By Tom Lamia
Something odd is happening in the West Village and other long-neglected areas of our city. New life is coming into throwback street paving and its importance to economic development. After decades of neglect for the old technologies, urban street paving is becoming a hot topic among politicians and urban planners.
Historic New York is popular among several communities that are important to the future economic and cultural life of the city. International tourism, Internet technology companies, popular entertainment products, and their millennial personnel are drawn to new commercial and residential development that incorporates the best of Old New York. The Historic Districts movement is finding that urban preservation and urban renovation go hand in hand to refresh the appeal of historic areas for prime commercial and residential uses. The streetscape of renovated historic areas, streets, sidewalks, plazas and other paved areas are a critical element in the appeal.
Starting just a few years ago, 2014 is a convenient date for a renewed interest in the streetscape of historic areas under renovation. The streetscape is essential to recovering the feel of Old New York when historic areas are renovated. Preservationists want the original stone blocks used or reused. Developers want the look of the original stone, but are open to using substitute materials where there are cost savings or improved performance with little or no sacrifice in appearance.
The reader is, of course, familiar with the term “cobblestone” as a general reference to pebbly street surfaces from long ago. The West Village has several streets still paved with this generic “cobblestone.” In most cases these old surfaces are not true cobblestone.
True cobblestone was used in the paving of a few New York City streets prior to 1850, but that practice ended for a variety of good reasons. Cobblestones were the first paving material because they were readily at hand and, being so, were cheap. These cobblestones were stones cobbled from rivers and streams where they had been smoothed and rounded by water flowing over them. They could be loaded onto carts and brought to the job site where they were sorted for size and fit and embedded in sand or dirt to a depth that promised to keep them in place under heavy loads.
It was the need to move freight from the docks along the Hudson and East Rivers to the central areas of commercial and residential activity that justified cobblestone paving. Dirt roads were the norm in Manhattan in the 19th Century and were just fine for most travel. Horses provided the motive power for the carriage of all types and dirt was a good surface for horses. Being porous, dirt served well for the management of horse droppings and urine. But dirt could not support the heavy loads and traffic volume at the docks, where freight was handled and transported; a hard, strong surface was needed. The earliest answer was cobblestones. Some of those dockside cobblestone streets still exist today.
The initial “aha” moment is lost to history but at some critical point in the process of getting freight off ships, onto wagons and on its way to those who would use it, a serendipitous event occurred. Ships bound for the port of New York would arrive with many tons of stone ballast in their holds, ballast that kept the ship on an even keel as it sailed without cargo.
These ballast stones were known as “Belgian” blocks. They were rectangular for stability when performing their function in a ship’s hold. Early examples were granite, roughly a foot square and four to six inches deep. Whether they originated in Belgium or not isn’t known for certain, but it seems a safe assumption. They had flat sides and could be laid to form a flat surface. Being granite, they were hard, dense and heavy, capable of supporting loads of 35,000 pounds per square inch—10 times as much as iron. They were also rough-hewn, providing surfaces that horse hooves could grip securely in any weather.
Belgian blocks were not alone among late 19th Century paving choices, but they did have clear advantages over most others. Cobblestone surfaces were uneven because the stones were not of uniform size. The spaces between the stones collected undesirable detritus that was difficult to clear away. The smooth stones inhibited traction for horses and were risky and uncomfortable for pedestrians. Although cobblestones could bear more weight than dirt or gravel, their uneven, irregular surface did not evenly distribute the weight of heavy loads.
The high cost of road construction and the need for a durable weight-bearing paving surface to support heavy horse-drawn loads was an incentive for imaginative engineers. A patent was issued in 1854 to Samuel Nicolson for a system of wood blocks, cut against the grain, regular in size, easily manufactured and pleasant to look at. There was a market for this “Nicolson” surface in many urban areas, but wood was slippery when wet and porous to the point that it reeked of horse urine on warm days. When the patent expired, the product was out of production.
Flagstone was popular for crosswalks to get pedestrians over dirt roadways choked with traffic, dust or mud. Flagstone did that job well, but being smooth and brittle it was not suitable for sustained vehicular traffic. There were other paving choices suitable for rural or less well-traveled streets, but in densely populated urban areas, such as New York and other east coast port cities, Belgian block was the preferred paving choice.
Asphalt was used as a road surfacing material even before the Pennsylvania oil discoveries of the late 19th Century. There were natural deposits of asphalt in the Caribbean that were exploited for paving material by a few American cities. Of course, this choice came at a high cost. This early imported asphalt proved its advantages over stone, brick and wood surfaces. The oil discoveries close at hand allowed for the manufacture of lower cost asphalt, after which it became the most popular choice for urban street paving. Within a few years, asphalt was the only material being used, not only for new construction but also to cover existing cobblestone and Belgian block streets. While horse-drawn transport was the norm, however, asphalt did have a noticeable drawback: it was porous and absorbed horse urine.
The Contribution of Maine’s Granite
New sources of street paving material in the 19th Century coincided with an even greater need for granite construction materials in New York City. Granite was the first choice among architects to convey strength, durability and permanence to their creations. Financial institutions, major commercial buildings, governmental institutions, cathedrals and monuments in New York City were being built of granite shipped to the city from the islands and coastal harbors of Maine, where in 1901, 152 quarries employing 3,500 men were active. Maine was then the leading producer of granite in the country.
Maine’s greatest advantage over other sources of granite was that its most important quarries were readily accessible by navigable rivers, bays and inlets, reducing transportation costs to a minimum. Often, the finished granite could be loaded on a coastal steamer directly from the quarry and brought to New York harbor.
In addition to low transportation costs, Maine granite had desirable qualities that gave it an advantage. It was available in a wide range of colors, densities and strengths. For the construction of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, eight monolithic columns of coarse-textured biotite granite of over 50 feet in length were ordered from the Palmer Quarry on Vinalhaven Island. Maine granite was used in New York for everything from buildings to bridge supports and from piers to tombstones.
The importance of the Maine granite industry to Old New York is seen in the more than 50 major buildings, bridges and monuments built in whole or in part with granite from 27 individual Maine quarries. In addition to the eight columns for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, these included bridges and tunnels, durable buildings for banks and insurance companies, signature buildings for corporate headquarters, modern landmark buildings for newspapers, hospitals, and universities, and purposeful structures for hotels, post offices and other government buildings. Many of these are significant architecturally (Seagram), historically (Grant’s Tomb, the New York Stock Exchange) or culturally (Museum of Natural History, Metropolitan Art Museum).
Maine stonecutters, many of them emigrants from northern Europe, provided the skills needed to accomplish all of this. Cutting, shaping and shipping large volumes of decorative granite for buildings and monuments was the work of a highly skilled work force in combination with the natural resource of high quality granite ideally situated to New York City.
So, this was the successful state of the Maine granite industry in the early part of the last century. A Maine Geological Survey report compiled in the late 1950’s identified 170 granite quarries, their locations, their customers and the uses to which their granite products were put. At the time of the report, however, many of these quarries were no longer active; having been hard hit over the years by competition from substitute materials and by financial crises. The Great Depression of the 1930’s and other financial crises had made them unprofitable.
It is noteworthy, however, that of the 170 listed quarries in the 1950’s report, 20 to 30 supplied paving granite to New York City. Although no separate types are mentioned, one can be sure that much of this production was Belgian block. A renewed demand from New York for granite paving products would give those Maine quarries an opportunity to restart production.
Is there evidence of such a future? The current and impending renovation of historic areas in Manhattan and Brooklyn (DUMBO, Meat Packing, Tribeca, the West Village) have been designated historic districts and are looking to preserve their authentic character while upgrading their buildings, utilities and streetscape. These historic districts (and other historic areas) could be templates for redevelopment. The streetscape is of central importance to such redevelopment.
The Historic Districts Council (HDC) is the central advocacy organization for the city’s historic districts. It works to ensure the preservation of significant historic neighborhoods, buildings, and public spaces. Last year HDC commissioned a study (Toward Accessible Historic Streetscapes—A Study of New York City’s Belgian Block Heritage) done by a landscape architecture and environmental firm with contributions from a range of experts. The study is the last and best word on New York’s historic street paving and includes essential analysis of the application of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) to the challenge of re-creating historic streets that must comply with the ADA.
The HDC-sponsored study notes that historic districts will not be successful as magnets for developers and anchor users unless their streetscape is faithful to the historic character of the area. Achieving this authenticity while complying with the accessibility standards of the ADA is a challenge. It will increase costs and require artisanal skills no longer widely available. Still, it can be done.
Belgian block replaced cobblestone, wood block, and other early forms of street pavement because it was superior in several functional and aesthetic respects. Asphalt and cement, in turn, replaced Belgian block. Yet, a lot of Belgian block remains, some covered by asphalt. In 1949, Manhattan had 140 miles of streets paved with Belgian block, but today only 15 miles remain, primarily in historic districts. Belgian block is a growing choice for historic pavement where new development is underway, in both historic and non-historic areas.
Are modern versions of Belgian block, produced with state-of-the-art manufacturing techniques and modern materials available? Yes, they are and they can be supplied to order and in adequate quantities to meet the expected new demand. Moreover, such new versions have desirable qualities not available in the original Belgian block. However, efforts to incorporate such new products approved by the New York City Public Design Commission into historic district projects in New York City have not gone well.
In the DUMBO restoration project, existing Belgian block was removed from sections of Water, Washington, and Front Streets and replaced with new flat-topped granite blocks treated with a thermal finish to provide slip resistance. This effort to improve historic paving was controversial and ultimately unsuccessful essentially because preservation advocates said the color and shape of the replacement product adversely affected the historic character of the streetscape.
But, what about Belgian block from those many Maine granite quarries? It would certainly be authentic. It must continue to have its shipping cost advantage. But two or more generations have passed since those quarries supplied their granite to a large New York market. I need to do some further basic, hands-on research among the remaining granite quarries near me to answer these questions. Vinalhaven will be my first stop.