Myth #2: The Commissioners as Visionaries

By Gerard Koeppel with Jason M. Barr

The commissioners' signatures, on the final page of their famous 1811 report (New York Public Library)

The commissioners' signatures, on the final page of their famous 1811 report (New York Public Library)

The Manhattan Street Grid Plan: Misconceptions and Corrections (a blog series)

By Gerard Koeppel with Jason M. Barr

Aside from their map, the only record the commissioners left for posterity was an eleven-page document outlining the basics of the plan that gridded Manhattan from North (now Houston) to 155th Streets. The document, dubbed “Explanatory Remarks,” explains little of the commissioners’ thinking. Their personal writings practically ignore their work. Over the generations, great intention has been ascribed to the commissioners for which there is no evidence. Analysis of the commissioners’ actions shows that the grid plan was not a “plan” so much as a convenience to satisfy a deadline. That is, not a plan but rather a “rush job” because the commissioners demonstrated little interest in their responsibilities until the final months of their four-year term. Manhattan’s future was sealed with scarcely a discussion.

On March 2, 1811, state commission head Gouverneur Morris turned in a long, minutely detailed, deeply reasoned and, typical for him, artfully written report: a complete argument for why the great project should go forward. Morris was writing as the head of the commission to build the Erie Canal. Three weeks later, as the head of the Manhattan street commission, Morris turned in a report that was everything his canal commission report was not: brief, vague, opaque, mostly workmanlike in language, and strangely written in the third person, as if its signatories meant to keep their distance.

All three commissioners were prominent men with achievements relevant to their Manhattan duties. Morris and his half-nephew John Rutherfurd were wealthy, lifetime residents of the New York City area with long histories in land administration and business affairs; Morris was in his twilight years as a Founding Father, especially notable for his drafting of the U. S. Constitution in 1787. Albany’s Simeon DeWitt was among the most accomplished surveyors in the country. Other than these basic qualifications, we don’t know who selected these three men and why, if any of many other qualified men were considered, if these three solicited their appointments or accepted them happily or not, and so on. All we have is the memorial from the city’s Common Council to the state legislature recommending Morris, DeWitt, and Rutherfurd “as fit and proper persons to be appointed.”

Gouverneur Morris, 1810 wedding portrait (Frick Art Reference Library)

Gouverneur Morris, 1810 wedding portrait (Frick Art Reference Library)

Simeon De Witt in 1804 (Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University)

Simeon De Witt in 1804 (Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University)

Rutherfurd, no date (Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University)

Rutherfurd, no date (Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University)

By contrast, the process of naming of the seven Erie Canal commissioners in 1810 was highly public and amply documented in state and city records and personal papers. Three years into their Manhattan street commission work, Morris and DeWitt were appointed to the 1810 canal commission, with Morris leading it. They immediately threw themselves into that work and, with a year left in their Manhattan work, increasingly neglected it. Which is not to say they had been deeply focused on it for the preceding three years.

From 1807 to 1810, Morris, DeWitt, and Rutherfurd’s involvement with the street commission is notably negligible. Rutherfurd was mostly occupied with his vast real estate holdings in New Jersey where he lived. When Morris and DeWitt corresponded at all about the commission, complaints about Rutherfurd’s absence from their irregular meetings abound. DeWitt, meanwhile, was very happy in Albany and disdained travel south to New York for meetings, for which a quorum of at least two commissioners was required to make decisions. From DeWitt’s bill for his services (wealthy Rutherfurd and Morris forewent the $4 a day salary) we can deduce that DeWitt spent no more than four days a month in the city over four years on commission business. For his part, Morris was frequently in western New York attending to his personal land holdings or at home at his estate in what is now the south Bronx bedridden with gout or the urinary issues that would kill him in 1816. Morris’s bulky diary is dominated by entries on travels, ailments, social activities, and fishing; mentions of “commission business” are few and none indicate anything substantive. Among Morris’s voluminous letters are extraordinarily few that say anything about the street commission. Diary and letters reveal that that the Manhattan street commission met very infrequently.

As noted in the previous blog entry, chief surveyor John Randel Jr.’s work from 1808 through 1810 involved nothing that indicates that the commissioners had a plan of any sort in mind during that period. Finally, it appears that, with their early April 1811 deadline approaching, they decided in December 1810 to go with Casimir Goerck’s old Common Lands grid writ large.

The commissioners’ so-called “Explanatory Remarks” delivered with Randel’s map in late March 1811 are devoid of much explanation. Most of it is about street and avenue dimensions and locations. Entirely unmentioned is how this island-spread grid would affect or be affected by Manhattan’s extremely varied natural topography of hills, valleys, ponds, and streams, and its human topography of dozens of country roads and thousands of property lines. The most substantive of the not very explanatory remarks is the oft-quoted paragraph about why the commissioners went wholly rectilinear:

One of the first objects which claimed their attention was the Form and Manner in which the Business should be conducted; that is to say, whether they should confine themselves to rectilinear and rectangular Streets, or whether they should adopt some of those supposed Improvements by Circles, Ovals, and Stars, which certainly embellish a plan whatever may be their Effect as to Convenience and Utility. In considering that subject they could not but bear in mind that a City is to be composed principally of the Habitations of men, and that strait sided and right-angled Houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in. The Effect of these plain and simple Reflections was decisive.

It is true that right angles are cheap and convenient but whether those plain and simple reflections should have been decisive in planning a city already emerging as the centerpiece of the rising American nation is debatable at best. Certainly, it is a confession — a confession written in oddly distancing third-person — that the commissioners brought none of the great thinking to their plan for which many among later generations have credited them.

To some extent, the last-minute grid that Manhattan got was the fault of the 1807 law that empowered the commissioners. It required no regular meetings, no public discussion, and no progress reports, not even a formal final report. It required only, in four years time, a map in triplicate “accompanied with such field notes and elucidatory remarks as the nature of the subject may require.” With such ambiguity, it is no wonder that Morris, DeWitt, and Rutherfurd felt comfortable with a casual approach to their work and only in the closing months of their tenure — with two of them then distracted by the canal commission — settled on a borrowed plan with minimal explanation.

Generations of grid lovers (or apologists) have praised the grid’s pervasive order, the democratic equality of its same-sized streets and blocks, and the overwhelming power of its rationalism. These qualities the grid arguably has, but they cannot be credited to its creators, who were thinking not for the ages but of the dwindling days before their commission expired.


Gerard Koeppel is the author of City on a Grid: How New York Became New York, Water for Gotham: A History, and Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Empire. Jason M. Barr is an Associate Professor of Economics at Rutgers University-Newark, and the author most recently of Building the Skyline: The Birth and Growth of Manhattan’s Skyscrapers.