Astonishingly Primitive

That’s the 68-70 Front Street as seen during a HABS survey in 1960-61. The building had already been abandoned by then, the victim of the post-World-War-II transition of the lower Manhattan waterfront from industrial to office use. It was demolished shortly afterwards and by 1970 a small high-rise, 77 Water Street, covered the entire block.

The area burned in the Great Fire of 1835 – as opposed to the Great Fire of 1776 or the Great Fire of 1845 – and this building was constructed shortly afterward. So it was in use as a warehouse for a bit over 120 years. As was expected in the nineteenth century, even a small warehouse had some pretensions to architectural dignity on its street facade, and the high-quality brick, the stone piers at the ground floor, and the ornament surrounding the tiny attic windows at the top of the wall show what that meant. The rear facade, on the other hand…

…was about as plain as it could possibly be. Try as I might, I can’t find any evidence that the third and fourth floors used to have four windows at the rear: the brick where the “missing” windows should be matches the bonding and coursing around it. So either someone did an amazingly good job infilling the windows or they never existed.

The interior is, of course, wood joists spanning parallel to the front and read facades. Because the building was 34 feet wide, it had a row of columns and girders running down the middle to create two structural bays. Because of the early construction date, these columns and girders were all wood.

If this building had been constructed twenty years later, the columns would probably have been cast iron (as would the granite piers of the storefront); had it been constructed forty years later, the columns would probable have been cast iron and the girders wrought iron. The interior were hardly altered between construction and demolition, but the sign partially hidden by the column in the center was probably added in the early 1900s:


Those signs were required for commercial buildings by some of the building codes enacted long after this building had already been constructed. But the best picture in the HABS survey is the last, taken in the attic:

Putting aside the resemblance to a set for a horror movie, this is amazing. That’s not an elevator, but rather a basic hoist: if you’ve got a multiple-story warehouse, you need a way to get heavy objects up to all the floors. But the platform is simply hung from a hemp rope wrapped around a log, much like a cartoon well. Back to the horror theme, this is a wood-framed, wood-sheathed shaft running the full height of the building and ending open to the air below a wood-rafter roof. It’s mildly amazing this never burned down. There’s another weight capacity sign on the wall on the right, but it’s not legible. We’re looking toward the front facade, through two of the small windows. The sloped rafters are not tied at the bottom, but are supported by at least two and maybe three heavy-timber frames, so the roof makes sense structurally. The frames – both the structural frames supporting the roof and the ones supporting the hoist – are joined with mortise and tenon connections, kept in place with wood pegs. That detail, and the hoist, mark this as a having been built before the Civil War.

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