1811 Commissioners' Plan

Today, in the age of Google Maps, ubiquitous satellite imagery, and GPS-enabled smart phones, everyone has become a cartophile. Thanks to the way that new technological tools have democratized mapmaking, many people now even fancy themselves amateur cartographers. And while this recent burst of interest has generated plenty of frivolous plots and plats, maps are uniquely powerful tools for helping us to understand the world around us: what it looks like, who we share it with, what we have access to.

Maps can also help us to imagine how the world around us might change.

In 1807, for instance, the New York State Legislature appointed a three-member commission to create a comprehensive plan for Manhattan in order to improve public health and better facilitate the city’s increasingly rapid development. The result was the most influential map in the New York City’s history: the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811. Commissioners Gouverneur Morris, John Rutherfurd, and Simeon De Witt proposed that the entire island north of the city’s edge at Houston Street be re-organized into the orderly rectangular grid that we know today.

At the time, most of Manhattan was a rambling patchwork of farms, forests, and family estates, and the grid represented a radical re-organization of territory. Today, the city still maintains the original maps created to help New York’s leaders visualize the northward march of their city. Each Borough President acts as the official map-keeper for their borough, and the panels of the Commissioners’ Plan are tucked away in the Manhattan Municipal Building, the elaborate McKim, Mead, & White confection that is celebrating its centennial this year.

During the 12th Annual OHNY Weekend, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer—a supporter of the festival since it began back in 2003—will open her office to the public to host a very special exhibit of maps charting Manhattan’s development, including the Commissioners’ Plan and several additional, formative maps from throughout the city’s history. [UPDATE: Please note that, while the site is listed in the Open Access section of the OHNY Weekend Event Guide, entry is timed, and you must reserve a slot in advance. Space is limited, and reservations go live beginning at 11 AM on Wednesday, Oct. 1.]

On Saturday, October 11th, participants will be able to visit the 19th floor of the Municipal Building to view:

  • Nine individual 20” x 30” panels of the original 1811 Commissioner’s Plan, covering the East Side from downtown to approximately 59th Street;
  • A copy of the overall Randel grid plan, measuring approximately 30” x 96”;
  • A 48” x 48” original of the rarely-seen 1860 Blackwell Farm maps, which surveyed the area north of 155th Street (where the Commissioners’ Plan terminated), along with dozens of field notes for that map;
  • And the original 1801 Lower Manhattan Survey Map (36” x 36”), featuring the “Collect Pond” located where today’s Javits Federal Building stands today.