Brooklyn’s Fire Limits in 1892

1856 Brooklyn Fire Engine

Why are we at The Wooden House Project so obsessed with frame houses? Because by the turn of the century, their construction in many of Brooklyn’s densest neighborhoods had been outlawed. Like the finest of antiques, if lost today Brooklyn’s wooden houses could not, by law, be replicated. And this is all because of the “fire limits” that were first imposed on the borough well over a century ago and established boundaries within which frame construction was forbidden. The fire limits, their extensions, and their projected repercussions were debated heavily throughout the mid-to-late 19th century.

As mentioned in a previous post, early fire limits in 1852 restricted the development of frame houses in the neighborhoods we know today as Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, DUMBO and Carroll Gardens. The decades that followed were major periods of growth for frame-heavy neighborhoods of Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Bushwick and Cypress Hills. By the time the 1890s rolled around, the city’s population had swelled. Annexation of the outlying towns was a constant back-and-forth battle, and within the city limits, laws against development of wood frame houses was a consistently “hot” topic.

The front page article from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on May 4th, 1892 (entitled “Fire Limits: Should They be Still Further Extended”) was full of the typical opposing views of the time regarding extending the limits.

The grey shaded area below shows approximately those areas included within the fire limits in the early 1890s (bear in mind this is not exact).

Then as always, the argument for extending the limits was obvious: frame houses posed a fire hazard. In the article, proponents cited particular concern for the 16th and the 18th wards (which indluded Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Bushwick). Below is a map of parts of those wards in 1898. Just look at all those yellow wooden houses! (by the way, most of them are still there)

On the flip side, opponents of the extension argued that outlawing wooden house construction would be detrimental to middle class families; building a brick or brownstone home was, according to them, double the price, and without the ability to purchase frame houses the poorer classes would be forced into crowded tenement living. Like today, it’s tough to tell if this was smart PR on the part of developers looking to build cheap homes, or if it was indeed true. Perhaps it was a little of both.

The article goes on to describe how, even within fire limits, the law was sometimes skirted. In some cases, plans for frame homes were approved if both adjoining neighbors of the builder agreed to it or the new construction was an extension.

Despite concerns over their fragility, our frame houses have been hearty survivors. Most are over a century old and continue to define so much of Brooklyn. Is this a good thing? We leave it to our commenters to let us know.

- by Chelcey Berryhill