Christopher Morley’s Description Of West End Avenue – Part 2
In 1932 Christopher Morley took an apartment at 54 Riverside Drive on the corner of 78th Street, a block away from his subject.
Here is the conclusion of Christopher Morley’s essay on West End Avenue.
West End is incomparably the most agreeable and convenient of large residential streets, second only to Riverside Drive—whose decline in prestige is mysterious. For that famous old glue-pot stench that used to come drifting across from Jersey has vanished altogether. West End is well churched and doctored. The abandoned hospital at the 72nd Street corner is something of a shock, but the Avenue hurries on uptown, consoling itself with Mr. Schwab’s chateau, its proudest architectural surprise. I wander past Mr. Schwab’s railings at night, noting the caretaker’s light in the attic and regretting that Charley seems to get so little use of his braw mansion. I like to see the homes of our great barons gay with lights and wassail: I have a thoroughly feudal view of society and believe that we small gentry acquiesce gladly in our restricted orbit provided the nabobs are kicking up a dust at the top of the scale. Sometimes I fear that our rich men have been intimidated by modern doctrines and do not like to be seen at frolic. Nonsense! They owe it to us. When a man builds a French chateau he should live in it like a French seigneur. For the gayety of West End Avenue I desire to see more lights in that castle, and hear the organ shaking the tall panes.
Certainly with so many doctors (their names provide the only sociological data West End Avenue
offers to the student) the street must be healthy. In older days many expectant couples used to come in from the country to West End Avenue to patronize its private maternity hospitals. I knew one fortunate pair to whom the avenue always meant just that. Years later they revisited it, merely to hibernate,. and the wife looked round the comfortable sitting-room of the apartment. “I feel as if I ought to be having a baby,” she said.
Exceptionally discreet and undemonstrative, West End Avenue offers little drama to the eye. It makes no cajolery to the various arts and Bohemianisms: the modest signs of a Harp Teacher and Hungarian Table Board in one of its few remaining rows of old private domiciles come with a pleasant surprise. It is mainly the battle-ground of the great apartment brokers, Slawson & Hobbs versus Bing & Bing, or Sharp & Nassoit versus Wood Dolson. Occasionally appears the mysterious ensign of the Rebus Corporation. Bing, Bing, as Penrod used to say, and another
Monthly payment bit the dust. SUPT ON PREMISES is the motto of West End Avenue. If your necessity is an apartment with 12 rooms and 3 or 4 baths I think you will have no difficulty in finding one. At certain times of day you will see ladies urging their small dogs for an airing. It is a highway of both leases and leashes.
Behind those regular parallels of Stone is plenty of tumultuous life. There are not only doctors and churches but schools also. The avenue is at its prettiest when the children come pouring out of Number 9 at lunch time. In apartment windows you can see the bright eyes of mothers looking down to gee that the youngsters are safely on the way. In the afternoons games are chalked on pavements and the youthful bicyclist undulates among pedestrians, Riverside Park and the keen Hudson breeze are only a block away. It is the same breeze and the same
river that Edgar Allan Poe knew when he was writing The Raven at Broadway and 84th Street. It seems unlikely, and yet perhaps somewhere in those honeycombed cubes of building is a forehead as full of heat and music as his. They cannot spend all their lives with Amos ’n’ Andy or Mickey Mouse? When something thrilling comes along good Mr. Levy, the bookseller near Poe’s corner, will be quick to welcome it.
It would come from one of the side streets perhaps, rather than from West End Avenue itself. The side streets are more frank with life. There the little notice Vacancies is frequent. Not that West End does not have its moments of relaxation. Above 90th Street there are still a few genial old brownstones with curved bays and alluring circular windows in the attics. At 87th a kindergarten pastes on the windowpanes facsimile autumn leaves, cut from paper and crayon-colored, to remind its small prisoners what November is really like. At 95th and 96th are the open tennis courts that have been there many years and against the western end of the settlement called Pomander Walk old ladies come out, when the sun is warm, and sit in chairs on the pavement. High overhead on clear days you will observe sea-gulls swinging and soaring in the sky.
But in the main West End Avenue must remain an enigma. I have often walked it at night, scanning the rectangles of lighted panes and wondering. Between the dark stream on one side, the bright slices of Broadway on the other, what does it think about? It is too wise to be fashionable, yet it has a certain unostentatious dignity of its own, the more impressive because it has not thought much about it. Those massive portals of glass and iron have doormen with
starched neck-cloths and white gloves and braided trousers: I see them off duty sometimes at Bickford’s sitting to a cup of coffee. I know they are human, and perhaps profoundly bored: but speculation, a tender plant, abashes before such splendor. Alas, can it be that West End Avenue, like so many other things, has only the meanings we ourselves bring to it? It remains
one my favorite mysteries, and one of the few citadels (in this random city) of the most powerful order in the world: the not easily shakable Medium Class. It has its feet on a Power House.