Godfather of the Grid

+ Brandon Fuller

Gouverneur Morris made key contributions to the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811, a plan that defined Manhattan’s rectilinear street grid and made way for New York’s rapid urban expansion in the 19th century. Solly Angel and Patrick Lamson-Hall recently pointed me to an excellent sketch of Morris’s contributions by Muriel Knobloch: “Gouverneur Morris and His Contributions to the Development of New York.”

By early 1800 the city was in a period of rapid expansion. New streets had been laid out, and old streets regulated and widened. Large tracts of outlying land came on the market, sold, were surveyed, divided into city lots and soon covered with shops and residences. Difficulties remained for the municipality and for private owners in seeking to conform with the street regulations. Some relief was obtained with the passage of an Act of April 3, 1807, “relative to improvements touching the laying out [of] streets and roads in the City of New York and for other purposes.” Under this act three commissioners were appointed: Gouverneur Morris, Simeon De Witt, then Surveyor General of New York State, along with John Rutherford, whose duty it was to lay out the “leading streets and great avenues of a width not less than 60 feet, and in general to lay out said streets, roads and public spaces of such ample width as they may deem sufficient to secure a free and abundant circulation of air among said streets and public squares as when the same shall be built upon.”

As a Commissioner, Morris anticipated the need to make ambitious plans for New York’s expansion — a need eventually expressed in the Commission’s recommendation of a sevenfold increase in the built-up area of the city. Here is Knobloch quoting from Anne Cary Morris, editor of The Diary & Letters of Gouverneur Morris:

“Morris was certainly prophetic in the views he held of what would be the future of the city of New York, for in his diary, on the 10th of January 1807, he mentioned the fact that some speculators are about to build a village at Harlem Cove, which they call Manhattan. It seems as if the whole island of New York were soon to become a village or a town. In less than twenty years, if things move on in their present course, it will be divided in small lots as far up to what are called Harlem Heights, where now stood Fort Washington.”

In addition to making room for urban expansion, Morris wanted the city to set aside ample public space for parks. He was overruled at the time but it wasn’t long before the city came around to his vision with Central Park.

Morris foresaw the need for a large park for New York City. He submitted a plan which called for the creation of a park three hundred acres reaching from 23rd to 34th streets and from Third to Eighth avenues. The concept was rejected as too expensive.

Knobloch also chronicles Morris’s critical role in establishing the Erie Canal.

While Morris was still active as a Commissioner of Streets for New York City, his attention was turned to another project dear to his heart. He devoted his energy to improving transportation beyond the city, namely, with the development of the Erie Canal. Many contemporaries including Simeon De Witt ascribed to Morris primary credit for originating the idea of the Erie Canal. Stephen Van Rensselaer, one of the first canal commissioners, considered Morris “the father of the great canal.”

The entire article (pdf), published by The Hudson Valley Regional Review, is well worth reading.

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