The Tell-Tale Heart On Nassau Street

Nassau Street is, even by the standards of lower Manhattan, narrow and crooked. Probably for that reason, a lot of old and small buildings have survived there. The building on the right, number 122, is a good example of such a survivor, with some moss on the brick above the storefront’s cornice, and steel plates on the facade where the brick has been tied back to the wood-joust floor inside.

Number 124 probably used to look just like 122. (After a quick look, yeah, it did.) The fenestration spacing matches, which is always a good piece of evidence, but the veneer brick is very new. What caught my eye, though, is the brick arch directly above the storefront. It looks silly and it makes no sense. If that were truly an arch, it wouldn’t work, as it has nothing to push against. If it’s doing nothing, why put it there and turn a sober (if excruciatingly boring) facade into a clown show?

The brick arch is evidence of one of my favorite details: the cast-iron tied-arch as a storefront lintel. I’ve talked it about before, and before, and before. Why do I keep finding these things all over the place? Because there were so few ways that builders in the mid-1800s could create a clear span to carry masonry over glass. They didn’t have big enough I-beams yet and they didn’t trust wood beams. (At some point New York outlawed carrying masonry on wood beams, but I’m not sure when. That provision was in the earliest comprehensive building codes in the late 1800s.) The combination of a cast-iron arch with a wrought-iron tie rod to contain the arch thrust was technologically feasible at that time and worked just fine. The brick arch is not structural, but rather is the transition from the iron arch to the wall above, and so can’t be removed when you replace the veneer, as at 124 Nassau.

Poe got it right: hiding things doesn’t make them go away.

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