Thursday, January 4


Even Old New York Was Once New Amsterdam

We often forget that old New York was once, in the words of the song, New Amsterdam. Which is a great shame as the Dutch and Swedish heritage of New York, Jersey and Delaware adds a slight tinge of the exotic to the overpowering English Puritan chilliness of early American history. This has been remedied by the excellent little volume The Island at the Center of the World, which, among other things makes the point that according to standards of the time, the amount of goods paid by the Dutch colonists to the local tribe, was, if maybe a little cheap, not the ludicrous $24 worth of trinkets it has become in modern folklore. Plus, the Indians themselves tended to stick around, considering it less a sale than a sort of rent. Indeed, in later years, similar disagreements between Native Americans and Dutch colonists culminated in court battles rather than mutual massacres. The roots of American litigiousness are thus revealed.

(Another remedy towards diffusing the overpowering odor of Puritanism and its reaction during the era might be a careful study of the Spanish colonies, of course, but that would no doubt require students to be exposed to Popery, Baroque architecture, Mexican organ music, flan and other such dangerous ideas.)

Dutch civic pluralism was hardly a pure affair to begin with, born out of violence with Catholic Spain, and lapsed quickly into proto-dot-com vulgarity shortly after the heyday of Vermeer. It has since turned into something far more unpleasant. Still, at the very least, the hardy, oddball colonists of New Netherland could be relied upon to be interesting and also, like the Spanish, had a comparatively better track record in their dealings with the Indians.

This is rapidly turning into a digression, and I don't have any colorful anecdotes of Peter Minuit, one-legged Stuyvestant or the patroons on hand to divert you, so instead, naturally, I turn to buildings built three hundred years later. I now consult my copy of Stern's New York 1900, smelling strongly of mildew, propped up at my elbow like a missal. New York had a bout of Netherlandophilia about a hundred and fifteen years ago, manifested in a profusion of stepped gables, red brick, and bristling grey stone obelisks reared against the sky. Such Mitteleuropaische details are precious rare in this part of the world--outside nearly anywhere in America save among the Teutons and Poles of the Midwest--and are much to be welcomed. The upper West End became the center of such stylistic interpretations, and the upper reaches of Amsterdam Avenue was seen as a new city within the city and a new New Amsterdam. Local Knickerbocker families welcomed this rediscovery of an "indigenous" European heritage that might counterbalance the fancy-schmancy Beaux arts Parisian extravaganzas of the Fricks, Morgans and their ilk.

A Dutch Revival carriage house in the upper thirties.

Gabled row houses soon rose up, mixing Dutch and contemporary neo-Romanesque motives. The architect Robert W. Gibson contributed the splendid Collegiate Reformed Dutch Church in the West End, a fantasy of Dutch tile, stripey red-and-white brick and stone arches in an over-the-top but extremely accurate mingling of period sources. Unsurprisingly, these were largely secular ones--the Haarlem Meat Market, for instance--cleverly jiggled to appear more ecclesiastical than their Calvinist forebears might have liked. It is, however, quite charming in any case, and passing by it one could easily imagine oneself anywhere from Ostend into the Baltics--Stettin, Tallinn, Danzig, Kaunaus, or maybe even to rework it into a market hall in Catholic Germany.

Of course, it didn't last.

It is a shame they did not take the theme further, and, like the Dutch colors of the civic flag, dress the city councilors in the black robes and high hats of the States General. America's rich past offers much material to construct a more interesting folk-culture from--one is reminded of Chesterton's fantasy of a Pennsylvanian national costume equal parts Indian and Quaker--and yet we are so abominably afraid of looking silly. It's a fantasy, of course, and I'm not being wholly serious here (read deep geopolitical theories into this at your own risk), but why are we Americans so bad at making things look good?

Pity Columbus wasn't working for the Italians.

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