When I first looked at Fifth Avenue by sunlight, in the tranquillity of Sunday morning, and when I last set eyes on it, in the ordinary peevish gloom of a busy sailing-day, I thought it was the proudest thoroughfare I had ever seen anywhere. The revisitation of certain European capitals has forced me to modify this judgment; but I still think that Fifth Avenue, if not unequaled, is unsurpassed.
One afternoon I was driving up Fifth Avenue in the company of an architectural expert who, with the incredible elastic good nature of American business men, had abandoned his affairs for half a day in order to go with me on a voyage of discovery, and he asked me, so as to get some basis of understanding or disagreement, what building in New York had pleased me most. I at once said the University Club—to my mind a masterpiece. He approved, and a great peace filled our automobile; in which peace we expanded. He asked me what building in the world made the strongest appeal to me, and I at once said the Strozzi Palace at Florence. Whereat he was decidedly sympathetic.
“Fifth Avenue,” I said, “always reminds me of Florence and the Strozzi.... The cornices, you know.”
He stopped the automobile under the Gorham store and displayed to me the finest cornice in New York, and told me how Stanford White had put up several experimental cornices there before arriving at finality. Indeed, a great cornice! I admit I was somewhat dashed by the information that most cornices in New York are made of cast iron; but only for a moment! What, after all, do I care what a cornice is made of, so long as it juts proudly out from the facade and helps the street to a splendid and formidable sky-line? I had neither read nor heard a word of the cornices of New York, and yet for me New York was first and last the city of effective cornices! (Which merely shows how eyes differ!) The cornice must remind you of Italy, and through Italy of the Renaissance. And is it not the boast of the United States to be a renaissance? I always felt that there was something obscurely symbolic in the New York cornice—symbolic of the necessary qualities of a renaissance, half cruel and half humane.
The critical European excusably expects a very great deal from Fifth Avenue, as being the principal shopping street of the richest community in the world. (I speak not of the residential blocks north of Fifty-ninth Street, whose beauty and interest fall perhaps far short of their pretensions.) And the critical European will not be disappointed, unless his foible is to be disappointed—as, in fact, occasionally happens. Except for the miserly splitting, here and there in the older edifices, of an inadequate ground floor into a mezzanine and a shallow box (a device employed more frankly and usefully with an outer flight of steps on the East Side), there is nothing