America To-Day, Observations and Reflections/Letter VI

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America To-Day, Observations & Reflections  (1900)  by William Archer
Letter VI


Washington in April—A Metropolis in the Making—The White House, the Capitol, and the Library of Congress—The Symbolism of Washington.


To profess oneself disappointed with Washington in this first week of April, 1899, would be like complaining of the gauntness of a rose-bush in December. What would you have? It is not the season, either politically or atmospherically. Congress is gone, and spring has not come. In the city of leafy avenues there is not a leaf to be seen, and, except the irrepressible crocus, not a flower. A fortnight hence, as I am assured, the capital of the Great Republic will have put on a regal robe of magnolia and other blossoms, that will "knock spots out of" Solomon in all his glory. In the meantime, the trees line the avenues in skeleton rows, like a pyrotechnic set-piece before it is ignited. It is useless to pretend, then, that I have seen Washington. The trumpet of March has blown, the pennon of May is not yet unfurled; and even the cloudless sunshine of the past two days has only reduplicated the skeleton trees in skeleton shadows. Washington is not responsible for the tardiness of the spring. It would be unjust to take umbrage at the city because one finds none in its avenues.

Yet I cannot but feel that I have, so to speak, found Washington out. I have chanced upon her without her make-up, and seen the real face of the city divested of its wig of leafage and rouge of blossoms. Here, for the first time, at any rate, I am impressed by that sense of rawness and incompleteness which is said to be characteristic of America. Washington will one day be a magnificent city, of that there is no doubt; but for the present it is distinctly unfinished. The very breadth of its avenues, contrasted with the comparative lowness of the buildings which line them, gives it the air rather of a magnified and glorified frontier township than of a great capital on the European scale. Here, for the first time, I am really conscious of the newness of things. The eastern cities—Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore—are, in effect, not a whit newer than most English towns. Oxford and Cambridge, no doubt, and a few cathedral cities, give one a habitual consciousness of dwelling among the relics of the past. They are our Nuremburg or Prague, Siena or Perugia. In most English cities, on the other hand, as in London itself, one has no habitual sense of the antiquity of one's surroundings. Apart from a few tourist-haunted monuments, which the resident passes with scarcely a glance, the general run of buildings and streets, if not palpably modern, can at most lay claim to a respectable, or disreputable, middle-age. Now, an eminently respectable middle-age is precisely the characteristic of the central regions of Philadelphia and Baltimore; while in New York both reputable and disreputable middle-age are amply represented. One may almost say that these Eastern cities are fundamentally old-fashioned, and that all their modern mechanism of electric cars, telephone wires, and what not, is but a thin and transparent outer network, through which the older order of things is everywhere peering. And from this very contrast between the old and the new, this sense of visible time-strata in the structure of a city, there results a very real effect of age.

Here, in Washington, one instinctively craves for something of that uniformity which one instinctively deprecates as an ideal for New York. The buildings on the main streets are too haphazard, like the books on an ill-arranged shelf: folios, quartos, and duodecimos huddled pell-mell together. But when some approach to a definite style is achieved, how noble will be the radiating vistas of this spacious city! The plan of the avenues and streets, as has been aptly said, suggests a cart-wheel superimposed upon a gridiron—an arrangement, by the way, which may be studied on a small scale in Carlsruhe. The result is dire bewilderment to the traveller; my bump of locality, usually not ill-developed, seems to shrink into a positive indentation before the problems presented in such formulas as "K Street, corner of 13th Street, N.E." But from the Capitol, whence most of the avenues spread fanwise, the views they offer are superb; and Pennsylvania Avenue, leading to the Government offices and the White House, will one day, undoubtedly, be one of the great streets of the world. For the present its beauty is not heightened by the new Postal Department, a massive but somewhat forbidding structure in grey granite, which dominates and frowns upon the whole street. From certain points of view it seems almost to dwarf the Washington Obelisk, the loftiest stone structure in the world. It is a pity that this fine monument should be placed in such a low situation, on the very shore of the Potomac. From the central parts of the city it loses much of its effect, but seen from the distance it stands forth impressively.

People are discontented, it would seem, with the White House, and talk of replacing it with a larger and showier edifice. The latter change, at any rate, would be a change for the worse. There could not be a more appropriate and dignified residence for the Chief Magistrate of a republic. On the other hand, one cannot but foresee a gradual enrichment and ennoblement of the interior of the Capitol. Externally it is magnificent, especially now that the side towards the city has been terraced and balustraded; but internally its decorations are quite unworthy of modern America. The floors, the doors, the cornices and mouldings are cheap in material, dingily garish in colour. Especially painful are the crude blue-and-yellow mosaic tiles of the corridors. The mural decorations belong to several artistic periods, all equally debased. On the whole, it is inconceivable that Congress should for long content itself with an abode which, without being venerable, is simply out of date. The main architectural proportions of the interior are dignified enough. What is wanted is merely the transmutation of stucco into marble, painted pine into oak, and pseudo-Italian arabesques into American frescoes and mosaics. Why should Congress itself be more meanly housed than its Library?

This new Library of Congress is certainly the crown and glory of the Washington of to-day. It is an edifice and an institution of which any nation might justly boast. It is simple in design, rich in material, elaborate, and for the most part beautiful, in decoration. The general effect of the entrance hall and galleries is at first garish, and some details of the decoration will scarcely bear looking into. Yet the building is, on the whole, in fresco, mosaic, and sculpture, a veritable treasure-house of contemporary American art. Even in this clear Southern climate, the effect of gaudiness will in time pass off. Fifty years hence, perhaps, when there are no living susceptibilities to be hurt, some of the less successful panels and medallions may be "hatched over again, and hatched different." But many of the decorations, I am convinced, will prove possessions for ever to the American people. As for the Rotunda Reading Room, it is, I think, almost above criticism in its combination of dignity with splendour. Far be it from me to belittle that great and liberal institution, the British Museum Reading Room. It is considerably larger than this one; it is no less imposing in its severe simplicity; and it offers the serious student a vaster quarry of books to draw upon, together with wider elbow-room and completer accommodations. But the Library of Congress is still more liberal, for it admits all the world without even the formality of applying for a ticket; and it substitutes for the impressiveness of simplicity the allurements of splendour. It is impossible to conceive a more brilliant spectacle than this Rotunda when it is lighted at night by nearly fifteen-hundred incandescent lamps. Nor is it possible for me to describe in this place the mechanical marvels of the institution—the huge underground boiler-house, with its sixteen boilers; the electrician's room, clean and bright as a new dollar, with its "purring dynamos" and its immense switch-board; the tunnel through which books are delivered by electric trolley to the legislators in the Capitol, within eight minutes of the time they are applied for; and, most wonderful of all, the endless chain, with its series of baskets, whereby books are not only brought down to the reading-room, but re-delivered, at the mere touch of a button, on whatever "deck" of the nine-storied "book-stacks" they happen to belong to. So ingenious is this triumph of mechanism that the baskets seem positively to go through complex processes of thought and selection. Talking of thought and selection, by the way, every one connected with the library speaks with enthusiasm of President McKinley's wise and public-spirited choice of the new chief librarian. Mr. Herbert Putnam, late of the Boston Public Library, is the ideal man for the post, and his appointment was made, not only without suspicion of jobbery, but in the teeth of strong political influence. Mr. McKinley's action in this matter is considered to be not only right in itself, but an invaluable precedent.

Let me not be understood, I beg, to make light of the National Capital. I merely say that to the outward eye it is not yet the city it is manifestly destined to become. Its splendid potentialities do some wrong to its eminently spacious and seemly actuality. But to the mind's eye, to the ideal sense, it has the imperishable beauty of absolute fitness. Omniscient Baedeker informs us that when it was founded there was some thought of calling it "Federal City." How much finer, in its heroic and yet human associations, is the name it bears! Since Alfred the Great, the Anglo-Saxon race has produced no loftier or purer personality than George Washington, and his country could not blazon on her shield a more inspiring name. Carlyle's treatment of Washington is, perhaps, the most unpardonable of his many similar offences. One almost wonders at the forgiving spirit in which the decorators of the Library of Congress have inscribed upon the walls of the new building certain maxims from the splenetic Sage. And if the city is named with exquisite fitness, so are its radiating avenues. Each of them takes its name from one of the States of the Union—names which, as Stevenson long ago pointed out, form an unrivalled array of "sweet and sonorous vocables." In its whole conception, Washington is an ideal capital for the United States—not least typical, perhaps, in its factitiousness, since this Republic is not so much a product of natural development as a deliberate creation of will and intelligence. It represents the struggle of an Idea against the crude forces of nature and human nature. The Capitol, with its clear and logical design, is as aptly symbolic of its history and function as are our Houses of Parliament, with their bewildering but grandiose agglomeration of shafts and turrets, spires and pinnacles; and the two buildings should rank side by side in the esteem of the English-speaking peoples, as the twin foci of our civilisation.