amusingly oblivious of the fact that at least three facades of each tall building will see the day only so long as the proprietors of adjacent land are too poor or too busy to construct similar colossi!
When all the buildings in a block are the same height, seven eighths of the rooms in each will be without light or ventilation. It's rather poor taste to brag of advantages that are enjoyed only through the generosity of one's neighbors.
Business demands may force us to bow before the necessity of these horrors, but it certainly is "rubbing it in" to ask our applause. When the Eiffel Tower was in course of construction, the artists and literary lights of Paris raised a tempest of protest. One wonders why so little of the kind has been done here. It is perhaps rather late in the day to suggest reform, yet if more New Yorkers would interest themselves in the work, much might still be done to modify and improve our metropolis.
One hears with satisfaction that a group of architects have lately met and discussed plans for the embellishment of our neglected city. There is a certain poetical justice in the proposition coming from those who have worked so much of the harm. Remorse has before now been known to produce good results. The United States treasury yearly receives large sums of "conscience money."