Sunday, March 25, 2007

'Springfield Present and Prospective (1905), The Visible Charm, As It Was, Is, and May Be,' Excerpt VI

The first Sunday of Spring, and in typical New England fashion, the snow that was predicted overnight turned to rain, with sun breaking through the clouds forecast for later on today and possibly thunderstorms tomorrow afternoon. The only thing reliable about New England weather is its unreliability.

We continue our journey through 'Springfield Present and Prospective' (Pond & Campbell 1905) with section two, 'Commercial and Municipal,' of part III, 'Architectural Garments,' from chapter one, 'The Visible Charm, As It Was, Is, and May Be,' written by Eugene C. Gardner.

Continued from: 'III. Architectural Garments, 1. The Personal Equation in Houses.'

III. Architectural Garments

2. Commercial and Municipal
Perhaps there is no better illustration of the evolution of business architecture in the older parts of this country than in the main commercial avenue of an old New England city like Springfield. Beginning with a corner grocery, detached stores and shops gradually extended along either side of the street, with a sprinkling of dwelling-houses, the latter being sooner or later given over to business and the vacant lots filled in until the principal street presented a continuous wall of buildings, each with its own proprietor and line of business. Before the days of elevators, buildings were commonly two or three, rarely four, stories in height, and after fire ordinances prohibited the use of wood for external walls, red brick, with a mild peppering of granite or brownstone, were the most available and useful materials. These earlier business blocks might almost be classified as factories, so simple were they in design, so strictly utilitarian in character. As business prosperity increased there was a larger outlay for more expensive material and skillful workmanship without essential departure from the simpler forms. These quiet, serviceable structures making no claim to architectural display, still produce the most pleasing effect. They have something of the aristocratic dignity of old families; they are at peace with one another; naked and not ashamed.

Really fine, scholarly examples of commercial architecture are so few and far between that they tend to exaggerate by contrast the homeliness of the earlier structures, while the fantastic and sometimes frantic efforts at ornament and variety, of what may be called the transition period, where each building is indifferent, if not openly hostile, to its neighbor, only produce architectural confusion and discord. Probably merchants and architects will need to be born again several times over before either will voluntarily sacrifice contemporary popular applause and a chance for vociferous advertyising, in order to educate the public taste.

As might be expected from the conditions of business prosperity and freedom from political graft, and from the general culture of the citizens, our municipal buildings are usually well adapted to their various uses, of good style and quality. Indulgence in monumental features for the sake of impressive architecture is rare. The prevailing and apparently irremovable handicap in all public work is the constant change of executive. Sometimes this occurs during the progress of important undertakings, men of different tastes, divergent judgement and, perhaps, opposite ideas as to public economy and utility, are called upon to complete work begun by others whose taste and intentions they do not approve.

Inasmuch as the average sentiment of those to whom the members of a city government feel responsible and look for their official support is never in favor of that which is absolutely the best, it follows that the highest excellence is rarely attained in municipal work. Sometime we may arrive at the dignity of a permanent board of public works that shall also be a competent board of censors. We shall also learn that temporizing for the sake of present saving is culpable waste, and that thorough, high-class, fire-proof building is the only true economy.
Next week: 'III. Architectural Garments, 3. Churches, Monuments and Chimneys.'

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