NEW YORK COBBLESTONE VS BELGIAN BLOCK - WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?
New York State's magnificent cobblestones, shaped over twenty thousand years ago by melting glaciers, are especially visually appealing because of the variety of rocks they represent. On cobblestone streets in New York City, one finds naturally rounded stones as small as several inches or as large as six or seven that range in color from black to pale to a gamut of other beautiful earth tones.
However, if an eighteenth or nineteenth century cobblestone surface seems to be a uniform grey that doesn't appear to have been water-washed to a smooth texture it is probably granite that has been split into what are referred to as Belgian blocks.
The difference between the two materials is palpable, and just to feel the rounded surface of an original New York cobblestone in one's hand is a delight to the senses.
HOW DID NEW YORKERS ORIGINALLY USE COBBLESTONE?
While legend has it that the first streets of New Amsterdam were paved with ballast from Dutch ships, this theory is unproven. It is far more likely that until the middle of the nineteenth century, New York City's cobblestone streets were paved from local sources. Although most of its original shoreline was composed of sand and clay, the large river pebbles that became known as New York City's cobblestones were abundant enough to be collected and used to pave its lanes.
Farther upstate near Rochester, New York, nineteenth century farmers found entire fields full of glacial cobblestones while clearing their land, and used them to build the property walls we still see today. For their homes, the even smoother cobblestones lining nearby Lake Ontario provided strong foundations and above-ground protection from the region's harsh seasons.
WHY IS NEW YORK STATE'S COBBLESTONE ARCHITECTURE SIGNIFICANT?
There are more than seventy landmarked cobblestone buildings still standing in the Rochester area, representing the burst of architectural innovation surrounding the construction and success of the Erie Canal. By the mid-nineteenth century prosperous-looking homes sporting intricately set cobblestone facades began to appear and in spite of Europe's heritage of small-stone masonry it was clear that New York's distinctive cobblestone structures were unlike anything ever built before. Such grandeur so far from the metropolis of New York City was a status symbol by proud settlers who valued their local natural resources.
WHEN WAS NEW YORK CITY PAVED WITH COBBLESTONE?
In early New York City, thoroughfares were just paths
composed of naturally ground-up oyster shell and dirt. But that dust literally settled in 1657 when the first cobblestone street was paved and appropriately named Stone Street.
Stone Street's pavement heralded a momentous change to an
entire way of life and as growth and traffic increased, a comprehensive grid of streets was laid with local cobblestones. Eighteenth century New Yorkers used cobblestones for the same reasons third century Romans did; if one stone became loose another could fill its area, cobblestones were kinder on horses hooves than ankle-twisting mud, and since water could drain around them dangerous ruts were prevented.
However, toward the end of the nineteenth century Belgian block replaced cobblestone because it could be hewn flatter and its geometric reliability made it easier to install on road beds.
DO ORIGINAL COBBLESTONES STILL EXIST IN NEW YORK CITY TODAY?
Yes. Intact, original cobblestone streets still define the character of whole neighborhoods and there have also been surprise discoveries of hidden cobblestone thoroughfares excavated from beneath the asphalt.
According to the New York City Department Of Transportation fifteen miles of surface cobblestone survive throughout the five boroughs, mostly in lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn. This means that given an average stone size of four inches, there are currently over 237,000 original cobblestones on the streets of New York City today.
IS RECLAIMED COBBLESTONE BEING USED IN NEW YORK CITY?
Not as much as it could be. All too often, urban planners turn a blind eye to the piles of original cobblestones being extracted from the streets of New York City. Fortunately, Chief Bricks cares and, through its network of like-minded preservationists, is constantly reclaiming cobblestones from sites around the city. Currently, most recycled cobblestones are being used by homeowners around the country who are looking to add history and character to their driveways.
WHY IS SALVAGED COBBLESTONE IMPORTANT FOR THE CITY PROJECTS?
Authenticity is crucial for true preservation. Restoration laws are strictly enforced and only original salvaged materials are used. One such law is that if altered, a thoroughfare in a designated landmark area must be returned to its original state.
For example, carefully monitored repaving projects using salvaged and recycled cobblestone as well as Belgian block have been completed in Tribeca, where original cast iron architecture meets cobblestone streets and guided lecture groups studying landmarked buildings from the ground up have become one of the City's least-tapped but most interesting tourist attractions.
CAN OLD WORLD CHARM BE ACHIEVED WITH COBBLESTONE?
Absolutely! During the Renaissance, all of Rome was paved with the black volcanic stones known as Sanpietrini. Like New York City's cobblestones, the Sanpietrini are unique because they tell a complete geological story and in so doing have become the signature of Italy's Eternal City. Today, salvaged and reclaimed water washed cobblestones effortlessly impart a recognition of historic context, textural sensuality and local integrity to New York City's renovation, preservation and construction projects.
HOW IS CHIEF BRICKS HELPING?
Chief Bricks is always in the right place at the right time. With a thirst to keep history alive, Chief Bricks leads the effort to keep precious cobblestones intact by actively salvaging them from sites that might otherwise destroy them with a crane or wrecking ball.
Chief Bricks is thrilled to be part of New York City's commitment to restore its streets to their original glory, and remains dedicated to breathing new life into reclaimed local cobblestone throughout the region wherever history, texture and architectural context meet.