Our Philadelphia/Chapter 20

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Our Philadelphia
Philadelphia after a Quarter of a Century (Continued)

CHAPTER XX: PHILADELPHIA AFTER A QUARTER OF A CENTURY—CONTINUED

I

OF course I resented all the changes and, equally of course, it was unreasonable that I should. I had not stood stock still for a quarter of a century, why should I expect Philadelphia to?

And little by little, as I got my breath again after my first indignant surprise, as I pulled myself together after my first series of shocks, I began to understand that the wonder was that anything should be left, and to see that Philadelphia has held on to enough of its character and beauty to impress the stranger, anyway, with the fine serenity that I missed at every turn. Philadelphia does not "bristle," Henry James wrote of it a very few years ago, by which he meant that it does not change, is incapable of changing, though to me it was, in this sense, so "bristling" that I tingled all over with the pricks. But, then, I knew what Philadelphia had been. That was why I was impressed first with the things that had changed, why, also, my pleasure was the keener in my later discovery of the things that had not.

I can laugh now at myself for my joy in all sorts of dear, absurd trifles simply because of their homely proof that the new Philadelphia had saved some relics of the old. What they stood for in my eyes gave value to the little iced Cakes of my childhood; to the frequent street parade, glorified as it was beyond recognition by the new presence of the mounted police; to the City Troop, gorgeous and splendid as of old, and as of old turning out to decorate every public ceremony; to the nice old-fashioned "ma'am," unheard in England except, I believe, at court; to all the town, including my hotel, getting ready for the summer with matting and gauze and grey Holland. Old associations, old emotions, were stirred by the fragrance of the Cinnamon Bun that is never so fragrant out of Philadelphia, and one of the cruelest disappointments of my return was not to be able to devour it with the untrammelled appetite of youth when it was offered me in an interval between the Soft-Shell Crab and Ice-cream of a Philadelphia lunch and the Planked Shad and Broiled Chicken of a Philadelphia dinner. The row of heads at the Philadelphia Club windows, so embarrassing to me in my youth, borrowed beauty from association. I was thrilled by the decanter of Sherry or Madeira on the dinner table, where I had not seen it served in solitary grandeur since I had last dined in Philadelphia. The old rough kindliness of the people—when they were not aliens—in the streets, in the stores, in the trolleys, went to my heart. And in larger ways, too, the place filled me with pride for its constancy: for the steady development of all that made it great from the beginning—its schools, its charities, its hospitals, its libraries, its galleries; above all, for retaining what it could of its dignified reticence in keeping its private affairs

THE GIRARD TRUST COMPANY

to itself. It may live more in public than it did, but it still does not shriek all its secrets from the house-top. It does not thrust all its wealth down every man's throat. It still hides many of its luxurious private palaees behind modest brick fronts. It may have broken out in gaudy hotels and restaurants, but Friends still continue to go their peaceful way completely apart in their spacious houses and pleasant gardens. Nor would any other town be so shy in acknowledging to itself, and boasting to others of, its beauty.


II

Philadelphia has always been over-modest as to its personal appearance,—always on the surface, indifferent to flattery. Nobody would suspect it of ever having heard that to a philosopher like Voltaire it was, without his seeing it, one of the most beautiful cities in the universe, that a matter-of-fact traveller like William Cobbett thought it a fine city from the minute he knew it, that all the old travel-writers had a compliment for it, and all the new travellers as well, down to Li Hung Chang, who described it felicitously as "one of the most smiling of cities"—the "Place of a Million Smiles." It was not because it had ceased to be beautiful that it assumed this indifference. As I recall it in my youth, it was beautiful with the beauty Philadelphians searched Europe for, while they were busy destroying it at home—the beauty that life in England has helped me to appreciate as I never did before, for it has given me a standard I had not when I knew only Philadelphia.

Judged by this standard, I found Philadelphia in its old parts more beautiful than I remembered it. In a street like Clinton, which has escaped the wholesale destruction, or in a block here and there in other streets less fortunate, I felt as I never had before the austere loveliness of their red brick and white marble and pleasant green shade. As never before I realized the Eighteenth-Century perfection of the old State House and Carpenter's Hall. I know of no English building of the same date that has the dignity, the harmonious proportions, the restrained ornament of the State House,—none with so noble a background of stately rooms for those stately figures who were the makers of history in Philadelphia. And the old churches came as a new revelation. I questioned if I ever could have thought an English Cathedral in its close lovelier than red brick St. Peter's in its walled graveyard on a spring day, with the green in its first freshness and the great wide-spreading trees throwing soft shadows over the grassy spaces and the grey crumbling gravestones. The pleasure it gave me positively hurt when—after walking in the filth of Front Street, where the old houses are going to rack and ruin and where a Jew in his praying shawl at the door of a small, shabby synagogue seemed the explanation of the filth—I came upon the little green garden of a graveyard round the Old Swedes' Church, sweet and still and fragrant in the May sunshine, though the windows of a factory looked down upon it to one side, and out in front, on the railroad tracks,

TWELFTH STREET MEETING HOUSE

huge heavy freight cars rattled and rumbled and shrieked by, and beyond them rose the steam stacks of steamers from Antwerp and Liverpool that unload at its door the hordes of aliens who not only degrade, but "impoverish" Philadelphia, as the Irish porter in my hotel said to me. And what pleasure again, after the walk full of memories along Front and Second Streets, with the familiar odours and Philadelphia here quiet as of yore, to come upon Christ Church a part of the street like any French Cathedral and not in its own little green, but with a greater architectural pretension to make up for it, and with a gravestone near the sanctuary to testify that John Penn, one at least of the Penn family, lies buried in Philadelphia. And what greater pleasure in the old Meeting Houses—why had I not known, in youth as in age, their tranquil loveliness?—What repose there, down Arch Street, in that small simple brick building, with its small simple green, one bed of tulips at the door, shut off from the noise and confusion and dirt and double trolley lines of Arch Street by the old high brick wall; and no less in that equally small and simple brick building in South Twelfth Street, an old oasis, or resting place, in a new wilderness of sky-scrapers. With these churches and meeting-houses standing, can Philadelphians deplore the ugliness of their town?

And the old Eighteenth-Century houses? Would I find them as beautiful? I asked myself. Would they survive as triumphantly the test of my travelled years and more observant eyes? How foolish the question, how unnecessary the doubt! More beautiful all of them, because my eyes were better trained to appreciate their architectural merit; more peaceful all of them, with the feeling of peace so intense I wondered whether it came of the Colonial architecture or of associations with it.

Germantown may be built up beyond recognition, its Lanes, many of them, turned into Streets for no reason the average man can see, but some of the big old estates, are still green and untouched as if miles away, and the old houses are more guarded than ever from change. One by one, I returned to them:—Stenton restored, but as yet so judicially that Logan would to-day feel at home in its halls and rooms, on its stairway, outside by the dovecote and the wistaria-covered walls,—at home in the garden full of tulips and daisies, and old familiar Philadelphia roses and Johnny-jump-ups, enclosed by hedges, every care taken to plant in it afresh just the blossoms he loved. But what would he have said to the factories opposite? To the rows of little two-story houses creeping nearer and nearer? And the Chew House—could the veterans of the Revolution return to it, as the veterans of the Civil War return every year to Gettysburg, how well they would know their way in the garden, how well, in the wide-pillared hall with the old portraits on the white wall, and in the rooms with their Eighteenth-Century panelling and cornices and fire-places, and in the broad hall upstairs

WYCK

could they follow the movements of the enemy that lost for them the Battle of Germantown? And Wyck—white, cloistered, vine-laden, with fragrant garden and shade-giving trees! And the Johnson House, and the Wistar House, and the Morris House. And how many other old houses beyond Germantown! Solitude, and Laurel Hill, and Arnold's Mansion in the Park, Bartram's at Gray's Ferry.

I thought first I would not put Bartram's to the test, no matter how bravely the others came out of it—Bartram's, associated with the romance of work and the dawn of my new life. But how glad I am that I thought twice and went back to it! For I found it beautiful as ever, though I could reach it by trolley, and though it was unrecognizably spick and span in the little orchard, and under the labelled trees, and by the old house and the old stables, and in the garden where gardeners were at work among the red roses. But the disorder has not been quite done away with in the wilderness below the garden, and there was the bench by the river, and there the outlook up and down—had so many chimneys belched forth smoke and had the smoke been as black on the opposite bank, up the river, in the old days? Certainly there had not been so many ghosts—not one of those that now looked at me with reproachful eyes, asking me what I had done with the years, for which such ambitious plans had been made on that very spot ages and ages ago?


III

Philadelphia is not responsible for the ghosts; they are my affair; but it has made itself responsible for the beauty, not only at Bartram's but at as many other of the old places as it has been able to lay claims upon, converting them into what the French would call historic monuments. And Philadelphia, with the help of Colonial Dames, and an Automobile Club, and those societies and individuals who have learned at last to love the Philadelphia monuments though still indifferent to the town, has not been too soon in prescribing the desperate remedies their desperate case demands. In the new care of these old places, as well as in the new devotion to the old names and the old families, in the new keenness for historic meetings and commemorations, in the new local lectures on local subjects and traditions, in the very recent restoration of Congress Hall, in all this new native civic patriotism I seemed to see Philadelphia's desperate, if unconscious, struggle against the modern invader of the town's ancient beauty and traditions. The grown-up aliens who can be persuaded, as I am told they can be, to come and listen to papers on their own section of the town, whether it be Southwark, or Manayunk, or Frankford, or Society Hill, or the Northern Liberties, will probably in the end look up the old places and their history for themselves, just as the little aliens will who, in the schools, are given prizes for essays on local history:—offer anything, even a school

THE MASSED SKY-SCRAPKRS ABOVE THE HOUSETOPS

prize, to a Russian Jew, and he will labour for it, in this case working indirectly for patriotism.

But I am not sure that the greatest good the Society of Colonial Dames is doing is not in emphasizing the value of the past to those who date back to it. It has helped one group of Philadelphians to realize that there are other people in their town no less old as Philadelphians and more important in the history of Philadelphia, what is called society luckily not having taken possession of the Colonial Dames in Philadelphia as in New York. If all who date back see in the age of their families their passport into the aristocracy of Philadelphia and therefore of America, they may join together as a formidable force against the advance of the formidable alien. Mr. Arnold Bennett was amused to discover that every Bostonian came over in the Mayflower, but he does not understand the necessity for the native to hold on like grim death to the family tree—pigmy of a tree as it must seem in Europe—if America is to remain American. My one fear is lest this zeal, new to me, is being overdone, for I fancy I see an ill-concealed threat of a new reaction, this time against it. What else does the Philadelphian's toying with the cause of the "loyalists" during the Revolution and his belated espousal of it mean, unless perhaps the childish Anglomania which fashion has imposed upon Philadelphia? People are capable of anything for the sake of fashion. The ugliest blot on the history of Philadelphia is its running after the British when they were in possession of the town that winter we ought to try to forget instead of commemorating its feasts—that winter when Philadelphia danced and Washington and his troops starved. Now Philadelphia threatens another blot as ugly by upholding the citizens who would have kept the British there altogether. However, this is as yet only a threat, Philadelphians are too preoccupied in their struggle for survival.


IV

Not only the new patriotism, but the new architecture is Colonial. For long after Colonial days Philadelphia kept to red brick and white facings in town, to grey stone and white porches in Germantown, often losing the old dignity and fine proportions, but preserving the unity, the harmony of Penn's original scheme, and the repose that is the inevitable result of unity. But there were many terrible breaks before and during my time—breaks that gave us the Public Buildings and Memorial Hall and many of the big banks and insurance offices down town, and a long list of regrettable mistakes;—breaks that burdened us with the brown stone period fortunately never much in favour, and the Furness period which I could wish had been less in favour so much too lavish was its gift of undesirable originality, and the awful green stone period of which a church here and a big mansion there and substantial buildings out at the University, too substantial to be pulled down for many a day, rise, a solid reproach to

SUNSET. PHILADELPHIA FROM ACROSS THE DELAWARE

us for our far straying from righteousness; breaks that courted and won the admiration of Philadelphia for imitations of any and every style that wasn't American, especially if it was English, Philadelphia tremendously pleased with itself for the bits borrowed from the English Universities and dumped down in its own University and out at Bryn Mawr, there as unmistakable aliens as our own Rhodes Scholars are at Oxford.

But from the moment Philadelphia began to look up its genealogy and respect it, the revival of Colonial was bound, sooner or later, to follow. It meant a change from which I could not escape, had I deliberately refused to see the many others. I was face to face with it at every step I took, in every direction I went—from the Navy Yard on League Island to the far end of North Broad Street; from Germantown, the old grey stone here returned to its own again, to West Philadelphia; from the University where the Law School building looks grave and distinguished and genuine in the midst of sham Tudor and sham I hardly know what, and deplorable green stone, to the Racquets Club in town; from the tallest sky-scraper to the smallest workman's dwelling—it was Colonial of one sort or another: sometimes with fine results, at others with Colonial red brick and white facings and Colonial gables and Colonial columns and Colonial porches so abused that, after passing certain Colonial abortions repeated by the dozens, the hundreds, the thousands, in rows upon rows of two-story houses, all alike to the very pattern of the awning and the curves of the rocking chair on the invariable porch, I had it in my heart to wish that Philadelphia had never heard the word Colonial. However, on the whole, more good has been done than harm. The original model is a fine one, it belongs to Philadelphia, and in reviving it the Philadelphia architect is working along legitimate lines.

But even as I write this, I realise that it is not to the revival of Colonial that Philadelphia owes all its new beauty. Indeed, the architecture that has done most for it in its new phase is that from which least would be expected by those who believe in appropriateness or utility as indispensable to architectural beauty. A town that has plenty of space to spread out indefinitely has no reason whatever to spread up in sky-scrapers, and this is precisely what Philadelphia has done and, moreover, looks all the better for having done. Its sky-scrapers compose themselves with marvellous effectiveness as a centre to the town, though they threaten by degrees to become too scattered to preserve the present composition; they provide an astounding and ever-varying arrangement of towers and spires from neighbouring corners and crossings; they give new interest as a background to some simple bit of old Philadelphia, as where Wanamaker's rises sheer and high above the little red brick meeting-house in Twelfth Street; they add to the charm of some ambitious bit of new Philadelphia as where the little Girard Trust Building—itself a happy return to standards

THE UNION LEAGUE BETWEEN THE SKY-SCRAPERS

that gave us Girard College and the Mint and Fairmount Water-Works—stands low among the clustered towers, just as many a town in the Alps or Apennines lies low in the cup of the hills, and is the lovelier for it; they redeem from ugliness buildings of later periods, as where they give the scale in the most surprising fashion to the Union League; from far up or down the long straight line of Broad Street they complete the perspective as impressively as the Arc de Triomphe completes that other impressive perspective from the Garden of the Tuileries in Paris. They are as beautiful when you see them from the bridges or from the Park, a great group of towers high above the houses, high above the lesser towers and spires, high above the curls and wisps of smoke that now hang over Philadelphia; and from the near country they give to the low-lying town a sky-line that for loveliness and grandeur is not to be surpassed by the famous first view of Pisa across the Italian plain.

Philadelphia is, in truth, such a beautiful town that I am surprised the world should be so slow in finding it out. The danger to it now is the Philadelphian's determination to thrust beauty upon it at any cost, not knowing that it is beautiful already. There is too much talk everywhere about town-planning as a reform, as a part of the whole tiresome business of elevating the masses. As I have said, Penn talked no nonsense of that kind, nor did Sir Christopher Wren when he made the fine design that London had not the sense to stick to, nor L'Enfant when he laid out Washington. For the town that gets into the clutches of the reformer, I feel much as Whistler did for art—"What a sad state the slut is in an these gentlemen can help her." A town, like a woman, should cultivate good looks and cannot be too fastidious in every detail. But that is no reason why it should confuse this decent personal care with a moral mission. There is too much reform in Philadelphia just now for my taste, or its good. The idea of the new Parkway; with fine buildings like the new Free Library and the new Franklin Institute, along its route through the town; with the City Hall at one end and the fine new Art Gallery in the Park at the other; promises well, and I suppose that eventually the silly little wooden pergolas will disappear and the new buildings go up in their place. But though I know it sounds like shocking heresy, I should feel more confidence if its completion were in the hands of the old corrupt government we never tired of condemning, which may have stolen some of our money but at least gave us in return a splendidly planned and thoroughly well-kept Park, one of the most beautiful in the world. I believe that not only this monumental, but more domestic experiments are in view, the workman this time to profit—our old self-reliant American workman to have a taste of the benevolent interference that has taken the backbone out of the English workman. Rumours have reached me of emissaries sent to spy out the land in the Garden Cities of Germany and England. But what have we, in our far-famed City of Homes, to

UP BROAD STREET FROM LEAGUE ISLAND

learn from other people's Garden Cities? For comfort, is the workman anywhere better off at a lower rent than in the old streets of neat little two-story brick houses, or in the new streets of luxurious little Colonial abortions? And what does he want with the reformer's gardens when he lives in the green country town of Philadelphia?


V

Philadelphia might have lost more of its old architecture and been less successful with its new, and would still be beautiful, for as yet it has not ceased to respect Penn's wish to see it fair and green. It is not so green as it was, I admit—not so green as in the days of my childhood to which, in looking back, the spring always means streets too well lined with trees for my taste, since in every one those horrid green measuring worms were waiting to fall, crawling, upon me. There are great stretches in some streets from which the trees have disappeared, partly because they do not prosper so well in the now smoke-laden air; partly because every one blown down or injured must be replaced if replaced at all by some thrifty citizen held responsible for whatever damage it may do through no fault of his; partly, I believe, because at one time street commissioners ordered one or two in front of a house to be cut down, charged the landlord for doing it, and found too much profit not to persevere in their disastrous policy. Still, though Philadelphians in summer fly to little European towns to escape the streets they deplore as arid in Philadelphia, I know of no other town as large that is as green. The notes I made in Philadelphia are full of my surprise that I should have forgotten how green and shady are its streets, how tender is this green in its first spring growth under the high luminous sky, how lovely the wistaria-draped walls in town and the dogwood in the suburbs. Walk or drive in whatever direction I chose, and at every crossing I looked up or down a long green vista, so that I understood the Philadelphia business man who described to me his daily walk from his Spruce Street house to the Reading Terminal as a lesson in botany. On the other side of the Schuylkill, in any of the suburbs, every street became a leafy avenue. There were evenings in that last June I spent in Philadelphia, when, the ugly houses bathed in golden light and the trees one long golden-green screen in front of them, I would not have exchanged Walnut or Spruce Street in West Philadelphia or many a Lane in Germantown, for any famous road or boulevard the world over. Really, the trees convert the whole town into an annex, an approach to that Park which is its chief green beauty and which, to me, was more than sufficient atonement for the corrupt government Philadelphia is said to have groaned under all the years Fairmount was growing in grace and beauty. And beyond the Park, beyond the suburbs, the leafy avenues run on for miles through as beautiful country as ever shut in a beautiful town.


FROM GRAY'S FERRY

VI

After all, there is beauty enough left to last my time, and I suppose with that I should be content. But I cannot help thinking of the future, cannot help wondering, now that I see the change the last quarter of a century has made, what the next will do for Philadelphia—whether after twenty-five years more a vestige of my Philadelphia will survive. I do not believe it will; I may be wrong, but I am giving my impressions for what they are worth, and nothing on my return impressed me so much as the change everywhere and in everything. I think any American, from no matter what part of the country, who has been away so long, must, on going back, be impressed in the same way—must feel with me that America is growing day by day into something as different as possible from his America. For my part, I am just as glad I shall not live to see the Philadelphia that is to emerge from the present chaos, since I have not the shadow of a doubt that, whatever it may be, it will be as unlike Philadelphia as I have just learned to know it again, as this new Philadelphia is unlike my old Philadelphia, the beautiful, peaceful town where roses bloomed in the sunny back-yards and people lived in dignity behind the plain red brick fronts of the long narrow streets.