Nicholas Brenner, ‘19
It is rare, at least for me, to pause during the grueling commute to BHSEC and take a moment to notice the street this school is on – Mangin Street. I wondered who Mangin was, and decided to do some research. It turns out that the creator and namesake of our street, the architect and surveyor Joseph François Mangin, was one of the most elusive figures in New York City history. A French-born emigre from Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti), the dates of his birth and death are a mystery. What is known, however, makes him one of the more influential people in the planning and creation of the foundations of the modern city of New York.
Mangin first appears in city records in 1795. At that time, New York was crowded with refugees from the revolutions in France and Saint-Domingue, a number of whom were talented architects and engineers. Competition was therefore unusually robust, which makes Mangin’s early success all the more remarkable. Having worked as a surveyor for the French army, he was appointed assistant engineer for the fortifications under construction on Governors Island, at the recommendation of George Washington. That same year, he, in partnership with his brother Charles-Nicolas, received his first major architectural commission for the Park Theatre, the first playhouse built in Manhattan since the Revolution. While its exterior was never finished because of lack of capital and managerial incompetence – it was called a “standing libel on the taste of the town” by the New York Evening Post – its interior was renowned for its innovative use of columns and light, a novelty for the elite of the city who gathered in its lyre-shaped auditorium.
Mangin’s stardom only rose from there. He made solid connections with the ruling Federalist party, most notably with Alexander Hamilton. In one frantic five-week stretch in the spring of 1796, Mangin became a U.S. citizen, was made a freeman of the city, which allowed him to vote and own real estate, presented a proposal for a comprehensive map of Manhattan, and was appointed a city surveyor. At the end of the summer, construction began on Newgate, the massive Mangin-designed State Prison in Greenwich Village that inspired the phrase “up the river.”
Earlier in 1796, the brothers presented the Common Council (today’s City Council) with an ambitious scheme to turn the festering Collect Pond into a harbor and industrial park fed by a series of canals, which would also function both as sewers and a much-desired source of clean water. Their statement that “the city of New York appears to be designed as the future center and metropolis of [the] commercial world; as lying at the mouth of two large and beautiful rivers, on which are imported from the remotest interior parts the productions of fertile and daily improved countries” was remarkably farsighted.
Another proposal, for a map of Manhattan, would become Mangin’s greatest contribution to New York City, setting the course for its future orderliness and consistency. It was a timely idea. Much of the city had been destroyed in the British occupation during the Revolution, but now lower Manhattan was filling in rapidly and its population required services and supervision beyond what had been previously imagined. As “a general plan and survey of the streets in this city,” the map would provide technical information that would allow the streets to be properly regulated, i.e., levelled and paved, accompanied by a field book containing a complete listing of property owners. The proposal discussed moving earth and water supply, clear signs that it was conceived with future growth in mind. It was to be no ordinary map. It is possible to date the beginnings of New York City’s modern municipal government to this early exercise in city planning, the first attempt to quantify and organize the burgeoning metropolis guided by the assumption that urban growth ought to be anticipated and overseen by civic authorities.
Respected city surveyor Kasimir Goerck, who had recently completed the map of the Common Lands from 42nd to 93rd Streets, submitted a proposal of his own. By November, he had allied with Mangin, and their joint application was quickly approved. Work continued until November 1798, when Goerck died of yellow fever, which he may have contracted while surveying the swampy areas along the waterfront. Mangin had to finish the map by himself, which left him vulnerable to attack. In December, he addressed a letter to the Common Council complaining that fellow surveyor Charles Loss, an intimate friend of Aaron Burr’s, had demanded to see the map. Mangin refused, explaining that “this is not the plan of the city such as it is, but such as it is to be.” The Council told Loss to back off, but Mangin was forced to show his hand, revealing that his map would not be the expected literal rendering of Manhattan’s streets. He had overreached, and his enemies would seize on the map’s obvious imaginative elements to damage his reputation and discredit his plan for the future New York.
In the meantime, the city had another important project to bestow. In 1802, Mangin teamed up with the city’s top architect, John McComb Jr., to enter the Common Council’s design competition for the new City Hall. Theirs was the winning plan. It is likely that the original design was Mangin’s, since it is in the style of French architecture of the Louis XVI period, with which Mangin would have been well versed. McComb, one of the last of the colonial builder-architects, drew inspiration from the British Neoclassical style of Sir William Chambers. As the first structure in New York to be built in the French Renaissance style, City Hall was revolutionary and unprecedented, reflecting the unique cultural influences present at the time. Its architecture would be widely acclaimed upon its completion in 1812.
Mangin, however, was no longer involved. He was conspicuously absent from Mayor Livingstone’s gala ceremony for laying the cornerstone at the City Hall building site on May 26, 1803. The omission of his name on the cornerstone was remarked upon in letters to contemporary newspapers, but for reasons that still remain unclear, Mangin continued to be denied his share of the credit, while McComb assumed complete control as supervising architect. In a further act of damnatio memoriae in the second half of the century, Mangin’s name was erased from the competition drawings on file in City Hall, most likely by a McComb in-law.
In November, the Street Commissioner Joseph Browne, Aaron Burr’s brother-in-law, attacked the map. He derided its “many inaccuracies,“ its disregard of existing property lines and “its streets which have not been agreed to by the Corporation, and which it would be improper to adopt,” an obvious snipe at Mangin and Goerck Streets., He insisted upon a recall of the map.
Mangin was ridiculed by his contemporaries for producing a map that projected far into an inconceivable future with insufficient regard for the actual present, and for naming, in a small corner on the eastern edge of the map, two streets after himself and his partner, in the same way that an artist would sign a painting. However, the Commissioners Plan of 1811, which officially established the New York City street grid, ultimately incorporated much of the Mangin-Goerck plan. West and South Streets frame the coast of lower Manhattan as Mangin intended. The Corlears Hook district developed along the lines he conceived, including Mangin and Goerck Streets. On the map, Mangin Street ended at Rivington Street and Goerck at Stanton, their progress north obstructed by the wetlands of Manhattan island, a marsh which was under water at high tide. But as the shoreline was extended with landfill, Mangin Street crept into existence, eventually stretching up to 7th Street. As early as 1806, John Jacob Astor, the wealthiest man in New York, was begging the city for a grant of two lots on Mangin between Stanton and Howard.
Mangin himself must have been out of town for some time that year, because an advertisement in the Commercial Advertiser of June 11 announced his return to his home and office at 300 Greenwich Street, from which “he will thankfully receive any orders as a Surveyor, Civil, Military Engineer, or Architect. Drainage will be executed with accuracy and dispatch.” It is difficult to decide which is more surprising, the listing of architect as the least of his professions, or his apparent eagerness to handle drainage problems, although that may have been a profitable sideline. It marks a huge change from his letter to Hamilton in 1799, in which Mangin complained of being a city surveyor as “well below my station,” to “thankfully” taking orders for routine work, and it can be taken as evidence of the decline of his status in New York City. The following year, in a decision that would have dismal financial consequences, he sold his substantial real estate holdings in Manhattan, and moved with his family to a large farm he had purchased in upstate New York near the Canadian border. They returned after just one winter. He reapplied to be a city surveyor, but had to wait until 1810 to be reinstated.
During this time, he managed to land two significant ecclesiastical projects, the First Presbyterian Church on Wall Street and Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mott Street. The second cathedral in the country and the earliest in New York, it was the also the first building in the city to be built in the Gothic Revival style. While Mangin’s original exterior was never adopted due to lack of funds, the Cathedral was a mark of the Frenchman’s lasting reputation and the growing influence of the Catholic community in New York. The structure that stands today was restored after a fire in 1866, and is currently undergoing another restoration.
A few prestigious commissions could not do enough to save him from a spiral into poverty and obscurity. Mangin resumed work on the harbor defenses during the War of 1812, and the Council minutes are punctuated every now and then with small payments to him for surveying jobs, but by April 1818, he was humiliatingly compelled to submit a petition to the city’s Committee on Charity, which awarded him $50. His final listing in Longworth’s City Directory was published in June, 1818. His residence was listed as Bowery-hill, a neighborhood that encompassed today’s Astor Place, where the prosperous John McComb Jr. resided on a large estate. There is no known record of Mangin’s death.
Mangin designed buildings for a wide range of institutions in New York City, such as the municipal government, the military, the criminal justice system, the theatre, and the Catholic and Presbyterian churches. There are no records of purely domestic or commercial structures of his design. Everything we know that he built was for public use. Some were New York firsts: the first post-colonial theatre, the first state prison, the first Catholic cathedral. He has a good claim to having been the first person to view New York City from the standpoint of an urban planner. He planned on the grand scale, while continuing to labor in a minor key as a surveyor and draftsman. He was involved with a number of high-profile projects, but every one of them involved him in controversy and frustration. The almost-but-never-quite forgotten architect was finally given a measure of official recognition during the Bloomberg administration on the two-hundredth anniversary of City Hall in 2003, when a plaque acknowledging his contribution was placed outside City Hall. The mayor simply stated that “we wanted to give credit where credit is due.”
The astonishing thing is that Mangin Street continued to exist in spite of the active hostility of the Street Commissioner, Mangin’s fall from favor and two centuries of obscurity. However, it survives in diminished form. Only two disconnected sections, our block and the block underneath the Williamsburg Bridge, remain, the rest having been swallowed by the Baruch Houses, along with the entirety of Goerck Street. If his self-christening of Mangin Street was so outrageous, it is puzzling that the city allowed the name of the street to stand. Despite all the trouble the map heaped upon its creator, both during and after its production, much of Mangin’s “city such as it is to be” came to pass. Since he put Mangin Street on the map and nobody bothered to change it, we are endowed with a daily reminder of this visionary refugee.