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Portsmouth 1814 Brick Act was Unpopular Law

Brock title artHISTORY MATTERS  

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

brickThere 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.

CONTINUE to next page of BRICK ACT 


 

 

Rear view mirror

Despite the popular depiction of colonial Portsmouth as a wealthy social capital, second only to the Virginia gentry, the "Old Town by the Sea" could be a drab and gritty place for many of its citizens. There were a few wealthy families and a lot of  poor, working class, enslaved, and marginalized citizens. The top ten percent of the city's small population controlled half the wealth. The surviving colonial mansions we cherish do not reflect life as most people knew it in the class-conscious colonial days.  

"I saw a good number of women and children in rags," one 18th century visitor commented, "a sight I never before encountered in America."

And it is largely the top ten percent -- the Sherburnes, Moffats, Langdons, Jaffreys, Atkinsons, Wentworths and others -- whom we remember and celebrate today. Even at its economic peak as a world trade center, Portsmouth was a very different town than it appears today. And it was a town very low to the ground. By 1798, just before the great fires flattened the city center, only 16 buildings in town reached the height of three stories.

 Brick Act Illustration 1806

A forest of chimneys

The three big blazes, all of them in December, ravaged the city center in 1802, 1806, and 1813. Hundreds of homes, stores, sheds, shacks, stables, barns, and outhouses were destroyed. John Langdon, whose wooden mansion on upper Pleasant Street survives, described the results of one fire as "a wilderness of naked chimneys." The Embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812 almost finished off the local maritime economy. The fires could not have come at a worse time. The center of Portsmouth our ancestors had known was effectively gone.   

Enough was enough. To protect the city from itself, and to prevent the spread of future fires, the Brick Act was installed. A similar Brick Act in Newburyport, Massachusetts, enacted in 1811, would turn that maritime downtown into a monochromatic sea of brick buildings. Portsmouth would attempt to do the same. Like London after the Great Fire of 1666, a different kind of city rose slowly from the ashes.

 Downtown Portsmouth, NH post fire

From the ashes

The Brick Act created a downtown fire zone within which wooden buildings could be only one story tall. That was a tough law. This was a city of shipbuilders and carpenters. Masonry was more expensive than wood and bricks were harder to find than lumber. In the sluggish post-war economy the Brick Act may actually have slowed the rebuilding of downtown Portsmouth. Many citizens grumbled about the restrictive laws that made construction too expensive for the average Joe. There was a grassroots movement to repeal the Brick Act.

Who had the right to decide how tall buildings could be, or for that matter, what they were made of or what they looked like? Why should building codes favor the wealthy merchants and property owners over smaller businesses and builders? Citizens who favored and those who opposed the Brick Act sent dueling petitions to the state legislature.

To be sure, the fires created opportunity. In the slow rebuilding process that followed, Portsmouth matured from an out-of-date colonial town that was tied to the river into an urban center focused in Market Square. But each of the three Christmas-era fires was a punch in the gut for residents whose vision of the city was shattered. "The whole beauty of the town is gone!" the NH Gazette exclaimed in 1802 when the first fire destroyed 114 downtown homes and shops.

Without restrictive building codes, some Portsmouth builders began using brick and creating firewalls on their own. The beautiful 1805 Federal-style four-story commercial block that includes the Portsmouth Athenaeum is an example of  the new "Brick Portsmouth" that was emerging even before the Brick Act took effect. The Jacob Sheafe block across Market Street, built in 1807 and now home to Alie Jewelers is another example. It was a natural tendency for builders to use brick after a major fire. It was the obvious choice in an era when firefighting was in its infancy and cities were growing more compact, commercial, and crowded

 Continue with BRICK ACT article 


 

1814 Portsmouth NH Brick ACt Boundary courtesy Richard M Candee

Who says so?

Even as the wealthy Portsmouth merchants were rebuilding the ruined areas from the 1802 fire, the second and third tragedies struck. The 1806 fire burned along the waterfront. Large brick warehouses quickly replaced old wooden ones. Brick row houses popped up on Sheafe and Daniel streets. The city was already flirting with more restrictive fire laws (wider streets, more fire buckets, safer chimneys) but it was too little too late.  The December 22, 1813 blaze began near Court and Pleasants streets. It raged toward the river, wiping out 15 acres of property. Pushed to the limit, wealthy Portsmouth individuals convinced the state to issue the Brick Act the following year. It not only reduced the height of new wooden buildings to 12 feet, but established fines of up to $2,000 for illegal wooden construction within the downtown fire zone.

The new zone included most of the city center running from the South Mill Pond to Cabot Street and over to the North Mill Pond on the other side of town. Locals were shocked to learn that the Brick Act applied to all new construction extending far beyond the burned areas and into the developing parts of town. It was no surprise that the decision to greatly extend the scope of the Brick Act beyond the burned area came from influential gentlemen who owned parcels of land in the undeveloped acreage. The majority of citizens at Portsmouth's next town meeting called the Brick Act "oppressive" and "unconstitutional." Grassroots petitions called for its repeal. Those who favored the Brick Act were often descendants of the fading aristocracy or new investors who owned the choice real estate lots in town. Opponents of the Brick Act were usually the poorer working class citizens, mechanics and artisans of their day. The class distinctions of fading colonial era were still visible. While residents of the Portsmouth town meeting were overwhelmingly against the law, every single town selectman favored it.

   Richard Candee conducts tour of downtown Brick Act / J. Dennis Robinson photo

Lessons learned? Maybe not.

The influence of the Brick Act lasted only about 10 years. Wealthier citizens tended to follow the rules and built new buildings of brick. Often these became rental properties.  Others simply broke the law and built two and three-story wooden structures inside the fire zone. Still others delayed construction until the Brick Act faded from the books in 1824.

Although the Brick Act gets a lot of credit for radically altering the appearance of the city, in the end, it was not very successful or influential. It's goal, in part, was to make a fading colonial capital look, on the surface, at least, like a thriving early-19th century industrial town (which it was not.) But even before the Brick Act, Portsmouth was solving its urban growth and fire prevention problems organically, through trial and error. Without the Brick Act, it is fair to say, Portsmouth would look pretty much the same -- a blend of wood and brick. So to insist that modern buildings all be constructed of brick today is actually anti-historical. Downtown Portsmouth has always been a city of mixed architecture, good and bad, not a monolithic canvas of brick.

The Brick Act could also be seen as an example of what happens when we sharply legislate what our urban landscape must look like. Such rules always have unintended consequences. Some people prefer a well-ordered color coordinated universe, while others value variety and change. There were economic winners and losers in the wake of the Brick Act. It is a fair bet that, if new building regulations are soon enacted,  there will be winners and losers again. But as downtown Portsmouth evolves, history promises us one thing -- there will be plenty of controversy.  

 

KEY SOURCE: Richard M. Candee, “Social Conflict and Urban Rebuilding: The Portsmouth, New Hampshire Brick Act of 1814,” Winterhur Portfolio, vol. 32, No 2 &3, (Summer / Autumn 1997), 119-148. To see what Portsmouth really used to look like, read Building Portsmouth by Richard Candee.

 

Copyright © 2013 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site SeacoastNH.com. He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER, available on Amazon.com and in local stores. 

 

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