Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, April, 1882,

Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, Volume 13. April, 1882, edited by Frank Leslie

The Palaces of the People, by M. E. W. Sherwood,

The topics of architecture and of internal decoration have become within a decade the vital topics of thought and consideration in this country, once supposed to be the last spot of earth on which the Genius of Architecture would set her foot.

Of course this renaissance which we find breaking out in Europe (as to the embodiment of the old ideas of beauty and fitness) in new buildings is, in this country, an original departure. The palaces of the people have been among the first to enjoy its gilded sunrise.

The reader who has visited many of the State capitals knows how much has been done to make the public buildings at each seat of government creditable to the age in which we live.

The fulfillment is not always all that could be desired, lavish as the outlay has been. Of these specimens of architecture the most splendid and expensive structure ever erected for our governing class is the Capitol at Albany. And here we must stop to speak for a moment of our "governing class." It is a perpetually renewed aristocracy, drawn from the people, powerful while it lasts, but losing all its prestige when out of office, as we see even in the case of a retired President Ex-Governor Somebody is Mr. Nobody when his term is over, but while he is in the Executive office he is an immense power and a social force. Our legislative bodies, filled with the plainest of men, from the plow, or from humble walks of life, up to the educated and the polished statesman, who can refer back to as much blood and breeding as is consistent with the date of the Mayflower's landing, are, when together in session, one and all aristocrats—looked up to, courted, invited, feted by the people who have made them what they are. They are driven about in stately carriages, drawn by cream-colored horses; they are escorted by "citizen soldiery"; they have somewhat the appanage of a Prince on state occasions; and in their capacity as the idea of the embodied majesty of the Commonwealth, they are marked out as the recipients of social flatteries and public honors. So much for being in power!

But as the Hindoo dethrones his god, and beats him or neglects him when he believes his power is past, so does the American citizen despise, contemn, ignore and pull down the idol he has elevated when that idol's power has left him. And something of this inconsistency adheres to the house which he builds for the fetish of the moment. It is rarely, like the European municipal or civic hall, a consistent lasting, well-constructed and convenient palace; it is not the work of one man, or of a governing royal family.

It may be grand in spots; it is always ambitious in design, conspicuously placed, and the delight of the town in which it stands. But it is, within, but too often inelegant, inconvenient and dirty. Either too many cooks have spoiled the broth in some instances, or an incomplete treasury has dwarfed the idea, and we feel, even in the most elegant of the palaces, that a good tyrant could have built a better, because a more complete and consistent, house than can be built by the most successful of republics.

The one-man power is almost a necessity in architecture, as in the beautifying of a city or the protection of the arts. We should laugh to hear of a statue which was handed from one sculptor to another; one to make the head, another the chest, and a third the legs. Yet in the past of American building scarcely a State-house has escaped at least four or five different architects. One has projected a noble gallery, another has shut it off; one had desired a colonnade, another has turned it into a portico; one has dreamed of a dome, another has shorn it of its noble proportions; one has thought out a fine scheme of flying buttresses, another has changed them into solid arches. And so on, the confusion of the many-headed, of constant changes in the governing administration, has too often written in stone the expensive history of mistake and blunder.

Sadly have the people paid for this want of unanimity, particularly in the great Capitol at Albany, the most gigantic and the most expensive building of them all.

It was a broad mind, a comprehensive and generous intellect, that demanded for the instruction of the people of the Empire State a great and a beautiful palace, having for its outlines the noble sweep of the Venetian architecture, while within it should comprehend all that the painter and the sculptor could do to illustrate by the arts the over-refining influences of high ideas and graceful fancy. No people need such a palace more than do our rural population, who contend too constantly with the forces of Nature to allow them to have studied Beauty in its higher manifestations. And yet here and there in the hills may be hidden a future Palmer, a William Story, or a William Hunt—some nascent genius who, on looking at the Capitol at Washington or at Albany, should say, finding himself for the first time, "I, too, am a painter"; or, "I, too, am a sculptor "—to whom these great palaces shall bring, for the first time, the lesson of art, the message of the eye, the splendid geometric rhythm, which sings its song in granite and in marble.

Architecture must be to our rural population the lingua franca of art. It must bring that Greece and Rome, which they may never see, to our shores. It must be omnipresent and lasting. Not only the idea of government realized and standing solidly before the boy, teaching him the necessity of self-restraint, the nobility of law, the peace and prosperity of order, but it should fill his young soul with beauty; he may learn in it, at a glance, what it has cost thousands of years to perfect, and all the nations, to construct. In sculpture, in painting and in mechanical invention he needs the culture of past ages, and the experience of bygone times. He must see it--he cannot gain that knowledge and taste by reading.

These arguments for the people were used by Hon. J. V. L. Pruyn, and other large-minded men, with great effect upon the minds of the Senators and Representatives of the Legislature of New York, when, in 1863, Senator James A. Bell offered a resolution, which was adopted, that the Trustees of the Capitol and the Chairman of the Committee on Public Buildings be authorized to procure suitable plans for a new Capitol, and to report at the next Legislature. They did so, reoommending the plans submitted by Fuller & Jones. Early in 1865 a committee was appointed by the Senate to ascertain, by correspondence with various municipalities, on what terms the necessary ground and buildings could be obtained.

New York showed her desire for the honor by offering a site on the Battery, or at City Hall Park, or in Tompkins Square, or tu Central Park, and also proposed to erect all the necessary buildings, free of expense to the State; and in addition, to build an Executive Mansion on Fifth Avenue, opposite Central Park. Yonkers, Saratoga, Athens, Whitestown, Argyle and Sing Sing made liberal offers. The City of Albany finally offered, however, to deed over the site of the old Capitol and the lot adjoining, occupied by the Congress Hall block, and provided for the appointment of three commissioners, and appropriated $10,000 for the commencement and prosecution of the work.

On the 14th of April, 1866, the City having made good its offer at an expense of $190,000, an Act was passed ratifying and confirming the location of the capitol, and Hamilton Harris, John V. L. Pruyn and O. B. Latham, of Senaca Falls, were appointed new commissioners. On the 22nd of April, 1867, an Act was passed appropriating $250,000 for the new Capitol, but providing that no part should be expended until a plan had been agreed upon, not to cost, when completed, more than $4,000,000, and on 9th of December, 1867, John Bridgeford, with 100 men, began excavating in a modest way.

Delays of every kind occurred, and it was not until July 7th, 1869, that the first stone was laid by Hon. John V. L. Pruyn, to whom, more than to any other man, does the State owe what was large-minded and far-seeing in this enterprise. This foundation planted by Mr. Pruyn is vast and deep—a wonder in itself. The sub-basement of the Capitol will remain as long as earth endures. The corner-stone was laid with great ceremony by the General Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, on the 24th of June, 1871. The exercises took place in a drenching rain, but were witnessed by over twenty thousand persons. The work progressed sometimes slower, sometimes faster, until 1874, when a lack of funds brought the enterprise to a standstill. The faultfinders called the enterprise a "public calamity"; charges in the newspapers against the Governor as incompetent; criticisms from private individuals, and a perhaps wise protest against the plan of erecting public buildings by commissions, all were loudly urged, and the Capitol work seemed to be entering the penumbra of an eclipse. The Hon. Hamilton Harris now fought the battles through to victory, and the Finance Committee, of which he was chairman, held its own, in 1875 the entire old board were abolished, and Lieutenant-Governor Wm. Dorsheimer, Francis S. Thayer, and Daniel Pratt were constituted a new board. To Governor Dorsheimer, who took an active interest in the building, and particularly in the completing and furnishing of the interior, does the Capitol owe its present grandeur, and the beautiful frescoes which adorn its walls.

During the ten years of its active growth the Capitol has had three superintendents and seven architects. Twice has the order of architecture been changed. Italian renaissance, modified to the Romanesque, was changed back to the free renaissance, to the eternal injury of the unity of the building. It had cost, up to 1880, ten millions of dollars; it will need as many more to finish it, or some say five millions only, and the result has been—so say the faultfinders—confusion, drafts, bad light, and rooms in which no man can be heard to exercise the grand oratory of the American citizen.

A vast and noble pile, no doubt, with some superb things in it, the Capitol at Albany cannot be called a failure. Yet it can be characterized, perhaps, as a gigantic bundle of mistakes and contradictions. The visitor of to-day who goes to visit the largest palace of the people, tumbles over workmen and plaster, trowels and ladders, an utterly unfinished interior, to enter passages which lead nowhere; finds rooms which dazzle by their magnificence, and surprise by the sumptuousness of their detail, but which disappoint by their incompleteness. The size is impressive, 300 feet north and south, by 400 feet east and west It will, with the porticoes, cover three acres and seven square feet. The walls are 103 feet high, and built of solid granite from Hallowell, Me, and from Keene, N. H. The massive effect of this immense pile of granite produces a magnificent effect. It is worthy to be, from its size, like the pyramids, classed as "one of the works of nature." Entering the building, one finds a ponderous series of arches in stone, and glances through windows to a central court, 137 feet by 92, which extends in lofty serenity an open spaoe to the sky.

Fountains and statues will in time make this inner court beautiful, and the whole eftect of the architecture is surpassingly satisfactory from whatever window one looks upon this dream of Venice. This part of the Capitol is not a failure; nor is the Grand Staircase, by Eidlitz, which is a medieval triumph. Vigorous, scholarly, and of easy ascent, this staircase is a work of genius and a triumph of art. Still its glories cannot be well seen, the light is so very imperfect. The Golden Corridor is the next thing in excellence. This extends along the whole court side of the north centre. Seven large windows, opening upon this court, divide the corridor into bays, twenty feet square. Each bay is bounded by piers, between which arches are turned, and these arches sustain a low and ribless groined vault. They are painted with a damask of red upon amber; the angle moldings are solidly gilded. The effect is Oriental and rich, full of "flashing lights and shimmering shadows," and under the iridescent ceiling "there hangs a luminous haze "—so says an admirer. Here will be placed statues of public men, and possibly other works of art. During the session of the Legislature the windows are filled with rare exotics, and the Golden Corridor is a thing of beauty. From this one steps into the abode of wisdom, dignity and justice—the Chamber of the Court of Appeals. This room is sixty feet square and twenty-five feet high, subdivided into parallelograms, one twice the width of the other, a line of red granite columns carrying, with broad, low arches, a marble wall. The decoration is deep-red, the wainscoting of oak. This is a decidedly handsome room, but the lighting is very bad, dazzling and confused, and the acoustic properties decidedly defective; the ceiling is a snperb construction of carved oak, with panels profusely carved.

Ascending another flight of the Grand Staircase (and one needs strength and endurance for these lofty flights), we find the Assembly Chamber, one of the noblest halls in the world, eighty-four by one hundred feet. Four great pillars, four feet thick, of red granite, sustain the largest groined stone arch in the world, the keystone being fifty-six feet from the floor. These pillars, and the arch which springs from them, are very striking.

But beautiful and grand as it is, this room is still unsatisfactory. The coloring is intended to be Moorish. The architect and the internal decorator have evidently been thinking of the Alhambra. Perhaps the confusion of the schools tenda to disturb the mind. It is distinctly Gothic in its inception, but is Romanesque and Grecian Doric in treatment. There is here the fault of the other rooms—a great flood of conflicting light, which ruins the eyes of the Assemblymen; and as for hearing, there is nothing but a confused echo. The learned and conspicuous body who make our laws might be dismissed and told to go home. They would never know of this happy release until they read of it in the New York Herald on the next day.

Perhaps the most precious treasure of tha Capitol is, however, contained in this room.

The allegorical pictures of William M. Hunt, on which he spent the last days of his illuminated life, remain here to praise him.

That on the northern wall represents the allegory of Ormuzd and Ahriman, or the flight of Evil before Good, or, as it is sometimes called, "The Flight of Night." The Queen of Night is driving before the dawn; her chariot is drawn by three plunging horses, one white, one black, one red. On the right of the goddess, and in deep shade, is a lovely group—a sleeping mother and child.

But the strangest figure in this group is the floating dusky guide, who holds the head of one of the horses. This noble allegorical figure, representing the force which guides, but does not control, the plunging horse, is tha subject of innumerable jokes. He is called tha "Republican majority," the "Democratic minority," the "Balance of power," or the "Dark horse," as Assemblymen please to be facetious. Indeed, no name is too profane for the leading idea.

But this noble composition ia a perpetual lesson in the highest sense to all gazers. It is intensely poetical and full of suggestion; and, to the thoughtful, what more lovely and exquisite picture of that future for which Capitols are built than is conveyed in that shadowed sleeping mother and child?

The companion piece to this is called the "Discoverer." A noble figure, standing erect in a boat, suggests Columbus; behind him is a sunset sky; by his side Fortune trims the sail and holds the tiller. Hope is at the prow, with one arm extended. Faith has buried her face in her hands, and floats in the deep sea by the side of the boat. Science unrolls a chart, which she holds carefully above the spray.

The beauty of these female figures is very remarkable. Indeed, the sensuous charms which he has given—this gifted artist—to the severe goddess, Science, and the holy maiden, Faith, have suggested to some country members a different reading of the allegorical lesson. It is to them a siren group striving to lead away the modern Ulysses. But the whole composition is most noble—not so striking, however, as the opposite fresco, which commands instant attention by its three plunging horses, and also invites constant criticism by its conflicting and somewhat obscure symbolism. Mr. Van Brunt thinks these pictures too good for their place, and calls them a "waste of great resources." But it is doubtful if anything is too good for the thousands, the millions of eyes who shall look up to the work of a great master, and shall, through the garish morning light, or the tender afternoon tones, or in the twilight softness, try to make out what the master meant by these poetic and flying clouds, these visionary chariots, these plunging horses, these suggestive human figures.

It is a melancholy fact that Mr. Hunt probably hastened his own death by the enormous labor bestowed upon these figures. For fifty-five days, from sunrise to the latest hour of twilight, he worked and watched; this enormous industry represented also five months' work in his studio; indeed, the work of his whole life went into them.

To those artists who do things carelessly, let it be known that for these allegorical frescoes thirty or more preparatory charcoal drawings were made, twelve pastels and nineteen complete copies in oil. Later on in the work the conscientious artist demanded from his assistant a solemn promise that if the work should prove a failure he would paint out both pictures in a single night

There is something of the pathos of this devoted and saddened life, this artistic battle with fading hopes and dying energies which lingers about the picture of the Discoverer. The artist was on his way to the setting sun, and its glory rests like a halo around his head.

The Assembly chamber is brilliant in the evening. The bright brass gas-fixtures, the rich colors—red, amethyst and yellow—the solid mahogany desks, the grand and noble Speaker's alcove, all show at their best at the evening sessions.

On the southern corridors the colored marble wainscot and the stone moldings above and below are covered with intricate and delicate patterns of interwoven, lace-like forms. Here we begin to see the Mexican onyx paneling, of which we have heard so much. These panels are cut into slabs three feet square, and are separated or framed by slightly convex rails of Sienna marble, the mottled surface of which sets the beautiful onyx in a frame. Nothing in nature, except the opal, was ever so lovely as this onyx. It presents every delicate color most delicately—creamcolor, sea-water, olive, ivory, rosy brown, neutral brown, red, green, blue in every state of semi-opacity and translucence. All these lovely slabs are "laid haphazard with a motive." Both panels and the rails of Sienna marble are of great richness and variety, substantial and enduring.

The use of marble in the Capitol has reached all the grandeur and dignity of old Venice. It is eminently grand in the Senate Chamber, which rivals St Mark's, in Venice, in its gorgeous detail. This noble room, one hundred feet in length and fifty in height is the best monument to Mr. Richardson, who has made it what it is. He is one of the seven architects.

This chamber is lighted by three large openings, rising from a level with the floor, and six lesser openings near the ceiling. Two of the large windows are filled with disks of stained glass, which shade from topaz and ruby up to the now fashionable iridescent and opalescent tints. This stained glass tempers the glare which is so objectionable in the other rooms. These windows are arched, highly polished, and above this gem-like paneling is a string-course of simply-carved marble, and above this again the upper tier of windows, six in number. The wall space above these windows is filled in with lead, heavily gilt constituting a sort of frieze. This is worked out in repousse with a floriated and an arabesque design, so in its carefully studied light and shadow it will add immensely to the cool marble beneath. Nothing finer in complimentary color was ever devised.

The oak ceiling is made of massive beams of oak, more than four feet in depth. These are supported on stone corbels sunk into the walls, and projecting under the beams. The corbels are to be carved into bold and vigorous forms, derived from foliage and flowers. It is the intention to treat these groups of four panels with color, so that every group of four shall count as a whole. This ceiling of broken masses is better for the voice, and the reverberating and reflecting echo is lost in the Senate Chamber. Its acoustic properties are good, in great contrast to its sister Assembly Room.

In the lower western wall-space is a dado of Knoxville marble, giving great solidity to the wall, and above this wall are three great arched spaces, occupying nearly the whole width of the wall, and disclosing the galleries. These arches are supported by fonr massive oolnmns of a dark, red-brown granite, with capitals of white marble exquisitely oarved. The arches are of yellow Sienna marble, and rails of gray marble, the projections of the galleries being supported by long flat corbels of gray stone elaborately carved. The wall is thus divided into three spaces— the marble foundation-wall, the arched spaca giving on the galleries, and the space for the golden frieze.

The doorway and fireplaoes of this splendid room are constructed of marble, as are the spaces between them. The openings of the fireplaces are about six feet in height and something more in breadth. The cheerful effect of these when filled with burning logs can soarcely be exaggerated. Above the fire-openings are to be carved legends or symbolic devices. And bas-reliefs, illustrating the legislative character of the room, filled with historical and legendary scenes, will cover the broad faces of the chimney-breasts.

The chimneypieces are about half the height of the room. The great fields of onyx and gold will catch the broad southern light, and afford a diversity in the play of color, and offer the necessary repose to the eye after looking at the surfaces broken by the arches of the windows to the south, east and west. Inclosed within the frieze is to be a long rectangular space, which may be filled in with mural painting, of some sort of allegorical subject, perhaps.

Hanging in front of each of the arches which open upon the galleries is a bronze-wrought chandelier of the corona form. The corona is a broad band of metal, cut and bent on the upper and lower edges, and having repousse and cut bosses at intervals. These chandeliers are suspended from the ceiling by long chains. The floor is covered with a carpet of soft texture, designed after the best Persian work. It has a ground of dark-grayish blue, upon which are spread curious flowers and leaves on a vinelike stem, in brown, red, orange, yellowish - gray, pink, yellow, and juicy olives, reflecting in its ornament the various colors which are spread upon the walls. This carpet supplies in the blue ground the one missing tint of which one would like to see more in this gorgeous, this sumptuous room.

The galleries have never been popular, owing to their extreme steepness. Ladies are, therefore, admitted to the floor on proper occasions.

This room is the success of the Capitol. Never were Senators so nobly lodged. The whole detail is the perfection of modern decorative art, which searches up and down the corridors of the Past for whatever is superb and accurate in color, design, or in ornament

The State Library will oconpy the front of the two upper stories, and it is believed that this will be the most attractive room in the world. The view will be over the whole city, and up and down the Hudson, one of surpassing extent and loveliness. Indeed, the views are striking everywhere from the upper windows of the Capitol, embracing the whole of that healthy, picturesque City of Albany, successor to little Dutch Beverwyck, with its noble surroundings, and in itself the most up-and-down-hill place in the world after Edinburgh, and scarcely less beautiful than "Anld Reekie."

We might spend hours over the heating apparatus, which is colossal; over the batteries of six steel boilers; over the admirable plan for removing foul air from the Senate and the Assembly Chamber by means of openings in the roof. There are concealed openings for the admittance of fresh air in the furniture and floors. It must be conceded that the air of the Capitol is not always fresh or tempered as it shonld be; but this will be learned later. There is a capability for freshness, which is most desirable.

Here and there a gallery is cut off by an unsightly modern structure to proteet the rooms from draft.

It is thus that the absence of the "one man power" is discernible. No one architect was allowed to carry out his legitimate design ; no one was kept at the work to see it nursed until now; and, therefore, while each man has left some fine specimens of what he could do, as in the case of the Eidlitz staircase, unhappily there is in this magnificent palace of the people, as we have seen, a lack of unity, a loss of the supreme majesty of a leading thought.

Of much of the work each group of observers say: "We do not know what it means," or else, "For one-half the money a better house for the needs of Legislative service might have been built," but not a more splendid looking thing outside, perhaps.

These are some hostile criticisms abroad. The Court of Appeals have threatened to go to New York unless better quarters were provided for them. The irritation of the judges was, however, allayed by the promise of the Capitol Commissioners that they shall have the large rooms set apart for the Library and Board of Regents.
The Governor has now, for two months (1882), occupied the magnificent new Executive Chamber, situated at the southeast corner of the building. The walls of this room are of a rich maroon velvet and colored stamped leather, paneled with mahogany. The ceiling is of mahogany, beautifully carved. The immense fireplace is fitted up with brass. Tiles of singular beauty cover the floor and sides, and a noble pair of old brass andirons, lately brought from England, hold up the logs of a blazing wood-fire. This noble room is sixty feet long by forty wide, and is wainscoted to a height of ten or twelve feet with mahogany. It is admirably furnished, and has three or four rooms en suite devoted to the Governor; one especially has fine oak cases for holding public documents, which fill this muniment room, as it would be called in England, and near this room is the "Corridor of Columns."

After this great work is finished, and the old Capitol and State Library are demolished, the grounds about the Capitol will be intrusted to Frederick Law Olmstead, to whom the Central Park owes so much of its beauty. Then we may expect to see an approach to this stupendous pile in keeping with its grandeur. Seven acres will be thrown into a park, embellished in the most perfect style with trees, flowers, fountains, etc, etc.

The elevation of the Capitol place is 155 feet above the level of the Hudson, and the ground falls off to the eastward fifty-one feet. In front, State Street, a broad, handsome avenue, leads toward the river.

Every morning the Dutch farmers, singing songs in the Dutch language, come in to Albany, and placing their carts along in the open street, sell their produce. This is the last lingering Dutch custom, but a very impressive and a very picturesque one. It reminds one of a similar scene in many a European city, and is, in its way, strikingly commemorative of the early romantic and peculiar history of the place.

So much for the great Capitol at Albany, of which we have told but half the story.

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