With the relatively recent establishment of the U.S. Green Building Council and the LEED standard, it can seem far reaching to consider sustainable architectural practices in the early 19th c. The architect at the center of that prospect, Ithiel Town, would found the country’s first architectural firm, Town and Davis on Wall St. in 1828. A Pioneer in American Revivalist architecture, taking on a commissions in the neo-Greek, Egyptian, Gothic, Tuscan and other styles, the architectural historian Talbot Hamlin would go so far as to call Town “One of the most important personalities on the American scene in the second quarter of the 19th century.”
There’s evidence to suggest that Town had a growing awareness of environmental issues, and that strategies in his architectural practice represented a conscious response. It is impossible to measure Town against modern green building, or to expect that environmental damage such as acid rain, global warming, VOC contamination, etc. – could have been foreseen at that time. But the rate of deforestation and early effects of the Industrial Revolution were beginning to raise alarms related to the environment. Research is currently underway to uncover what remains of Town’s environmental record. Sustainable architects today may yet have something to learn, or at least feel confirmed, from America’s earliest professional architects.
Pre-WWI buildings in the city were framed with old growth timber from the country’s seemingly endless virgin forests. The fact can come as a surprise to modern urban dwellers, with wooden joists hidden behind floors and ceilings. These old bones of New York City were once trees of course, with roots upstate, or in New England, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Louisiana, Virginia, Nova Scotia – just about any place that forests were logged, and water or rail transport was available.
There would be no New York without lumber. So at least in part, the city begins in these backwoods, and with the people that logged them. Their methods, tools and culture can seem as remote as that of imported goods today. But where things come from and how they’re made is now knowledge of critical value, but the same awareness of the past speaks to qualities that don’t meet the eye.
The following links to selection of selection of photos, providing a glimpse of the forgotten forest and it’s logging heritage.
How many types of trees on earth? 60,000 is a good working number, according to Colin Trudge, an author on the subject. Of this total, an NYC hardwood dealer carries about twenty-five varieties in the form of solid lumber. The reclaimed wood species that are harvested locally is about half this number (roughly twelve), and half of these, or a handful, make up the bulk of antique and vintage woods salvaged in the city. The list includes Longleaf Pine, Red Spruce, Eastern Hemlock, Douglas Fir, Eastern White Pine and Shortleaf Pine. Of these, two predominate; Red Spruce (Picea rubens) and Longleaf Pine (Picea palustris) – the former comes from multi-family residential buildings (tenements etc.) and the latter from commercial structures (warehouses, etc). In looking at the antique and vintage lumber that flows into the city’s c & d waste stream, just one, Red Spruce, remains at the top of the waste heap in its potential environmental value. It represents the largest volume of reclaimed lumber and is currently the most difficult to re-use. The issue of recycling this and other “Large dimensional lumber”, is now being taken up by New York City government and an Urban Green Council task force. see “NYC Lumber Law”.
The following links to a brief profile of twelve woods that are reclaimed from dismantled structures in NYC.
Photos from istockphoto.com unless otherwise indicated.