By Richard Howe
So much of the public face of Manhattan -— the walls of its streets —- is brick or stone that it is often an effort to remember that behind a great many of the older masonry exteriors is an interior built almost entirely of wood. Even the famous brownstones are for the most part brick and wood structures faced with stone. Some 80% of the nearly 150,000 buildings that were put up on the island in its “long” 19th century, 1790–1910, were of what came to be called “ordinary” construction: load-bearing exterior walls of brick supporting an interior structure of timber joists, wooden floors, wooden rafters supporting wood-sheathed roofs, wood-framed interior partitions, wooden furring and laths, wooden staircases, interior and exterior doors, doorway and window frames, and a whole miscellany of wooden moldings and other fittings.
This situation changed after the War of Independence. From 1790 to its peak around 1910, the population of New York --- Manhattan after 1898 -- increased seventy-fold, from about 33,000 to about 2,232,000. The 150,000 or so buildings that went up on the island to accommodate this growth—more than a third of them replacements for older buildings or buildings lost to fire—consumed several tens of billions of bricks and some five to six billion board feet of lumber, equivalent to the product of some 400–500 square miles of forest. New building starts averaged about 1,000 a year prior to the Civil War and were above 2,000 in 17 of the post-war years, with peak years approaching and surpassing the 3,000 mark. Something on the order of 120,000 of these buildings were ordinary brick and wood construction of modest size: 20–25 feet wide and 50–80 feet deep on their 20–25 × 100 foot lots, and 50–70 feet high (four to six stories); the average was about 22.5 × 70 × 60 feet and consumed something on the order of 40,000 board feet of lumber. Most of the remaining 30,000 were smaller wood framed buildings that consumed on average perhaps 20,000 board feet. Construction at this pace would have stressed the 18th century lumber supply infrastructure far beyond the breaking point, all the more so as the growing population of the wider New York metropolitan region represented a demand for lumber at least twice that of Manhattan’s. In 1890, just past the peak of the great 1880s building boom, the area that in 1898 would become Greater New York imported over 1.3 billion board feet of lumber, nearly 5% of the total U.S. lumber production in that year.
Trees are not an industrial product, yet paradoxically it was the new industrial technologies of the 19th century that made it possible to meet the demand for lumber posed by the growth of New York and to continue building a substantially wooden city well into the 20th. As the nation’s appetite for fuelwood -- the volume of which far outstripped what was cut for lumber—pushed the edge of the forest further and further away from the city, transportation costs for both fuelwood and lumber rose: the city was already importing wood by the end of the 17th century and in the 18th century faced frequent shortages and high prices, despite the economies of rafting logs down the Hudson River and the establishment of some 200 water-wheel powered sawmills in the region. But by the middle of the 19th century, even the now more than 3,000 such mills along the upper Hudson River and its tributaries -- most of them small operations, equipped with only a single-saw -- were not enough to keep up with the demand by what was by then the largest lumber market in the world. By the 1840s New York was importing timber from as far away as Michigan, Wisconsin, and even Minnesota, and only the transition to steam-powered sawmills, ships, river boats, and railroads made it economically feasible to continue exploiting these distant sources of supply.
Supply was not the only problem to be overcome by the new industrial technologies. There was also the difficulty of joining pieces of lumber to one another. Although nails, the most common fastener for this purpose today, are as old as civilization itself -- the oldest specimens date from more than 5,000 years ago -- until the 18th century they were made one at a time, and were correspondingly expensive, so much so that it was not uncommon to burn an abandoned building simply to recover its nails. So-called cut or “square” nails, sheared from iron bars or plates, were introduced in the mid-18th century, along with machines to assist in the shearing, but the nail-making process was not fully mechanized until the 1820s. Wire nails were first made in the early 1850s, but the now ubiquitous and inexpensive steel wire nail only began to come into widespread use in the 1880s, by which time the Bessemer converter and the Siemens open hearth furnace had made steel and steel products into a major industry that could supply the wire from which nails could now be made cheaply in hitherto unimaginable quantities: in the 28 years 1872–1899, the total U.S. production of nails increased nearly two and a half times, while the production of cut nails dropped by half, i.e., the production of steel wire nails in 1899 was nearly double the production of cut nails in 1872.
Steam and steel, the 19th century’s major industrial technologies, enabled the lumber industry to keep up with rising demand, albeit at a rising cost, and brought the price of nails down dramatically. But they were unable to overcome wood’s chief drawback as a building material, particularly in a dense urban environment: wood burns. Fire in the city has its own history, but that history has been closely interwoven with the city’s use of wood as a building material from the very beginning. The first recorded conflagration in Nieuw Amsterdam was reported in 1626; another was mentioned in 1628, which may have been the same one—Stokes thought it was. The long succession of fire-prevention and fire-fighting measures, including the use of fire-engines imported from London starting in 1731, testifies to the extent to which 17th and 18th century New York was built of wood, as do the “disastrous” fires -- Stokes’ category -- of 1757, 1770, and 1772, culminating in the Great Fire of 1776, which may have destroyed as much as a fourth of the city.
The structural life span of a building is the span of time before major repairs are needed to ensure against its possible collapse. The economic life of a building, however, is the span of time in which it is a profitable asset, given the costs of ordinary maintenance and the competitive situation in the real estate market. The working assumption in the 19th and early 20th centuries was that the economic life of an ordinary building would be no more than 35–45 years on average, the age at which older buildings had usually been replaced with newer, larger, and perhaps better ones. As a result, it was often not thought necessary to build for a structural life of more than 50–75 years: a building would almost certainly be demolished and replaced before it had a chance to become decrepit. But in the 1920s, when the combination of commuter railroads, bridges, and tunnels, the automobile, and the new and highly restrictive immigration laws resulted for the first time in more people leaving Manhattan than were coming in -- from 1920 to 1930 the borough’s resident population declined by over 400,000 -- demand for residential space in particular also declined, bringing the economic life of thousands of buildings to an unexpectedly early end and making the continued operation of thousands more only marginally profitable.
Richard Howe is a frequent contributor to the Blotter, and is writing a book about the history of New York as a hand-made artifact. He runs the photographic study New York in Plain Sight: The Manhattan Street Corners.
The late Michael Williams’ Americans and their Forests: A Historical Geography (1989) is a virtual encyclopaedia of the uses and abuses of our forests over the past several hundred years.
Between them, John Steven’s Dutch Vernacular Architecture in North America 1640–1840 (2005) and Jeroen van den Hurk’s Imagining New Netherland: Origins and Survival of Netherlandic Architecture in Old New York (dissertation, 2006) provide an in depth view Dutch methods and materials of construction both at home and in the new world.
Joyce Goodfriend’s Before the Melting Pot: Society and Culture in Colonial New York City (1992) covers the transition from Dutch to English architecture and building practices in the generations after the English took over the city in 1664, and Charles Lockwood’s Manhattan Moves Uptown (1976) provides a fine narrative of the northward growth of the city in the 19th century.
The great nineteenth century New York City Clerk David Valentine’s Manuals of the Corporation of the City of New York (1842–1866 & 1868–1870) provide numerous statistics of many kinds related to building in 19th century New York. 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.
The Census Bureau’s Historical Statistics of the United States from Colonial Times to 1970 should be everyone’s first stop in every search for time-series data on almost any aspect of U.S. history. Arthur Harrison Coles’ Wholesale Commodity Prices in the United States, 1700-1861, in particular its Statistical Supplement: Actual Wholesale Prices of Various Commodities is an extraordinary compilation of monthly (!) prices for 46 commodities in six cities—including New York—in the 18th and 19th centuries up to Civil War.
Edward Allen’s professional handbook, Fundamentals of Building Construction Materials and Methods, is invaluable for its expositions of historical as well as contemporary materials and methods.
I. N. Phelps Stokes’ Iconography of Manhattan Island (1915–1928) remains, as usual, indispensable for just about everything.