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New York City Landmarks

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

There is still a further objection urged to the sky-scraper upbuilding of the new city. It requires a tearing down of the old city; and against that there are always voices enough to cry out in protest. Not that there is any great value, aesthetic or otherwise, to the old; but, because it has become familiar, and has perhaps some pleasant associations connected with it, people would like to see it preserved. Then, too, with the passing of the old buildings history loses its landmarks. We can no longer tell where Wouter Van Twiller smoked the pipe of peace, or Peter Stuyvesant pounded his wooden leg on the floor with wrath, or where stood the Collect Pond with the island in the middle of it, or where ran the Dutch wall from which Wall Street derived its name. Mr. James says that on his last visit here he could not even find the houses where certain celebrated men—poets, painters, and the like — were born, and which he knew as a boy! He thinks the spots should have been marked or commemorated in some way; but how could one put a tablet on a twenty-story sky-scraper! 

This protest of history or sentiment has always been made in the past as in the present, and has usually been unheeded. The world goes right on tearing down and building up anew, on the principle that its counting-room is only a shop; that when its machinery .wears out or becomes inadequate, it shall be superseded by other and better machinery; and when the shop itself becomes too small, it shall be torn down and a larger one put in its place. Thus acted on occasion the ancient Greeks and Romans, and thus act the modern New Yorkers. The commercial keynote of New York is again sharply struck. The city is a shop, not a historical museum in the large, like present-day Venice. Moreover, the past history of the city is wholly insignificant when compared with its present commercial importance. Its impetus, its movement forward, are not to be checked by a Fraunce's Tavern or a Poe's cottage or even a Washington or Hamilton headquarters. If historical buildings are still useful or beautiful in themselves, like the City Hall or Old Trinity, no one will question the propriety of retaining them; but the fact that tradition attaches to them is not sufficient in itself for their preservation. If tradition always had its way, the dead past would never bury its dead, and the modern city would be a rubbish heap like Bagdad or Damascus. 

As it is, the reverence for antiquity has resulted in many of the older cities being choked with their own ashes. 

Rome is full of broken-down brick baths, belonging once to the Caesars as now to the tourists, that have not one saving virtue of use or beauty to commend them. In Florence a great wail was sent skyward when modern buildings superseded the ancient quarters where heroes and heroines of fiction were supposed to have lived — quarters which were no better than the old ghetto of Rome. And in London, if a radical should suggest a new bridge over the Thames to take the place of any one of the half-dozen inconvenient and deadly commonplace structures that now span the stream, there would be violent protests in the name of history and romance from Ruskinians and Harrisonians. 

All this seems to the modern who appreciates the impossibility of stopping human progress (or change, if the word be preferred) a waste of good sentiment and enthusiasm. An object gathers value not for its age, but for its use or beauty. The Pantheon, the Palazzo Vecchio at Florence, the Ducal Palace at Venice are beautiful, not because they are old, but in spite of it; just as the pictures by Titian and Giorgione are the worse for their years rather than bettered by them. The idea that everything savoring of age must of necessity be good is absurd. Yet it is, nevertheless, an idea widely entertained. We in America have it in almost every household. It is our fancy for things ancient, more than for things beautiful, that induces us to lift marble mantels from Venetian' palaces and to place them in Fifth Avenue houses, to hang our walls with tapestries from France and pictures from Italy and Holland, to cover our floors with Daghestan rugs, and to put in our drawing-rooms worm-eaten chairs from Paris and Nuremberg. Their inappropriateness in their new western setting is glozed over by the statement that they are "very old," — a statement which might, with equal pertinence if less interest, be made about any pudding-stone from the neighboring hills. 

Naturally, with such notions plaguing our shallow minds, there are a plenty of shrill voices to cry out against the tearing down of a square stone box that happens to have been built before the Revolution, though it may have no architectural grace about it. Indeed, it is conceivable that a future generation may grow lachrymose over the demolition of that one-time architectural horror, the New York Post-Office. And why not, if age is to be the criterion of value? It will soon be one of the oldest of the down-town structures, and probably has more romance and history about it than all the sky-scrapers put together. But originally it never had much reason for existence, being neither very useful nor very beautiful; and now it is merely an encumbrance that has been kept too long from the scrap heap. If a building has any real value in use or beauty, there is little difficulty about its being preserved. 

There are very few landmarks down in the busy quarter of the town that justify themselves,— that give reason for their continued existence. These few are somewhat like sunken reefs in the sea with the great wave-like cornices of the sky-scrapers apparently breaking above them, almost over them. They are weather-worn, water-worn, doomed to destruction; but for the present, perhaps, they serve a purpose as beauty,, if they are not very useful. Old Trinity is one of the most famous of these survivals. With its trees and grass and graves, its glint of sunshine and its breath of air, it lies like a benediction upon the heart of the busy lower city. It is something to please the eye and calm the fevered brain, for a moment at least; and the thousands of the worried and the harried that push and surge along Broadway look through and over the iron fence and are helped by the peace and quiet of it. That alone is sufficient excuse for its being. Besides, there is the beauty of the church itself to lend one for a moment a surcease of business and a suggestion of another phase of life — something not to be despised in these piping times of commerce. 

But Trinity — church and parish school and crumbling graves — is submerged, sunken as it were beneath the surrounding buildings. It seems and looks a relic not destined to last for long. It is already somewhat out of place, its congregation do not live within sound of its bells, and those that lie under the sod have no longer close kindred that walk about the graves after service and keep watch over the tombs and the headstones. Broadway frets at it; Wall Street bombards it with noisy people; Church Street roars at it with elevated trains above and lumbering trucks below; and its own corporation puts up a lofty sky-scraper to look down upon the cross of the steeple. It seems as though they all longed to rush in upon it and strangle it. 

Fifty years ago that brown-stone steeple, lifting high in the air, dominated all lower New York. It was the one tall tower on the island, and its bells rang out across the waters and were heard over in Brooklyn and in New Jersey. Then it was an aspiring needle pointing heaven-ward and, if it soared far above the commercial buildings scattered about its feet, it but symbolized the predominance, at that time, of the spiritual over the material. It had not then outlived its purpose. Its congregation was within call of its bells, its parish school had children to educate, it was still a place where people were baptized and married and buried. Serene and beautiful and sanctified it all seemed, resting there under the blue sky with the peace of God upon it. 

But now what! The old order has changed, giving place to new. The church on the green seems like a church in an area-way, and the clear sweet bells that once sounded over the rivers now reverberate with a clang from the high walls about them, or at times have a muffled, strangled cry, like that of a bell-buoy overridden by stormy seas. The congregation, shrunken to small proportions, comes over from Brooklyn by bridge or tunnel, or down from the upper town with a rush by elevated or subway. As for marriage and burial there, they are now rare occurrences; and the children — the only children left in that part of the city — belong to the janitors' families, many of them by birth of an alien denomination. 

Alas, fair Trinity! With all its beauty it is only a survival. Its usefulness as a church is gone and it lags superfluous on the scene. Everyone will be sorry to see it go, for it has been for many years a lovely spot of brown and green upon the gray. But commerce is beating upon it and wearing it away. Eventually it will succumb. 

One cannot but feel the same way about St. Paul's. It was begun in 1764 and completed (all except the steeple) in two years. Broadway was not then considered a great thoroughfare; indeed, it was only a lane, and St. Paul's turned its back upon it, facing toward the North River. There was a fine view then from the simple little porch down to a sandy beach, and beyond it bright waves flashing in the sunlight; but now the beach has disappeared, the river has been much filled in, and St. Paul's faces the elevated road and near it office buildings rising in ranks and flights upward and outward. Originally it was (is still) a chapel of Trinity Church, and was the third church building erected by the English in New York, but it is now the oldest church structure in the city. Again, it is entitled to survive. It is like Trinity, a spot of verdure in the waste, and it would be a pity to see it disappear. Yet what shall save it? It was only yesterday that St. John's in Varick Street (built in 1803) was threatened and then temporarily spared. What shall save St. Paul's? 

A little more shut in, a little more protected from assault, is the City Hall. The group of county buildings at the back, the General Post-Office in front, stand as buffers, and the small park about it seems to hold off invasion year by year; but the sky-scrapers near at hand — the lofty towers of the Park Row Building, the gilded dome of the World that repeats the City Hall cupola on a colossal scale of impudence, the massive squares and uprights of masonry on Broadway — seem to look over and glare at it as wondering what it is doing there. And, true enough, what does it there? It is like some fair lady clad in a ball dress of pale silk, standing in the dust and dirt of the noisy street. It is too delicate, too lovely, too feminine, for contact with those great structures of steel and granite. To-day, after its recent cleaning, the white marble shows an old ivory coloring, and the yellow window-shades are as a note of gold upon the ivory. The delicacy of proportions in windows, columns, and cupola, the fineness of decoration over doors and along string-courses, the fastidious simplicity of the wings, are all so marked as to create the impression of a casket in ivory. It is not coarse enough or bulky enough for such a place. A building of, say, forty stories would not be too big to dominate the office structures about the City Hall Park. It is a curatorial thought that creeps into one's head in looking at the little City Hall —the thought that the whole building ought to be picked up and put in some museum. Yet worse things than that may happen to it. 

It was not so long ago that this beautiful building was erected. McComb, its architect, had completed the more robust Queens Building at Rutgers in 1811, and the next year the City Hall was finished. The park was then the outskirts of the city, and the New Yorkers of that time had such small idea of the city's growth to the north that the rear walls of the new building were carried up in brown-stone instead of marble. It has been said that this was economy, and not a question of the extent of the future city; but the fact that all the economy was used on the rear wall is significant. McComb and his contemporaries had as little thought that ten miles of solid buildings would grow up back of the brown-stone walls as Wouter Van Twiller and his Dutch compatriots that their clearing in the woods, where cattle were rounded up in the autumn, would some day become a park dominated by McComb's fine building. 

What swift and sudden transitions! The changes of a hundred years are almost inconceivable. Have we now reached the limit of mutation? Are things to stand still hereafter and the ivory-hued City Hall to remain unchanged, attesting to the future generations the sense of proportion, the simple beauty of materials, the chasteness of ornamentation, employed by the forefathers? The chances are against it. Why? Because the building has outlived its usefulness. It is still occupied, but it is not convenient, and its mere beauty is not strong enough plea to save it from destruction. It has been menaced more than once by political parties in power, and eventually it is almost sure to be sacrificed. 

If such a fate should overtake the Aquarium (formerly Castle Garden), there would be few mourners. It has no beauty about it, and the only thing that is saving it just now is its enforced use. It makes a fairly decent building for an aquarium, and besides it is isolated in Battery Park and no one is crying for the land it occupies. Some associations and traditions cling about it and lend a scrap of romance to it. It started into life in 1811 as Fort Clinton and was then situated on a tiny island lying off Battery Park. In 1822, or thereabouts, it ceased to be a fort and was turned into a place of amusement, where Jenny Lind first sang when she came to America, and Lafayette and Kossuth were publicly received and welcomed. In a few years the playhouse had turned into a station for the reception of immigrants from the Old World, and in 1896 it was fitted up as an aquarium. It now houses the finest collection of fishes in the world, but it has almost completely lost its old character. Instead of covering a tiny island it rests bedded in the stone slabs of Battery Park and looks somewhat like a half-sunken gas tank. Sentiment may cling about it, and the folk with neither New York ancestry nor history may reverence it because it is so "very old"; but in reality it is sad rubbish and has little place in the new city. 

There is not a building in lower New York that goes back to the time of the Dutch occupation, and very few that belong to the later English occupation. The streets remain, but their original designers would not recognize them, so great has been the change. Tablets commemorating historic sites have been placed on the new buildings; but, again, those who participated and made the history would never know the places thereof. What seventeenth-century Dutchman, could he wake up, would recognize in the ponderous new Custom House the site of the old Dutch fort in New Amsterdam; or in Beaver Street the beaver trail leading over into the marsh now called Broad Street; or in Wall Street the place where the wall to keep out invading foes was erected; or in Broadway the Heere Straat, which in 1665 was remarkable for containing twenty-one buildings? The burghers in pot hats and bag breeches that wandered along Perel-Straat (Pearl Street) when it was the water-line of the East River, and the faithful huis-vrouws in balloon skirts that chattered along the cow path (Beekman Street) leading through the Beek-man farm up to the (City Hall) park would never be able to orient themselves in the new New York. The Dutch past seems to have been completely wiped off the map. 

American antiquity has, at best, some very positive limitations. Most of the things we call "old" are within the memory of men still living. The pile of Doric-shaped granite on Wall and Broad streets, now doing service as a Sub-Treasury, stands where formerly stood the City Hall in which Washington was inaugurated first President of the Republic. The old building was torn down in 1813 and later on the present building was erected. No one knows how long this one will last. Nothing endures for any length of time in this commercial center. The Astor House, a granite hotel in the same class as the Sub-Treasury, is again only "old" to Americans. It has about fifty years, and will probably never see three-score and ten. 

A much older hostelry than the Astor House — in fact one of the oldest buildings in New York — is Fraunce's Tavern, standing on the southwest corner of Broad and Pearl streets. It was originally the residence of Etienne de Lancey, and was built in 1725. It was the fashionable tavern of New York in its day. Here the New York Chamber of Commerce was organized in 1768, here Washington had his headquarters after the British evacuation of New York, and here on December 4, 1783, the great captain said farewell to his officers. The building is not "a wonder and delight" architecturally, not at all in the class with Trinity or the City Hall; but it illustrates a page of history that all Americans are proud to read. In consequence of that, perhaps, and in response to a public appeal, the city government tried to buy Fraunce's Tavern with the idea of its preservation as a museum; but finally, by mutual agreement, the Society of the Sons of the Revolution purchased the property and have re-stored it. Such a very unworldly, unbusinesslike performance as that might have been expected of Paris, but hardly of New York. Still, everyone seems to acquiesce. One hesitates to suggest that the acquiescence is due some-what to indifference as well as sentiment. The old tavern , is removed from the center of business activity. If it stood on the corner of Wall Street and Broadway, there might have been a different tale to tell. 

Perhaps the "historic mansions" in the upper part of the city, along Riverside Drive and the Fort Washington district, have survived to the present day for the reason, again, that their room is not actively needed. Alexander Hamilton's house, "The Grange," near One Hundred and Forty-Second Street and Convent Avenue, is one of the most notable of those that remain. It was from here that Hamilton went forth in the morning of July 11, 1804, to fight the fatal duel with Aaron Burr. The shadow of Burr also fell on the old Jumel mansion, still standing on One Hundred and Sixtieth Street; but before his day it held Mrs. Roger Morris, who, as Mary Philipse, was the first love of Washington. In 1776 Washington made it his headquarters, and from it Nathan Hale sal-lied forth to get information within the British lines, and never came back. In the Van Cortlandt Park still stands the old Van Cortlandt mansion built in 1748, and now used as a museum of history by the Colonial Dames. The old mills that belonged to the place are there yet (or were a few years ago), and the mill-pond is now used by skaters in the winter season. 

So one might go on, recounting perhaps a dozen places in the upper city that have a century of story attached to them of a more or less romantic nature. Interesting, and in view of our abbreviated history, a little pathetic, are these reminders of the past. The scarcity of them seems to emphasize our want of feeling about things historic. We appear ruthless, destructive, unsympathetic. And yet, after all, what has New York to do with romance or the past? The most important page of its biography is now open and being written upon. As for sentiment, there is plenty of it among New Yorkers, but they are indisposed to mix it with business. Sentiment and history are in the same category with literature and the arts, merely secondary considerations, — things to be cultivated like potted plants in factory windows provided they do not interfere in any way with the light or the working of the machinery. 

Harsh facts! And perhaps better kept in the back-ground or at least passed over in silence. And yet why? There is nothing discreditable about commercialism.' Material prosperity is what the world, in all times and in all places, has been struggling for. The necessities of life are the prerequisites of the luxuries. No city ever did much with art and literature until it had solved the fiscal question. And New York simply happens to be a better struggler — a better breadwinner— than any of its predecessors. One would not care for its prevailing idea, its commercial intensity, everywhere and all over the United States. Business can be, and has been, done to death many times. But why not commerce dominant in this city by the sea which is so admirably fitted for that very thing ?
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