There are plenty of stopping-places in New York, plenty of hotels, apartments, rooms en suite, boarding-houses, dwelling-houses; but not a great many homes. It takes something more than a quadrangle of brick or marble to make a home. A community of interest, a domestic feeling, even some old-fashioned sentiment, are necessary; and, unfortunately, the average New Yorker feels he cannot indulge in such things freely at least, not within the city limits. It is ground in upon him at every turn that the city is a place for business, not sentiment. Wife and children and kindred may be with him, but their being in the city is only a temporary arrangement. The roof over-head is a camping place where they rest for a night, or a month, or a year, but not for an indefinite period. The home is off somewhere in the country up the river, along the Sound, over in New Jersey rather than in the city. Even those who have no place in the country move about so often, from one portion of the town to another, that they are nearly as homeless as gypsies. Permanence, the corner-stone of the domestic establishment, is lacking.
People when compelled to live in the cramped quarters of a shop where they carry on a trade, soon adjust them-selves to the shop conditions by doing away with all unnecessary impedimenta. Whether permanent or temporary, they must put up with inconveniences, and get along with little friction and less worry. The New Yorker in his big shop feels very much the same way, and his wife heartily agrees with him. When they are able to have that ideal place in the country, they will have their own table, their own rooms, their own porch and doorstep; they will have horses and servants and flower-gardens and open air, with the luxury of green fields and the simple life; but while they occupy a series of little cells in the fifteenth story of a sky-scraper, reached by an express elevator, warmed by steam, and lighted by electricity, what is the use of trying to keep a cow or striving to grow lilac bushes? Bottled milk left on the doorsill, and a rubber-plant that grows up a chimney as readily as else-where, are obviously the proper substitutes.
So it is that the citizen of Gotham soon becomes an economist of effort. He cuts away the worries and bothers. He and his wife dodge the servant question at the start by taking an apartment instead of a whole house, and getting their food downstairs in the restaurant instead of preparing it themselves. A maid looks after the sweeping and cleaning of the place, messenger boys and the telephone do the errands, and the janitor fights off agents, gas men, and beggars. The place may not be large, but it is usually well supplied with conveniences and labor-saving devices. One does not have to think about light or fuel or ice or ashes. Steam and gas, with refrigerating currents, are turned on by valves. Then, too, the apartment is fire-proof and generally burglar-proof. The whole family can go away for a day or for a year; the premises are guarded and no one has to worry about them. The burden of house-keeping is lifted at once, and the family becomes a boarder with the privacy of its own floor.
Of course there are compensatory losses. The rooms are small, often ill-lighted, and there are seldom enough of them to warrant family visiting. Even in the larger flats, where house-keeping is carried on with many servants, entertainment is never quite satisfactory. Then one misses his own doorstep, misses the family dog and cat, and, worst of all, the children miss their playground. The apartment is only a makeshift, and not a good substitute for a home, but it is the best the harried New Yorker can get. He does not want to travel morning and evening on the suburban trains, and his wife wishes to see something of city life, so the apartment-house yawns for him as inevitably as the East Side tenement-house for the penniless immigrant from Europe.
Money ameliorates the condition of the flat-dweller somewhat. There are apartments quite as commodious as houses, in which luxury sits enthroned and convenience waits at every door jamb; and there are suites in hotels with private dining rooms and special servants that are designed and fitted up for aristocracy, or plutocracy, or anyone who cares to pay for them. The furnishing is most sumptuous, the service most elaborate, the facilities for easy living quite perfect; and yet somehow the in-habitants never quite rid themselves of the idea that they are tenants in common with others in a huge caravansary, and not in their own house. The same idea is borne in upon the poorer families living in Lexington Avenue boarding-houses, and comes to the nest of Italians curled up on the floor of a Mott Street tenement, but perhaps it frets them less. All of them are conscious of being in temporary possession only, occupying something that does not belong to them. It may be a simple bare room or an elaborate suite of rooms, but it is not home.
Dwelling-houses would -seem to be very different, but in reality they still leave much to be desired. Time was, thirty or more years ago, when a brick house on Washing-ton Square, a brown-stone front on Fifth or Madison Avenue or on a side street, meant home in a broad sense of the word; but New York was a small city then. Times have greatly changed. The brown-stones on the avenues have been metamorphosed into stores or been replaced by tall buildings; the houses on the side streets have been overhauled and remodeled; a number of brick houses still linger in Washington Square, but fashion no longer cares to live there. The new residences that have come into existence on the side streets, along the Riverside Drive, along upper Fifth Avenue, are great improvements upon the old, but it is doubtful if they are so homelike as the old. They are infinitely more convenient, wonderfully more ornate, several times more expensive, but they are also less inhabited, less of a loadstone to the family, less permanent.
These new styles of domestic architecture are many and heterogeneous. Some of them are of Beaux-Arts origin, some are Colonial, some have New Art features, and some have no art whatever, but are simply buildings. They are more often made up of the pickings and stealings of many styles attempts at the English town house, the French chateau, the Italian palace, with miscellaneous features lugged in from many quarters. But with all their sins of combination and over-ornamentation, they are, on the whole, successful in construction. Especially is this true of the houses on the side streets, built of brick with stone or marble trimmings, or of gray stone with balconies, square windows, and iron railings. They are unpretentious, substantial, livable. The gloom of the old brown-stone residence, lighted fore and aft only, has been dispelled by larger openings and by broad skylights, with the consequent results of more air and better hygiene. The high Dutch stoop, which was never other than an architectural abomination, is no longer employed.
The new houses have entrances on the curb line, and those that are merely remodeled have the stoop-rise on the inside in a short run of broad steps to the first floor. The grilles and vestibules are usually massive and simple, and the furnishing of the halls rather meager. Marble walls and flooring, with a table, a chair, and a rug, are usually considered sufficient.
But the drawing-room on the first floor more than atones for any austerity at the entrance. It is usually a wonder both in the quality and the quantity of the things it holds. Many of them resemble nothing so much as antique shops, and seem to require only the presence of a red flag and an auctioneer to begin a sale. The fad for things old has reigned in New York for years, and is still on the throne. The fact that many of the “antiques” bought in these days are bare-faced forgeries, or at best merely copies, does not seem to give anyone caution. People keep on buying them, keep on “furnishing” with them, until the drawing-room becomes unbearable, almost unthinkable. Tables and lounges with gilded legs, and old velvets for coverings, vie with tapestries and portieres. Pictures on the walls share the decorative scheme with stained-glass windows, gilded wood-carvings, pieces of old sculpture, door jambs from Italian palaces, and mantels from French chateaux. Louis Seize cabinets back up against the walls and hold Chinese porcelains, silver, glass, miniatures; musical instruments of quaint designs are flung down here and there with careful neglect; and scraps of old embroidery or Oriental frippery are tacked on chairs or carved benches.
It is all very costly, and some of it very beautiful; but one sadly wonders why it should litter up a place where people live. Can anyone be happy amid such a restless conglomeration of plunder, representing all ages and all countries, save our own? It may appear artistic, even learned or romantic, to be continually associated with archaeological remains; to be playing on Beethoven’s piano, or eating from Napoleon’s plates, or reading by the lamp of some buried Caesar; but it certainly is not comfortable, nor is it very sensible. It is too much of a strain at happiness; and that, too, without a breath of originality. The decorators around the corner will make the whole hodge-podge for you while you are away on a summer vacation. When you return in the autumn, you may walk in, take possession, and find a place to sit down, if you can. Of course, you can exist in such a bric-a-brac shop, and your wife’s friends may come in to tea and admire it greatly, but there is nothing very homelike about it.
The “front parlor” in America never yet proved a joy to the family. In the early days of horse-hair cloth, old mahogany, and English carpets it was a place of gloom, a closed-and-light-barred room, save when “company” came. Later on, in the era of black walnut, it became more ornate with Italian frescoes on the ceiling, velvet carpets, red satin curtains, pier glasses set in carved or gilded frames, the inevitable black piano, and to balance it a piece of white tombstone sculpture, representing “Faith” or “Hope” something well calculated to dispel both virtues from one’s mind and heart.
But flat and tasteless as this latter style was, it was hardly more wearisome than the present one. You could ignore the “parlor,” dodge it, go around it; but the drawing-room of to-day fixes you with its glitter, insists upon being seen. It is a museum. Fine as its contents may be (and many of the individual things are superb), their bringing together, their unrelated and discordant huddling in an inappropriate living room, in an unsympathetic household, in an absolutely foreign land, is a barbarity, an imitated barbarity at that. When the ancients plundered from others, it was generally to fill a gap, to supply porphyry or marble or bronze where they had none of their own; but there is no such excuse for the Americans. We have abundant native materials at our feet, but we either discard them because they are familiar, as stupid people ignore field flowers, or we despise them because they are not old.
The library I am still speaking of the interior of the fashionable house is several degrees better than the drawing-room, in that it has fewer things in it. The books are usually superb in every way nice editions, nice bindings, nicely placed on the shelves, nicely glassed,but seldom read. The chairs are large and comfortable, the tables neatly layered with the latest magazines, the walls covered with engravings or pictures. Of course, there are Oriental rugs, Pompeian bronzes, and Greek vases scattered about, just to encourage a classic spirit. It makes a good room to show off to one’s new friends while smoking after dinner. It intimates a taste on the part of its possessor for loftier things than are furnished by the world, the flesh, and “the Street.” But, unfortunately, it pretends to more than it fulfills.
Possibly the dining room is the most useful room in the whole house, aside from the kitchen. It is usually commodious, convenient, and appropriate. Dinners occasionally are given for ten or maybe twenty guests, and night after night there are perhaps two or three intimate friends at the table. Spindle-legged furniture of great age and decrepitude would not answer for constant use. The chairs and tables are, therefore, of substantial materials, often of beautiful dark woods, rubbed smooth and left unadorned by carving or gilding of any sort. The linen and china are of corresponding excellence; but the glass is often too fine or too much cut, and the silver is usually over-ornamented. All told, however, the dining room with its paneling and portraits, its sideboards and china cabinets, is a good room. At times it looks a little like the private dining room of some fashionable hotel, but it is at least serviceable.
Upstairs in the dressing-rooms and bedrooms there is not so much display of antiquities, but a beautiful litter of things modern, with perhaps more pieces in one room than would comfortably furnish two. The keynote of quantity is struck by the dressing-table of the young lady of the house. It is usually strewn with enough superfluities in silver brushes, trays, bottles, picture-frames, button-hooks, scissors, knives, paper-weights, thermometers to start a small shop on a side street. The unhappy phase of it is that, while the quantity is so enormous, scarcely a piece of it is good in quality. A self-respecting gas man would hardly accept it as chandelier ornament. That it bears the names of great Fifth Avenue silversmiths is only so much the worse for the taste of the silversmiths. For the rest of the room there may be quantities of small pictures, many hangings and curtainings, many furbelows, and much lace work. These, with simple enough beds, chairs, and floor rugs against a background of large-patterned wall-paper or silk paneling, make up what is called the “color scheme” of the room.
From top to bottom this fashionable New York house has what are called “the comforts of home,” but not the home-like feeling. There is the reach for happiness the at-tempt to gain it by and through possessions. Almost everything that the heart could wish for is there books, pictures, bric-a-brac, hangings, furniture, the very glitter and the gleam of gold; but the tyranny of things is there also. Happiness cannot be gotten out of possessions, nor homes bought with houses; and, sooner or later, the splendid town house becomes merely a gilded cage. Perhaps that is why so many of them are closed, boarded up, deserted, with the family out in the country or living around the corner in some fashionable hotel.
But this story belongs with the domestic skeleton, and is not brought out at the dinner-table. On the surface, everything is most alluring, most engaging; in consequence of which, perhaps, the influence of the fashionable is much wider than their numbers would warrant. For in a small way the poorer people the clerks, shop-keepers, agents, and little place-holders try to follow the rich, and in doing so they manage to over-furnish and bedizen their small quarters with atrocious bric-a-brac, plush-framed plaques, bad etchings, and ugly “art squares.” Their table furniture and bedroom decorations are usually on the same plane of cheapness and worthlessness. The whole result is banal in the extreme. In it the home is perhaps no more apparent than in the houses of the rich.
Of course, the very poor of the East and West Sides, living in tenements or small houses, do not bother them-selves with much furnishing of any kind. They buy what is necessary generally inexpensive and badly made articles and live from hand to mouth, from day to day, as best they can, quite regardless of art or fashion.
In this respect they are not strikingly different from the poor of London or Berlin or Vienna. The places where they live can hardly be called homes; they are merely haunts, districts where their fellows gather, habitations that are accessible or possible to them. Neither the very rich nor the very poor have homes in New York.
But every city or community is saved by its conservative element, and New York is not an exception. The quiet and unpretentious who are engaged in hundreds of professions and business enterprises, who domestically lead the simple life in modest houses and are not swayed by fashions or fads of any kind, must always be reckoned with. They are not usually remarked, because there is nothing very remarkable about either their lives or their habitations, except that in both there is the note of sanity. Thousands of such people and such places are to be found in New York places where the furnishings are plain, comfortable, unobtrusive, and the family rather than the “antiques” lend the interest; where the functions and the guests are unannounced in the newspapers; where society in its best sense is to be found, and fashion in its worst sense rarely intrudes.
It is in such houses that one finds the nearest approach to homes that a great city is capable of maintaining. And yet even here the home feeling is, and must be from necessity, rather slight. The tenure of the house is too uncertain. The changes in the city, the continual encroachments of the business section upon the residence section, the opening of new streets, the loss of fortunes, taxes, sudden deaths, all bring about forced sales. Twenty years is now a long time for a family to occupy the same premises. The average is less. Under such circumstances there can be no permanence no feeling that what is builded up will not soon be pulled down and, consequently, there is no faith in the stability of the home. That is perhaps generally true of all large cities, but it is peculiarly true of New York in its chronic state of rebuilding. Few there are who can stand still or find a permanent anchorage in it.
So it is that within the quietest of domestic circles there is more or less of uneasiness. The restlessness percolates brick and stone up town, as well as steel and cement down town. People keep pacing up and down, mentally, if not physically; and the nervous energy of business New York, though it may be subdued, kept in abeyance, is nevertheless present at the dinner-table of social New York. It is in the air, in the brain, in the blood. No one is quite free from it, save those who are beyond influences of any kind.