NEW YORK, N.Y.-
The first comprehensive exhibition to trace one of the most defining achievements in New York Citys historythe breathtaking vision, planning, and implementation of Manhattans iconic grid systemis now on view at the Museum of the City of New York
. The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 18112011, on view through April 15, 2012, documents the development of the Commissioners Plan, which in 1811 specified numbered streets and avenues outlining equal rectangular blocks ranging from (todays) Houston Street to 155th Street and from First Avenue to Twelfth Avenue. The exhibition, which is organized on the occasion of the bicentennial of the plan, elucidates, through remarkable maps, photographs, and other historic documents, this monumental infrastructure projectthe citys first such civic endeavorwhich transformed New York throughout the 19th century and laid the foundation for its distinctive character. Some 225 artifacts are on view in the exhibition, which is organized chronologically and geographically, leading visitors from 17th-century, pre-grid New York through the planning process and the explicit 1811 Commissioners Plan, and from the massive and elaborate implementation of the plan to contemporary reflections on New York and visions for its future.
Commented Susan Henshaw Jones, the Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum: The 1811 grid was a bold expression of optimism and ambition. City commissioners anticipated New Yorks propulsive growth and projected that the citystill relatively small at the time and concentrated in what is now Lower Manhattan and Greenwich Villagewould extend to the heights of Harlem. The 1811 plan has demonstrated remarkable longevity as well as the flexibility to adapt to two centuries of unforeseeable change, including modifications such as Broadway and Central Park. The real miracle of the plan was that it was enforced.
Highlights of the exhibition are ten hand-colored maps by John Randel, Jr. (1787-1865), the surveyor, cartographer, and civil engineer who surveyed the island for the grid and created the official 1811 Commissioners Plan. Beautiful and utilitarian, the mapscalled the Randel Farm Mapsare among the most important records of early New York, and they have never before been exhibited as a group. On loan from the Manhattan Borough Presidents Office, they dramatize the radical reorganization of the city that the grid required, and their presentation enables visitors to compare the irregular topography of the city with the grid. The scale of these maps100 feet to 1 inchappears to be unique and rare among maps of other American cities.
Other rare and exquisitely detailed maps dating from 1776 to the present are on view, alongside stunning archival photographs portraying the island of Manhattan throughout various stages of excavation. An extraordinary street-by-street explanation of the plan in the words of the commissionersGouverneur Morris, Simeon De Witt, and John Rutherfurdare on view as are other historic documents, plans, prints, and more.
The Greatest Grid is co-sponsored by the Manhattan Borough Presidents Office.
The exhibition is accompanied by a companion book of the same title, co-published by the Museum of the City of New York and Columbia University Press. Dr. Hilary Ballon, University Professor of Urban Studies & Architecture at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, conceived of the exhibition, is its curator, and is the editor of the companion book.
A related exhibition, on view concurrently at the Museum, features the results of a competition in which architects and planners were asked for submissions using the Manhattan street grid as a catalyst for thinking about the present and future of New York; this exhibition is co-sponsored by the Architectural League of New York.
The Greatest Grid: Synopsis of the Exhibition
The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 18112011 traces Manhattans evolution from once-bucolic origins (depicted in a 1763 print portraying abundant greenery, soft rolling hills, and streams) to the densely built and populated metropolis it is today. The original and authoritative Commissioners Planlines on paperreveals the conceptual vision that would become one of the worlds greatest cities. 19th-century photographs on view reveal flat expanses, excavations, rock outcroppings, and other featuresnatural and man-madeas road-building progressed and, in the words of Clement Clarke Moore, one of the citys first real estate developers, the surface of the earth [was reduced] as nearly as possible to a dead level.
The exhibition documents the work of many illustrious figures, most notably, John Randel, Jr., who measured the grid with obsessive care. Randel was an apprentice to Simeon DeWitt, the surveyor general of New York State from 1784 to 1834. Between 1808 and 1810 Randel measured the lines of streets and avenues at right angles to each other, and recorded distances and details about the island, its features, and its inhabitants. This resulted in a manuscript map of the grid plan, which he completed by March 1811. Randel continued surveying the island from 1811 to 1817, setting marble monuments (one of which is on view in the exhibition; there were to have been 1,800) to mark the intersections of the coming grid. Between 1818 and 1820 Randel drafted a series of 91 large-scale maps of the island, now known as the Randel Farm Maps (ten of which are on view). An article written in the 1850s cited Randel as one of our most accurate engineers, further stating that his survey of New York City was done with such a mathematical exactness as to defy an error of half an inch in ten miles.
The commissioners detailed notes about the grid are also on view in the exhibition, explaining the plan and expressing their intent to lay out streets, roads, and public squares, of such width, extent, and direction, as to them shall seem most conducive to public good... (From An Act relative to Improvements, touching the laying out of Streets and roads in the City of New-York, and for other purposes. Passed April 3, 1807.)
Other colorful figures are highlighted, including William M. Boss Tweed, who implemented high-quality improvements, advanced services, and pushed forward many amenities while at the same time benefitting his associates.
The merits of the grid are debated. Historians have viewed it as the emblem of democracy, with blocks that are equal and no inherently privileged sites. Historians have also praised its utility, its neat subdivisions that support real estate development. The rectangular lots of Manhattans grid parallel Thomas Jeffersons national survey, which organized land sales in square-mile townships. The grid manifests Cartesian ideals of order, with streets and avenues that are numbered rather than named for trees, people, or places. Frederick Law Olmsted bemoaned its dumb utility and lack of monuments and other features. Jane Jacobs credited city streets with creating New Yorks public realm. And Rem Koolhaas called the grid the most courageous act of prediction in Western civilization: the land it divides, unoccupied; the population it describes, conjectural; the buildings it locates, phantoms; the activities it frames, nonexistent.
The Greatest Grid reframes ideas about New York, revealing the plan to be much more than a layout of streets and avenues. The grid provides a framework that balanced public order with private initiative. It predetermined the placement of the citys infrastructure, including transportation services, the delivery of electricity and water, and most other interactions. Manhattans grid has provided a remarkably flexible framework for growth and change.
Visitors have the opportunity to consider New Yorks preparation for the future and whether or not the grid will enable the city to face 21st-century challenges. New proposals for the city, the results of a competition, are on view in a separate, related exhibition co-sponsored by the Architectural League. The Greatest Grid also features 12 x 155, a conceptual art video by artist Neil Goldberg along with other artistic responses, such as original drawings from the graphic novel City of Glass (Picador, 2004) by Paul Auster, illustrated by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli.