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The Ghost of Monsieur Stokes
Francis Morrone
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That his name resonates little with New Yorkers of today would have suited Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes just fine. Personal aggrandizement was not his game. He was that vanished breed of New Yorker: the self-deprecating patrician polymath and reformer. Effete in manners, aristocratic in temperament, and humble to a fault, he was, to outward appearances, the type that Edward Everett Horton portrayed to the laughter of Depression-era moviegoers. He was also a type that makes cities great.

To the extent that he is remembered at all, it is for his monumental history of New York City, The Iconography of Manhattan Island, published in six volumes from 1915 to 1928. For those who are alert or curious, however, the name of Stokes resounds throughout the city: on the Columbia University campus; at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Metropolitan Museum, the New York Public Library, and the Pierpont Morgan Library; and in the streets of the Lower East Side, among many other places. He was a perfect embodiment of Progressivism, as perfect as his confrere Teddy Roosevelt, though infinitely quieter.

Stokes was born in 1867, the eldest of the nine children of Helen (nee Phelps) and Anson Phelps Stokes (the overlapping names show how inbred the New York upper class was at this time). His childhood—in the large brownstone on the southeast corner of 37th Street and Madison Avenue that became, successively, the home of J. P. Morgan Jr., the headquarters of the Lutheran Church in America, and an extension to the Pierpont Morgan Library—seems something out of a novel about upper-class New York in the Age of Innocence. He went on winter sleigh rides up a largely unbuilt Fifth Avenue to the new Central Park; he spent idyllic summers on Staten Island. He was surrounded by the requisite patrician eccentricities, especially his mother's fondness for her pet monkeys. "They used to sit on her shoulder and warm their clammy little hands by putting them inside the neck of her dress," he recalled; one of them very nearly destroyed the Madison Avenue house by setting it on fire while playing with matches. Stokes was surrounded, too, by patrician high-mindedness, crucial to his development: his parents belonged to the mid-century "meliorist" movement, a forerunner of turn-of-the-century Progressivism.

Stokes graduated from Harvard in 1891. "I joined a rather `sporty' table," he recalled. "We had a room on the second floor of a frame building on Holyoke Street. There was a large old-fashioned square piano in the room, on which Jack Wendell used to play and sing after dinner. One night, when we were all feeling rather excited, I presume after some college athletic success, the other members of the table became rather boisterous—I was always quiet and well-mannered!—and proceeded to throw the furniture, including the piano, out of the window. We were promptly dismissed by the landlady on the following morning, and had to form a new table, this time exchanging our most outstanding `sporty' member (Foxhall Keene) for Joe Leiter, who, I well remember, had found a sure method for passing examinations without doing the prescribed course work—a bottle of champagne at breakfast did the trick, with amazing success."

When Stokes campaigned for the votes of Jewish students in his freshman class elections, many of them assumed that he must be Jewish too, since his name was Isaac. Though throughout his life he championed the inclusion of Jews, he did not wish to be taken for one: henceforth, he would always be I. N. Phelps Stokes, not Isaac Phelps Stokes.

He studied under some of the illustrious professors of Harvard's golden age, including Charles Eliot Norton. He took Josiah Royce's "Literary Aspects of the Bible" course, which 15 years later kindled T. S. Eliot's interest in primitive ritual. He joined every conceivable club and society. On Sundays, he attended Boston's Trinity Church, where the celebrated preaching of Phillips Brooks caught his imagination. "In the 1890s," he wrote, "the comforts and pleasures of life at Cambridge, as almost everywhere else, seem, in retrospect at least, to have reached their highest point. There was just the right combination of work and play, of seriousness and frivolity, to make life really enjoyable."

The seriousness deepened toward the end of his Harvard years, though, as his life's ambition to improve the condition of the poor grew clear to him. "I came to the conclusion," he later wrote, "that better housing for the working classes was one of the crying needs of the day, and that the designing and promotion of better housing, especially in our large cities, furnished as good an opportunity for useful service as any other profession." To this end, "to equip myself with a better working knowledge of architecture in general, before beginning to specialize," Stokes decided to study at Paris's Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He was there from 1894 to 1897, part of the last great wave of Americans at the Ecole, where they learned the principles that gave birth to the City Beautiful movement in America.

In Paris, Stokes's energized social conscience led him to dress as a hobo and steal into the night streets, holing up in flophouses where he could experience the plight of the destitute. He spent one night, he recounted, in "a French Bowery boarding-house, or rather `night-retreat,' frequented mostly by tramps and criminals. I left my apartment at about ten o'clock at night, having donned a very old and dilapidated suit, and a peaked cap bought for the purpose. I tied a red bandanna handkerchief around my neck, mussed up my hair and beard, smeared my face with charcoal, slipped by the concierge, and made my way through some of the less frequented streets to this `under-world' resort."

Come bedtime, he wrote, "I selected a seat between the two least disreputable and dangerous-looking characters, and prepared for slumber, but my companions conversed in loud whispers most of the night. The conversation covered many subjects, but I remember particularly that my nearest neighbors discussed the mysteries of Free Masonry." When he awoke in the morning, conditions weren't much better. "The soup did not look appetizing, and the bowls were very dirty, so I decided to wait for my breakfast until my return to the Boulevard St. Germain. I expected to have some difficulty in getting by the concierge, who usually took a good look at everyone who rang the bell and came in during the night. I suppose he was particularly sleepy this night, or rather morning, for, as I called out: `Monsieur Stokes,' he pulled the cord that released the latch without even raising his head from his pillow."

In later years, Stokes continued such escapades, and he recalled in particular "a night which I had spent some years before in the wood-yard of the Charity Organization Society in New York. . . . I arrived too late to do my regular stint of cutting wood, and also too late to secure a regular bed, escaping thereby the obligatory bath which went therewith. I was allowed to sleep on a table. . . . My immediate companions were two tramps who had recently worked as track-walkers on a railroad in the West. They asked me whether I had ever worked on a railroad. I told them that I had—which was true, as I was at the time president of the Nevada Central R.R."

As soon as he returned to New York from his three years in Paris, Stokes plunged wholeheartedly into housing reform. With his architect friend, John Meade Howells, the son of novelist and editor William Dean Howells, he entered a competition for the design of the University Settlement House on the Lower East Side, then America's worst slum. To the young architects' surprise, they won. The University Settlement House, which still stands at Eldridge and Rivington Streets, is a dignified classical structure of limestone and red brick. We think of Beaux-Arts-trained architects as excelling at monumental buildings, but they were equally adept at creating handsome, urbane, workaday buildings, of which University Settlement House is a superb example. Modernist critics like Lewis Mumford dismiss City Beautiful designers as being primarily concerned with slathering the city with "atavistic ornaments." But while such embellishment played its role, it was only as part of an overarching ideal of creating more salubrious and beautiful environments for every city dweller. Indeed, where the city's physical problems were at their worst, as on the Lower East Side, there clustered many of the City Beautiful planners and architects, together with their Progressive partners and patrons.

Stokes and Howells also de-signed several noteworthy structures for the prosperous, the most pleasing of which is Columbia University's St. Paul's Chapel. A Roman structure of brick and limestone, with a tile-vaulted portico, a domed crossing, and three beautiful apsidal windows by the important American artist John LaFarge, it is one of the loveliest small churches in New York. Stokes and Howells dissolved their partnership, while remaining friends, in 1917.

Stokes's housing-reform efforts culminated when, serving on the New York State Tenement House Commission, he coauthored the Tenement House Law of 1901, which created our present distinction between "old law" tenements, built according to the Tenement House Law of 1879, and "new law" tenements. The "old law" required ventilation and natural light for all interior as well as exterior rooms, which resulted in buildings with a characteristic "H" or "dumbbell" plan. The "new law" required tenements to have a host of other features, including broad side-courts, deep backyards, limited ground coverage, and larger rooms. It was, according to historian Roy Lubove, "among the most significant municipal reforms of the Progressive era."

Stokes worked on the federal government's very first foray into mass housing: the erection of communities for shipbuilders during World War I. He was a vociferous advocate of garden housing for the poor; indeed, mention Stokes's name around 1930, and people would hear "playgrounds." As an architect, Stokes designed the Tuskegee Model Tenements for Negroes built in 1901 on West 62nd Street, and as a director of the Phelps-Stokes Fund, the respected charity his sister established with her inheritance, he was for 40 years in the thick of housing-reform efforts in New York, all the way up to being an advisor to Mayor La Guardia.

In 1919 the Municipal Art Society put Stokes in charge of fund-raising for its new campaign to restore Central Park. In the course of researching the Iconography, he had unearthed Olmsted and Vaux's original Greensward plan for Central Park, long thought lost (and coincidentally, the irascible Calvert Vaux had taught young Stokes how to row in the park years before). Based on the plan, and on Olmsted's papers (whose publication Stokes had overseen), the Municipal Art Society and the Art Commission staved off countless proposals that would have encroached upon the park, insisting through-out the twenties that the only way to save the park was to adhere to a hard-line "original intent" approach. This meant not only that no one be allowed to build, as was proposed, a stadium in the park, but also that the park be kept clear of various other recreational amenities.

Stokes led the fight in the early 1930s to keep ball fields off the Great Lawn of Central Park. Tammany Hall wanted the playing fields, seizing upon them as a populist issue. But in 1933 Fiorello La Guardia defeated Tammany at the polls, and though he too was a populist, he required the support of the upper classes and threw them a bone by siding with Stokes on this issue.

Stokes's best friends were, as he put it, "fine Christian characters, gentlemen par excellence and scholars." They had over-the-top patrician names like Foxhall Keene, Electus Litchfield, and H.Van Buren Magonigle. What, then, were he and his friends to make of Fiorello Raffaele Enrico La Guardia?

To say that Stokes and La Guardia got off to a rocky start would be an understatement. La Guardia, upon taking office, attended a hearing of the Art Commission, of which Stokes was president. The mayor read a note: "On my first visit, as mayor, to [my] office, as I crossed the threshold, I was confronted by an angry group of well-fed cockroaches. Understanding that the City Hall is under the particular care of the Art Commission, I was much surprised to find that conditions had been allowed to reach such a pass. I must ask you, Mr. President, to take, promptly, such measures as will preclude the possibility of its continuance." When Stokes mildly attempted to explain that the commission served a curatorial, not a janitorial, function, La Guardia feigned incomprehension.

The mayor clearly had a chip on his shoulder about the "top hat" crowd that controlled organizations like the Art Commission and the Municipal Art Society. He had enjoyed their support, but a vast cultural gulf gaped between them. As head of the Art Commission, Stokes had the official power to delay every city building project and force revisions. La Guardia chafed at always having to clear the Stokesian hurdle, and his parks commissioner, Robert Moses, simply ignored the Art Commission. The problem for Stokes and Co. was that La Guardia and Moses were the reformers they had long championed; had a Jimmy Walker employed such obstructionist tactics, Stokes would undoubtedly have sued the city. Under La Guardia and Moses, he let things slide.

As the Fusionist candidate against the corrupt Tammany regime, La Guardia had the overwhelming support of New York's bluebloods, who had long led the anti-Tammany crusade. Part of what made La Guardia special was that he had a populist appeal that could counter that of the Tammany men, yet he worked this appeal from the reform side. Still, the differences in background and temperament between La Guardia and Stokes were the stuff of comedy, even farce. La Guardia loved to mimic the effete Stokes, already virtually a self-parody with his pince-nez and high, cracking voice. The mayor was short, fat, loud, and to refined sensibilities abrasive; Stokes was tall and skinny and the model of demure gentlemanliness—he had answered to such prep-school and college nicknames as "Chippie" and "Toodles." Yet the two found common ground—not only in their shared aspirations for the city but in a place that surprised them both: the feelings of each for his wife.

Edith Stokes, nee Minturn, was a beauty who, like Stokes himself, seemed to spring straight from the pages of Henry James. She was the very model of the new, forthright, intelligent, strong American woman—think of Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady. Anyone who has visited the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art has met her (and her husband): John Singer Sargent's great portrait of the couple is mesmerizing (see page 98). A whole ideal of modernity and American nationality radiates from Edith's image. Less well known is that she served as the model for Daniel Chester French's colossal Statue of the Republic, the centerpiece of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. (It still stands in the former fairgrounds, in Jackson Park on Chicago's South Side.)

Edith Minturn met Isaac on one of the Stokeses' summer vacations in Staten Island, where Edith had been born. Her mother was the sister of Josephine Shaw Lowell and Robert Gould Shaw, Bostonians transplanted to Staten Island. Josephine, a crusading social reformer and founder of the Charity Organization Society, had profoundly influenced Isaac from well before he met her niece. (The Josephine Shaw Lowell Fountain in Bryant Park was New York's first civic monument dedicated to a woman.) Robert Gould Shaw, an abolitionist who enlisted in the Union Army through New York's Seventh ("society") Regiment, later became colonel of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first African-American regiment of northern soldiers. Killed leading a charge on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, he is memorialized in the exquisite monument by Saint-Gaudens in the Boston Common as well as in the film Glory. The Shaws and the Min-turns were, if possible, even more fiercely reformist than the Phelpses and the Stokeses.

An equally passionate reformer, the Reverend William Rainsford, who officiated at the wedding of Isaac and Edith in 1895, would say of her: "I have known one or two women as beautiful; one or two women as interesting; one or two women as spiritual; but for the combination of the three I have never known her equal." By the 1930s, however, a series of strokes had left her speechless and paralyzed. Stokes nevertheless persisted in his belief that her mental faculties remained intact, and for the four or five years left to her he spent most of his time at her bedside, reading to her and telling her jokes, and wheeling her through Central Park.

La Guardia, of course, had similarly nursed his wife during the 17 months it took her to die of tuberculosis. This was the most upsetting event of La Guardia's life, and his famed teetotaling was said to be a reaction to his yearlong alcoholic binge following his wife's death in 1921. When La Guardia learned of Stokes's ordeal, all the bickering and backbiting ended, and the two men not only began to behave cordially to each other; they actually became friends. There is some evidence that Stokes was the first to call La Guardia "Little Flower." La Guardia responded by calling Stokes, affectionately, "Old Pomposity."

As head of the Art Commission, Stokes oversaw the city's WPA mural program, eliciting harsh criticism from the art community, which charged that Stokes had no respect for modern or abstract art—as was true. Stokes's "reactionary" taste rejected not only abstractionists but even artists who today appear almost conservative. Ben Shahn, for example, proposed a suite of paintings for the Rikers Island penitentiary that Stokes dismissed as "sordid" in manner and matter. "Painted in the crudest and most offensive modernistic style," he said, they "contrast[ed] the horrors of the old with the scarcely less repulsive new methods of punishment in our prisons." They would depress the prisoners, he said—surely a unique indictment in the annals of outrage over "modernistic" art.

On the other hand, he commissioned and helped finance Edward Laning's now-beloved series of murals relating the history of the recorded word in the third-floor rotunda of the New York Public Library. (One of the corridors off the rotunda leads to the I. N. Phelps Stokes Gallery and the I. N. Phelps Stokes Collection of historical prints.) The vast majority of WPA work in New York is traditionalist, thanks—for better or worse—to Stokes. The art community petitioned the mayor to dump Stokes, but La Guardia saw that he could make political capital from standing in the way of modernists and radicals, whether political or artistic. Remember, this is around the time that the mayor forbade Bertrand Russell to teach at City College, allegedly because of the philosopher's atheistic views. "Any people that insist on progressive government and maintain conservative art are pretty well balanced," La Guardia held. Stokes would have agreed enthusiastically.

Stokes's greatest claim on our attention is his magnum opus, The Iconography of Manhattan Island, which has established him as the greatest historian New York has ever had. Its six volumes, published between 1915 and 1928, reproduce historical prints and maps, and provide stupendously detailed chronologies and bibliographies tracing the physical development of Manhattan from earliest Dutch colonial times to the twentieth century. The historian John A. Kouwenhoven says it is "the most magnificent collection of New York pictures ever yet, or ever likely to be, published." More to the point, it is, as architect and writer Norval White puts it, "the most exhaustive record of a built place ever attempted, let alone fulfilled."

The first three volumes present the bulk of the topographical material in the form of prints and maps. Volume 2, for example, opens with a 124-page scholarly essay entitled "Cart-ography: An Essay on the Development of Knowledge Regarding the Geography of the East Coast of North America." There follows a heavily annotated list of all known maps—including those thought to be lost—of Manhattan through the seventeenth century. But the true, invaluable heart of Stokes's enterprise shines through, to take only one example, in a section on "The Castello Plan Showing the City of New Amsterdam in the Year 1660." It takes five separate plates to reproduce the whole of this map. The final plate, each of its buildings and lots numbered, is the key to an improbably thorough section of "Topographical, Biographical, and Historical Data." An example: "Block A, No. 1: Lodowyck Pos, cabinet-maker, and captain of the Rattle Watch bought this house and lot from Jan Martyn, May 21, 1655, for 600 florins ($240.), to be paid in equal installments of 200 florins each, the first, however, to consist of two cows." And it goes on and on, with each bit of information itself thoroughly annotated. And as if Stokes hasn't given us enough in this volume, he throws in a "Check-List" of "Early New York Newspapers (1725-1811)."

Volumes 4 and 5 are a daunt-ingly exhaustive day-by-day chronology of the city from 565 (no, a digit is not missing) to 1909. Ever wonder what happened in New York on November 18, 1680? "Consternation is caused . . . by the appearance of an enormous comet, one of the most magnificent on record." Later that year "A negro couple, Swan and wife, are fined 25 shillings by the court of mayor and alderman `for keeping a Disorderly house, selling drinke to negroes & entertaining them at unseasonable hour.'" The final chronology entry, in Volume 5, for September 25, 1909, de-scribes the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, which featured "aeroplane flights over the harbour by Wilbur Wright— the first successful aeroplane flights in the neighborhood of Manhattan Island."

The final volume includes the most thorough New York bibliography ever undertaken, from a complete record of "Original Grants and Farms" to ecclesiastical records, manuscripts, newspapers, broadsides, public and private archive material, court records, real-estate records, and, not least, published books and articles.

The thing that first strikes any user of the Iconography is how utterly improbable it is that a man should have gone to all this effort. The overwhelming impression is that this is one of the most lavish and useful scholarly productions in the history of mankind. But it is by no means a work with the dramatic or interpretative quality of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Carlyle's French Revolution. The Iconography is a different form of historical work altogether: an expert gathering and sifting of primary materials whose like we will never see again.

Inspiration to undertake the Iconography struck Stokes in 1909—the year when New York celebrated the tercentenary of Henry Hudson's voyage up the river that was later to bear his name as well as the centenary of Robert Fulton's steamboat. As part of the civic festivities—as elaborate and enthusiastic as the 1986 Statue of Liberty centennial—museums, department stores, and post offices exhibited images and artifacts of New York and American history throughout the city. Fired up by this swelling interest, Stokes related how he "rushed from dealer to dealer, and spent every spare moment delving through portfolios and drawers of old stock"—before competing collectors could snap it all up.

Looking back, Stokes later said of his Iconography: "I now realize that it involved an expenditure of time, energy, and money, which was probably out of proportion to the results achieved, and consumed many hours which should have been devoted, not only to my office, but to my family, and to social amenities, so that, on the whole, I suspect that it has proved a rather selfish, perhaps even a narrowing, influence on my life." Posterity takes a different view: without question, The Iconography of Manhattan Island is the single most vital resource for historians of New York City.

Although Stokes was born a millionaire, he was anything but by the 1930s, when the Depression ravaged his real-estate portfolio; and though not exactly pauperized, by 1940 he was living in a two-room-and-kitchenette on the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 70th Street. When he dined out it was usually at Schrafft's; indeed, his patrician reserve wavers in his memoirs only when he rhapsodizes about Schrafft's 40-cent breakfast, to him a marvel of civilization.

Stokes had that characteristic historian's gift of looking at the world and sensing ghostly emanations. He would not merely think of but actually see, as though by some special sense, the canal that was covered over 150 years ago, or the man, dead 75 years, who once lived in a house on this or that site. This capacity grew out of his more general belief in ghosts and his insistence that he had had authentic ghostly encounters, described in detail throughout his typescript memoirs. And he often expressed his growing obsession with the history of New York City in terms of a psychic connection with the past. "I have long specialized in dreams of old New York, and they are the most delightful of all my dreams," he wrote. "I usually start from some point in the modern city, and on my way—perhaps to keep an appointment at some other well-known point—I am tempted to try a short-cut. I wander over the hills and valleys, and often through virgin forests, and sometimes come out on the shore of the Hudson or the East River where I recognize the topography from the old maps, and take great pleasure in searching for landmarks which I know exist—or at least existed at the time pictured in my dream. Sometimes I find them, and am thrilled by the discovery, but curiously they are almost never inhabited. Al-though the streets are sometimes populated, I generally pass unnoticed—apparently unseen!"

No wonder he especially valued the concrete, living presence of the past within the present. When he led the fight to save the eighteenth-century St. John's Chapel from destruction, he wrote to its owners, the vestry of Trinity Church, that the proposed demolition "comes as a surprise and shock to the community, saddening the hearts of those who reverence the ancient monuments of our city, and believe in the uplifting power of venerable traditions and accumulated effort, and the refining and ennobling influence of dignified and beautiful architecture."

Stokes died in 1944, at the age of 77. By then he was himself an ancient monument of the city, whose refining and ennobling influence still speaks to us today.

 

 


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