History of Brick Masonry in NYC
By: Kevin Duffy
Sullivan Engineering recently ran an article on the overall history of brick masonry. In that piece, we touched upon brick dating as far back as the Roman Empire. Here, we’ll take a look at a more modern era of brick masonry in New York City.
A few buildings date back to when New York was still known as New Amsterdam (the change took place in 1664). Most of these buildings are either timber or stone construction. Since most of the island of Manhattan used to be covered with trees, it makes sense that timber was the first material used to build houses and stores. The population increase in the lower portion of Manhattan in the early part of the 18thcentury lead to closely packed wood structures that were threatened by potentially devastating and deadly fires. Typically, cities’ building codes are rarely revised preventatively, but rather as a result of tragedy. Major fires such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, along with citywide fires in 1776, 1835 and 1845 all resulted in the enactment of new or stricter building code laws. Each law that was passed paved the way for bricks to take over as the material of choice among builders of the era.
Starting in the 1800s, bricks were used to build so many things, including: interior partitions, exterior walls, arches, tunnels, pathways, etc. It’s estimated that approximately 40 billion bricks were laid on the island of Manhattan in the 19thcentury. Slightly less than half of Manhattan’s current buildings were built during this period, so there’s a tremendous amount of older brick out there. Brick remained a popular choice throughout the first half of the 20thcentury, but was supplemented by the rise of both natural stones, like limestone, and manmade stones, such as terra cotta. The real estate industry often refers to those buildings built prior to 1945 as prewar buildings. They are typically walkup buildings, with little to no steel reinforcement, and are comprised of more brick masonry than their contemporary counterparts.
Over the years, brick has decreased in popularity as a building material, mainly due to cost of installation. Any building owner who has recently had FISP (formerly Local Law 11/98) brick replacement repairs performed at their building will concur. Advances in building technology have limited the amount of brick used. Even when a building appears to be built of brick, it’s really just a single wythe of face brick rather than 2 or 3 wythes. These buildings are often referred to as postwar or cavity wall systems. While gleaming glass facades and precast panels have replaced brick masonry usage in NYC, brick’s dominance as the building material of choice for the better part of 150 years guarantees its place in the New York City skyline for a very long time.