Portsmouth 1814 Brick Act was Unpopular Law
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
Page 1 of 3
With all the ballyhoo lately about big buildings, we hear the phrase "Brick Act" bandied about more and more. That's exciting for historians. People are actually talking about a 200-year old law as if it mattered. But do we know what we're talking about?
The Brick Act was passed by the New Hampshire legislature in 1814 after three devastating fires wiped out hundreds of closely-packed wooden buildings in the heart of the state's only seaport. This was effectively an early building code "prohibiting the erection of wooden buildings of more than twelve feet high" in the downtown area. The regulation helped change the look of the city, creating the red brick image that many identify today as Portsmouth. But regulations have consequences, and a lot of townspeople were not happy.
City of wood
There really are two historic Portsmouths. One is built of wood, the other of brick. With the rare exception of the 1716 Warner House on Daniel Street, the magnificent colonial homes scattered around the city center were constructed of wood. Wood was in abundance back in the days when the heart of the city was spread along the waterfront and New Hampshire was a giant forest. Wood was the building material of choice as the center of commerce moved inland toward what we call Market Square. St. John's Episcopal Church (formerly Queen's Chapel) was then made of wood. The North Church was then made of wood. So were the prison, the almshouse, and the many two-story buildings with shops downstairs and living quarters upstairs. New Hampshire's first State House in the middle of Market Square was made of wood.
Even President George Washington noted in his journal during a visit in 1789 that the houses of Portsmouth were "indifferent, and almost entirely of wood."
You have to look carefully to see the rare remnants of 'Wooden Portsmouth" downtown. There's a lone one-story (and thus very historic) building near the bridge on State Street, and a couple more tiny wooden structures on Congress Street. But most of the original Portsmouth burned or was torn down in an era before photography, leaving us with no clear image of the city during its 18th century economic hey-day.
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