Approaching The Plaza
( Originally Published 1918 )
One August day I sat beside
—Bliss Carman, On the Plaza.
APPROACHING the Plaza, besides the churches, clubs, and the various houses associated with the name of Vanderbilt, there is conspicuous the cluster of great hotels. To sum up the nature of these hostelries briefly, imagine an English-man. "We now crossed their Thames over what would have been Westminster Bridge, I fancy, and were presently bowling through a sort of Battersea part of the city," was the way in which the British butler in Mr. Harry Leon Wilson's "Ruggles of Red Gap " described part of a hazy, riotous ride about Paris. Later, the same worthy, come to our own New York, indicated the hotel of sojourn by the information that it overlooked "what I dare say in their simplicity they call their Hyde Park." Beneath the caricature there was a sound understanding of the workings of the British mind. So if an English-man contemplating a visit seeks advice in the matter of hotels there is the obvious short cut. Certain of the less pretentious places in the side streets and overlooking the minor parks may be described as " the sort of thing you find about Russell Square." The Waldorf-Astoria, the Knickerbocker, the McAlpin, or the Astor as " like the Cecil, Savoy, or the Northumberland Avenue Hotels." The vast, expensive edifices of public welcome in the neighbourhood of the Plaza as " something rather on the order of Claridge's and the Carlton."
These hotels are the St. Regis and the Gotham on opposite corners of the Avenue at Fifty-fifth Street, the Savoy and the Netherland on the east side of the Avenue at Fifty-ninth Street, and the huge new Plaza Hotel facing them from across the square. When the St. Regis was first opened popular fancy ascribed to it a scale of prices crippling to the average purse. The idea was the subject of derisive vaudeville ditties. When a Seeing New York " car approached the Fifty fifth Street corner the guide invariably took up his megaphone and called out, " Ladies and gentle-men! We are passing on the right the far-famed St. Regis Hotel! If you order beefsteak it will cost you five dollars. If you call for chicken they will look you up in Bradstreet before serving the order ! "
St. Luke's Hospital, now crowning Morning-side Heights, opposite the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, was formerly on the land now occupied by the Gotham and the adjoining University Club. A photograph in the Collection of the Fifth Avenue Bank shows the old Hospital as it was in 1867. The point from which the picture was taken was in the middle of Fifty-fourth Street, east of the Avenue. At the north-east corner an iron rail fence separates the hospital grounds from the sidewalk, but the other three corners are vacant lots. To the west, on the south side of Fifty-fourth Street, a solitary house looms up. It is No. 4, now the residence of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Near the Hospital, until 1861, was the Public Pound. The Hospital was opened May 13, 1858, with three " Sister Nurses " and nine patients. Its cost was two hundred and twenty-five thou-sand dollars. It was a red brick building, facing south, and consisted of a central edifice with towers. The cornerstone of the present St. Luke's was laid May 6, 1893.
"Marble Row " was the name given for years to the block on the east side of the Avenue between Fifty-seventh and Fifty-eighth Streets. John Mason, at one time president of the Chemical National Bank, bought the land from the city in 1825 for fifteen hundred dollars. Mason was another of the early New Yorkers who foresaw the future possibilities of the real estate of the island. Buying mostly from the Common Lands of the City, he purchased sixteen blocks from Park to Fifth Avenue, and from Fifty-fourth to Sixty-third Street. When he died, in 1839, he left a will cutting off with small annuities both his son James Mason, who had married Emma Wheatley, a member of the famous Stock Company of the old Park Theatre, the favourite " Desdemona," " Julia," " Mrs. Heller " of her day ; and his daughter Helen, who had also married against his wishes. The will was contested, and eventually the block between Fifty-seventh and Fifty-eighth Streets passed into the hands of Mrs. Mary Mason Jones. In 1871 she erected on the land houses of white marble in a style that was a radical departure from the accepted brown-stone type. At once they became known as the " Marble Row." Mrs. Mary Mason Jones, in her day a social leader, lived in the house at the Fifty-seventh Street corner. Later the dwelling was occupied by Mrs. Paran Stevens.
To " Fifth Avenue " is owed the following description of the neighbourhood of the present Plaza in the middle of the last century. It is from the reminiscences of John D. Crimmins, who has been already quoted in the course of this book. Mr. Crimmins's father was a contractor and at one time in the employ of Thomas Addis Emmet, whose country-seat was on the Boston Post Road near Fifty-ninth Street.
Says Mr. Crimmins: " In the immediate vicinity were the country-seats of other prominent New Yorkers, such as the Buchanans, who were the forebears of the Goelets, the Adriance, Jones, and Beekman families, the Schermerhorns, Hulls, Setons, Towles, Willets, Lenoxes, Delafields, Primes, Rhinelanders, Lefferts, Hobbs, Rikers, Lawrences, and others. A little farther to the north were the country-seats of the Goelets, Gracies, and the elder John Jacob Astor. With all these people, who were practically the commercial founders of our city, my father had an acquaintance. The wealthy merchants of New York at that period frequently invested their surplus in outlying property and left its care largely in the hands of my father, who opened up estates, as he did the Anson Phelps place in the vicinity of Thirtieth Street, which ran north and extended from the East River to Third Avenue. He also opened up the Cutting and other large estates.
When I was a lad, as I was the oldest son, my father would take me to the residences of these gentlemen, several of whom had their permanent homes on Fifth Avenue or in the vicinity. At that period, these wealthy citizens conducted much of their business at their homes. James Lenox had his office in the basement of his house at Fifth Avenue and Twelfth Street. R. L. Stuart attended to much of his business at his residence, Twentieth Street and Fifth Avenue, and the same may be said of the Costers, Moses Taylor, and others. These men had no hesitation in receiving in their homes after business hours the people whom they employed. I remember distinctly before gas was generally introduced how very economical in its use those who had it were. In the absence of the butler the gentleman of the house would often walk to the door with his visitor and then lower the gas. The estates of many of these wealthy merchants were rented to market gardeners. And it was not an unusual sight to see a merchant drive in his carriage to the vegetable garden, select his vegetables, and carry them to his table, showing the economy and simple manners of the people of that older day as compared with our present extravagance.
" After the Board of Aldermen had acceded to the petition of the residents of Fifth Avenue for permission to enclose a part of the roadway in a closed yard or area, it was not an uncommon sight to see many of the older men standing at their gates, in high stocks, white cravats, cutaway coats with brass buttons, greeting their neighbours as they passed along the Avenue—a custom which survived to about 1870, when the white cravat, too, passed into history. The improvements on Fifth Avenue, north of Thirty-fourth Street, began with the erection of the Townsend house, which was a feature of the city and shown to visitors. The location was the foot of a high hill.
" On the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fiftieth Street, where the Cathedral now stands, stood the frame church, thirty by seventy feet, in which I was baptized in May, 1844. A path and a road led to the Post Road which ran east of the church and bordered the Potter's Field. To the north was the Orphan Asylum, and farther on was another cattle yard, Waltemeir's, a family well known to cattle men. From Fiftieth Street to St. Luke's Hospital at Fifty-fourth Street there were a few frame houses, and the ground extending to Sixth Avenue was used for market gardens. Old maps of New York show the lanes crossing this section at the time, much like the country roads we see today thirty or forty miles distant from the city. Walls ran along these roads with an occasional house with its gable of the old Dutch type. Mr. Keyser, who dealt in ice gathered from ponds, occupied the site of the present Vanderbilt houses, Fifty-first to Fifty-second Street. The Decker house of Dutch architecture occupied the block between Fourth and Fifth Avenues, Fifty-sixth to Fifty-seventh Street.
" Peter and Robert Goelet I recall very well. Those who called on Peter Goelet would find him in a jumper, bluish in colour, such as we see mechanics wear, with pockets in front. He loved to be occupied and always had a rule and other articles in his pockets. His brother, Robert, was the grandfather of the present Goelets. Peter was the elder and a bachelor. They accompanied each other on walks, Peter, the more active of the two, in front, and Robert a pace behind. They dealt directly with their tenants and those whom they employed in taking care of their properties. I can recall them coming on foot to my father to have him repair a sidewalk or fence. I doubt if these men in their day, except for ordinary living expenses, spent five thousand dollars a year. They were simple in their manners and tastes.
" The older generation was noted for industry, thrift, and economy. An old merchant, an executor of the Burr estate which owned property opposite the new Public Library, once stated that no man who had a million dollars invested, could spend his income in a year. Money at that time brought seven per cent. The contents of an office did not exceed in cost fifty dollars, a pine desk and table, and a few chairs. There were no stenographers and typewriters were unknown.
" Transportation was principally by stage. There were car lines on Second, Third, Sixth, and Eighth Avenues. The men who kept carriages were few and they generally lived in Harlem or Manhattanville. Occasionally smart four-in-hands were seen, and I recall Madame Jumel driving to town and how we boys used to run to the side of the road to see her pass. Many business men would go to the city driving a rockaway with a single horse. Few of the streets were paved, and there were but two classes of pavements, macadam and cobblestones. Where streets were not paved the sidewalks were in bad condition. In some places the high banks of earth on either side of the street were washed down by heavy rains and deposited on the sidewalks.
" Oil lamps were in general use as street lights, and the light was easily blown out by the wind. The lamplighter was usually a tall man, a character, and his position was considered an important one. Fifth Avenue north of Fifty-ninth Street remained undeveloped for years, and it was not until sometime in the seventies that my father and I finished grading upper Fifth Avenue. Sixty years ago on both sides were stone walls where there were deep depressions. There was no traffic except drovers coming down to market with cattle. There were but two main thorough-fares, Boston Post Road on the east side, and Bloomingdale Road on the west side. From the Boston Post Road long lanes led to the residences of gentlemen who had country-seats on the East River, and similar lanes led from the old Bloomingdale Road to the country-seats on the Hudson River. The sites of the Plaza, the Savoy, and the Netherland Hotels were rocky knolls. A brook which came down Fifty-ninth Street formed several shallow pools which remained for a number of years after the Civil War."
Whether or not Saint Gaudens was right in his contention that the proper place for his equestrian statue of General Sherman was on the Riverside Drive by Grant's Tomb, without that gilded bronze figure of heroic size and the Winged Victory leading before, the Plaza would not be quite the Plaza. Obscured as it is in these days by the vast scaffolding, there is no true son of Manhattan who passes the corner on his way up the Avenue, or enters Central Park, who does not turn to look at the chief ornament of the broad square. The statue was made several years after Sherman's death, and the sculptor laboured on it for six years, from the time when he began the work in Paris, to its final unveiling, on Memorial Day, 1903. Of the statue and its surroundings as he saw them on the occasion of one of his later visits to the city of his birth and boyhood, Henry James wrote:
" The best thing in the picture, obviously, is Saint Gaudens's great group, splendid in its golden elegance and doing more for the scene (by thus giving the beholder a point of such dignity for his orientation) than all its other elements together. Strange and seductive for any lover of the reasons of things this inordinate value, on the spot, of dauntless refinement of the Sherman image; the comparative vulgarity of the environment drinking it up, on one side, like an insatiable sponge, and yet failing at the same time to impair its virtue. The refinement prevails and, as it were, succeeds; holds its own in the medley of accidents, where nothing else is refined unless it be the amplitude of the ` quiet ' note in the front of the Metropolitan Club; amuses itself, in short, with being as extravagantly ` intellectual ' as it likes. Why, therefore, given the surrounding medium, does it so triumphantly impose itself, and impose itself not insidiously and gradually, but immediately and with force? Why does it not pay the penalty of expressing an idea and being founded on one?—such scant impunity seeming usually to be enjoyed among us, at this hour, by any artistic intention of the finer strain? But I put these questions only to give them up—for what I feel beyond anything else is that Mr. Saint Gaudens somehow takes care of himself."
Facing the Sherman group, in the centre of the square, with the Cornelius Vanderbilt house in the background, is the Fountain of Abundance, or the Pulitzer Memorial Fountain, designed by Karl Bitter (his last work), executed by Isidore Konti, and erected in 1915 to the memory of the Iate Joseph Pulitzer, for many years proprietor of the New York " World." The structure is surmounted by the bronze figure of a nymph, bearing a basket laden with the fruits of the earth. The Vanderbilt residence which is the background when the Fountain is viewed from the north is of red brick with grey facings in the style of a French chateau of the sixteenth or seventeenth century.