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THE BUILDING OF MANHATTAN
By DONALD A. MACKAY
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1987 Donald A. Mackay
All rights reserved.
IN THE BEGINNING
Manhattan Island is of very recent ori of very recent gin, in geological time.
Its creation as an island is one of the latest episodes in the long history of the titanic forces that have altered the landscape of New York.
It has been rocked by massive earthquakes, squeezed, shaped, and twisted. Periods of volcanic activity spewed forth molten lava. At one time a vast inland freshwater sea covered the entire area.
Geologists take the birth of Manhattan back more than a billion years. They record three eras of major high-mountain formation. Erosion, wind, rain, and ice slowly reduced those ancient alps in the ongoing process of land transformation.
About 70 million years ago the present island shape of Manhattan began to be formed, well before the great ice ages first appeared two million years ago.
Then, 10,000 to 18,000 years ago, the forward edge of the last great ice sheet ground inexorably southward, pushing gravel and enormous rocks, scouring the earth, and burying Manhattan Island under a massive wall of solid ice. The sheet of ice moved forward onto Staten Island, along the reach of Long Island ... and stopped.
So great was the amount of water locked into this vast worldwide ice formation that the ocean level at Manhattan was 330 feet—100 meters—lower than it is today.
As this ice slowly melted and the glacial front retreated northward, torrents of rushing water carved the bed of the Hudson River ever deeper, the ocean rose to its present level, and New York's great natural harbor was formed.
The earth's outer, solid continuous crust, its bedrock, now lay just below and sometimes above the surface of Manhattan Island in two distinct areas: the downtown tip of the island and at midtown.
It is primarily on these two areas that Manhattan's skyscrapers have been built. Their tremendous height and weight rest securely on this solid bedrock, which is chiefly a silvery gray rock known as Manhattan schist.
THE MANHATTAN INDIANS
These Manhattan Island Indians lived in Manhattan in family groups, or clans, under their sachems. Or chiefs, whose title was passed on through the female line in each family. Their tribe, the LENAPE, was made up of the many family groups. Archaeologic evidence indicates that their ancestors were living on Manhattan Island and along the Atlantic Coast at least 3,000 years ago.
These Indians had few material possessions but had achieved a remarkable ability to live in harmony with their natural surroundings. Over thousands of years they had adapted from a nomadic hunting people to an agricultural society. They believed in the magic power of all objects in nature, good and evil spirits, an afterlife, and a supreme being, the "Great Spirit."
Their many festivals were held in relation to the earth's seasons. They painted themselves with natural colors mixed with animal fat, and adorned themselves with ornaments of metal, bone, feathers, and shells. They had great powers of endurance.
We know the names of some of these Manhattan clan groupings: Rechtank, Werpoes, Shepmoes, Sapohanikan, Rechewanis, Co-·nykeeks, Muskuta, Machicanituk, Penadnik, Shorakapkok, Nipnichsen.
They had no concept of owning land, freely using what they needed and moving on to another locality within their tribe's territory when the fertility of the land where they had been living was exhausted. They and their ancestors had lived on Manhattan for untold generations. They would vanish soon after the arrival of the European white man, leaving behind only some artifacts, some trails which would become roadways such as the Bowery and Broadway, and the name of the island — Manhattan.
AND THEN THE DUTCH CAME
While Giovanni da Verrazano, for France, and Estavan Gomez, for Spain, had sailed separately into the waters of New York Bay many years earlier, the first European to explore thoroughly the waters around Manhattan Island was Henry Hudson. An Englishman in the service of the Dutch, he came in 1609, looking for a northwest passage to the Orient.
Instead, he found Manhattan Island, heavily wooded, with great stands of hickory, oak, and other hardwoods. Large clams and oysters, as well as much small game, provided food for the Indians, who, it was reported, were dressed in "Mantles of Feathers, and some in Skinnes of divers sorts of good Furres."
The lower tip of the island had many hills, which in later years would be leveled down, while the northern part was of a much greater height, with rocky outcroppings. Small streams, swamps, and ponds were all about. Robert Juet, an officer of Hudson's ship, wrote, "This is a very good Land to fall with, and a pleasant Land to see."
In 1613, Adriaen Block, who had been to the Hudson River in 1611, returned to spend the winter on Manhattan Island on a fur-trading venture. His ship, the Tyger, caught fire, and its remains beached at the site of today's World Trade Center Plaza. His men set to work felling trees and built a new ship, of about 18 tons, the first large work of building not by Indians on the Island of Manhattan. Block sailed this new boat into Long Island Sound and then on to Cape Cod.
The first permanent settlement, of huts "of the bark of trees," was begun in 1625. In 1626, on the 26th of May, Peter Minuit, as director general of the Dutch West India Company, bought the island from the Indians — all 20,000 acres — for 60 guilders' worth of cloth, trinkets, and beads. It came to about a penny for each 10 acres.
According to its charter, the Company was to "promote the settlement of fertile and uninhabited districts, and to do all that the service of those countries and the profit and increase of trade shall require." The whole purpose of New Amsterdam, as the tiny settlement on the tip of the island was named, was business.
Ten years passed before private ownership of property was allowed. Then these early Dutch built their own houses, of wood with thatched roofs. Soon brick houses with tile roofs became common. In 1642 the Dutch West India Company built a tavern to accommodate the increasing numbers of people visiting and passing through New Amsterdam. This tavern, which sold the Company's wine and brandy, had its own well and brew-house. It became the City Hall in 1653.
From its very beginnings, the town had building and land disputes. In 1654 one Frederick Arentsen, a turner of wood, bought a lot from Teunis Tomasen, a mason, who agreed to take part of the price in chairs. Arentsen insisted on having the lot "delivered to him at thirteen inches to the foot." Tomasen protested, in court.
On June 8, 1654, Teunis Tomasen was again in court, demanding 13 florins from Michael Paulisen, for whom he had built a chimney according to contract. The chimney smoked and Paulisen had had it pulled down and rebuilt by someone else, at a cost of two beavers. He said he did not owe the debt. The court decided in favor of Tomasen: since defendant Paulisen "at his own pleasure had the chimney taken down and rebuilt, plaintiff cannot be prejudiced thereby."
Many of these early chimneys were wooden, above thatched reed roofs. Fire was a constant danger to the town. If a house burned down due to the negligence of the owner, he was fined 25 guilders. Four fire-warders were appointed to inspect all chimneys: an unclean one was fined three guilders, with the money used to maintain the town's fire ladders, hooks, and leather water buckets.
Director General Peter Stuyvesant and his council, in 1647, ordered people who had been granted lots to put up proper buildings on them, or the lots would be taken from them and given to people who wanted to build and were in need of a proper place.
All sales of real estate had to be approved by the authorities to prevent fraud. Moreover, in 1655 a commission of four surveyed the entire town, with orders to straighten out streets and fix the location of lots. They not only laid out seventeen streets, they surveyed and fixed prices for the lots.
One building contract is described in I. N. Phelps Stokes' The Iconography of Manhattan Island: "Isaac de Foreest registers at the office of the provincial secretary a contract made between him and two English carpenters ... for building for him a dwelling house 30 feet long and 18 feet wide with 2 transom windows and 2 round windows, 4 girders with brackets and 2 free girders, one partition, one passage way tight inside and outside, and the entire house tight all around, to construct in the same house a pantry and three doors. Together with a tobacco house 60 feet long with the inside work: 1 small kitchen 20 feet long and 16 feet wide covered with clapboards, also an English chimney. Likewise to cover the dwelling house in such a manner as to be secure against water and snow.' The carpenters are to be paid 300 Carolus guilders for the job."
In the contract for another house, to be 60 feet long by 24 feet in width, Jan Damen agreed to provide builder Jeuriaen Hendrick-sen and his men "with provisions and drink until the work is completed," in addition to payment.
There was a distinctive feature about these houses that gave New Amsterdam the look of a typical Dutch town — the houses all had steep roofs and many had stepped gables rising right up to the roof peak.
WOOD, STONE, AND BRICK
Wood was plentiful on Manhattan Is-was plentiful on Manhattan land. It provided firewood for the open fireplaces over which the housewives did all their cooking and which heated the homes. It provided the heavy beams that framed the houses, the roof shingles, and the clapboards that enclosed the walls of the wooden houses.
The furniture was made of wood, as were many of the utensils, the hooks and door hinges, barrels, tubs, pumps, windmills, wagons, wagon wheels, and boats. Hardwoods were especially plentiful. Even the gears for the wind- or water- powered sawmills—which as early as 1633 had been set up on Manhattan Island—were fashioned out of hardwood.
The carpenters—the ship's carpenters, the woodworkers, the wheelwrights, the barrel makers—and the other craftsmen used simple wooden hand tools with metal cutting edges to saw, cut, and fit the wood used in their trades.
Joints were especially closely fitted, to give rigidity to the frame of the house, as the beams were held together with wooden pins hammered into carefully positioned holes.
In the early years these workmen had to import all their tools, handmade nails, bricks, plaster, and glass. But very quickly brick kilns, as well as sawmills, were set up along the Hudson River. By the 1650's even glass was being made locally in New Amsterdam.
In 1647, Peter Stuyvesant arrived in New Amsterdam as the new director general of New Netherland, responsible for maintaining authority in all the land between the Delaware River in the south and the Connecticut River in the northeast.
New Amsterdam was the territory's biggest settlement and its center of government. The rest of New Netherland was mostly unbroken wilderness. A few trading posts had been established, notably Fort Orange— now Albany, New York.
These were turbulent years for the Dutch. English settlers were moving onto their land, Indians were sometimes on the warpath, Swedish settlers tried to colonize their Delaware River lands, and they were losing their large colony in Brazil to the Portuguese. In Europe, the Dutch and the English were at war from 1652 to 1654.
In New Amsterdam itself Peter Stuyvesant issued legislation and orders, administered justice, assigned land to the settlers, arranged the daily life of the town, and supervised the militia. His overbearing manner brought protests and, in 1653, a change for New Amsterdam: a city council and a government for the town, to be administered separately from the rest of New Netherland.
These Dutch were good merchants and traders but they had neglected their defenses. One day in 1664, four English ships anchored in the harbor and demanded the surrender of the town "Scituate upon the Island commonly knowne by the Name of Manha-toes."
Faced with this ultimatum, and with inadequate means of defense, the influential men of the town persuaded Stuyvesant to do the sensible thing and turn the town over to the English. Alone in his protestations and with less than a day's supply of cannon shot, the one-legged Stuyvesant surrendered. The English promptly took possession of the town and renamed it New York.
The changeover was an easy one—the Dutch and everyone else retained full property and inheritance rights, and business went right on as usual.
Nine years later, for a few months, the Dutch navy seized the town once more and renamed it New Orange. Finally, by treaty, the English again were in possession of all of New Netherland and the small town on the tip of Manhattan Island.
The Dutch, whose influence would be felt for many generations to come, had ruled for about 40 years. The population of New York was less than 2,000 people.
1664: NEW AMSTERDAM IS NOW NEW YORK
The English had taken possession of a boisterous, contentious, and frequently dangerous town, renamed for their own Duke of York. Properly laid-out streets with their stepped roof houses, vegetable gardens, and grazing areas for domestic animals seemed secure behind the northern defensive "waal," which ran in a straight line from river to river.
Yet only nine years earlier, in 1655, nearly 2,000 Indians of the Hudson River tribes had gone on a three-day rampage, burning farms on Manhattan Island. Staten Island, and New Jersey, and threatening New Amsterdam itself. More than 100 Dutch settlers had been killed; more than 150 others—mostly women and children—had been captured and hundreds of cattle killed or driven off. The outlying settlers had fled to safety behind this wall of the fortified community. By 1699 the Indians had ceased to be a threat and the town had been built beyond the "waal," which was torn down. In 1709, by ordinance, a slave market was erected at the foot of "Wall" Street, "at which place all negro and Indian slaves to be let out to hire, or to be sold, took their stand." Today's Wall Street area is the financial center of the city and the nation.
COLONIAL NEW YORK: 1664-1783
Fire was the great destroyer of early New York. In September 1776, only days after Washington's army had retreated from Manhattan Island, a disastrous fire swept through the city, leaving one-fourth of it in ruins. St. Paul's Chapel, at Broadway and Fulton Street, survived that fire and is today the oldest public building, in continuous use, in the city. It was built in 1766 of Manhattan- mica-schist and brownstone.
New York grew slowly under the English: from 1,500 people in 1665 to nearly 25,000 in 1775. It lived through the French and Indian War, epidemics of smallpox and yellow fever, lack of adequate pure water, appalling sanitary conditions, occupation by military forces, and the American Revolution of 1776-83.
Through it all, buildings were torn down, or leveled by fire. Some of the early Dutch stepped-roof buildings would last until the Great Fire of 1845, but the city was now English and it took on a new look as it prospered and expanded.
Areas of the city began to be associated with specific activities: a shipping and waterfront area, a business district, warehouses, a light manufacturing center. The residential areas were divided according to wealth and social position. Obnoxious trades such as tanning and the slaughtering of animals were kept at the far edges of the ever-growing town.
Travel was slow and difficult, hindering the northward expansion of the town. When pressure for building space became insistent, the town even sold lots under the East River. Merchants bought the lots, filled them in with dirt and rubble, and built a new business district. Today, that once underwater area is Water Street, two blocks inland.
Excerpted from THE BUILDING OF MANHATTAN by DONALD A. MACKAY. Copyright © 1987 Donald A. Mackay. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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