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It’s Not Blue

That’s a drawing from 1837 of the new Customs House – now Federal Hall – being constructed at the northeast corner of Wall and Nassau Streets. John Frazee is listed as the architect and superintendent, which is not quite accurate: he was working from an architectural design by Ithiel Town and A. J. Davis, but modifying it as the project evolved during the eight years of construction.

The section shows the construction, nearly unheard of in New York at that time, of masonry vaulting for all of the floors. It was the only method available at that time to build a fire-resistant (in the language of the day, fireproof) building and was taken here to extreme lengths. The gable roof is covered with “shingles” made of tuckahoe marble, the same as the rest of the exterior, and supported on the vaults of the main roof and the stone dome at the rotunda. It is, needless to say, an extremely heavy building for its size.

The word “blueprint” is very slowly dying off. The blue-printing process (which had white-line drawings on a blue background) had been replaced some time ago by white-printing (blue lines on a white background); most people still called white-print drawings “blueprints.” White-printing became instantly obsolete when large-format photographic copiers – I had to stop myself from writing “xerox machines” – became cheap enough for daily use. As someone who lived through that transition, photocopying took over long before it was as cheap as white-printing, for the simple reason that it didn’t literally stink. White-print drawings were fixed, to stop the development process, with a chemical process where ammonia was a major component. The plan-desk areas of large architecture and engineering offices stank of ammonia all the time. The drawing above was created about five years before the first blueprints, in an era where the way to reproduce a drawing was to redraw it.