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The Fun (and Facts) in Fire Insurance Maps

Burning of the Merchants Exchange, New York City. The great fire of December 1835. NYPL Digital Collections.

Finding windows into the past allows us to properly document the history of our neighborhoods here in New York City. The fire insurance maps of the late 19th and early 20th centuries afforded us one of the greatest opportunities to do so, and are a favorite tool of researchers here at Village Preservation. The maps are often referred to as Sanborn maps, as Sanborn became the best-known fire insurance company in the United States, but in New York, the Dripps, Perris, and Bromley companies also made maps named for their respective companies which are equally rich in valuable information.

William M. Perris, 1853, Volume 4 Index Map. NYPL Digital Collections.

Two devastating fires in New York City in 1835 and 1845 caused local underwriters to go out of business. Following this, George T. Hope, the Secretary of The Jefferson Insurance Company, produced maps detailing the construction of the buildings his company insured. Then, Hope decided to do one for the city, hiring a committee of 100 insurance professionals to decide on the map’s key, scale, and details. William M. Perris drew the maps, and the standard stayed in place for over 100 years. Each map has a key in which you will find the plate you are looking for and the index of “specialty hazards” then used in determining a building’s flammability; today, they give us a great understanding of a building’s construction. To illustrate, let’s look at some interesting things on the maps for the area of great interest to us, the section of Greenwich Village and the East Village South of Union Square

Plate 25: Borough of Manhattan. Volume 3. Published by Sanborn Map Co., 11 Broadway, New York. 1904. NYPL Digital Collections.
The Roosevelt Building (L: Broadway side, from the LPC Designation report, ca. 2018, R: the 13th Street side, ca. 2014)

The 1904 Sanborn details the building’s use, name, occupants, construction, and decoration. As you can see above for the Roosevelt Building, the right-hand side of the map is used to detail the occupancy and uses of the building. The color of the building notes fireproof construction. It also notes the building has its fire pump and independent electrical panel (I.E.P). You can find all of this in the map’s keys. As fireproofing became more intricate, the maps and keys became more necessary to read them. These maps can also provide other useful information, like showing you the footprint of the building, the contours of the lot it sits on, the measurements of the building footprint and/or lot, the number of stories in the building, the materials it was made of, and the street addresses it covers.

Plate 65: Map bounded by University Place, East 14th Street, Fourth Avenue, and East 9th Street. NYPL Digital Collections.
Milligan Place was described as looking similar to the no longer extant Union Court. Berenice Abbott, NYPL Digital Collections.

Perhaps even more interesting than providing details of an existing building, these maps can provide intriguing details on buildings or even streets which are long gone. Nearby, Union Court was located off of University Place between East 12th and 13th Street. Relatively tiny at only 13 feet wide, it was a beautiful hidden street that one might have passed “without knowing anything of its population or that it existed as a street,” according to the New York Sun in 1902. At the time, that paper reported that the owner sold this lot of land due to the influx of retail stores encroaching upon the area South of Union Square; the report stated Union Court was similar to Milligan Place, which still exists in Greenwich Village, and at that, at the time the Court was one of the few remaining streets in the area to retain cobblestone pavement. 

Plate 65: Map bounded by University Place, East 14th Street, Fourth Avenue, and East 9th Street. NYPL Digital Collections.

Another fascinating insight these maps give us is a look at life before zoning regulation. In many maps, we see what is pictured above. Along Fourth Avenue, stone residential dwellings are located beside a coal yard and one block away from a livery stable — a horse stable typically for boarding horses. While both industries in proximity to homes were convenient, the smells, noise, and pollutants they produced were no doubt uncomfortable to live beside. It’s actually quite common in mid-to-late 19th-century maps to find livery stables, slaughterhouses, and heavy manufacturing buildings amongst homes in our neighborhoods. This increasing conflict between the needs for safe and healthy living environments and industry became more intense as both population and commerce grew, until the 1916 zoning act began to legally address this issue, and the 1922 Standard State Zoning Enabling Act even more so.

If you’re interested in exploring the area South of Union Square more, you can explore our interactive map here. If you’d like to work on some of your own neighborhood research, we have put together a neighborhood research guide you can access here. 

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