New York Modern: The Arts and the City

New York Modern: The Arts and the City

by William B. Scott

ISBN: 9780801867934

Publisher Johns Hopkins University Press

Published in Arts & Photography/Photography

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Times Square
Urban Realism for a New New York

Minutes prior to midnight on New Year's Eve 1905, boisterous crowds encircled Times Tower. Men and women threw confetti, hugged and kissed, blew horns, rang bells, drank champagne, and broke into song. Even so, not all New Yorkers thronged to Times Square to ring in the New Year. The police also reported record crowds at the traditional places of celebration—Trinity Church near Wall Street and Grace Church in Greenwich Village. The Times Square revelry not only upstaged the festivity downtown, it also initiated a new urban celebration, complete with new music, new dress styles, new behavior. At Times Square, a new New York assembled and joyously proclaimed the city its own. A year later, the crowds at Trinity and Grace Churches had dwindled to a small, loyal remnant of older congregants, happy to be with one another, away from the maddening crowds of Times Square, distant from modern New York.

    In Times Square, the modern city emerged. The celebration of the New Year in Times Square was the child of corporate vanity. In 1904, the New York Times Company erected its new office tower at the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Broadway. The Singer Building was taller, but Times Tower, located uptown on higher ground, reached a greater elevation, making it the highest structure in New York. Having relocated at the crossroads of the city's entertainment district, the New York Times Company scheduled the opening of its new tower for New Year's Eve. On the front page of its December 31 edition, the New York Times invited the city to a gala opening to celebrate "the Removal of the NEW YORK TIMES to ITS NEW BUILDING" with "Music and Fireworks." At the stroke of midnight, the Times Tower exploded with light, rockets, and music. On its roof a large, illuminated "1905" shown brightly. Spotlights gyrated wildly across the faces of the crowd that looked up from the streets below; incandescent lights glowed from the tower's windows; and the hired brass band blared joyous ragtime tunes.

    On New Year's Eve, New Yorkers expressed themselves on a grand scale. But they celebrated and were entertained similarly, though less dramatically, every night of the week on Times Square. Out for a night on the town, dressed in their best clothes, New Yorkers from a variety of ethnic neighborhoods and from all social classes thronged to Times Square's dance halls, theaters, nickel movie houses, restaurants, bars, and other places of entertainment, both licensed and illicit. Money opened the doors to the enticements of Times Square. Whether working class or genteel, female or male, young or old, immigrant or native, straight or gay, in or around Times Square, on any night of the week white New Yorkers and millions of annual visitors could dream of instant, if short-lived, gratification. Broadway theaters produced shows that played to audiences across the nation. Composers along Tin Pan Alley, a short walk from Times Square, wrote the music and lyrics sung by Americans from Maine to southern California. In the restaurants, cabarets, nightclubs, roof gardens, and dance halls of Times Square, New Yorkers set the pace of American nightlife.

    More than simply an emporium of fantasy and eroticism, Times Square reflected fundamental changes in the city's life. In the quarter century prior to World War I, New York assumed its modern form. By 1905 the city's builders had developed virtually all of Manhattan and extended settlement into the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. In Manhattan, single-family housing had virtually disappeared as the middle classes moved into apartment houses and the poor crowded into tenements. High-rise business offices and hotels towered over the city, while private traction companies operated a massive, electrically powered subway and elevated-rail system that rushed passengers from one end of the city to the other. Compared with European cities, New York was a technological wonderland—its telephone system, steel-framed skyscrapers, elevators, subways, railroads, palatial department stores, and electrical lighting the embodiment of modern urban life.

    The first Times Square celebration of New Year marked the simultaneous emergence of modern New York and New York urban realism. The Times Square entertainment district and all that it represented inspired the urban realism implicit in the city's skyscrapers and in its new painting, dance, and music. Heirs of Walt Whitman, Thomas Eakins, and Edith Wharton, New York urban realists cast aside the static beaux arts neoclassicism of the American renaissance and embraced the modern city. New York's new immigrants, its influx of black migrants, the feminism of native-born women, the city's enormous wealth, its democratic culture, and its dynamic consumer economy all cried out for new forms of artistic expression. New York's vibrancy, diversity, and inventiveness precluded any single, unified aesthetic. Torn between the prestige of beaux arts traditions and the demands of modern urban life, faithful to their identity as Americans, and attentive to the lure of popular and financial success, New York's first modern artists created in the decade and a half prior to World War I a new, eclectic modern art cast in the language of urban realism.

    New York's new generation of artists heralded the city's headlong rush into modern times. Unlike many of the European avant-garde, who for the most part repudiated bourgeois culture, New York's first modern artists, some even denizens of Times Square, were intimately tied to the city's commercial culture. Employed as vaudeville dancers, popular-song writers, and newspaper artists and critics, New York's urban realists rejected the academic art of the American renaissance, declaring it archaic and artificial, removed from and irrelevant to the lives of most New Yorkers. They celebrated, instead, the rambunctious, polyglot, and spirited newness of the city. But they did so as pioneer moderns unsure of their direction, their art shaped both by their Victorian past and by the city's modern prospect.


    New York had changed dramatically since the start of its renaissance in the 1870s. In 1897, Lincoln Steffens observed that anyone who had left the city two decades earlier and returned "would search in vain for the face of his city.... Old Trinity still stands, its steeple, like the spires of the old cathedrals, uplifted high above the earth; but its solitary prominence is gone. The modern office building has risen higher than the head of the cross, and the church has lost its distinction. The enterprise of business has surpassed the aspiration of religion." So startling were the changes that Henry James, on a visit in 1906, hardly recognized the city. All that remained of his boyhood New York was an occasional side street, Trinity and Grace Churches, and several blocks of rundown mansions and town houses between Washington Square and 14th Street.

    Acknowledging the change, in 1898 the New York state legislature reconstituted New York City, creating the legal entity of Greater New York, which included Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, incorporating more than 3.5 million people. In 1875 the region had contained only about 1.5 million people, and the development of Manhattan had extended only to the southern boundary of Central Park. By 1905 private and public development reached into all five boroughs, while an additional 1.5 million people resided in the immediate hinterlands of Westchester County, Long Island, and New Jersey, creating a sprawling metropolis of more than 5 million.

    Most of New York's population growth derived not from natural increase but from immigration and migration. The 1900 census classified 1,270,080 New Yorkers as foreign born, about one in three. Given that most of those whom the Census Bureau designated as "native-born" were either migrants to New York City or the children of foreign born, the newness of New York was overwhelming. New Yorkers themselves had changed. In the quarter century following the Civil War, the demographics of the city had shifted from white, predominantly Protestant, native-born British and German to an ethnic mix in which Protestants had become a minority, displaced by the massive inflow of Jews and Catholics from central, eastern, and southern Europe. After 1900 immigration from Russia, eastern Europe, and Italy increased fourfold, while British and German immigration held steady. Similarly, from 1900 to 1920, the city's population of African Americans, most from Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and the West Indies, increased 400 percent. Henry James encountered not only an almost entirely rebuilt city but an almost entirely new city of New Yorkers, as well. New wealth, as well as new people, had shoved aside the old Knickerbocker elite of Henry James and Mariana Van Rensselaer. The fortunes of the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Morgans derived from railroads or other newly important enterprises such as department stores, commercial real estate, tenement investing, entertainment, banking, municipal traction companies, and garment, coal, oil, and steel manufacturing. By 1905, New York had become the center of American finance, commerce, corporate business, law, publishing, entertainment, and art. Just as no single artistic style or school defined New York's art, no vision controlled the city's growth or business life.

    In 1905, the leadership of a much larger, wealthier, and more diverse New York numbered several thousand unrelated families, in contrast with the several hundred elite families clustered around Washington Square who had controlled New York's post-Civil War cultural life. The new elite of the new New York came from a wide variety of backgrounds—Knickerbocker (Dutch), Irish, German, Jewish, New England, southern, midwestern—scattered in neighborhoods across the city, with the very wealthiest families aligned along Fifth Avenue, above 59th Street, adjoining Central Park. Disparate in background and interests, New York's new elites lacked the social cohesion and shared taste of the patrons of the New York renaissance. Irascible, arrogant, adventuresome, ambitious, often uncultivated, New York's new elite supported a broad range of art from the scrupulously traditional to the ribaldly scandalous and the freshly insightful, offering New York artists a bounty of new patronage.

    The most striking feature, however, of the new New York was what journalist Jacob Riis called "the other half." Fully one half of all New Yorkers lived in miserable poverty, shunted off into crowded, rundown, and unsanitary tenements on the city's Lower East Side, the downtown factory district below Houston Street, and west of Broadway above Wall Street up to Central Park. New York's nearly 1.5 million poor—men and women, children and adults—labored in sweatshops, constructed subways, streets, and buildings, served as domestic help in upper- and middle-class homes, worked on the docks, and performed all other manual and menial labor for wages that barely sustained life. Aware of the city's other half, New York's new artists rejected the idealized art of the New York renaissance as irrelevant. They had little sympathy for the notion that art functioned as a force of moral uplift and cultural cohesion. New York's new urban realists embraced the city as a whole, making its variety and its life their subject.

    It was modern technology, not art, that bound the new New York together. The first elevated railroad, built in 1878 along Third Avenue, was soon joined by the Sixth Avenue elevated. By the 1890s, "els" ran the length of Manhattan through the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, moving several hundred thousand passengers each day for modest fares. In 1904, the privately owned IRT Broadway Subway Line opened, inaugurating a new era in the city's transportation. By 1914, the addition of other subway lines, with extensions into the outlying boroughs, enabled the most distant resident of the city to travel to downtown Manhattan in less than an hour. The two major transportation hubs at Grand Central and Pennsylvania Stations connected the subway and elevated systems to suburban commuter lines and regional railroads, making midtown Manhattan, around Times Square, the busiest and most densely occupied urban center in the world.

    The introduction of the telephone in 1876, electricity in 1882, the Croton Aqueduct in 1890, and skyscrapers after 1895 accelerated the city's pace and congestion. In 1896, the New York telephone directory contained fifteen thousand listings, permitting businesses to operate without face-to-face contact. Instantaneously, the telephone placed firms in contact with clients across the United States, fostering the concentration of corporate headquarters and national banking in New York. Electricity powered the subway and elevated-train systems and diminished the gloominess of building interiors that received little or no natural lighting. By providing nighttime illumination, electricity also created a new nocturnal world unbound by traditional notions of time, space, and behavior. The lighting of Times Square and Broadway dispelled the darkness and much of the danger traditionally associated with nighttime in the city. Brightly lit roof gardens, nightclubs, theaters, vaudeville shows, movie houses, and sidewalks became accessible to everyone, encouraging after-hours activities and creating new opportunities for entertainment, especially for women and working people.

    The 1895 opening of Oscar Hammerstein's Olympia Theater at 44th Street and Broadway marked the theater district's shift to midtown. Other theaters quickly joined the Olympia, creating along Broadway, between 40th and 50th Streets, the legendary "Great White Way," whose brilliantly lit marquees and billboards beckoned to New Yorkers and visitors alike. In 1905 more than four hundred entertainment touring companies worked out of New York from locations near Times Square. On the eve of World War I, eighty live theaters had opened in the Times Square area, joined by hundreds of movie houses, restaurants, nightclubs, cabarets, hotels, dance halls, and bars.

    Modern urban nightlife unfolded in Times Square. Unlike the male-oriented sporting life of New York's nineteenth-century Bowery and Tenderloin district, women participated in the nightlife of Times Square without fear or loss of respectability. Indeed, Times Square theaters, dance halls, and restaurants catered to women, relegating prostitution and strip shows to the tenement districts on its southern and western borders. The Great White Way created an ambience for festive, safe amusement. Sensitive to the changes, Times Square producers F. F. Proctor and Martin Beck distanced themselves from the city's raunchy stage entertainment, offering wholesome family fare in their palatial, but ungenteel, vaudeville theaters. Led by David Belasco and Charles Frohman, the Broadway stage featured light, sometimes naughty, but rarely overtly lewd comedy and melodrama that attracted men and women. After the show, theatergoers gathered informally for a drink or dinner nearby in the late-night restaurants and cabarets of Times Square. The affluent, too, were drawn to Times Square, lavishly entertaining themselves and their companions at Broadway's "lobster palaces," which boasted opulent French decor, live music, and fabled late-night lobster and champagne dinners.

    The Times Square entertainment industry created an unprecedented demand for music and musicians. Broadway shows, vaudeville acts, and nightclubs clamored for catchy new songs. Musicians, composers, music houses, and publishers clustered along Times Square's mythical Tin Pan Alley, where tunesmiths such as Irving Berlin hammered out the next hit on their pianos. Times Square music houses distributed Broadway show songs throughout the country in the form of sheet music and player piano rolls. Determined to corner the nation's entertainment market, after 1886 the New York-based Theatrical Syndicate gained control of the nation's live stage through ownership of theaters in and around New York. No matter where they lived, American audiences attended Broadway shows, spoke its lingo, imitated its dances, dressed its styles, mimicked its ways, and sung its songs. On Times Square, art, entertainment, and commerce flourished side by side, competing and borrowing from one another.

    In 1905, freelance writer H. G. Dwight described New York as the quintessential modern city. New York's pulsating streets and energetic people, its great expanse, and its towering buildings overwhelmed visitors accustomed to the slower pace, the historic architecture, and the ethnic homogeneity of European cities. Echoing other commentators, Dwight wrote that New York "forces the observer to see in modernity—poor, noisy, untoned, inchoate, incoherent modernity—its own value as the factory of the future and the past in embryo.... It is a pioneering eye, even now, that can see the picturesqueness of steel and steam."

    From throughout the United States, the pioneering eyes of American artists fixed on New York much as an earlier generation had looked to Paris. Entrepreneurs, entertainers, writers, dancers, composers, and painters discovered in Manhattan unmatched stimulation and opportunity. American artists adopted New York as their own. Impatient with both European aristocratic snobbery and the pretensions of American gentility, New York's first modern artists gloried in a city that harbored enormous wealth alongside unimaginable poverty, suffered fools and charlatans, and scoffed at convention and propriety, all the while honoring accomplishment and creativity. New York's new artists identified with the city's newness, believing it embodied the future and unblinkingly celebrating the grittiness and excitement of a new urban life, but they did so in a confusing, often contradictory array of images.


    The Times Tower served as a paradoxical symbol of modern New York. Designed by Eidlitz and MacKenzie, the thirty-two-story Times Tower was midtown's first skyscraper. Clad in a retrograde and awkward beaux arts facade, the tower, with its steel-frame construction, high-speed elevators, electrical illumination, telephone and telegraph communications, and powerful printing presses, embodied modern technology. Briefly the highest building in New York, the Times Tower housed the New York Times Company, an exemplar of corporate propriety and power, which controlled publication of one of the world's great newspapers, an instrument of authority and respectability. At night, however, the Times Tower benignly watched over Broadway's boisterous nightlife.

    A complex icon of New York, beaux arts skyscrapers exemplified the contradictions of New York's early modern art. Between 1890 and 1914 the skyscraper evolved from its origins as an efficient but spartan office building into a visually striking and elaborately decorated work of art. The skyscraper symbolized willfulness, technological virtuosity, and the triumph of commerce. Until the 1890s, with the construction of George Post's Pulitzer Building on Park Row near City Hall, New York lacked any truly tall buildings. In 1890, the Trinity Church steeple on lower Broadway, at 284 feet, was the highest structure in Manhattan. Enamored with the horizontal orientation of beaux arts urbanism, New York architects had allowed Chicago builders to pioneer the skyscraper.

    The development of safe and rapid elevators and electrical lighting made tall buildings possible. Weight-bearing masonry construction, however, placed a practical limit on height. The taller a masonry building, the thicker its lower walls had to be to support the added weight. The sixteen-story Monadnock Building in Chicago, designed in 1891 by Burnham and Root, was the tallest weight-bearing masonry office building ever built, its first-floor walls six-feet thick. An architectural masterpiece, the Monadnock was an economic dinosaur. Apart from the inconvenience of its fortresslike lower walls, weight-bearing masonry buildings proved expensive to build, and their thick walls diminished valuable ground-floor space.

    The solution lay close at hand. Prior to the Civil War, Chicago builders had pioneered their famous balloon houses, constructed of lightweight two-by-four pine framing. The balloon frame enabled Chicago contractors to build inexpensive but strong and durable wood-frame structures from standardized milled lumber. Pressed to provide businesses with inexpensive downtown space, Chicago architects used steel frames to adapt balloon construction to tall office buildings. The external walls remained masonry, but structural steel cages, encased in terra-cotta for fire protection, bore the weight. The exterior walls were really non-weight-bearing, masonry curtains much like the clapboards on Chicago's balloon frame houses.

    In 1883, George Post designed New York's first metal-framed structure, the Produce Exchange at 2 Broadway. Technically sophisticated, the four-story Produce Exchange was a low-rise building, not a skyscraper. The breakthrough in New York skyscraper construction did not come until Post's 1890 steel-framed Pulitzer Building. The Pulitzer Building launched the age of the New York skyscraper and with it the architectural debate that critic Montgomery Schuyler called the "skyscraper problem."

    The skyscraper problem, according to Schuyler, was that the building's function could not be expressed by conventional architecture. As an engineering masterpiece, the structural steel cage was efficient, simple, and economical. By distributing weight throughout the structure rather than down the external walls, builders could construct buildings as high as they wished. Except for the first floor, however, each story of the skyscraper served the identical function of office space, and each floor consisted of identical steel-cage construction. Beaux arts-trained architects resolved the problem by treating the skyscraper as an analogue to the classical column, with a base, a shaft, and a capital. This allowed architects to design the first several floors as a single entity, to group the middle floors into a second architectural expression, and to combine the upper floors into a crown. In creating a unified structure that conformed to classical notions of symmetry, the beaux arts strategy expressed the unique quality of a skyscraper, its verticality. But such an expediency deceived viewers. It failed to articulate the function and structure of the building. More disturbingly, it equated classical columns with modern office towers.

    Montgomery Schuyler judged Cass Gilbert's neo-Gothic Woolworth Building a masterpiece. Built in 1913 on the southwest corner of City Hall Park, the Woolworth Building overlooked the Pulitzer Building, McKim, Mead, and White's Municipal Building, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Gilbert's eight-hundred-foot-high Woolworth Building, which towered over nearby St. Paul's Chapel, restated the tension between historicist decoration and modern function. In designing the world's tallest building, Gilbert demonstrated the unmatched drama of the mature skyscraper. Schuyler acknowledged its beauty and virility: "What an `uplift' there is in that sudden, rocket-like shooting of the white and channelled shaft. There is no point of view from which it comes in wrong." But clad in neo-Gothic detail, the Woolworth Building harked back to a precapitalist, Christian world rather than heralded a modern New York.


Excerpted from "New York Modern: The Arts and the City" by William B. Scott. Copyright © 2001 by William B. Scott. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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