By Brian J Pape, AIA, LEED AP
Ironically, the plan for the geometric and regular Manhattan street grid was conceived within the very irregular and eccentric streets of the West Village, at 329 Bleecker Street, corner of Christopher Street, in the office of John Randal Jr., who was 20 years old when he began his job as the surveyor and chief engineer for New York City’s street commissioners.
It was here, between 1807 and 1809, that the commissioners met with Randal and came up with what would become the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, the street grid of Manhattan from 14th Street to 155th Street, more or less as we know it today.
The 1811 plan originated when the Common Council of New York City, seeking to provide for the orderly development and sale of Manhattan land between 14th Street and Washington Heights but unable to do so itself for reasons related to local politics and objections from property owners, asked the New York State Legislature to step in. The legislature appointed a commission with sweeping powers in 1807. Described by critics as encompassing the “Republican predilection for control and balance … [and] distrust of nature,” the commission described the plan as combining “beauty, order and convenience.”
The commissioners’ plan has been called “the single most important document in New York City’s development.” By imposing a regularized plan upon the island of Manhattan it laid the foundation for the rapid development and look of its streets and neighborhoods. While street plans historically tended to develop in a more piecemeal, organic manner, the commissioners’ street grid plan, inspired by ancient Roman templates, was arguably influential, and later copied throughout the world.
The extraordinary maps drawn by Randel laid out the grid over the contours, farm lanes, stone outcroppings and walls, wood stockades, streams, wetlands, and other features in exquisite detail reminiscent of Egyptian wall paintings. Only a few public spaces, such as the Grand Parade (the precursor to Madison Square Park), four squares named Bloomingdale, Hamilton, Manhattan, and Harlem, a wholesale market complex, and a water reservoir, were included originally. The area of Central Park, from Fifth Avenue to Eighth Avenue and 59th Street to 110th Street, was not a part of the plan as it was not envisioned until the 1850s.
But we have an earlier example of a Manhattan street grid. The last Dutch West India Company director-general, Peter Stuyvesant, came to New Amsterdam in 1647 and purchased land for his farm from the company four years later. He remained in New York after he surrendered New Amsterdam to the British in 1664 and, eventually, the Stuyvesant farm was divided between Peter’s great-grandsons Petrus and Nicholas Stuyvesant. Nicholas called his portion of the land the Bowery; Petrus called his Petersfield. In 1799 St. Mark’s Church in-the- Bowery, at Second Avenue and Tenth Street, opened on the Stuyvesant site. Eight generations of Stuyvesants are buried on the church grounds.
In 1787 Petrus Stuyvesant laid out a street grid on his land, which he began to subdivide in 1789. It actually comports with the points of the compass, running true east-west direction (the commissioners’ street grid does not). A garden fountain at Third Avenue and Stuyvesant Street has a large compass showing the east-west axis paralleling Stuyvesant Street.
Most of the Stuyvesant grid was eradicated by the city’s own grid plan of 1811, except for part of the Stuyvesant grid below “North Street” (approximately where Houston Street is now) and Stuyvesant Street; it was allowed to remain, city leaders said at the time, “both for public convenience and for the accommodation of a large and respectable congregation attending St. Mark’s Church as well as the owners and occupants of several large and commodious dwelling houses.” No. 21 Stuyvesant Street, which Petrus built for his daughter Elizabeth and her husband Nicholas Fish in 1803-04, is now included in the St. Mark’s Historic District.
In recent years, the commissioners’ street grid plan has been viewed a little more favorably by urban planners, with lost natural features perhaps fading in memory and population growth demanding a rational order to ease the strain of dense urban life. Or, maybe it is because we have preserved some places of special character to sustain our souls?
Brian J. Pape is a LEED-AP “green” architect consulting in private practice, serves on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board, is co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, and is a journalist who writes about architecture.