In his 1653 poem on “The Character of Holland,” a piece of stereotypical English propaganda that was written in an era of fierce Anglo-Dutch economic rivalry, poet and politician Andrew Marvell ridiculed the Low Countries as being composed of “undigested vomit from the sea.”
The satirist did not mention the fact that out of this appalling spew the Dutch created bricks that were used by architects to build their characteristic cities which, in turn, inspired the flourishing genre of the cityscape in seventeenth century painting. Both bricks and building skills were at the time exported to England and across the Atlantic.
Dutch traders founded New Netherland long before the English showed up in the area. They were actively trading along the Hudson River as early as 1611 and established Fort Amsterdam on the southern tip of Manhattan Island in 1625. Four decades later, the capital New Amsterdam had grown into a buzzing port city with a diverse populace of 1,500 where making money was more relevant than colonial ambition or religious doctrine.
Newcomers from the Low Countries built their homes in the Dutch style even if, initially, they had to import materials all the way from across the Atlantic. Nicasius de Sille, advisor and First Councillor to Governor Peter Stuyvesant, had arrived in the colony in 1653. Four years later he became one of the first patentees of New Utrecht (now in Brooklyn) and built a house there using local stone and red roof tiles that were imported from Holland.
Seventeenth century Dutch immigrants turned New York into a metropolis of stoops. Canal houses in Amsterdam and elsewhere were built with a front “stoep” to keep the lower floors from flooding. When the early inhabitants of New Amsterdam designed their Manhattan dwellings, they incorporated the entrance stoop to the house that was ingrained in their memory. It became a characteristic feature of New York’s cityscape.
In the Low Countries, local pride and civic self-esteem were expressed in brick. The builders of New Amsterdam were driven by the same passion for brickwork. In 1642, the Dutch West India Company commissioned the construction of a tavern at 85 Broad Street, named the Stadt Herbergh, then one of the largest buildings in the city. Archeological excavations have shown the builders used imported yellow Dutch bricks. In 1653, it was converted into the first City Hall. The Stadt Huys became the center of governmental life in the Colony and continued functioning after the British conquered New Amsterdam in 1664. It was closed in 1679 for safety reasons and demolished in 1699.
When in 1719 Étienne [Stephen] De Lancey built a house on a site in Pearl Street that had been given to him by his father-in-law, New York’s Mayor Stephanus van Cortlandt, he used small yellow bricks that were brought over from the Dutch Republic. In 1762, his heirs sold the property to Samuel Fraunces who converted it into an inn that became later known as Fraunces Tavern.
Rivers of Clay
Having developed mobile kilns, the Romans introduced brick making techniques throughout the Empire for constructing the walls of houses, Roman baths, and monuments. The bricks had rectangular, triangular, and even round shapes. With their retreat from northern Europe, the skill of brick making disappeared. Most medieval buildings were constructed by using timber and other perishable components.
Once the process was re-introduced, the use of fire-resistant bricks was prescribed by local authorities. In a 1450 statute issued at Leiden its use was made compulsory for facades. Apart from fire prevention, there was a geological necessity to develop the material. Scarcity of woodlands determined Dutch commitment to brick as a key material in early construction.
A brick’s color depends on its raw materials. Iron rich clay as cut from the bed of the Oude Rijn River produced splendid red bricks when fired. Streetscapes by Johannes Vermeer (Leiden) and Pieter de Hooch (Delft) bear witness to that process.
The more common yellow bricks were baked from chalk-rich clay found on the banks of the River IJssel. Dense and hard-fired, the so-called Gouda bricks were used for street paving as well and traded throughout Europe and beyond.
In England, many of the earliest brick-built structures are located in the eastern counties where trade links with the Low Countries were strong and long-standing. In 1278 a shipment of more than 200,000 Dutch bricks arrived in London for use in building the Tower. The Flemish bond pattern proved popular with English and Irish bricklayers.
John Butt’s panoramic “View of Cork” (ca. 1750) shows a city characterized by Dutch brickwork. It is a reminder of the role that city played at a time that the Low Countries dominated the North Atlantic trade route.
Barons of Brick
The nature of a city is neither historic nor modern, but evolutionary. A city is made up of streets, squares, and premises that have been built and re-built over time. Nothing is permanent or stays fixed. In architecture everything gives way and every generation tinkers with urban aesthetics in order create its own city. At the same time, its fabric proves to be resilient. In spite of continuous change, great cities remain largely the same (bar the impact of natural disasters or that of demented warmongers).
Building materials and their stylistic use have an impact on urban psychology. Architecture affects mind and mood. London’s limestone, Florence’s marble, or Aberdeen’s granite, they all act on the mental make-up of their inhabitants.
During the seventeenth century, places like Amsterdam, Delft, or Haarlem vied with one another for political as well as aesthetic pre-eminence. Local painters created scenes that reflected the Dutch municipal vision, making their orderly and pristine brick cities look like heaven on earth. Urban evils were not recorded. There is no poverty, no grime; there is no dark end of the street.
In depicting urban images of intimate tranquillity, Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer raised the street- and cityscape to new artistic levels. Uniquely, their paintings reveal a catalogue of building materials that lent visual splendor to their exteriors.
These artists were Barons of Brick. Pieter de Hooch’s father actually was a bricklayer. The artist’s intimate knowledge of the trade was translated onto canvas, making him Holland’s most notable “brickie.” In his paintings, one can count the bricks.
Hudson River Bricks
Gouda bricks have been recovered in Maryland, Virginia, and other colonial parts. Washington Irving’s fictional narrator Dietrich Knickerbocker describes the houses of Rip Van Winkle’s village at the foot of New York’s Catskill Mountains, dating from Peter Stuyvesant’s governorship, as built of small “yellow bricks brought from Holland.”
In 1626 Dutch settlers bought the island of “Manhattes” from Native Americans. Though they controlled New York for only sixty years, their influence on the city’s identity has been pervasive. Re-creating the outlines of their home cities, New Amsterdam was built on an irregular pattern of narrow yellow brick roads and a variety of houses with facades and stepped gables. To achieve that “nostalgic” look, colonists initially imported Dutch bricks.
Bricks were shipped from The Netherlands starting in the early 1630s. Around the same time, however, bricks were also being produced in the colony itself. The brick structures in New Amsterdam were made of both domestic and imported materials.
Haverstroo is one of the oldest names in the geography of what is now Rockland County, NY. It was first recorded on a map dating from 1616. Coined by Dutch settlers in the region, the term (later anglicized to Haverstraw) described the oat straw that grew along the bay. Farmers shipped their products down the river to be sold in developing urban markets.
The discovery of large deposits of yellow and blue clay along the banks of the Hudson River made it unnecessary to transport building materials from the Low Countries. In 1771 Jacob van Dyke began producing bricks in a rapidly expanding business. A century later there were over forty brickyards in the Haverstraw area, furnishing the materials that would transform the metropolis, and producing enough bricks to ship and sell them to other colonies along the Atlantic Coast. Employing an estimated 2,400 employees in the late 1800s, the workers of these brickyards were largely Italian and Irish immigrants.
During the nineteenth century New York’s population expanded at an astonishing rate. The number of buildings in Manhattan alone increased twenty-fold and an estimated 115,000 brick dwellings were completed.
The original landowners and settlers had built roads and property in an ad-hoc way to accommodate the hilly terrain. The city’s relentless growth demanded attention to infrastructure. By 1807, a team was hired to create a master design that would help structure its sprawling evolution. Four years later, the “Commissioner’s Plan” established the iconic grid of streets and avenues that we know today.
Pride of Place
Most of the early buildings of New Amsterdam were timber constructions. Since Manhattan was covered with trees at the time, wood was inevitably the first material used to build houses and stores. The population increase on the island in the early part of the eighteenth century led to the erection of closely packed wooden buildings, both domestic and industrial.
Recurrent fires resulted in the enactment of building code laws, paving the way for bricks to take over as the material of choice. In the bitterly cold winter of December 1835, a blaze started at a large warehouse at 25 Merchant Street (now: Beaver Street), Manhattan. Gale force winds quickly spread the fire through local wooden structures, while water sources of the East and Hudson Rivers lay frozen. Only two people died in the blaze, but Manhattan’s infrastructure was seriously damaged and needed rebuilding.
Although cast-iron architecture became widely used during the 1850s, most of Manhattan’s building during that period was brick (in combination with stone and wood). The statistics are staggering: some forty billion bricks were laid on the island.
Visitors to Manhattan took delight in the texture of brickwork they encountered. Placed by hand and using Flemish bond as its predominant pattern, bricks made the district feel intimate and humane. It was that “homely” feeling the original settlers had tried to re-create once separated from their muddy lands of origin.
After the British took control of the colony in 1664, Dutch architecture (and language for that matter) continued to persevere for some time. After 1750, English elements began to creep in as wealthy colonists preferred the fashionable Georgian style. Washington Irvine’s poetical folklore of the Hudson Valley kindled a renewed interest in the nation’s origins, leading to a revival of Dutch-American architecture that imposed standards of early building into a contemporary context.
In 2009, the National Gallery of Art in Washington celebrated the 400th anniversary of the exploration and settlement of the Hudson River Valley with an exhibition on the cityscape as it emerged in Dutch painting during the seventeenth century.
The exhibition was suitably called “Pride of Place” and reinforced the fact that the iconic image of the Netherlands is not a tulip, a windmill, a pair of wooden shoes, a bolknak cigar, or an Edam cheese – its logo is a brick.
Illustrations, from above: Nicasius de Sille’s house in New Utrecht with roof tiles imported from the Netherlands; Yellow Dutch brick recovered from 85 Broad Street, the location of New York City’s first town hall, Stadt Huys (originally built as a tavern); New York stoop near Columbus Avenue, Manhattan; View of Cork (c.1750) by John Butt; Courtyard of a House in Delft by Pieter de Hooch; first known appearance of Haverstroo on Dutch Map CA 1616; Ruins after the Great Fire in New York, 1835 (New York Public Library); and Broadway (1840/4; gouache on paper) by Nicolino Calyo.