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Index Of Articles About New York City
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Unfortunately for the building of the modern city, its citizens never know when, where, or how it is to be built. If they did, perhaps that "plan," which is considered so essential to every municipal growth, would be forthcoming at the start. As it is, the dozen or more people who are to-day congregating on a point of land near a stretch of water, somewhere in Texas or Minnesota, have no idea of a city of a hundred thousand deriving from their beginnings. The"plan "to them is superfluous. They build where they please, and the town just "grows," taking whatever form necessity or convenience indicates. Almost all the cities in the United States have grown in that fashion.
But after a city has come to importance, commercially or otherwise, there is a recognition of its defects, and plans are drawn to remedy them by tearing down miles of buildings, or appropriating private property for parks, driveways, and water fronts. The improvements, how-ever, are seldom carried out in their entirety because of expense. Baron Haussmann, to be sure, under a ruler like Napoleon HI, slashed Paris into boulevards; but it would be quite impossible to do that now with London or Chicago or New York. There is some tearing down and widening of streets in all these cities, some following of a plan; but it is usually a compromise which leaves much to be desired. The cramped city still exists, and to distract attention from its lack of grouping and its want of en-trances, or to beautify in spots and places wanting the larger opportunity, city boards or commissions sometimes indulge in the small ornament of sculpture, fountains, lamp-posts, and letter-boxes.
Usually, however, these boards or commissions that have to do with beautifying the city are possessed of small power and are required to make bricks without straw — to make something out of nothing. Occasionally a park commission is given an open space which it turns into a little park; but the space is usually some odd angle or hole in the ground that no one wants, and which has been used as a dumping-ground for years. The value of parks in a city is something no longer questioned, and yet, strange enough, they are about the last things acquired. After the best sites have been taken by warehouses, factories, offices, and residences, the left-over marsh, the inaccessible hillside, the outgrown cemetery may be used for a park, if human ingenuity can convert it into one. And it is often astonishing what beauty spots are made out of these abandoned spaces. The Central and the Morningside parks in Manhattan are illustrations to the point.
The commissions do not usually have such large areas of light and color to deal with in recomposing the city picture. Their opportunities are less magnificent. They are oftener asked merely to suggest the place for a new piece of sculpture — equestrian or otherwise— or to find a site for a memorial arch or a soldiers' monument. Of course, there is no money to purchase ground with, and consequently they look about for city property, to be had perhaps for the asking. Almost invariably the choice falls upon the parks; and the sculpture or the monument goes up along a foot-path, or a carriage way, in some prominent place where the public must see it whether they like it or not.
It is hard to imagine a worse conjunction of nature and art than this. A park is a place where people sometimes go to get rid of art, to get away from society and civilization, to get back to Mother Earth for a brief spell. Those who frequent it are, for the time being at least, more interested in the sculpture of the trees than in the modeling of horses' legs and men's uniforms. The Metropolitan Museum, for instance, filled as it is with valuable collections, has no pertinence nor place in the Central Park; and the Cleopatra's Needle near it has no significance here nor there nor anywhere in America. The Soldiers' Monument and Grant's Tomb on the Riverside Drive are not so objectionably located, because the drive is less of a park than an enlarged boulevard; but even so it may be questioned if they add to the beauty of the front. As for the smaller sculptures in the parks — the single figures, busts, crouching animals, and smiling publicans that peer out from beneath overhanging trees or pose grandly from commanding knolls — they should all be removed. The cast-iron deer lying on the front lawn, and the white-winged angel of the fountain, which meant "art" to us forty years ago, were not more inappropriately placed than the present-day statues in the public parks. Both nature and art suffer by the unhappy union. There should be an absolute divorce, and the parties forbidden to remarry.
Sculpture belongs in the streets and paved squares. Originally it was an accessory or complementary art, and was used to adorn architecture. Even to-day it is seen at its best in conjunction with buildings, or near them. A place like Columbus Circle, a triangle as at the meeting of Broadway and Fifth Avenue, a Plaza, or a Bowling Green, are the proper places for detached groups. Any paved square, or open spot devoid of trees, is much to be preferred to a park or drive-way. Bronze or marble blends with and matches brick or granite better than it does trees and grass. Besides, both represent human activities and perhaps belong together in what they express. The public buildings, if not too high, are, of course, appropriate places for sculpture, as witness the Municipal Court Building on Madison Square, or the Custom House at Bowling Green. The City Hall, the Public Library, the Library of Columbia University, the Museum of Natural History, St. Patrick's Cathedral, St. John's Cathedral, are other places where it would not only show to advantage, but materially enhance the architecture. Ordinarily the approaches to bridges would be considered excellent opportunities for the use of sculpture, but just here we run afoul of trouble, at least as regards the bridges of New York. It is the difficulty of scale, of which mention has already been made, — a difficulty that must be met by artists, art societies, and city commissions, and somehow reconciled.
We have borrowed most of our ideas of civic sculpture from the older capitals of Europe. The modest scale of that sculpture was, and is still, quite appropriate to London and Paris and Vienna with their five- and six-story buildings and their small river bridges; but how does it comport with the twenty-story sky-scrapers and the colossal suspension bridges of the new New York ? How shall the ordinary street sculpture make itself seen or heard or felt amid these enormous masses of steel and granite ? Aside from its failure or success in expressing the ideals of a twentieth-century people, does it or is it possible for it to decorate the city adequately? There is no quarrel with that fine European-inspired art of the past. It served its purpose well; but is it sufficient for the new era and the new people? Let us look at a few examples.
Twenty years ago Saint Gaudens' "Farragut" on the edge of Madison Square was quite in keeping with its surrounding buildings. It was to be seen from a distance, in an environment that did it no great violence; and everyone looked up to it and admired it for its sturdy strength and dignity. With its fine pediment and exedra it was one statue, at least, in the city that was worth looking at as civic decoration. But what about it to-day, surrounded as it is by cloud-capped towers and enormous buildings ? Is it not dwarfed into a statuette and rendered somewhat insignificant? It is the same statue as twenty years ago, but it has suffered a change by being thrown out of scale. A similar feeling possesses one about the superb "Sherman" in the Plaza, though it is larger in size, and in a less confined space, than the "Farragut." That thin, determined rider and the lean, mettlesome horse have become absolutely attenuated by the lofty hotels around them. The group begins to look like a mantel ornament — something for the Metropolitan Museum, rather than the Plaza. And there is the Dodge statue in Herald Square, another good illustration, if rather bad art. Who sees it for the huge shops about it? But yesterday a native New Yorker was insisting that there was no statue of any kind in Herald Square — at least, he had not noticed one there in the last ten years.
Nor has sculpture fared well when employed on the sky-scrapers themselves. What could be done with figures on, say, the Flatiron or the Times Building or the Trinity Building down town? You may detach an eighteen-foot Diana from Madison Square tower by using it for a weather vane, and by thus placing it in relief against the sky gain an effect of graceful line; but place the Diana, or any other eighteen-foot figure, in a niche three hundred and seventy feet from the street, in the tower of the Metropolitan Life Building, and what would become of it? It is hardly possible to get either an expressive or a decorative effect from figures twenty stories up in the air. Sculpture was never designed or fitted for such structures. These enormous buildings have not only outgrown the plastic arts, but all the architectural orders as well. Columns and pedestals and pilasters, with carved entablatures and pediments, fail to eke out the distances or hold as ornament. They are inadequate, as, indeed, are almost all of the building contrivances of the past when confronted with this new problem. The problem, with its decorative effects, must be worked out on a new basis, and on a much larger and more comprehensive scale. To declare the sky-scraper "hideous" and to pray its speedy abolition is to evade the question. The tall building is here to stay and must be reckoned with.
Of course, the smaller "village improvement" features that. are from time to time discussed by municipal art societies, are destined to neglect in New York from sheer want of importance. When the city is built up with tall buildings, of what vital interest the color of a letter-box or the shape of an electrolier? In Florence a brass bowl for a barber's sign, hung above a door, looks rather pretty, and a wrought-iron design that advertises a lock-smith in Nuremberg is quaint and interesting; but what could you do with them in front of the Park Row Building or the Hotel Astor? How is the man who occupies the eighteenth story of the Terminal Building to advertise his wares except at night by an electric device? It is useless to discuss the time-honored sign, whether in brass or iron or gold, as either an ornament or an excrescence, so far as the sky-scraper is concerned. It will not be used at all, because it will not be seen. Any-one who looks over the new high-building region of New York must be impressed by the absence of old-fashioned signs.
Fortunately for New York, those who have the planning and the improving of the city in their keeping or. on their conscience, hunt larger game than signs, house numbers, gas fixtures, and commemorative tablets. They have an idea that New York is to be a great city, with its business center located in Manhattan, and that it is vitally important there be more and larger exits and entrances. With that thought they have planned new avenues, new wharves and water fronts, new methods of relieving the congestion of freight as well as of passengers, new bridge approaches and terminals. In connection with this, both for use and beauty, they have planned the widening of Fifth Avenue, the removal of the Central Park walls and the making of broad parkways on either side, the linking, by the bridges, of Manhattan and its park systems with the other boroughs and their park systems. Still further, they hope by locating new city buildings, to produce a civic center from which avenues shall radiate through the greater city, touching other centers in the different boroughs. Finally, they hope to make monuments of city art out of school buildings, libraries, engine houses, and other public edifices; and to give them proper setting by grouping them in smaller centers about parks or open squares.
All this is quite as it should be, provided it is carried out on a sufficiently large scale— a scale in proportion to the new city. Presumably, many of the plans will never be executed, and possibly some formalism will be avoided thereby. The tendency of any plan is to produce rigidity and to destroy picturesqueness of which New York is at present such a fine example; but there is no doubt about the planned city being the more convenient and the more impressive at first blush. Paris became "a city of magnificent distances" after Haussmann's surgery, though perhaps it is now a little stupid in its uniformity and lacking in a former charm of color. New York, under the "plan" of 1811, was for many years a dull collection of checker-board squares until the change in the sky line made by the tall buildings and the bridges relieved its monotony. That plan was as bad as, presumably, any new one is good; but it is not desirable to have too much regularity if the city is to be interesting and beautiful.
And what is to make the new city beautiful if we do away with so many of the art features of the past? The green parks seem destined to destruction by congestion of population and plant-food poisoning; isles of safety, drinking fountains, statues, lamps, signs, and all the small art of the older city seem to lack in carrying power; an effect of composition by the grouping of buildings, such as one saw at the Columbian Exposition, or such as is now becoming apparent with less formality in the placing of Columbia University, seems possible only in isolated spots because of the item of expense. What then is the new beauty of the city to be? Wherein shall lie the secret of its outer attractiveness?
Those questions are for the future to answer; and yet an inclination is apparent, an example has been set. The scale of the new city has been established in majestic proportions. The high buildings and the huge bridges are its measure. The future aqueducts, railways, tunnels, boulevards, avenues, squares, circles, will have to conform to the established scale. Out of this shall come some-thing in grandeur as yet quite uncomprehended. The possibilities of the new architecture are the possibilities of the new city. Not the size of it alone, not its mass, shall be its sole impressive feature. There is no limit to the forms that may be evolved, the groupings and mid-air compositions that may be brought into existence, the lights and shadows that may be thus created. The bridges already have grace of line, and the buildings commanding height. That which is to come will be no less impressive.
To gigantic form must be added the further possibility of color. Heretofore it has been used only in spots, but there is now something more than a chance of its use in large masses. The opportunity offered by the bridges suggests it, and some of the sky-scrapers already realize it. With walls that are used only as fire or weather shields, the architect is not pinned down to stone or brick. Almost any material and almost any stain or hue may be made available. Given the high buildings in different colorings, with those colorings shown not only in full sunlight but under shadow, and one can imagine a picturesque effect more imposing than any that has ever gone before us in the world's history.
This would be an expression of municipal art in terms of commercialism and possibly objectionable to some for that very reason. But why? A city should grow up and out of its necessities, and assert itself and its character in what guise or garb it needs or craves. Rome expressed itself in one kind of art, Paris in quite another kind. Shall the great port of the west not express itself in still another? More than once has commerce out of its objects of use created (perhaps unconsciously) objects of beauty. The beauty comes with the integrity of the use and the frank avowal of the purpose. It has been so in the past and there is no reason to believe that it will not be so again in the future.