It is right that the only distinctive American quarter in New York should be where it is, on the site of the old Indian village, the Sapokanikan, where the Indian planted tobacco on the sweet meadows that lay between the North River and the Minetta Waters. Though so near to the Italian quarter, once part of the village, now practically merging with it, it is so distinctive that the streets which still belong to the Village are easily distinguished from the others. The Village has not been made after a definite plan like most of the other streets above Canal Street, which have been laid out in advance by the city engineers, but it has grown. Lane after lane between neighboring houses was widened out in the most convenient way, without thought to the future development of the streets as at present. It is why this part of New York presents such a resemblance to the network of streets in the Montmarte in Paris, to certain quarters of New Orleans and Philadelphia, and has not been affected by the city plan of New York.
From a bird’s-eye view, the haphazard winding of streets and alleys is that of a wild garden grown without much aid by the hand of man. No twenty-story buildings rise suddenly on the land between shacks. No industrial cupolas darken and danken the streets; for the Minetta Water, though no longer on the surface, is still lustily flowing underneath the ground, thus making it impossible, or too costly, to erect tall buildings on the shallow foundations, as those who have attempted to do so have learned much to their annoyance and cost. The East Side branch of Minetta flows underneath, less than fifty feet below the surface, east of Fifth Avenue through Twentieth and Twenty-third Streets, in a straight line to the southwest corner of Union Square. Another branch crosses Washington Square and flows through Minetta Street to the North River between Charlton and Houston Streets.
On the ground encompassing Fifth and Sixth Avenues, the Minetta Water was not so very long ago a very sweet lake, on which the Dutch burghers, when Greenwich Village was yet the Bossen Bouerie, fished for trout. A little further westward, and up to the present docks of the Cunard and White Star Lines, there was good duck-shooting in the wooded land this side of the shore.
From a few houses erected there by thrifty farmers be-cause of the quality of the land, after the settlement of New Amsterdam, the Bossen Bouerie grew to a good-sized village by the time Governor Van Twiller decreed it was his own property and used practically the whole of it for a tobacco plantation.
There is something indefinable that has remained about this part of New York, which distinguishes it from any other quarter in the city. That sweet smell which emanated formerly from the tall poplars and the woodland about it, and the sweet earth and clear water, still lingers in the everywhere, working, laboring, to voice the spirit of the country.
Greenwich Village has been the artistic center of the country for more than a half-century now. Poe lived here, Washington Irving, Mark Twain, Thomas Paine. Of the present generation of writers and artists I know of no center in the world where there are gathered in one locality as many as there are here. There is Theodore Dreiser, living in St. Luke’s Place, facing the St. Luke’s Park, working with his heavy head, too heavy even for his big body, held in his hands at the open window, trying to capture a mood or a color, laboring with words, arranging and rearranging them, with seldom a respite from his labors. I have never yet met Dreiser in his studio without a feeling that though he was pleased to be interrupted, to have an excuse not to work for the little hour that I spent with him, he also resented being interrupted from doing his work. No, you cannot get him to live anywhere else but in the Village, of which he knows every house, every inch of ground, acquainted with most of the people about him, with his landlord and the landlord’s agent, and the janitor and the children of the janitor, knowing what each one of them is doing and how each one of them is getting on in this world. And had I no scruples of robbing Dreiser of one of his stories, I could tell a most extraordinary tale he told me about the scullery tramp he employs to clean his room from time to time.
And should you find out where Dreiser lives you are next door to the working-room of Sherwood Anderson, whose work has attracted so much favorable and adverse attention air. A slow tranquillity, as if one were away from the mad industrial rush about the few acres which form this district, seizes one as soon as he dips into one of the narrow curving streets winding capriciously hither and thither, with that old carelessness that hath no regard for time, and no hurry to get somewhere by the straightest line.
So much has been written about the Village in the papers and magazines that now every visitor from the Far West or the North or the South, upon coming to New York, wants to take a look at it, as if it were a menagerie or a show-place. Booths and tea-shops and stores, cabarets, dancing-places, and all sorts of fake attractions are dotting the lips of the Village and poisoning them. Only the heart remains pure, as it has been, of all this pretense. To the stranger who has only heard about it but not lived in it, to the occasional slummer and passer-by, Greenwich Village means a sort of wild place where pretended poets, pretended painters, and pretended writers prance about with their bob-haired, bare-legged women in extravagant dress, playing at art, fooling away time with no care or regard for their own morals or the morals of their neighbors, exhibiting themselves, so to say, to the ridicule of the rest of the world. Even New Yorkers, who should know better, look upon Greenwich Village as strange territory, as upon an exotic growth which has been allowed to remain where it is. New Yorkers treat the Village as if it were a foreign country, when as a matter of fact it is the most American of all districts. It may not be the most New Yorkish of all, but it is certainly the most American, for here you find people from all over the country, frequently the best from from all sides. He, too, is a hard worker. He, too, is a great lover of the Village and has come directly to it from Chicago, as Dreiser has come, without even dreaming of taking up his abode elsewhere. You can occasionally meet them both, walking one behind the other, Sherwood the younger one, with the big black eyes he has inherited from an Italian grandmother riveted to the ground. His fore-head is partly covered by the blond tuft of his Scotch ancestors. A muffler is wrapped well around his neck, under the heavy coat tightly buttoned over his sturdy body.
I am yet to know a better raconteur than Sherwood. Breakfasting with him across the table at the French Pastry-shop, I have many a time forgotten that it was a working day which had only begun. Tales of the Middle West, imitations of conversations with farmers and working-people, anecdotes of his friends in Chicago; of Ben Hecht’s innumerable business ventures, upon which he grows so enthusiastic until they fail; and of Carl Sand-burg’s strumming upon the ukulele while he shouts with a thick tongue the verses he has just written; and of wanderings with his father, who knew the slang of every trade and the craft of none and obtained temporary jobs on his conversational charm.
And to go from this heavily masculine type to the lightest, there is the little home Edna St. Vincent Millay has just built not far from Cherry Lane, a crooked, narrow little street that reminds one of Venice, a toy house in which none but she, tiny, light, and skipping, as aerial as her own verses and as harmonious in movement, lives. No one, on passing her slight, modest, gay little figure, hopping down one of the streets, in her bare head and with a shawl negligently thrown across her narrow shoulders, would suspect that he is in the presence of America’s most charming poetess.
On Macdougal Street near Washington Square is the Provincetown Playhouse, celebrated now because it was the original home of Eugene O’Neill’s plays, before their phenomenal leap to Broadway and fame. O’Neill, too, is a Villager. I remember when some years ago, just returned from the sea, he had brought with him some of the plays which have since made him famous, and some germs of plays he is still writing. We were having breakfast together in the Washington Square apartment of John Reed Jack, big Jack, beloved by all, who has since died in Russia and was buried in the Kremlin at Moscow. Floyd Dell was there, also. We were discussing plans for a new theater. I do not believe the total capital of all present then was a hundred dollars. And yet what enthusiasm! This enthusiasm made it possible for the one-act plays that were first presented in the lecture-room of the Liberal Arts Club. The stage was nothing but the speaker’s platform elongated and widened a little. A play by Floyd Dell, a play by Reed, and a play by O’Neill were presented to an enthusiastic audience of friends. And because of the interest aroused immediately, the stable next door, which had come into disuse because of the advent of the automobile, was rented for a larger theater. It seemed a very dangerous under-taking then. But the young men put their hands to the wheel. Within a few weeks the stable was transformed into a theater, and where the horse-manger or something else had been, a stage was erected. The Provincetown Playhouse is the most significant thing that has happened in American dramatics. The Washington Square Players, the Theater Guild, the Little Theater Movement that has since spread over the country, received its baptism here.
I met O’Neill again the other day. How well he wears success and fame! He has remained the same unaffected, quiet soul. The same passionate seeker of truth. The same uncompromising artist that he has been. A little mellowed but just as enthusiastic, with as much confidence and as much interest in the Provincetown Playhouse, which does not bring him a cent, as he has ever had; forever writing a new play for it, directing its destinies, much more concerned with what happens there than with his Broadway audiences and Broadway managers.
Many other efforts have seen their beginnings here. Djuna Barnes’s plays, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s plays, first of which is her now famous “Aria da Capo,” Schnitzler, Strindberg; whatever was too good and too uncommercial for Broadway, and yet had artistic value, has seen its first production there.
Another former Villager, who now is too busy to come down frequently, is Charles Edison, Thomas Edison’s son. Witty, whimsical, poetic, he is the friend of many whose names were not known until a few years ago. And his little theater that was, on Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue, the little Thimble Theater, has also been an effort toward something better on the theatrical stage. There is Jo Davidson, the famous sculptor, with his studio in the heart of the Village. And Mrs. Whitney’s studio with the perpetual exhibition of the work of young artists from the neighborhood.
Of painters there are no end living in the Village. There is Jerome Bloom, Maurice Becker, Popini, Paleologue; and that most charming and playful of all cartoonists, Al Frueh, whose home is on Perry Street. Cesare, Stengel, Auerbach Levy, Jerome Myers, and a hundred others whose names are not on the tip of my pen.
You can meet any of these masters and worshipers of clay, the palette, and canvas hurriedly going down the street in their working smocks, to breakfast or lunch, or on a sudden excursion to a paint-shop in the neighborhood. I do not believe there is any other district in which people labor as faithfully and as constantly as in the Village, de-spite the vulgar opinion to the contrary. Almost fifty per cent of the literature in America is written here, and a far greater percentage of the painting done in this country is by people living in the Village. Almost all the sculptors’ studios are within its radius. All that is real in modern musicI am not speaking of jazz and ragbut most of the members of the International Composers’ League and the Guild of Modern Musicians, Varese, Ruggles, Salzedo, Eve Gauthier, are Villagers. And if you happen to be on an afternoon in Washington Place between Sixth Avenue and Sheridan Square, you will meet a short, graceful lady of uncertain age, walking slowly up and down, wrapped in a fiery red mantilla, with her bobbed golden hair hanging loosely and uncovered. It is Madame Georgette Leblanc, Maurice Maeterlinck’s former wife, in her own right an interesting artist, writer, poet, singer. She came from Paris to . . . the Village.
The various stories and articles about the Village that have spread have helped to root the idea that the Village is composed of the idlers of the country. The contrary is true. The Village may not be and is not the most New Yorkish of all the quarters, but it is the most American, as a glance at the above-named celebrities will prove. Few of them are native New Yorkers. They have come from the Middle West, and the South, and the Northwest. But on coming here and on trying to find their own milieu, they have gravitated toward the most likely place. It is unjust, criminal almost, to libel the numerous serious artists who have wasted their lives in hunger and starvation in cold garrets, and refused to abate their artistic standards. Every once in a while an item in the paper ends such a struggle. No road is as hard to travel as the road to artistic fame. For one who succeeds, five hundred equipped as well if not better, but with less luck or personality, perish by the side.
There are, of course, as there are in Paris and in other big capitals wherever artists congregate, a number of men and women who play at art. Those who have read Murger’s “La Vie de Boheme,” or who have seen the opera with the same name, will think of the number of professional students in the Latin Quarter, young men grown old on their parents’ monthly allowances, wearing their students’ caps on their gray heads, who have danced and visited cabarets in school hours, consorting with women as light-footed and gay-hearted as themselves. Surely Musette was as light as she was portrayed, and there are a thousand sisters of hers doing the same thing the world over. But no one in France thinks that this is all that is being done in the Latin Quarter and Montmartre. For almost every bit of literature of France has come out from there; every bit of art in all the branches. Montmartre and the Latin Quarter was the home of Zola and Anatole France, and Balzac and Maupassant, and Debussy and Vidor and Rodin. They, too, have undoubtedly had their hours of gaiety and abandon, but who dares look at all they have produced, their tremendously prolific labor, and reproach them such recreations?
Like Montmartre, the Village needs no apology, and this is after all a travel-book. But for those who may be tempted to visit the Village, attracted to breakfast at a piggery or a crumpery, and dine and dance at .a Green Horse or a Black Moon, or shiver among pirates on Christopher Street, or look into the fireplace of Romany Marie’s shack, I want to say that this is not the “goings on” of the Village, but merely the fringe of it. The young men in flowing neckties and long hair they will see exchanging jokes and kisses at the tables with the bobbed-haired, smocked young ladies are not students, but those who have come there to masquerade as such, little clerks of the neighborhood, or young students from the adjoining New York University, who come here to play the devil smartly. Those who belong to the Village, the real ones, are not to be seen, or are seldom seen, in any of these places.
Until publicity was given to the Village, say about ten years ago, I remember when there was not one single place of the kind. We used to go down, a group of us, to Polly’s on Macdougal Street in the basement of the Liberal Arts Club, and by chipping in we got a common breakfast or a lunch. Some unfortunate colleague of ours, on needing money, once described this place and sold the story to a newspaper, whereupon the Village became a newspaper source and center of attraction. In time people began to go to the Village for lack of something better to do, and thrifty New England ladies changed the aspect of quiet into a fair where all things are bartered and sold, Many of the New England ladies who have come here to study are the cause of it, for they saw immediately how an honest penny could be turned, and opened their bead-shops and toy-shops and antique shops and tea-shops. I venture to say that nine tenths of those shops are in charge of Bostonians.
“Where is the Village? Where does it begin and where does it end?”
Hypolite Havel, an inveterate Villager, once answered this question, “The Village has no geographical delineation; it is a state of mind.”
The Village extends from the south side of Washington Square and Macdougal Street, clear across to the North River, swerving off on the side to comprise King Street and Vandam Street from the beginning of Macdougal Street to the other end, and northward practically to the river at Thirteenth Street, and down again to Sixth Avenue.
Its streets, except a few, and the avenues, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth, were not cut originally. The houses, most of them, had not been constructed in one street line with some definite plan in mind. As there were large tracts of land between farms, the original inhabitants built their homes on the best sites of their particular plots of land, turning the entrances and windows whichever way they thought best. As the adjoining plots were occupied and new houses were built, lanes were formed between them. And when still more houses were built they some-what faced these lanes, although not in any regular fashion. The result was that when Greenwich was incorporated into the city of New York, and the streets were being made to conform, it was found that the extension of Fourth Street from the East Side crossed Tenth and Twelfth Streets and ended at Thirteenth Street.
There are streets in the Village that suddenly leave off and run away from you, and you have to dodge and turn until you pick them up again three or four blocks away. There are others that stick to the traveler, no matter how hard he tries to avoid them. You leave them and dodge into another street, only to find out that you are still in the same one. There are any number of wooden shanties left to fall apart by themselves, by the grace of wind and rain. Litigations, because the different inheritors are at odds, and because of lack of order in the title-papers, make them belong to nobody. Indeed, not long ago nine families on Commerce Street discovered they had paid rent to some one who, having seen the house vacant some ten years be-fore, had moved into a part of it and had rented the rest to tenants. For eight years these people had paid rent be-fore they became aware of the fact that the house did not belong to the man from whom they rented it, and that he himself did not know to whom it belonged. Had the Building Department of the city not protested against the lack of fire-escapes, that man would still be collecting rent. It can be done again and again.
Most of the houses in the neighborhood cannot be sold because of litigation. Some of them are twenty or twenty-four inches outside of their ground limits. Most of them are at odds with the rules and regulations of the Building Department. But all of them are beautiful to look at, with something about them which makes them distinct from the houses anywhere else. Age mellows the color of brick and copings.
It is easy to see that these houses were built by their original owners with a view of inhabiting them themselves and not of renting them. These are houses made to live in and not to speculate with. Long and beautiful French windows and wide oak doors, hung on hammered hinges, are a delight to the eye. Everything feels a regard and care for beauty of linethe roof, the chimney-stacks, and little flower-gardens in the front yards of a good many of these houses. It is a pleasant surprise, on coming from up town, suddenly to see that row between Twelfth and Thirteenth Streets on Seventh Avenue, with wide wooden balconies and verandas in front of the houses set back forty feet from the sidewalk, and beautiful flower-patches and trees in the little front yards; and this in New York, where every inch of ground is appraised at big amounts of money. There are beautiful green vines creeping over the old moldy wood, and though the insides of most of these houses have been remodeled and changed, still enough of the old is left to show what it has been.
All through the Village one frequently encounters such sights. There are trees in the back yards, old poplar-trees and acacias which emit a sweet smell on their blooming days, and patches of green everywhere. There is less hanging of wash-lines fluttering in the wind here than anywhere else. And the curtains in the windows, in sheen-colored gauzes, are a study in themselves. There is the Cherry Lane district, with the Cherry Lane Theater built on the site of one of the old stables; and situated on it and spreading from it a multitude of little one-family houses with large studios on the top, for painters and sculptors. There is Washington Mews with its row of little blue-painted houses, with a large iron gate toward Lafayette Street, in itself a little gem set apart from any of the houses in the city. Another similar artistic corner which makes you forget where you are is Macdougal Alley; and on Eighth Street is Cat Alley, not in New York’s Baedeker, but well known to Villagers. From midnight to sunrise it is the rendezvous of all the cats in the district. And what battles for supremacy are fought here!
There is a profusion of originality in building every-where. Even those who build to-day, artists and writers who have succeeded in getting enough money to do so in these days of expensive construction, build according to their own dreams and their own necessity. Nest-holes, or whole floors with only one room, large and wide, so as to give one space to walk around while he thinks or dreams.
There are a great number of good old folks, old inhabitants of the Village who have lived there for generations, who would not change or think of leaving it for any other district. The old folks of St. Luke’s Place, or Commerce Street, or Barrow Street, seem to have been considerably disturbed by the sudden inrush of visitors and slummers in the neighborhood. And rents, too, have gone up considerably. Garrets which once rented for eight dollars a month now rent for twenty times that amount; because some up-towner has taken it into his head that he, too, should have a litttle “nest” in the Village. There is one particular house on Bank Street, in which I lived for several years, paying what was then the large rent of thirty dollars a month. To-day it rents for exactly eight times that sum. And Bank Street is anything but in the center of the Village.
There used to be a French bakery shop just around the corner from where I lived, and several other French families were living in the neighborhood. The Village was once a center of the Parisians living in New York, probably because it reminded them so strongly of their own Montmartre. But on visiting my former habitat I found that the French bakery shop, which had stood there for over a hundred years and had been in the family for several generations, had suddenly become a tea-shop. My old French friends were compelled to leave. And because the other French families could not get their croissant and their long, crisp baked bread, they, too, have moved away to other places where such things might be obtainable.
The building where Thomas Paine died, on Grove Street, although there is a bronze tablet on the wall commemorating this fact, is now a restaurant gaudily painted outside. The home of Mark Twain is being torn down to make room for some tall tenement-house. The Garret on Washington Square still lives, but it, too, will soon be torn down for some industrial edifice that is to be erected in its place.
Because of the tremendous rentals asked now, the artists have had to move elsewhere, leaving their rooms for those who are in a more lucrative employment than theirs, advertising illustrators, jazz-players, and bubble-makers, who want to live in the Village. Only those who own their homes in the neighborhood, and the old inhabitants who have lived there, are in a position to remain, to withstand the inrush of slummers and sensation-seekers, and keep the only American quarter in the city a distinct entity.
On West Thirteenth Street an old wooden house, No. 38, marks the slanting line of the old Union Road, which was frequented by the stage-coaches connecting Greenwich Village with New York. There used to be a monument to General Wolfe, the hero of Quebec. It was this that gave the street once the name of Monument Lane. But evidently the English soldiers at the close of the Revolution took away with them the memorial to their gallant countryman, afraid lest the victors might mishandle it.
There are no definite data as to this fact. Some assert that the monument was in the form of an obelisk and was taken back on board by the English; some, that it has never left the country. At any rate, it has never been traced. It may be resting somewhere in an underground cellar in the neighborhood.
Where the Washington Arch now is, on the site of the old Potter’s Field, was the old public gallows, from which much less than a hundred years ago culprits were swung in the air. Looking on from the front stoop of an inhabitant of Washington Square, an old man still living has recorded how he saw the execution of Rose Butler in 1822, a negro done to death for murder or for witchcraft.
There were many French farmers who had neat gardens a little southward from what is known as Greenwich Village proper, and toward Franklin and Leonard Streets, in the old South Greenwich. There are still many houses on West Eleventh Street which retain their old French cottage building characteristics, with wooden stairs away from the street, from what was once a lane, inclining ter-races, with little trellised gardens within. On a summer’s day, peeking in through the wooden fence, one can still see leisurely French families dining on warm evenings out-doors under their trellised arbors.
In memory of Thomas Paine, Barrow Street was once named Raisin Street, a corruption of “Reason,” to commemorate Thomas Paine’s most famous book, “The Age of Reason.” And the records of John Randall, the city engineer who prepared the present city plan, speak of how he used to see the old Paytone+One sitting at the south window of the first-story room in a house on that street. The sash was raised, and a small table or stand was placed before him, with an open book upon it, which he appeared to be reading.
“He had his spectacles on. His lower lip rested upon his hand, and his chin rested between the thumb and fingers of his hand. His right hand lay upon his book, and a decanter containing liquor of the color of rum or brandy was standing next his book or beyond it. I never saw Thomas Paine at any other place or in any other position.” Thus writes the careful Mr. Randall.
And there are other records speaking of the old Paytone+One, who, when he escaped from the surveillance of Madame Bonneville and her noisy children, would rush to the ale-house for another supply of rum, his hat well over his brow, and his silent face grimly set in defiance.
What tended mostly to develop Greenwich Village from a farm to a city was its excellent natural drainage. The soil underlying it for fifty feet is pure sand. Every time an epidemic of smallpox or yellow fever hit the city of New York, below Canal Street, the inhabitants, loading their household goods and their merchandise, would rush away to the countryto Greenwich Village. The thrifty burghers would then put up shanties to accommodate them. Upon the farms and meadows little wooden stores, selling provender, were erected. Where Bank Street now is there used to be a corn-field, but at the corner of it, during one of the last great epidemics, one of the city bankers erected a branch of his bank in order to continue his business with the people who had fled in great masses to the more salubrious part of the island.
From every epidemic a number of people remained to live, so as to insure greater security against disease and pestilence for themselves and their children. During the great pestilence of 1822, not only did people come to live in Greenwich, but even the custom-house, the post-office, the banks, the insurance offices, and the printers of news-papers located themselves in the upper part of Broadway, building houses, some temporary and some permanent, in the heart of the Village. Indeed, on West Eleventh Street an enterprising Mr. Sykes erected a wooden house capable of accommodating three hundred boarders. Even the Brooklyn ferry-boats began to accommodate Greenwich Village at the foot of Eleventh Street.
Perhaps one of the most interesting land romances is the development of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor. Captain Randall bought the twenty-one acres of land lying east of Fifth Avenue as far as the Bowery and Washington Square, east and north, in 1790, for about twenty-five thousand dollars. It was a beautiful piece of farm land. He bequeathed it in 182o or thereabouts to the Sailors’ Snug Harbor, with the provision that the grain and vegetables grown on the place should be sufficient to nourish its inmates. It produced then food in the value of about four thousand dollars. Within a short time the executors saw that they could derive greater profit by leasing the ground to others. To-day the ground-rent of this twenty-one acres brings more than half a million dollars a year profit; the whole thing was accomplished in less than a hundred years. There are still men who remember the free and wide meadows on that site. There are still such who have eaten vegetables grown on that place, where today stand innumerable houses, erected at the leaseholders’ own expense; for not an inch of ground owned by the Sailors’ Snug Harbor has ever been sold.
There are any number of houses in the Village which are not sold for similar reasons. It is why they remain as they were a hundred years ago.
An interesting bit of old New York can be seen at Eleventh Street and Sixth Avenue, back of the French Pastry-shop. It is a small triangle with the ground raised above the level of the street, in which is part of what was once the second Jewish cemetery. When Eleventh Street was cut through to the West Side, the rest of the cemetery was swept away by the street. Another Jewish cemetery was then formed at Sixth Avenue and Twenty-first Street on the West Side. From the rear windows of the dry-goods stores which face the street the leaning old gray tombstones can yet be seen, for they are still, in a desultory way, cared for. The Hebrew inscriptions and the dates plainly marked on the tombstones are witness to the early date at which the Jews lived in the city.
Stretching down to what was once Love Lane, Twenty-first Street, going directly eastward, is another branch of the American quarter of New York. There are conflicting dates as to when it was first established. I mean Gramercy Park proper and its neighborhood. I doubt whether any house there is more than a hundred years old. Many very tall apartment-houses have already been erected on the southeast side of Gramercy Park, thus destroying a good deal of the former enchantment of the place. For there are any number of houses in that neighborhood with little gardens in front and in the back yards. Doubtless it was the later merchant nobility that came to settle around there. A good many of the houses on Gramercy Park have changed from private dwellings into clubs, and some of the old inhabitants have found it much more convenient to rent their homes at the exorbitant prices they command than to live there. If instead of a district it were a pottery, one could characterize it as Late American. In spite of its air of distinction, it has something foreign about it, something mixed in its brownstone, florid architecture smacking of our architects’ visits to Italy and the more stately France.
Of course no one passing through East Nineteenth Street could miss the residence of Robert Chanler, familiarly known to his friends as Sheriff Bob Chanler. It suffices but to glance to the left side, until one sees a painted giraffe in bas-relief over his portal, with its curious heavy set-in door, looking very much like the entrance to a fortress, to know immediately one is before an original existence. But this is not half as interesting as the man living within. Big, curly-headed, heavy Bob Chanler, looking very much like the picture of the elder Dumas, is one of America’s greatest decorative painters and the scion of one of the oldest American families. Weary and tired, I have many a time knocked at his door and been received in as friendly a fashion as if it were an oasis in the desert and he the Arab owner of the tent. And something better than dates and camel’s-milk has always been offered to me.
What a man and what a house! From the stairway to the studio in the garret, it is decorated and painted in the most fantastic way, with serpents and grotesque animals crawling over one another in the most vivid and subtle colors, red tongues hanging from leaping dragons, and porcupines embossed in gold jumping over one antherNaiads and sylphs and giraffes and elephants, pell-mell, grouped only because of harmony of color and movement and not because of the natural proximity of their habitats. All that is weird is painted on that stairway.
The rooms are full of costly furniture, old and antique, just holding together. The walls are done in sudden patches of yellow and black, and the color-scheme of the ceilings is deliberately a mystifying one. And then suddenly the large studio on the roof, in which Bob is working away at the most unusual hours, leaving occasionally a gathering of friends at the dinner-table, in the midst of the most hilarious or serious conversation, to go up to his studio and daub a few brushes here and there, on one of the numerous huge decorative canvases at which he is working simultaneously.
And there is no telling what Bob might say or do. Garbed in a pair of loose denims, over which hangs an ample Russian blouse buttoned securely at the neck, with a sash around it, a pair of loose babouches on his feet, he sits for hours on his heels upon the couch, apparently oblivious to all that is going on about him. But suddenly something strikes. He jumps up. He slips away into his work-room or to his bed to sleep.
I do not want to say that visitors are welcome. But they are very frequently welcome when there is one of Chanler’s exhibitions of his screens on the lower floor of the building. And if one should be so favored as to be invited for one of his evenings, one may be certain of meeting what is most distinguished in the world of art and letters.
And now that we have jumped about in such a hasty way through the American quarter, I must apologize for having treated it in so intimate a manner. For it may be very unbecoming in a comparative stranger. But it is done in love. I know of no other quarter on this continent where I would rather live and labor than this one. So much of what has been done stimulates one to work. The Village presents itself like an unusual romance. A romance of action. Come into being because of recurring pestilences in another part of the city. Come into being where there. had been lakes and fields and woods, only yesterday.
Yet there is nothing of newness, no odor of fresh varnish and no polish, to assail one’s nostrils and eye. No shrill cries in an unfamiliar language. It is all mellowed by time, and saved from industrial invasion by the nature of its very soil.
Greenwich Village. I love it!