J. Dennis Robinson’s 24th guest post for TMS Architects answers one question: why there is so much brick in downtown Portsmouth but raises other questions that we will have to answer for ourselves.  Read on and stay safe this holiday season!

“It was the holiday season when all three devastating fires ripped through Portsmouth and changed the city forever. The fires of 1802, 1806, and 1813 flattened the downtown and took out hundreds of wooden buildings. As a result, the city was rebuilt in brick. And if you want to design new buildings for downtown Portsmouth,  you’ must come face-to-face with the Brick Act of 1814.

For decades historians and tour guides have been saying that the Brick Act made downtown Portsmouth what it is today. Wooden buildings of more than a single story were banned and only a very few of those early structures survive.  What had been a city with a diverse architectural appearance was recast as a monolithic city center made of brick.

But according to historian Richard Candee, the Portsmouth Brick Act was much more than an early building code. It was more than an effort to prevent spreading fires. It also affected WHO could afford to build in the city center. And like current regulations pending, it was not a popular law. People got angry. People protested. The act was ignored, broken, and largely unenforceable.

And even without the law, Portsmouth had learned its lesson. A number of key downtown brick buildings were constructed before the Brick Act was created. But since then, and especially in recent decades, a brick facade has been all but required here.

Do we want to live in a sea of brick? Is using brick more important than designing great buildings? Should Portsmouth finally break away from its brick heritage? Don’t ask me — I just write about history.

 But everyone who wants to design buildings in this city should get a copy of Candee’s article, because — if you don’t know where you’ve been, you don’t know where you’re going. Right?  Candee is professor emeritus of American and New England Studies at  Boston University and knows this topic well. He is also the author of the book every architect should own this Christmas — BUILDING PORTSMOUTH.

Feel free to start with my recent article on the BRICK ACT that is linked below. Then get yourself a copy of the following.

Richard M. Candee, “Social Conflict and Urban Rebuilding: The Portsmouth, New Hampshire Brick Act of 1814,” Winterhur Portfolio, vol. 32, No 2 &3, (Summer / Autumn 1997), 119-148.

Oh, and while you’re enjoying the holidays downtown — try not to kick over any kerosene lamps or leave any candles burning. See you next year.

For more information read my latest history feature
Portsmouth’s 1814 Brick Act was Unpopular Law


J. Dennis Robinson is editor and owner of the popular Web site SeacoastNH.com and author of books about history. His latest books are UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS about archaeology and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER about the War of 1812.He is currently writing a book on the 1873 Smuttynose Island murders.

Richard Candee giving his annual Brick Act tour in Market Square Source:  J. Dennis Robinson

Richard Candee giving his annual Brick Act tour in Market Square Source: J. Dennis Robinson

Map of the 1814 Brick Act Source:  Richard M. Candee

Map of the 1814 Brick Act
Source: Richard M. Candee