Gotham Logo Gotham Logo  


by Richard Howe

Richard Howe is the author of New York in Plain Sight: The Manhattan Street Corners. He is currently working on a book, The Look of the City, to show what it is that makes Manhattan look the way it does. His “Little Pre-History of the Manhattan Grid” and “Notes on the Deforestation of Manhattan Island” have previously been featured on the Gotham Center’s History Blotter.


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. In 1790 there were perhaps as many as 5,000 buildings in the built-up part of the City of New York, most of them below today’s Duane Street on the west side of the island of Manhattan and below Broome Street on the east side, but only a very few of them east of Rutgers Farm, i.e., east of today’s Montgomery Street. A century later, in 1889, the Bureau of Building Inspections reported 105,746 buildings on the island of Manhattan, probably the peak year or very near to it, after which the increasing pace at which older and smaller buildings, especially downtown, were being replaced with larger ones led to an ongoing decline in the total number of buildings on the island, though not in the volume of space enclosed by them. At that time the island was almost solidly built-up as far north as 135th Street, and building activity extended up to 155th Street and even beyond. The year 1887 had marked what turned out to be an all-time high of about 3,500 new building plans filed in Manhattan, after which the number of new plans filed also began an irregular but marked decline, falling below 1,000 after 1910 and, after a modest boom in the 1920s, declining to well below 500 in the Great Depression. The figures suggest that the 1890s marked the onset of a “closing of the frontier” on the island: by 1910 there were few unimproved lots left to build on, so that new construction involved the additional expense of acquiring already improved properties and demolishing the existing structures standing on them. After peaking at 2,331,542 in 1910, the population of the Manhattan began a 70-year decline, reversing what for over a century had been the most important driver of new construction in the city.


New York in 1789. Shading shows the built-up area of the city.


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.


New York in 1850. Shading shows the built-up area of the city.


That’s a lot of bricks, even more than the raw building counts would suggest, for along the way to its peak of over 100,000 buildings, Manhattan saw the demolition of tens of thousands of older buildings dating from before the Civil War. The figures given in Valentine’s Manuals of the Corporation of the City of New York 1841–1870, the Real Estate Record, and other more or less contemporary sources suggest that Manhattan saw the erection of something on the order of 150,000 buildings 1790–1910, which implies that something like 57,000 were demolished or otherwise destroyed, e.g., by fire or structural failure, in the same period of time. These 150,000 or so buildings divide not quite equally into some 73,000 pre-1865, of which perhaps 60% or 49,000 were brick construction, and 77,000 post-1865, of which as much as 87% or about 67,000 were brick, i.e., something on the order of 116,000 brick buildings went up in Manhattan between 1790 and 1910.


New building plans filed in Manhattan, 1834 to 1912. Compiled from Valentine’s Manuals, the Real Estate Record’s History of Real Estate, New York city database searches via the Office of Metropolitan History website, and miscellaneous contemporary sources.


How many bricks is that? We should be very lucky to arrive at an estimate that is correct to within a factor of two, and of course we have no way of directly checking our result — if we did, we would use that data instead of our estimate — and must instead rely on a rough consistency with the available data on brick production in the region in the 19th century and such data as the decennial census collected on occupations. But even with these reservations, the exercise of estimating Manhattan’s demand for bricks in the 19th century may tell us something about how the city as it stands today came to be. We may be guessing, but we can educate our guessing, and it is this education that, if anything, makes the effort worthwhile.

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.


Fifth Avenue to Convent Avenue, 125th Street to 136th Street, 1891. Vacant lots (white) and brick buildings (pink), with old farm boundaries. The area is almost solidly built-up. Bromley’s Atlas, 1891


On these assumptions, we can define a fictional but useful “standard issue post-Civil War developer’s building”: two load-bearing brick side walls 70 long feet by 70 feet high (basement and foundations included) and front and back brick walls 22.5 feet wide by 70 feet high (again with basement and foundations included). Multiplying these dimensions together and then subtracting 720 square feet for doors and windows front and back, we arrive at a nominal estimate of 12,580 square feet of brick walls and foundations. Insofar as these buildings complied with the city’s later 19th century building code, they were on average five bricks thick — thicker at the bottom, thinner at the top. At 32 bricks per square foot of wall of this thickness, we arrive at a total of about 379,520 bricks for our “standard issue post-Civil War developer’s building.” A comparably “standard issue pre-Civil War developer’s building” would be only three to four stories high or on average 42 feet, with load bearing walls averaging only four bricks thick, 24 bricks per square foot, for a total estimate of only 218,784 bricks per such building. (The precision of these figures is, of course, an artifact of calculation; what is meaningful are the rounded numbers, e.g., in this latter instance, 220,000, or even 200,000, rather than the seductive but spurious exactitude of 218,784.)

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.


Madison Avenue to St. Nicholas Avenue, 136th Street to 147th Streets, 1891. Vacant lots (white) and brick buildings (pink), with old farm boundaries. Most of the area is yet to be developed. Bromley’s Atlas, 1891


A brick-layer in the 19th century was expected to be able to lay 1,000 bricks in the course of a ten-hour day. At the 19th century hourly rate, i.e., 100 bricks per hour, it would take 400 million brick-layer hours to lay 40 billion bricks, i.e., 40 million brick-layer days, or, figuring a 3,000 hour work-year — 50 six-day workweeks at ten hours per day — 133,333 brick-layer years (again, the precision is spurious), which amounts to an average of 1,333 fully-employed brick-layers each year for a 100 years. The number of new buildings erected in each year varied by a factor of four or more, and with it the number of actively employed brick-layers, from perhaps as few as 500 in the earlier part of the century to as many as 6,000 towards its end, with fewer actually working during the recessions that followed the many financial panics of the century, especially the major crises of 1837, 1865, 1875, and the long depression of the 1890s. The peak boom years of course had the opposite effect, requiring more brick-layers than usual.


Vacant lots in Inwood, 1891. Inwood has been laid out, but development has yet to begin. Vacant lots (white) and brick buildings (pink), with old farm boundaries. Bromley’s Atlas, 1891


These numbers accord reasonably well with the census statistics on occupations in the city for the later 19th century. These statistics also suggest that unemployment was a regular part of the brick-layer’s life in the city, with as many as a fourth of all those claiming to be brick-layers reporting being unemployed for a month at the time the census was taken and another fourth reporting being unemployed for several months. Masonry, including the brick-layer’s trades, was organized early in the century but despite the efforts of these early unions, employment was frequently by the job or even by the day and offered little in the way of job security.

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.


The closing of the Manhattan frontier: Above 155th Street, Washington Heights and Inwood. By 1924 the island had been almost completely built-up: even in Inwood few unimproved lots remained open for new construction. Aerial survey, 1924.


The city’s northward expansion up the island of Manhattan 1790–1910 progressed at a rate of about two blocks per year across the whole width of the island, though with many year-to-year variations, and with the center of the island generally leading the rest. Put differently, the city expanded northward at an average rate of roughly a thousand buildings a year, albeit again with wide variations year-to-year.

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.


Bricks, circa 1910. The pattern is called Flemish Bond and is one of the most commonly found in New York. Photo by Richard Howe.


The legacies of New York’s long 19th century are manifold and many of them quite grand; among the least grand but most pervasive is the visual experience of the city as a texture of brickwork. Despite their many variations in color and texture, bricks are relatively uniform in size as a result of their haptic relationship to the dimensions of the human hand. Seen, as they usually are, in great numbers and at the distance of a street width or more, bricks are perceived as brickwork, as a texture that varies in roughness but rarely approaches the smoothness of concrete or glass. It is a texture more akin to jute than to silk or satin, with the difference perhaps that in the case of bricks, the coarser texture is the more pleasing to the eye, particularly in the cross-lights of early mornings and late afternoons. Though there are perhaps only half as many bricks in Manhattan today as there were 100 years ago, bricks remain by far the most numerous of all the ubiquities that constitute not only the physical structure of the city but the foundation and greater part of its visual unity as well. They are quite literally the building blocks not only of the physical city but also of our visual experience of it. They tell us, over and over again, in a way that the newer expanses of concrete, metal, and glass perhaps do not, that the city is a human creation, and a hand-made one at that, built by people and ultimately for  people: the material spirits who made — and make — New York their home.


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, 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).