Historian Looks to DeWitt Clinton for National Change

Reports from the Field by • 01/27

Event: The Beginnings of Suburbanization: Federal to Greek Revival Row Houses in the 1830s (initial lecture, “Architecture and Changing Lifestyles”)
Location: Urban Center, 01.14.09
Speaker: Francis Morrone — Adjunct Instructor, New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies & Fellow Emeritus, Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America
Organizers: Municipal Art Society

The Merchant’s House on E. 4th Street, late-Federal in most exterior features but Greek Revival in its entrance and parlors, illustrates the transition between the styles.

Courtesy merchantshouse.org

If the U.S. is in the process of recognizing a combined ecological/economic/infrastructural crisis and adapting the built environment to it, the past offers examples of leadership responding energetically to comparable challenges. Architectural historian Francis Morrone suggests looking to an often-overlooked statesman who took constructive risks at times of transition and trouble: DeWitt Clinton, NYC’s 10-term mayor (1803-1815), then governor (1817-1822, 1825-1828) and, critically, Canal Commissioner (1810-1824). Morrone connected the details of residential construction to the deeper channels of social evolution, interpreting the scale and style of doorways and rooms as subtle indicators of national change.

Going beyond the topic of the city’s Federal Style and Greek Revival houses, Morrone made the case for the 1830s and 1840s as a pivotal era in NYC’s history as well as urban modernization. As mayor, Clinton commissioned the surveying and mapping of Manhattan’s street grid in 1811, envisioning the orderly growth of a city populous enough to fill the island — this at a time when urban planning was an unknown concept, most of Manhattan was forested wilderness, and settlements extended from the Battery only about as far north as Houston Street. By spearheading the construction of the Erie Canal, the largest public-works project undertaken in the Western world, Clinton also connected the city with the shipping lanes of the Great Lakes and the agricultural economy of the nation’s interior, thus making that growth possible. After its construction, Morrone noted, NYC became not only the world’s largest seaport, but larger than the nation’s next four combined. In the 1820s as now, revolutions in transportation infrastructure drove the economy. Morrone called Clinton “without question the most visionary mayor New York ever had.”

The built legacy of Clinton’s era and shortly afterward, Morrone asserted, indicates that NYC’s expansion involved processes similar to what today’s urbanists decry as gridlock and sprawl. Horse-drawn omnibuses and their successors, the rail-guided horse-drawn streetcars that ran from 1832 to 1917, created the congestion that defines modern street life. Amid unprecedented growth in population and a migration, by those who could afford it, away from the deadly epidemics found in crowded downtown streets, Greenwich Village changed from the home of craftsmen into something Morrone sees as an early form of a suburb. Brooklyn Heights, he says, was likewise the first commuter suburb, with business life and domesticity separated by the East River ferry.

The elaborate sequence of stages, sheltered spaces, and entrance decoration of a Greek Revival house, in contrast to the smaller, more modest doorways of the Federal Style, suggests to Morrone the rising ideology of familial privacy, or “cult of domesticity,” that characterized Victorian-era America. A building with a full entablature and prominent columns radically separates the public street space from the interior. There, later-19th-century technical innovations such as indoor plumbing and the telegraph, which created “communication” as a distinct concept no longer synonymous with transportation, would make private life a new type of frontier.

The remaining lectures in this series, continuing with a January 28 talk on later-19th-century apartments, should provide insights into the counterpoint among technologies, belief systems, and built forms.

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