Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 56, Part I

By Holice and Debbie



First habitations Occupied by White Settlers on Manhattan Island. -- Primitive Structures. -- Dutch Architecture. -- Some Important Buildings Erected About the Beginning of the Present Century. -- More recent Improvements. -- The great Expansion of the City. -- Fire-Proof Buildings. -- Churches, Public Edifices, Flats and Private Dwellings.

The history of New York City from an architectural point of view is simply unique. The growth of the city and its rapid extension, while being thoroughly remarkable, are not without their parallel in other cities throughout the United States. But for magnitude, practicability, and grandeur of its buildings it is simply unequalled. Among these are to be found some of the finest of any throughout the world--finest not only from their exterior appearance and general arrangements, but finest in the eminently deft manner in which the whole work has been carried out; from the skillful way in which advantage has been taken of modern scientific appliances, and from the near approach which has been obtained to what is one of the fundamental laws of the art--the exact requirements of the occupier.

The American architect differs from those of other countries in an important particular--he is more of an engineer. He has at his disposal means and appliances unknown a few years back, and he takes advantage of them, and in the design of his buildings combines together science and art. It has been said, and with a good deal of truth, that what really amounts to a new school of architecture identified with and being peculiar to the country, has sprung up during the past few years.

American architecture and particularly that of New York City, has received in the past very severe criticism. It has been affirmed that every style had almost every combination of styles, under the sun, are to be found within its limits. Probably this is so, but at the same time it is open to question whether the practical adaptability of the various styles could be equalled.

Some account of the history of the architecture of the city will be interesting, although it is doubtful whether it can be properly termed a history, comprised, as it chiefly is, within the past thirty or forty years.

Further back than that, however, we must go to trace the progress of the city to its remarkable condition as at present existing. On the discovery of the islands by Henry Hudson in 1609, the Indians who were then the inhabitants occupied what may be looked upon as the first houses upon it. It was the habit of these Indians to live in villages containing up to several hundred inhabitants. Frequently they houses would be as much as five hundred feet long, varying to short length according to the number of separate families it was intended they should accommodate. The breadth of the buildings was always uniform, being about twenty feet, and were constructed by a series of framing formed by placed saplings at intervals, and bending them to meet at the top. The exterior of the dwelling was completed by a covering of the boughs of trees, while the interior was carefully covered with bark. There was no description of floors to these buildings, nor any chimney, the smoke from the fires escaping through a hole in the roof.

Henry Hudson, who, although an Englishman, was in the employ of the Dutch Government, sailed back to Holland with great news of his discover, and not long afterward settlers began to arrive in small numbers. In 1624 there were about 200 person on Manhattan Island.

In 1626 was constructed what really formed the first permanent structure upon the island, consisting of a block house of some considerable extent. The dwellings of the greater part of the inhabitants were at this time no, as many imagine, log cabins. As a fact, most of them were even more simple,. And consisted of what really formed little better than mere cellars, comparison simple excavations in the ground roofed in, and forming a very rude description of habitation. Other dwellings were small buildings of two rooms on a floor with a thatched roof.

During the years 1633-35 we have records showing of considerable work being done in building. Van Twiller, a Governor appointed by the Dutch West India Company, built a fort some 300 feet by 250 feet at a cost of $1,688, and a house for himself which as certainly the most elaborate erection which up to that time had been attempted in America. They were both erected of brick which were imported from Amsterdam, and numerous other small buildings were put up about the same time. During 1633 was also erected a church which probably formed the first place of public worship. This was a plain and unpretentious building of moderate size construed of wood, and was located on Pearl Street on the East river shore.

In the year 1660 De Graaf and Hogboom established a brick-yard, and some time previously the introduction of a saw-mill to the city was the means of providing facilities for the erection of a number of frame dwellings, which sprang up rapidly.

These erections were for the most part of the plainest description, and even fifty years later were but little better. They consisted, as a rule, of two room, built over one another, with a fire-place of stone, and single door and a window in each room. The roof was not shingled, but was most generally covered in by thatching with straw.

With the advent of William Kieft, the third Governor, in 1638, various improvements in the structures of the city were made, and chief among them the erection inside the fort of a new church, the old wooden one having by this time fallen into decay. This building was of stone and cost $1,000, in those days not an inconsiderable sum.

In 1656 the inhabitants of the city numbered about one thousand persons, occupying some on hundred and thirty homes, while in 1664, when the Duke of York acquired the city, it had increased to probably five or six times that number. The description of the dwellings at this time was distinctly modest and unpretentious but comfortable and convenient. Invariably they were erected on the plan of the Dutch in the Old World, with a surrounding garden large enough to accommodate a cow, a horse, and, perhaps, a few other animals, and with the interior fitted with the cheerful and capacious fireplaces, sometimes built on a corner but more often occupying the most prominent of the walls of the apartment.

From a description of the city in 1708 we learn that most of the houses were of timber, while a number were of brick and others of stone. The extent of the city at that time can be gathered from the fact that there were nine places devoted to the exclusive use of public worship.

The style of building in the more important brick structures was frequently to form a gable on the front wall, with stepped or turreted sides in the old Dutch style., The roofs of these building were very highly pitched, and were often formed on the inside into two or more floors, which were lighted by a series of dormers.

It was a peculiarity that the brick buildings were often checkered or ornamented on the face by pattern of darker bricks than the remainder of the wall. This arose from the fact that these early brick makers wasted none of their bricks, those burning black being utilized in the manner described for forming ornaments. An old Dutch house of the kind built in 1626 and rebuilt 1697, stood on Pearl Street until 1828, when it was demolished.

And so the growth of the city went on, increasing rapidly year by year, finer and better buildings being erected as time past. In 1742 was erected the Washington Hotel, a fine building at the foot of Broadway, which formed the residence of Sir William Howe and other eminent men connected with the history of the city. The first theater was opened in 1761, and in 1764 Sandy Hook was first provided with a lighthouse.

We can now pass over the intervening years, during which the growth of the city steadily increased, until we come to the period of the beginning of the present century. Certainly the most important building erected during that decade was the present existing City Hall, of which a fine engraving will be found on page 343. This building was commenced in the year 1803 and completed 1812. It was originally placed in a fine and extensive park, well planted with trees. This has now been considerably diminished in size. It is two hundred and sixteen feet in length, and one hundred and five feet in breadth, and fifty-one feet high. It cost five hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and undoubtedly reflects great credit upon its originators. The building consists of two stories, in addition to the basement and attic floors, and contains the Mayor's office, the City library, the chamber of the Common Council, and various other offices of the city authorities.

The style of architecture is the Italian in one of its purest forms; the classical Ionic and Corinthian orders being employed with much good judgment. On the exterior the building has a imposing appearance, notwithstanding the number of lofty and important erection by which it is surrounded, and which would tend, in a building less perfectly designed, to considerably impair its beauty. The walls on three sides are erected of white marble, brought from the quarries in Stockbridge, Mass., and on the remaining side of brown stone. A cupola, containing a four-dial clock, surmounts the building and adds much to its appearance.

The first edifice answering the purpose of a City Hall was erected in 1642. It was built of bricks imported from Holland, and had a high pitched roof, studded with small dormer windows, and covered in with heavy flat tiles. The second town hall was completed about 1700. The location of this hall was on the northern end of Broad Street, at that time quite a central position.

The great fire of 1776 greatly damaged he structure, and a new roof and other reparations had to be carried out. The covering for the roof was slate, and this is probably the first building in the city on which that material was used for the purpose.

The extent of the city increased rapidly, and we now make a halt at the year 1832, and look around and take a glance at the city at that day. Broadway was built upon up to about Union Square, with some few residential edifices above it. In it were St. Paul's, Grace, and trinity Churches, and the old Masonic Hall, then recently erected near Duane Street. this building was of granite and occupied an area of fifty-seven feet by ninety feet. The large hall was exclusively used for the purpose of meetings, and was the most expansive in the city.

Nearly opposite this building was the New York Hospital, bounded by Broadway, Church Street, and Duane Street. It was set back from the main thoroughfare, and had in front an avenue planted with trees. The extent of the building was four hundred and fifty feet by four hundred and forty feet in breadth; and the main structure, erected in light brown stone, was one hundred and thirty-six feet by fifty feet.

On Wall Street the most important buildings was the Merchants' Exchange, now used for the Custom House, and a number of banks and insurance offices, comparatively few of which remain. There were also to be found several shops mostly two stories high, painted in light tints and very cheerful in appearance. On Beekman Street was the important Clinton Hall, an edifice comprising a large mercantile library, reading room, and an apartment for the exhibition of works of art. This was erected in 1829.

There were five theaters in the city, of which the principal were the Park, located close to City Hall, and erected in 1820, and the American Theater. Of the favorite open spaces were the Battery, Washington Square, Union Place (Now Union Square), Clinton Square, and others. The material used in building was even at this late date largely of brick, although with the increased facilities for the transportation of material, stone was becoming more extensively employed. The architecture generally, was, as a rule, solid and substantial, if somewhat plain. Brick fronts with semi-circular or segmented arches over the doors and windows, and perhaps a brick pediment on the main entrance, comprised the extent of the greater portion of the residences, although in the more extensive erections stone was largely used.

Coming now to the year 1866, we find that several very important and handsome buildings had been erected during that interval. Among these a few of the principal ones may be mentioned. Foremost among them was the Astor Library on Lafayette Place, a building of sufficient excellence in design to be a conspicuous ornament to the city at this day. The library was erected in the Romanesque style of architecture in brick, with a brown stone front up to the top of the first story, and brown stone trimmings above. During the past few years an addition has been made of an extra wing sixty-five feet by one hundred feet. Through the generosity of the Astor Family, this library is now one of the finest in the world, comprising some two hundred thousand volumes, many of them of great value.

The familiar Mercantile Library building, on Astor Place and Eighth Street. was erected previous to this period. The style cannot be looked upon as indicating the general architecture then prevalent. Another of the familiar buildings erected about this time was the edifice occupied by the institution founded by Peter Cooper. It covers the entire block of Seventh Street and Fourth Avenue, and was erected at a cost of six hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The building is of a massive, if somewhat plain exterior, and has recently undergone extensive alterations and structural additions. The institution proves for the free education of the working classes in sciences and arts, and includes an extensive library and reading room. The founder has added a sum of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars to the amount originally expended upon the building, and has devoted by a deed of trust the complete institution, with all its income derived from rents, issues and profits, to the public.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

You are the Visitor to this USGenNet Safe-Site´┐Ż Since March 9, 2001.

March 2001

[Firefighters Index][NY AHGP][NY ALHN]