Department of Buildings architectural drawings and plans for Lower Manhattan

Collection REC0074 - RG 025. Department of Buildings

Abstract

The Department of Buildings requires the filing of applications and supporting material for permits to construct or alter buildings in New York City. This collection contains the plans and drawings filed with the Department of Buildings between 1866-1978, for the buildings on all 958 blocks of Lower Manhattan, from the Battery to 34th Street, as well as a small quantity of material for blocks outside that area.

Extent

1300 cubic feet (approximately 120,000 sheets)

Dates

circa 1866-1978



Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Patrons are required to use digitized images when available. Access to these images is available through our online gallery. Advance notice is required for using original material. Please contact us to arrange access.

Physical Location

Materials are stored onsite at 31 Chambers St.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The bulk of the collection was transferred from the Department of Buildings between 1975 and 1979 (Accession # 1979-020).

Alternate Forms Available

Selections from this collection are available digitally through our online gallery.

Related Materials

The Manhattan block and lot records (REC 0010), 1866-1976, consists of forms and correspondence submitted to the Department of Buildings for proposed construction projects. They provide ownership information, specifications, and construction details for buildings located in blocks 1-958. They are supplementary to the plans that are the subject of this collection guide. The Department of Buildings had also microfilmed the permit application folders, but unlike the plans which were rendered inaccessible by the filming process, the permit folders survived relatively intact, and have been made accessible to researchers. They total 816 cubic feet and are arranged by block and lot number. An inventory is available.

The Department of Buildings docket books span 1866-1951. They record in a chronological, ledger format basic information about every application to construct or alter a building in Manhattan. The information recorded includes the date of application, location, owner, architect, dimensions and materials, type of building (e.g., loft, factory, garage, tenement), and construction details (e.g., foundation and roof materials). It lists the date the plan was approved, and when construction was completed. The entries are recorded chronologically. Unlike the block and lot records, information in the docket books pertains to buildings throughout Manhattan. They are available on microfilm.

Property Cards and Tax Photographs. In the 1930s, as part of an effort to improve the process of assessing property for tax purposes, city assessors recorded information about each property on a card that measures 8 ½” x 14. The information recorded on the card includes a plot diagram indicating where the property is located within the block; a building diagram outlining the dimensions of the building on the property; block and lot numbers; zoning code and building classification information; the assessed valuation (beginning about 1930 and updated annually through the 1970s); and conveyance and mortgage information (less consistently updated). Attached to each card is a small photographic print of the building façade. The collection includes cards for all five Boroughs and totals 1,448 cubic feet. The collection number for the property cards collection is REC 0048. The photographs used for the property cards comprise two additional collections. The 1940s tax photographs, REC 0040, consists of photographs depicting every real estate parcel in the five boroughs of New York City, dated between 1939-1951, with the bulk of the images dating from 1939-1941. The original negatives of the photographs have been recently digitized and are available for viewing via the Municipal Archives’ online gallery. Additionally, the 1980s tax photographs, REC 0041, consists of photographs depicting every real estate parcel in the five boroughs of New York City, dated between 1982-1988. Low resolution images of the 1980s photographs are available for viewing via the Municipal Archives’ online gallery.

Collection REC 0018 contains the records of Idilio Gracia Peña, who served as Commissioner of the Department of Records and Information Services from 1990-1995 and Director of the Municipal Archives from 1978-1989. See Series II: Director of the Municipal Archives subject files for information regarding the building plans collection.

Collection REC 0020 contains the records of Eugene Bockman, the first Commissioner of the Department of Records and Information Services upon its establishment in 1977, having served as Director of the Municipal Reference Library (1958-1977) and the Municipal Archives and Records Center (1975-1977). See Series I: Subject files for information regarding the buildings plans collection.

The Department of Buildings’ Building Information System (BIS) maintains files containing construction applications, building permits, and associated materials. The online system provides a property overview for each lot, as well as information on violations, complaints, actions and inspections. Using the “actions” feature under the Building Information Search will generate a list of the permit numbers (with dates) associated with building on that lot throughout its history.

Processing Information

Processing began in 2018 and is ongoing. The processing archivists include Amy Stecher (2018-present), Cynthia Brenwall (2020-present), Clare Manias (2019-2020), Porscha Williams Fuller (2018-2019), and David Mathurin (2018). As of March 17, 2020, 257 cubic feet have been processed.

The drawings had been rolled into large bundles at the Department of Buildings prior to transfer to the Municipal Archives. The drawings remained in the bundles until commencement of the processing project. The bundle contents had been marked according to block and lot numbers, often incorrectly or inaccurately. Processed material has been accurately described and rehoused in correct block and lot order. The drawings span more than 100 years and consist of many print types created by varied processes, some of which can cause degradation over time; within each lot group, drawings are separated according to print type and these types are separated by sheets of Mylar to avoid chemical migration.
The collection consists of more than 100,000 plans pertaining to buildings on 958 blocks in Lower Manhattan from the Battery to 34th Street; a small quantity, mostly unprocessed, relates to Manhattan blocks above 34th Street. Created between 1866-1978, the types of plans include sections, elevations, floor plans, and details, as well as engineering and structural diagrams, for both new construction and alterations. The most common types of plans are for new buildings (NB), as well as many types of alteration plans, predominantly plumbing (P), plumbing and drainage (P&D), general alterations (ALT), elevators (E; ELEV), and fire escapes (FE).

Most plans have a stamped or handwritten Department of Buildings (DOB) identifier consisting of a letter abbreviation for the type of plan and a two-part number sequence. For each type of application (e.g. new building, or alteration), the DOB sequentially numbered each application, beginning with no. 1 on January 1 of each year. The second two-digit number signified the relevant year. For example, a plan labeled NB 75 ’98 indicates that it was the 75th application filed for a new building to be constructed in 1898.

The collection comprises multiple forms of graphic representation of buildings, from rough pencil sketches by carpenters, to carefully measured sections and plans, and intricate elevations by trained architects and engineers. All types of reproduction processes extant during the relevant time period are represented including blueprints, typically cyanotype on either linen or paper; Pellet’s process-white prints, typically blue lines on white paper or linen (circa 1877); Ferro Gallic-Colas process, black lines on white paper or linen; and Aniline print/green print, dark lines on light green paper or linen (discontinued in 1895). By the 1940s, “Diazo” prints generally replaced the blueprint/cyanotype process. Although they vary in dimension, the vast majority measure within a range of 36 x 48 inches. Some are relatively small (e.g., 12 x 12 inches), while others are oversized, measuring as large as five to six feet.

This collection is enhanced by the geographic area in which it covers. Lower Manhattan below 34th Street is home to abundant examples of all types of uses — industrial, manufacturing, retail, financial, and residential — and includes office buildings, stores, factories, warehouses, dwellings, hotels, theatres, boardinghouses, churches, schools, stables, and garages.

The southern tip of Manhattan below Wall Street was the city’s first commercial district, and buildings there were designed to house office workers in financial, newspaper, and insurance businesses. Construction innovations, particularly the advent of steel-frame construction, as well as the inventions of the elevator and, later, air conditioning allowed buildings to become larger and taller. Drawings for some of the earliest 19th century “skyscrapers,” a term initially for 10-to-20-story buildings, are in the collection.

The economic boom after the Civil War led to the development of factories and retail establishments throughout Lower Manhattan. The use of cast iron made it possible to build large, open spaces with natural light suitable for large-scale retail and manufacturing activities. In the 1870s, dozens of loft factories sprang up on the blocks north and west of City Hall, resulting in the largest concentration of full and partial cast-iron facades anywhere in the world. Farther north, along Broadway and Sixth Avenue, between 14th and 23rd Streets, cast-iron palaces with display windows imitating those in Europe became known as the Ladies’ Mile, a shopping district for wealthy New Yorkers. By the 1920s, garment manufacturers congregated in buildings along Seventh Avenue near 34th Street. Access to transportation — the Hudson River waterfront and railroad lines that ran down the west side — led to the proliferation of buildings erected for commercial storage and manufacturing in Lower Manhattan’s far west side.

In addition to commercial and industrial structures, Lower Manhattan is also home to numerous residential neighborhoods with buildings that range from row houses and tenements to townhouses and luxury apartment buildings. Multi-unit residential buildings, or tenements, the predominant housing stock of the Lower East Side, are exceptionally well represented in the collection. The earliest plans show conversions of older single-family dwellings to accommodate multiple households. Driven by the ever-increasing numbers of immigrants arriving in New York City during the late 19th century, new building plans were devised to maximize occupancy, often to the detriment of living conditions. Eventually, pushed by housing reformers, architects created what would become the ubiquitous “dumbbell” and later the “new law” tenement designs. The building plan collection provides valuable documentation of residential areas around Gramercy Park, Stuyvesant Square, Union Square, and Greenwich Village. Although many of the buildings in these neighborhoods pre-date the 1866 filing requirements, the collection is rich with plans submitted for later alterations, as architects, homeowners, and developers converted row houses into “modern” dwellings by adding plumbing, removing stoops, and altering facades. Beginning in the 1920s, architects filed plans to construct larger apartment buildings. Many were built along lower Fifth Avenue and around Gramercy Park and designed with amenities to lure residents from their single-family townhouses.

The collection's value lies not just in the drawings as a representation of the structures, but as samples of the standard of architectural practice in New York City over a 100-year-span. Architectural drawings, especially from the 19th century, often survive only if the firm had successor architects or if the architects were particularly famous. Indeed, many well-known architects can be found in this collection. The material processed to date includes plans submitted by Emery Roth, McKim Mead & White, John B. Snook, H. J. Hardenbergh, Francis H. Kimball, Carrère and Hastings, Cross & Cross and many others. However, the inclusive nature of the collection — all plans filed by all persons engaged in new construction or alteration — means that the work of lesser-known architects, engineers, builders, and tradespeople of all kinds are also represented in abundance.

The comprehensiveness of the collection informs its usefulness in a broad range of topics. It provides access to both high-end and utilitarian design information, the plans of the luxury apartment building and the tenement, the skyscraper and the gas station, plumbing-riser schematics for 27 stories or the installation of a single sink or toilet. Researchers can investigate topics such as the impact of technological change on neighborhoods, the shifting patterns of real estate development as a gauge of social mobility or economic trends, or the effects of planning and zoning on architectural design and land use. It is a unique and essential source of documentation of the physical growth of New York City over time. It provides a window into the history of the dynamics and adaptations of that built environment.

Collection processing is ongoing, and the inventory spreadsheet is updated as material is reviewed, cataloged, and rehoused. For plans already processed, the spreadsheet is searchable according to block and lot number, address, or alternate block and lot numbers and addresses for those that have changed over time through mergers and splits. On rare occasions, entire blocks have been merged, eliminated, or renumbered. Lot numbers also change when a building converts to condominium status. The current Department of Buildings (DOB) Building Information System (BIS) does not always indicate historical lot number changes. Block and lot numbers can also be found on the plans themselves, recorded by either the DOB or the microfilming vendor during the 1970s project. Researchers are cautioned that these notations can be misleading as some of the plans are for now demolished or altered buildings.

For processed material, the inventory spreadsheet indicates if new building plans are available, the NB (New Building) application number, the name of the associated architect, if applicable, as well as the number of individual sheets, and date range of creation. Date ranges often span long periods, and the plans within one lot group are not all necessarily for the same building, but for any buildings built on that lot over time.

Additionally, it is worth noting that the collection houses alteration plans for buildings that existed before 1866, when permits were first issued. There will not be new building (NB) plans for pre-1866 buildings, but certain types of alteration plans can be very detailed. Plumbing plans, for instance, often provide full floor layouts for an already existing building. Plans for buildings that altered to adhere to changing tenement law regulations can also provide full and detailed views.
The history of building regulation in New York City date almost as far back as the city itself. In 1625, the Dutch West India Company imposed rules for the locations and types of houses that could be built in the colony. In 1647, the Director-General and Council of New Amsterdam issued an ordinance forbidding new wooden or “merely plastered” chimneys from being built and for the inspection of hearths and chimneys by fire masters with the ability to inspect at will and to impose fines. Over the years, more regulations were imposed but were often unheeded or insufficient, with governmental bodies unwilling or unable to keep up with societal changes.

Sanitation and public safety, particularly from the hazard of fire, drove most of the first regulations imposed on construction. Fire-prevention laws were enacted in 1683 and again in 1775. In 1791, the New York State Legislature mandated firewalls and parapet roofs, both strategies for preventing the spread of fire.

In the first half of the 19th century, overcrowding became a significant issue. The city’s population increased from 60,000 people in 1800 to more than 800,000 in 1860. Many buildings originally constructed for a single family were altered to accommodate multiple households; additional buildings were “back built” into their already small yards. By 1865 more than 15,000 tenement-style buildings had been constructed, with practically no open space between building lots for light or ventilation.

Prior to 1860, fire wardens supervised building construction. In 1860 the New York State Legislature passed, “An Act to provide against unsafe buildings in the City of New York…,” calling for the appointment of a Superintendent of Buildings and staff of inspectors. In subsequent years, due to bureaucratic and financial circumstances, the buildings department had many iterations, at times falling under jurisdiction of the Fire Department. Some of the changes within the department reflect advances in building construction and regulation, such as the addition of a Bureau of Fire Escapes and Iron Work in 1874. In 1892, a law re-established a separate Department of Buildings, strengthening its authority and adding to it the Bureaus of Plumbing, Light, and Heat (previously parts of the Department of Health). Alarm over the inhumane, overcrowded, and unsanitary conditions of tenement housing reached its peak during this period, culminating with the passage of the Tenement Act of 1901 by the New York State Legislature. The act imposed many new regulations, such as requiring new buildings to have outward-facing windows, indoor bathrooms, proper ventilation, and increased fire safeguards.

As the population increased and the City’s economy grew in complexity, the need for larger and more versatile space became critical. The introduction of new technologies such as the elevator and steel-frame construction allowed ever-larger and taller buildings to rise along the narrow streets of Lower Manhattan. Advances in the water supply system, sanitary engineering, access to gas (and later electricity) for illumination and cooking, and central heating systems added to the complexity of building construction in the latter half of the 19th century and beyond.

The city’s exponential growth, and the increased demand for regulation and documentation, necessitated the creation and filing of plans for both new building construction and the alterations required to comply with the new laws. Increasingly, trained architects and engineers, rather than tradespeople and builders, were needed to navigate the complexities of the system and draw up the proper plans.

By 1866, the Department of Buildings had established an application and review procedure for both new construction and alteration work on extant buildings. During the last decade of the 19th century, the City established the block and lot numbering system to uniquely identify every real estate parcel. The DOB adopted this scheme and began labeling all plans and permit application paperwork with the relevant numbers and filed the materials accordingly.

Sources

  1. Cobb, Kenneth R. “The Manhattan Building Plans Project, 1977-2018.” For the Record: the blog of the New York City Department of Records and Information Services. July 5, 2018.
  2. Plunz, Richard. A History of Housing in New York City. Revised ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.
  3. Real Estate Record Association. A History of Real Estate, Building and Architecture in New York City During the Last Quarter of a Century. New York: Real Estate Record Association Record and Guide, 1898.
  4. Scobey, David B. Empire City: The Making and Meaning of the New York City Landscape. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.
The material in the collection is filed according to borough, block, and lot number, or BBL, the land-parcel identification system used by New York City. BBL consists of three numbers, separated by slashes: the borough, which is 1 digit; the block number, which is up to 5 digits; and the lot number, which is up to 4 digits. Since all the material in this collection is located within Manhattan, the Borough number is omitted (Manhattan is number 1) and only the block and lot numbers are used for identification. For example, 100/10 would indicate block 100 lot 10 in Manhattan. The material is filed in order from lowest to highest block number, and lowest to highest lot number within the block.
Title
Guide to the Department of Buildings architectural drawings and plans for Lower Manhattan, circa 1866-1978
Status
In Progress
Author
Amy Stecher
Date
2020 May
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
eng
Sponsor
In 1975, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded a grant to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to administer a cataloging project at the Municipal Archives for a small sub-series of building records and plans, thought to pertain to demolished buildings. These plans were subsequently incorporated into the larger 1977-1979 collection of building plans. In 2018, the Municipal Archives received an award from the New York State Library Conservation/Preservation Discretionary Grant Program for processing and re-housing the plans pertaining to the Manhattan neighborhoods of Tribeca and Soho.