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Portsmouth 1814 Brick Act was Unpopular Law

 

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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