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Portsmouth 1814 Brick Act was Unpopular Law



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 

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018 
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