By Richard Howe
The extraordinarily rapid growth of New York in its “long” 19th century, 1790–1910, rarely fails to astonish, and this is true not only of its 100-fold population increase -— 70-fold in the old city, i.e., in Manhattan -— but also of the increase in its numbers of buildings: a 20-fold increase in Manhattan alone.
So it is safe to say that Manhattan was initially built up almost entirely in the city’s “long” 19th century, 1790–1910. Another century on, in 2010, the island’s resident population was 1,585,573, down 32% from the 1910 figure, and the number of buildings on the island had fallen by 50%, to about 46,200, though the total volume of enclosed space may have increased by as much as 40% or more. Nevertheless, nearly half of Manhattan’s existing buildings were erected prior to 1910, so that Manhattan is -— as any walk off its main avenues and cross streets will confirm —- still in considerable part a product of the 19th century. And, despite the later 20th century’s metal and glass curtain walls, Manhattan is still a city not only of brick exteriors but also, in much of its 19th century low-rise construction, of brick load-bearing walls.
Though iron came into use as a building material as early as the 1830s in Manhattan, and cast-iron architecture became iconic of the new commercial metropolis in the 1850s, most new building in the 19th century was brick or, rather, a combination of brick and timber, though stone was also used, both as a structural and as a facing material. Only in 1892 did the city’s building code begin to include provisions regulating the structural use of iron. The steel-cage skyscrapers that captured the world’s imagination were remarkably few in number in the early 20th century: out of the total of 92,749 buildings on the island in 1912 only 1,048 were above ten stories in height, only 51 above 20 stories, and only nine above 30 stories. As late as 1882, nearly 27% of Manhattan’s buildings were still built entirely of wood; only 73% were considered fireproof or semi-fireproof and most of the latter were the “ordinary” construction used in buildings of six stories or less: brick load-bearing walls supporting the timber joists and rafters of wooden floors and roofs, with wood-framed and wood-lathed walls for the interior. The fireproof and semi-fireproof buildings, even those with cast-iron fronts, were often heavy users of brick for exterior side and rear walls.
Some simplifications, to begin with: the 1811 Commissioners Plan made it relatively straightforward to subsequently divide the largely undeveloped island into some 100,000 building lots, usually 20–25 feet wide and 100 feet deep. It is reasonable to assume that most of the buildings put up in the 19th century fit onto single lots of this size, though of course there were many variations, as when a developer would buy three 20-foot lots and put up two 30-foot wide buildings. But assuming that half the lots were 20 feet wide and half of them 25, the average width would have been 22.5 feet. The back part of the lot was needed for outhouses, trash, stables, etc., so a building was usually no more than 60–80 feet deep. Again, split the difference and call it 70 feet. And we know from the 1912 survey that buildings in Manhattan at that time were, on average, 4.8 stories or 58 feet high, to which we might add another ten feet to account for foundations and basements.
Now combining these results with our estimated numbers of “standard developer’s buildings” and adding 10% for other uses — e.g., street and sidewalk paving, big water mains, sewage conduits — we arrive at an estimated total of roughly 40 billion bricks laid on the island of Manhattan 1790–1910 — given the roughness of the calculation we might more safely say somewhere in the range of 28–56 billion bricks. That is, in the vernacular, “a ton” of bricks. More precisely, it is on the order of 100 million tons of bricks, or something in the range 70–140 million tons.
At 1,000 bricks per day, and actually working, on the above assumptions, perhaps 200 days a year on average, a brick-layer would lay some 200,000 bricks a year, or some six million bricks in the course of a 30-year working life — life expectancies were shorter then. This suggests that Manhattan was built in the long 19th century by the efforts of a total some 6,000–7,000 full time-equivalent brick-layers — perhaps actually 10,000 individuals, when unemployment is taken into account. And for every two brick layers there was typically a third man carrying the hod, and none of them would have been working had not the basement been dug by unskilled laborers and large numbers of rough carpenters, finish carpenters, roofers, plasterers, plumbers (though not in the early years), glazers, painters, and so on, engaged to finish the job.
This extraordinary rate of growth resulted from an exceptionally positive confluence of four factors: demand, supply, labor, and capital. Demand was driven above all by the enormous increase in population, together with the demand for commercial buildings —- offices, warehouses, and industrial lofts for manufacturing -— to support the equally enormous increase in the city’s commercial development. It is unlikely -— probably impossible —- that this demand for buildings could have been met had it not been for the mechanization and industrialization of brick manufacturing that made brick a mass produced commodity in hitherto unprecedented quantities at unprecedentedly low prices. By the late 19th century, the brickyards in the Hudson River valley were supplying the city with as many as a billion bricks a year, while the advent of the steamboat and the railroad made supply at this distance feasible. The seemingly endless stream of immigrants assured that there was no shortage of cheap labor, both skilled and unskilled, for the building of New York. The post-1811 parcelling of the island into 100,000+ building lots, the capital requirements for would-be developers and made it possible for many more to work in parallel: the New York Real Estate Record’s 1898 History of Real Estate lists about 150 “leaders” active in real estate and building at that time; the total number of active developers was surely even larger than that.
Richard Howe is a frequent contributor to the Blotter, and is writing a history of New York as a built environment. He runs the photographic study New York in Plain Sight: The Manhattan Street Corners.
Sources and further reading
New York City Clerk David Valentine’s Manuals of the Corporation of the City of New York (1842–1866 & 1868–1870) provide numerous statistics on building in New York as well as maps for the years 1849–1853 and 1856 that show the built-up blocks of the city.
The Union History Company’s long out of print History of Architecture and the Building Trades of Greater New York (1899) remains an astonishing source of data on just about every aspect of its subject, including the uses of wood and the commerce in it in New York, as well as statistics on the numbers of buildings for various years, starting in the 17th century.
The Real Estate Record’s 1898 History of Real Estate, Building, and Architecture in New York City During the Last Quarter of a Century, drawn from this trade paper’s reporting over the years, is another astonishing compilation, with detailed statistics on building in the city as well as overviews of the leading real estate and construction firms.
The Heights of Buildings Commission’s 1913 Report is both a detailed survey of contemporary building trends and statistics in New York and a comparative study of these trends in other large cities both in the United States and in Europe.
Christopher Grey’s Office of Metropolitan History website is an invaluable source of advice and tools for 20th century buildings research.
Charles Lockwood’s Manhattan Moves Uptown (1976) provides a fine narrative of the northward growth of the city in the 19th century.
The David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, on-line at http://www.davidrumsey.com/, is an unrivalled resource for very high quality images of maps of New York, including, especially, a number of real estate atlases of Manhattan in the 19th century (including the 1891 Bromley’s used in this research note).