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Modern Architecture
by [?]

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 fa�ade 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.