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An essay by George William Curtis

Historic Buildings

Title:     Historic Buildings
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

A few months ago the Easy Chair, seeing that changes were making in the old State-house in Boston, one of the few Revolutionary and truly historic buildings that remain, modestly ventured to regret it, and to deplore the rapid disappearance of the venerable relics that had come down to us from former generations. It suggested, or meant to suggest, or might, could, would, or should have suggested, and will now, under correction, suggest that there are very few buildings in New York which recall that earlier epoch of the country. With a national and pardonable logic, or association of ideas, the Easy Chair enlarged upon the value of historical relics, of monuments, of visible traditions; and urged possibly that it made life a little barer, a little less poetic, here than it would otherwise be.

The temerity of such a strain of remark does not seem very extravagant; it might indeed be put forth without any secret hostility to human rights, to liberty, to the equality of men, and even without a sigh for the repose of effete despotisms, and the traditions of outworn monarchies. But not in the opinion of a certain excellent journal, which we will agree to call the Bugle of Freedom, and which blew a sonorous blast and rallying cry against the sentiments of the Easy Chair's mild and innocent suggestions. "Monuments!" blew the Bugle of Freedom, "monuments! remains, traditions! Old lumber and rotten timber! What in the name of humanity have all these to do with a manly and patriotic sentiment? Look at Egypt; what have the Pyramids done for the civilization of Egypt? and we hope they are monuments, and ancient enough. Look at Greece; the very queen-mother of the noblest architecture! Look at Italy, teeming with 'storied monuments,' and what do we see?" played the Bugle of Freedom. "What do we see? Do we wish to be Egyptians, or modern Greeks, or Italians? Heaven forbid!" And the resounding Bugle seemed to execute roulades and runs and trills of contempt at the unhappy Easy Chair, which was gazing vacantly at Egypt, Greece, and Italy, as the Bugle had directed.

Has the Bugle of Freedom no drawer, or box, or casket of any kind, in which there is, possibly, a yellow rose-bud, faded years and years ago, in the days when it was a mere raw, shrill, piping flageolet? Has it no bundle of letters, worn and parted at the seam; no knotted handkerchief hidden out of sight, that shall never be more unknotted; no glove, delicate and perfumed, still holding the form gained by soft pressure upon a hand that shall never again be pressed. Is there no tree in the garden, in a public square, by the road-side, in a green field by a brook, under which, at every hour of the day and night, whenever and with whomsoever it is passed, there stand a youth and maid who shall be seen of men no more. Is there no house in town or country from whose windows long vanished faces look when the Bugle passes by, and in whose unchanged rooms there are figures of old and young whose presence is infinitely tender and chastening? Would life be richer and better and more manly and inspiring for the Bugle if all these were swept away? Would the rights of man and eternal justice be more secure if some morning Biddy should throw old letters, old rose-buds, and old handkerchiefs into the fire, and the woodman would not spare the old tree, and the haunted old household be burned up or pulled down? That is the whole question.

It is merely a matter of association. It is in human nature; the Easy Chair did not put it there. The mysterious delight in the most ancient and inarticulate remains of human skill is the recognition by the soul of man of its identity and endless continuation; and when you descend from that Cyclopean work in the foundation of the wall of the temple at Jerusalem to the knotted handkerchief and the yellow bud, you have only come, O Bugle, to the individual delight in one's own experience, to the unsealing of sweet fountains forgotten, and the quickening of sanitary emotions. Surely when you were travelling and delighting yourselves in Greece you did not come upon the plain of Marathon with the same emotion that you cross the Hackensack meadows in the Philadelphia train. But what was the difference? Byron's lines sang themselves out of your mouth:

"The mountains look upon Marathon,
And Marathon looks on the sea."

Why did Byron's lines rise in your memory? Why did Byron write the lines? Why was your glance eager and your mind pensive and your imagination alert and your soul full of generous impulse when you stood on the plain of Marathon? Because of the great conflict between two civilizations long and long and long ago--the conflict of ideas of which you are the child; the conflict of men essentially like you and your brothers who fought at Gettysburg and Vicksburg.

But if there be this subtle and over-powering influence in association with a place, although it is earth and trees and grass and stone, is there not the same charm and power in association with a building, a tree, a stream? And while Marathon has not saved Greece from decline, has it not been one of the natural influences that have pleaded against national decay? And could Marathon and Salamis and Platæa have been swept out of mind, would not the decline have been a thousandfold hastened? Are we not stronger and braver for Bunker Hill and Saratoga, for the sunken Alabama and the Wilderness?

For the same reason, O loud-blowing Bugle of Freedom, that it would be a national injury to forget the great deeds, it is in a lesser degree a misfortune, although an inevitable one, gradually to lose from sight the objects that recall them. Would it be a pity to shovel Bunker Hill into Boston Back Bay? The battle of Bunker Hill would still remain in history, the advantages of the Revolutionary War which it began would still survive; but something we should have lost, and the argument that urged the sparing of the hill would be sound and natural. So with the old State-house. To destroy it or essentially to change it was in a lesser degree to shovel Bunker Hill into the Back Bay.

The town of Stratford-upon-Avon seemed not to be conscious of the great truth which the Easy Chair is expounding when it seemed disposed to let the house of Shakespeare be sold, and even moved away. But England at least was wiser, and the house remains. Some day--and the Easy Chair dedicates the remark as a conciliatory conclusion to the Bugle of Freedom--some day the Bugles of that same honored name will gaze at the present printing-office, where a sympathetic Easy Chair trusts the jobs are many and profitable, and will say, with emotion, "There the parental Bugle of Freedom blew its melodious note." It will do the Buglets no harm, as they return to their palatial mansions, to reflect upon the simple and sturdy origin of their prosperity.

The Easy Chair has the more feeling upon this subject because directly opposite to the vast and many-windowed building from which it surveys the world stands the old Walton House. Eighty years ago it was one of the finest houses in town. The Square, where now business hums and roars, then softly murmured with fashion, and this was the Faubourg St. Honoré of the republican city. The house still has the stately air of the old régime. The stone pediment of the windows is elaborate and arrests the idle eye. But it is now a sailors' boarding-house. The walls are cracked, and the house has an indescribable aspect of shabbiness and neglect. Surrounded by the mere mob of three-storied modern brick buildings, it has evidently become reckless and lost to shame, like a king's heir fallen into debauched and degraded courses. Long since slighted and forgotten, its peers utterly gone, their descendants moved miles away, and become a modern generation about the reservoir on Murray Hill, the Easy Chair has yet more than once, late on a summer afternoon, when trade had gone up-town, and silence and dreams were setting in, beheld the old Walton House glancing covertly across the street at our modern, many-windowed, bustling palace of busy traffic with a look of high-born haughtiness and contempt. "There may be trade going on within my walls," it seems to say as it gazes, "but I am innocent of it. I was not built for trade, at least." And then the Easy Chair, with its own eyes fixed upon the cracked and leaning walls, seems to see it reeling away into its dingy obscurity.

It is a tradition of Franklin Square that Washington once lived in the Walton House; and it is certain that Citizen Genet married there the daughter of Governor George Clinton. Once indeed, some years since, the Easy Chair, hearing an extraordinary and novel sound like the smooth rolling of a stately chariot, thought, as the day was late and the twilight was already beginning, that some of the fine old societies of that fine old day had somehow forgotten themselves into somehow returning to the scene of so much last-century festivity; and anxious to see both them and their amazement at the transformation of the fashionable square, rolled itself to the window, and, looking out--saw the first horse-car rumbling gravely along to the neighboring ferry.

Remaining at the window, and mindful of Washington at the old Walton House, the Easy Chair was aware of Mercury, who runs the editorial errands and is a much-meditating young messenger, standing by his side with one of the editorial brethren.

"Mercury," said the editorial brother, "do you know who Washington was?"

"The father of his country," promptly replied the messenger.

"And what did he ever do that was notorious and disreputable?"

Mercury was plainly indignant at this question, and answered, evasively: "Well, he never told a lie, if he did chop down his father's apple-tree."

"And what else did he do?"

With energy Mercury responded: "He whipped the bloody Britishers."

"And what became of him when he grew up?"

"He was President."

"Mercury," said the editorial brother, "do you see that house across the street?"

"The old Walton House?"

"The old Walton House."

"Of course I do."

"Well, Mercury, he lived there."

"Who lived where?" demanded Mercury, with wide-opening eyes.

"George Washington lived in the old Walton House."

"But not the same George?" asked Mercury, doubtfully. "Not the first President?"

"The first wood-chopper of fame, and the first President," replied the brother quill.

Mercury gazed at the house earnestly for a little while and then warmly demanded, "Why don't they keep his old sign-board up to let folks know?"

Bugle of Freedom! out of the mouths of babes and sucklings the truth proceeds. It was the same instinct that caused the Easy Chair to exclaim a year ago, as it contemplated the prospect of changing the old and famous State-house, "Why take the old sign down?"

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Historic Buildings