John Beverley Robinson in “The Engineering Magazine” (1891–1896)

“JOHN BEVERLEY ROBINSON, who takes the radical position of opposition to all building legislation, is an active practising architect of New York, and one whose experience in contact with the intricacies of the New York building law prompted the very striking contribution to our August number which excited the present controversy.”—Engineering Magazine, 1891.

  • John Beverley Robinson, “The Tall Office Buildings of New York,” Engineering Magazine 1 no. 2 (May, 1891): 185–202.
  • John Beverley Robinson, “What is the Use of a Building Law?” Engineering Magazine 1 no. 5 (August, 1891): 656-662.
  • Edward Henry, “What is the Use of Building Laws? Wherein They Are Useful—A Criticism,” Engineering Magazine. 2 no. 2 (November, 1891): 238-246.
  • John Beverley Robinson, “Why I Oppose Building Laws.—A Rejoinder,” Engineering Magazine. 2 no. 2 (November, 1891): 246-251.
  • John Beverley Robinson, “What an Architect does for His Money,” Engineering Magazine. 2 no. 6 (March, 1892): 729–742.
  • John Beverley Robinson, “Modern American Country Houses,” Engineering Magazine. 5 no. 3 (June, 1893): 365–382.
  • John Beverley Robinson, “Restraints Upon the Practice of Architecture,” Engineering Magazine. 11 no. 2 (May, 1896): 307–311.
  • John Beverley Robinson, “The Cantilever as Applied to Building Construction,” Engineering Magazine. 12 no. 2 (November, 1896): 220–232.

Other architectural writings of note:

  • John Beverely Robinson, “Authority in Architectural Design,” Architectural Record 6 no. 1 (July-September, 1896): 71-76.

John Beverley Robinson, “The Tall Office Buildings of New York,” Engineering Magazine 1 no. 2 (May, 1891): 185–202.

What is the Use of a Building Law?

To impugn the utility of any law is just now a delicate and thankless task. The blind deference that in the past was displayed to ecclesiastical rules, has in our day, lacking better things to worship, been transferred to the civil law. Our State-directed schools, as was inevitable, have become the nurseries of political superstitions, which display themselves in our Fourth-of-July self-gratulations and in the total unconsciousness, in ordinary minds, that anything better than our political arrangements can by any possibility evolve from present conditions. To these, there is no higher test of right than the vote of a legislature. That the majority can do no wrong, is as firmly grounded in their faith as was in the mediaeval mind the doctrine that the king can do no wrong. With them, to obey the law is the chief virtue. They have lost the sense of virtue that demands disobedience to law, where the instinctive sentiment of justice is not satisfied.

Yet a few are beginning to ask: What is the limit, in reason, to this power of the majority? Is it true that the majority has a right to force us—the minority—to anything it may please? If not, what is the limit to its authority? And the answer comes from the chief of the philosophers of recent years,—with all his faults, the prophet of the future, Herbert Spencer:

“‘No human laws are of any validity if contrary to the law of nature; and such of them as are valid, derive all their force and all their authority mediately or immediately from this original.’ Thus writes Blackstone, to whom let all honor be given for having so far outseen the ideas of his time; and indeed we may say of our time.

“A good antidote, this, for those political superstitions which so widely prevail. A good check upon that sentiment of power-worship which still misleads us by magnifying the prerogatives of constitutional governments as it once did those of monarchs. Let men learn that a legislature is not ‘our God upon earth,’ though, by the authority they ascribe to it and the things they expect from it, they would seem to think it is. Let them learn rather that it is an institution serving a purely temporary purpose, whose power, when not stolen, is at the best borrowed.” (Social Statics, p. 229.)

After a page or two devoted to pointing out the unavoidable final abolition of government, and the contradictions and absurdities involved in its present temporary existence, he continues:

“Of the political superstitions lately alluded to, none is so universally diffused as the notion that majorities are omnipotent. Under the impression that the preservation of order will ever require power to be wielded by some party, the moral sense of our time feels that such power cannot rightly be conferred on any but the largest moiety of society.

“It interprets literally the saying that the voice of the people is the voice of God,’ and transferring to the one the sacredness attached to the other, it concludes that from the will of the people, that is of the majority, there can be no appeal. Yet this belief is entirely erroneous.”

It is not my purpose to criticise present laws; but rather to deny the right of anybody,—of any majority, to undertake the control of the details of construction, or indeed to enforce any requirements, save possibly the barest and simplest for the avoidance of what manifestly threatens impending danger. Most cities have their building laws, and have suffered the ill effects of such short-sighted legislation. The subject presented for review is, therefore, so wide in its range that the limits of a magazine article require me to confine my observations to some one locality. Let us then note some of the points in the New York building law which are open to criticism.

The opening paragraphs lay down a series of rules for the various thicknesses of walls, which are, to say the least, inflexible and excessive. Moreover, they rarely touch the really critical points at all: the width of the piers between the openings. Provided your wall is as thick as the law requires, the amount of solid may be attenuated in the other direction without exciting comment. To substitute skilful arrangement for dead weight of masonry is sternly repressed by the provisions that hollow walls, or walls built with buttresses, must have the same amount of materials as straight walls; reducing those who wish to save material to the alternative of perforating the wall with many flues, or of filling the interior of the wall with sand, as one enterprising builder did.

Take again the requirement of bondstones, as they are called, in piers of a certain size, although the weight of opinion is that the pier is weakened rather than strengthened by the presence of bondstones. In the past the law required the use of bondstones in walls as well as in piers; and in old buildings strings of bondstones may be seen, serving no purpose but to render the wall less homogenous and more liable to crack at that point. This provision, with others requiring the use of bluestone, was long retained by the power of thebluestone dealers. Previous to that the law recognized and permitted the use of bond timbers in walls, a practice which has fallen into disuse from its inherent viciousness, but without discountenance while it continued from the law.

So, still, the custom of veneering the fronts of buildings with a thin scale of stone is recognized by the law of to-day, and the method for doing so is laid down simply confirming the usual practice; but the only method that can be called constructive, that by which the stone facing is bonded into and made a part of the wall, the devisers of the law seem never to have heard of.

One of the delusions of the law is the demand that all iron work shall be tested. What more reasonable, thinks the ordinary citizen, when cast-iron is known to be often affected by flaws than to make a law that it shall be tested? While we are about it, let us extend the law to cover the testing of wrought iron, too. Actually what does it amount to? There is not a machine on earth, nor is it practicable to apply a load, that will test a large iron girder or column, scarcely even a small one. The only testing machine used by the inspector is a small piece of chalk, wherewith, having calculated the strength by an unintelligible formula, he chalks the lintel or beam in question.

Many provisions of the law are simply superfluous, or related to matters which no inspector could control without being on the spot all the time. Among the first is the amusingly solemn paragraph to the effect that all floor beams shall be suited to the weight they have to sustain. In practice such a loose provision gives opportunity for tyranny and corruption. Even where these do not occur the strength required will depend upon the affability of the superintendent, perhaps upon the Welsh rarebit he had for supper.

The laying down of minute proportions of lime and cement in mortar is equally deceptive. Nobody can tell but in the most general way whether such instructions are complied with or not, unless he watches every shovelful that is mixed. As for the prescription of quality it is almost as useless. One contractor that I happen to know of kept a load or two of very good sand in front of the building, much to the gratification of the inspector, while the work was built with the most indescribably bad mixture of dust and vegetable mould, openly used for mortar in a pen at the rear of the lot.

Probably the crowning absurdity of the law is that part which orders a brick wall to be built around all elevators. Here again nothing could seem more reasonable to the people who are not intimately acquainted with details. A brick elevator shaft is supposed to act as a chimney and to conduct fire and smoke harmlessly out, through the skylight on top. Really, the necessary openings on each story, in spite of alleged fireproof doors, serve to conduct the flames, fanned to furnace heat by the draft of the brick-shaft, to each story of the building at the same moment. So great is the heat generated by the chimney-like shaft, that quite recently a fire was communicated to adjoining premises through an apparently perfect brick wall. A series of hatchways offers no such advantage to the fire, but permits it to be confined, for a while at least, to the story where it starts. Especially ridiculous is this demand for a brick wall about elevators when no such wall is required for hoistways. That is to say, you may hoist a barrel through trap doors by hooking it on the end of a rope; but if you hook a platform on the rope, and put the barrel on the platform you must build a brick shaft to hoist it in. I do not insist much upon such criticisms. What I do insist upon is the utter impossibility of framing any statute that can cover the multitudinous, complicated, various and ever-changing conditions of building operations.

Few people have any conception of the inventiveness that is required in all mechanical operations. From the village carpenter to the engineer, all are occupied with continually new problems, for which new solutions must be found.

For the architect not least is this inventiveness required. Indeed, more than most technical workers the architect must be an inventor, because he is called upon to solve, not only problems of construction, but continually to devise new designs to be constructed, of which the value is largely that they are new. The fundamental objection to such statute law is, that it hinders this process of invention and thereby necessarily retards progress in the art of building. The more perfect the law the more perfectly does it accomplish this result. An ideally perfect law would at once put an end to all progress, and render the possession of intellect an injury rather than an advantage to architects. The most that a law can do is to perpetuate the best known existing methods. In a few years of normal progress these would become obsolete. To give discretion to the authorities is virtually to place legislation in the hands of individuals; not to give them discretion makes it more and more difficult to modify the law. Ideal perfection has fortunately not yet been attained in the general building law. In the matter of plumbing, which is in charge of the Board of Health, with its autocratic powers, the regulations may be regarded as ideal. It is a mere waste of time nowadays for an architect to reflect upon the best method of doing the plumbing of a building; it is for him to ask humbly what the authorities will deign to prescribe. The law, as it stands, requires extravagantly costly plumbing, and has the earnest support of all of the ablest and most conscientious plumbers.

The converse side of this disparagement of high capacity and discouragement of new ideas, which the law necessarily involves, is the direct support to incapacity which the law affords. Many a man practices architecture on the strength of his permit from the Department of Buildings, when, not to speak of his client’s lack of confidence in him, his own knowledge of his weakness and fear of taking the responsibility involved would deter him from doing so, were it not for the false assurance conveyed to one and the false confidence to the other by the official seal. This function of bolstering up those whom natural selection would weed out, is sufficient in itself to condemn the law.

A very extraordinary instance of this process of the restriction by law of the competent and fortification by law of the incompetent is going on in Chicago. They have been building there a very remarkable series of buildings of excessive height, eighteen or twenty stories. These buildings have been constructed on an entirely new principle: a steel frame with a mere skin of masonry. They are put up with extraordinary rapidity and at comparatively small proportionate cost. In the grade of engineering ability required they are on a par with the big bridges and tunnels that engineers do. It would seem that the men who have thus successfully struck out a new line and successfully completed such buildings should be competent to do more of the same thing. Yet a proposal is on foot for the governmental regulation of such buildings. Especially does this seem grotesque when it is remembered that of all the large buildings in Chicago all are successful but the Government building recently completed: that is reported to be settling continuously and disastrously in spite of the millions lavished upon it.

To turn for a moment to the frequently advanced criticism, not only of the building laws, but of the excise and many other laws that attempt to control actions which mankind does not generally rank as criminal,—the fostering of underhand evasion and corruption. It would be possible for any one who was interested in doing so to collect a very startling list of the deliberate violations of the building law that occur every day.

It is a delicate matter with most people to charge evasion of the building law. As for myself, I regard such evasion as a virtue, and a charge to that effect from me is an encomium. Apart from proof—proof I cannot offer; I am not the one to tell tales out of school—it is an inevitable inference that evasion must occur, whether accompanied by corruption or not. In point of fact it occurs in both ways. To obtain a permit and to build a building in accordance with it, are two very different matters; and it is usually far easier to make any required concessions to get a permit, and then arrange to build the building as you please afterward, than to delay matters by trying to get a permit in the first place for every little thing you want to do. Corruption exists, but they who know the ropes rarely find it necessary to resort to it; besides its cost is to be avoided if possible.

At the bottom, we must dwell upon the fact that the popular opinion upon which the building law is based, is a mistaken opinion. This opinion is that people will not build well unless they are compelled to. The truth is that, while building laws impede progress, they do not advance the customary grade of work a single degree. It is the customary standard of work that is always made into law. If it were not customary it could not be enforced and is not enforced. What is customary and generally recognized as safe will be carried out as well without the aid of a law.

The old common law—the unwritten law of public opinion— which every transgression makes self-evident, and which all people instinctively respect and obey, is all-sufficient for all cases. Every attempt to make a statute law that will fit the ever-changing conditions is, in the nature of things, an impossibility.

“But why cite individual cases? * * * * What is the statute-book but a record of such unhappy guesses? or history but a narrative of their unsuccessful issues? And what forwarder are we now? Is not our government as busy still as though the work of law-making commenced but yesterday? Has it made any apparent progress towards a final settlements of social arrangements? Does it not rather each year entangle itself still further in the web of legislation, confounding the already heterogeneous mass of enactments into still greater confusion? Nearly every parliamentary proceeding is a tacit confession of incompetency. There is scarcely a bill introduced but is entitled ‘An Act to amend an Act.’ The ‘Whereas’ of almost every preamble heralds an account of the miscarriage of previous legislation. Alteration, explanation and repeal, form the staple employment of every session. All our great agitations are for the abolition of institutions purporting to be for the public good. The history of one scheme is the history of all. First comes enactment, then probation, then failure; next an amendment and another failure; and, after many alternate tinkerings and abortive trials, arrives at length repeal, followed by the substitution of some fresh plan, doomed to run the same course, and share a like fate.” (Social Statics, p. 21.)

“‘It is a gross delusion to believe in the sovereign power of political machinery,’ says M. Guizot. True: and it is not only a gross delusion, but a very dangerous one. Give a child exaggerated notions of its parent’s power, and it will by-and-by cry for the moon. Let a people believe in government-omnipotence, and they will be pretty certain to get up revolutions to achieve impossibilities. Between their exorbitant ideas of what the state ought to do for them on the one side, and its miserable performances on the other, there will surely be generated feelings extremely inimical to social order—feelings which, by adding to the dissatisfaction otherwise produced, may occasion outbreaks that would not else have occurred.” (Social Statics, p. 318.)

What, then, is the use of the Building Law? Beginning with a general laying down of a few important points, and backed in these points by public opinion, it has grown to be a large mass of minute rules with which public opinion has no acquaintance and no sympathy. From a handful of persons charged with enforcing the law the bureau has grown now to a hundred. Still the cry is for more laws, more and more minute and exacting regulations, more extravagant spending of other people’s money in costly construction. With each intensification of the law the demand is for more inspectors to carry it out, or at least to collect pay for carrying it out. The law has become a political engine. Its offices are valuable considerations. The power which the law created reacts to perpetuate and increase the law, for with every increase of the law comes an increase of power to the political party that has the administration of it. The use of the Building Law is to help the politicians.

John Beverley Robinson.



By Edward Henry.

In answering the question raised by Mr. John Beverley Robinson in the August number of The Engineering Magazine,— What is the Use of a Building Law?—I am free to confess myself one of that very large class, the public, who believe in a building law because there is one, though not as unreasonably or as blindly as Mr. Robinson would have his readers believe is generally the case. The philosophic historian knows no more delightful task than the drawing of generalizations from definitely established data. But the fascination of this pursuit is so great that the generalizer is in danger of forgetting everything else in seeking to extend his science, with the result of propounding laws that rest on too slight foundations to render safe their acceptance as general conclusions. There can be no greater mistake than the taking of broad generalizations as a basis for regulating specific instances. Hence the impropriety of applying the conclusions of Mr. Herbert Spencer on the general inefficacy of laws to the value of the building law in force in New York City. Sound as are the principles Mr. Spencer sets forth it is a mistaken application of them to argue that because some laws are ineffective therefore all must be. It is true enough that the majority is not always right; that the majority may be ignorant and stupid; that safety and learning are not to be found with the multitude. But it must not be inferred from this that it is always wrong, nor is an opinion to be opposed for the simple reason that it is of general acceptance. Mr. Robinson himself probably would reject such an inference carried to its logical conclusion, yet he takes the trouble in opening his argument against a building law to read a lecture upon the uncertainty of majorities, for no other apparent reason than that there is a certain and very general belief in the utility of building laws.

It is not to be denied that there is an ever-growing tendency to elevate the law as law above the suggestions of sense and the dictates of reason. Religion, morals, ideas, methods of thought, the social fabric itself have been changed in the evolution of society; law remains the solitary fetish of modern life that loses nothing in dignity, renown or power, in the march of the ages. But because law alone remains of the ideals of the past, because it alone has stood the shock of modernity are we to throw it into the cauldron of progress and destroy it as we have already destroyed ancient religious faiths, and as we are now destroying our older system of morality? It is not a sufficient reason for condemning; a thing that it is the last of its kind. Antiquity does not diminish the art value of a building or a picture or a piece of sculpture.

Modern life knows too few ideals, recognizes too few merits acknowledges too few precedents for any surviving power of the past to be rudely thrust to one side. Philosophically it may be the height of folly to elect legislatures, make laws and impose penalties, yet in practice this is not true. Our statute-books may be encumbered with unwise, pernicious or useless laws, the product of ignorance and folly, but the mere uselessness of some laws is no argument for the abolition of the whole code. Advanced as the modern state is, society is composed of too diverse elements—unrestrained, unthoughtful, rash elements—for it to exist without some holding influence; not a perfect, capable, always acting influence, for modern society is too much mixed and too unwieldy for that, but an influence that may be generally depended upon in the direction of right and justice. The single influence in modern life that fulfills this function is law. But the merit of the law is not limited by its being a relic of the past. It performs a duty to society apart from any question of age, a duty which gives it a hold upon the regard of the right-minded and upon the fears of evil-doers. No other element is so widespread in its action, or so closely unites all classes of men in the harmonious whole which is termed the nation.

There is thus, I take it, unquestionably a general utility in the law, using that term in its broadest, most unlimited sense. And a substitute must be found before it can be dispensed with. Individual ingenuity, individual influence, individual progress cannot take the place which the law holds in the well-regulated civilized community. In the early history of some of our States there were districts without law where every man was judge, jury and executioner combined. Civilization began in these regions with the introduction of law, and the higher and more refined and complete the civilization the more perfect and the more elaborate will the law be found to-day. There is, in fact, a direct ratio between the law and society, the more complex the society the more complex the law; the more varied the conditions the more varied the subjects with which the law concerns itself.

Now, admitting the general utility of the law, to what extent shall its scope be limited, or shall it be limited at all? Here it is, doubtless, that Mr. Robinson would take issue, for while he finds occasion to quote Mr. Spencer on the non-utility of laws in general, his special point is the uselessness of the building law, irrespective of the value of laws affecting other things. It is not less difficult to follow him in this than in the more general proposition. The building law may be full of errors and shortcomings, and unpleasant and obnoxious in practice, though the idea of the law, whatever its individual faults, may be wise and good and full of forethought for the people and their safety. No more striking answer to the query, “ What is the Use of a Building Law?” could be imagined than the fall of the Taylor Building in Park Place, in New York, which happened almost before the ink had had time to dry on the printed pages of Mr. Robinson’s article. The unexpected no sooner happens than every one knows it might have been expected. There seems to be little doubt that if this disaster was not caused by an over-loading of the floors, it was at least hastened by it. Every one knows now that had this building been properly inspected, a great disaster would have been averted, a large financial loss prevented and sixty lives saved. While the fall of the Taylor Building illustrates the need of a building law, it also illustrates one of the deficiences pointed out by Mr. Robinson. This dreadful calamity might have been prevented had the building been duly inspected; but inspection, we are told, is out of the question. Not only is the number of inspectors inadequate for the duties imposed upon them, not only are they themselves sometimes incapable of doing what they have undertaken, not only are they without the means of enforcing the decisions they form from their inspection, but the conditions of modern trade, the rapidity with which buildings are filled and emptied, submitted to strain and released from it renders the work of the inspector valueless. And so, because we live and move, buy and sell, and transact business we do not need to have the stability of our buildings tested, do not need to know how strong or how weak they may be, do not need to know whether lives may be endangered within or without them!

The difficulty of a thing is no excuse for not doing it. The more arduous the task, the larger the reward and the more satisfaction one obtains from one’s exertions. Modern science and ingenuity are not baffled by tremendous obstacles, and so simple a question as the variable load of a building offers no reason for the repeal of all building laws. Neither is the insufficiency of inspectors a more potent argument. It may be a costly process to inspect properly all the buildings of a great city like New York, but he would be a rash man who would name the sum that had better have been kept in the city treasury rather than have the high-priced inspection that might have prevented the Park Place disaster.

There is doubtless a large class of subjects with which the law should not concern itself. Laws regulating the details of private and personal existence are not only notorious failures, but these things are admitted generally to be beyond the proper jurisdiction of legal restraint. The unsuccessful history of Prohibition in those States which have incorporated this principle in their laws is too well known to require more than simple mention here. But while questions of private morals may best be left unregulated by law, there is less reason to doubt the efficacy of laws having for their object the public safety and health. They may not always be good laws or wise ones, nor the best that might have been devised, but at foundation they typify the care of the state for the general welfare; they exercise in public life the watchfulness which parents show for their children.

This is the reason for the building law; this its use and its utility. It was not devised for the annoyance of builders or the distraction of architects. It was not meant to create hardships, nor to interpose obstacles in the production of good work. Its object was not to add to the cost of buildings, to limit their artistic qualities, to retard the development of architecture or to render its practice a thing to be avoided. It may provide places for the politician, but what office-creating law does not? It may have rendered it possible for some prejudiced authorities to make trouble for unpliant, unfavored architects and builders. But whatever unwise provisions may be involved at foundation, the law was devised for the public good. It is a misfortune of human nature, whether in a civilized or uncivilized state, that a very large class, in seeking their own gain, are utterly indifferent as to the effect of their operations upon others. The greed for gain, the inextinguishable desire to get the better of one’s fellow-men, is so deeply rooted in the average human breast, that were there no restraint upon actions affecting the general welfare there could be no permanent social fabric. The civilization of Europe in the Middle Ages began with the reign of law in place of the reign of the lawless; when instead of numberless free-acting barons and nobles there was substituted the restraint of a central power, the law, the realm. We have no robber-barons now, no public highwaymen living in castles and dealing with other people and other people’s property and rights as they would not themselves be dealt with. The history of building in America, however, abounds with proofs that the class of men who seek their own aggrandizement, totally oblivious of the necessities and just claims of others, have not yet been extinguished. Nor has general honesty reached that point of development where men may always be trusted to do right without being constrained to do it, or without having penalties attached for wrong-doing.

To put it bluntly, we require building laws, if for no other reason than that we have dishonest, wicked builders who think more of putting dollars into their pockets, than they do of the safety of human life, of the comfort and welfare of the community that provides them with the means of gaining a livelihood and security for their own goods and chattels. It is a dreadful thing to say, but not so dreadful as to have it actually exist in such enlightened centres as our great cities. It is needless to specify examples. Mr. Robinson himself does not hesitate to hint broadly of dark tales he might tell were he not restrained—shall I say it?—by professional etiquette. Not only does the history of building in America show the necessity for a building law—the financial loss occasioned by the collapse of ill-built structures, the danger to which they expose life and limb, the menace to health of improperly constructed houses—but the most unobserving critic can imagine how many more dangerous structures would be put up were there no limitations as to what any builder might do.

There is no sounder, wiser or more beneficial provision of the law than that which prohibits the erection of wooden buildings in crowded city limits. It is not to be supposed tor a moment that the abolition of these tinder-boxes in the business parts of New York City would have been obtained by voluntary action on the part of owners and builders. It is easy to recognize the value of such a movement, to point out the increased returns to be had from more permanent and more expensive buildings; all builders and owners are not devoid of wise perceptions nor unable to recognize what would most benefit them. But a city is an agglutination of hybrid elements, wise and unwise, good and bad, careful and careless. Concerted action among thoughtful, far-seeing men may accomplish much good and prevent much harm, but the thoughtless cannot voluntarily be made thoughtful, nor can they of their own free will be brought to work for others’ good when they see no benefit to themselves by so doing. In the multitude of elements forming the modern city there will always be found men who would follow what they conceive to be their own good, or convenience, no matter how harmful it might be to the general public. It is human nature to do so, and human nature, while often a delightful study to the philosopher, is quite as often a most undesirable and awkward public property. The law cannot make men wise and considerate, but it may, under proper administration, reduce to a minimum the harm which the selfish and inconsiderate are almost certain to do without reasonable restraint. The building law may not always give us good buildings or safe ones, nor may it be all it should be, but it diminishes the number of dangerous structures and to this extent it makes life safer.

I am arguing for the utility of a building law on general rather than specific grounds. There may be danger in this course, for while a thing may be generally right and desirable its component parts may be such as to render it quite the reverse. But the faults of any code of building laws are no reason for their wholesale abolition. Though the law aims to be perfect, to produce an improved state instead of a bad one, there are few laws which may not be improved upon in the light gained by experience through succeeding generations. The building law of New York was irksome and misunderstood when it first went into effect. It was something new and strange; it imposed conditions, and defined responsibilities hitherto unknown or exercised to but a limited extent. Limitations comparatively small, which to-day would scarcely be felt, were, when first put into effect, sources of much annoyance. This is still the case in some particulars and some of Mr. Robinson’s observations on this point are right and just. But these features call for improvement, not for unwise, promiscuous condemnation.

The building law, like all other experimental laws, is freely open to criticism. It is but an experiment, slowly making its way and gaining fresh and needed improvement from the criticisms it daily receives in practice. Its present shape is not stationary; it is not something that has come to stay fixed for all time. The law may be the least changeable thing in civilized society, but it is not unsusceptible to fresh conditions. It is not readily altered, it is not subject to the whims of fashion, the caprice of the day, the variable pleasure of the people. It is as deliberate in its movements as it is solemn in purposes. Yet it does not on this account less admirably perform its peculiar functions nor is it the less useful to society. The New York building law of to-day is the product of several changes and additions. Beginning as a separate law in 1860, it has been amended from time to time first because it was imperfect, and then because new conditions of architecture called for it. Both these reasons, Mr. Robinson maintains, are sufficient ground for abolishing the entire code. On the other hand they would seem to afford a basis for its retention.

Architecture is rightly termed an inventive science. The ever-changing and manifold requirements of modern life, its ceaseless activity, its persistent inventiveness are constantly imposing fresh conditions upon the architect which it is the province of his finest skill to solve in the best way. The structural and business requirements of every edifice present quite enough difficulties for the architect without his task being further impeded by artificial legal restraints. Yet, although Mr. Robinson cites the swift change of modern life as an argument against the building law, he points out no instance where it has hindered the progress of architecture nor prevented the latest results of progress from being incorporated in the newest structures. The most advanced, most complete and finest buildings in New York, the World, Times and Union Trust buildings, the new hotels on Fifth Avenue and many others that might be named—I speak of construction and arrangement, not architectural effect, which by no means goes hand in hand with constructive progress—have been erected under the present building law. With all its defects, a code that permits the erection of such phenomenal edifices certainly cannot be condemned as a wholly worthless relic of the past.

The building law has, therefore, a real use, and results in good to the community. The law of no city, perhaps, accomplishes all it should, but such utility as such a law possesses will be increased by its extension on present lines, rather than by a withdrawal from the progress already achieved. People are realizing more and more the necessity for stricter building laws, sharper inspection, less easily evaded penalties for violations. Sanitary science, for example, though it has made wonderful progress in the last few years and has been the subject of some judicious legislation, requires still a much wider application, particularly with respect to old buildings. Fire-escapes and emergency apparatus require much more careful treatment and much more intelligent study than have yet been bestowed upon them. Private dwellings are very generally without means of escape in fires. A few years ago, Philadelphia was horror-stricken at a fire in an ordinary dwelling in which several members of a well-to-do family were burned to death because they could not get away from the building. In all large cities fire escapes—hideous things, the bugbear of the architect—are compulsory, nominally if not actually, upon tenement houses, hotels, factories and all public buildings. Even with the present regulations, a fire in a crowded tenement is a dreadful thing, full of danger and horror, but the tenement supplied with the most insufficient of fire-escapes is far from being the deathtrap that many a small dwelling is. The rarity of fires in the dwelling-house districts is simply a fortunate circumstance that has nothing to do with not being prepared for an emergency. Our tall office buildings are supposed to be fireproof and they doubtless are as nearly so as modern means permit, but the fire last year in the Western Union Building in New York showed that they are not incapable of proving dangerous when the flames have once made headway.

It is not my purpose to propose improvements in existing building laws, that being a task for abler hands, but I cannot refrain from pointing out one or two things which will never be bettered by voluntary action and which call for the enforcing power of the law to remedy. The building law is to a great extent supplemented by the regulations of the insurance companies, but these do not all act under one code of rules nor should their requirements perform the functions of public laws which properly have universal action. The state owes a duty to its citizens not less than they to it, and the proper care of the people’s interests should not be handed over to corporations, which, however carefully they are managed, however philanthropic their officers, have at best but their own interests and the declaring of dividends at heart. This is their raison d’etre, not a constant concern for the public’s safety.

Nor because there are corrupt officials in the building office is there a reason for the repeal of a law designed and operating for the public good. It is perhaps more wicked to tempt than to fall before the devices of the tempter, but the public conscience need not blame itself because its demand for a building law supplies places for officials who sometimes betray their trust and who refuse to perform the duties of their office without being “ seen.” There is a remedy for such things, a reward for such people that is not to be found in the removal of the law, and it ill becomes those who have personal knowledge of corruption in the building office to call for the law’s repeal on broad moral grounds or because they are afraid for the sins of other men. If there is to be a moral argument for or against the building law by all means let it be a sound one resting on a moral basis.


By John Beverley Robinson.

MR. EDWARD HENRY has done me the honor to reply to my former indictment of Building Laws. He is evidently a well-read man—a man of advanced and liberal tendencies, and of an earnest and sympathetic temperament. I congratulate myself upon my adversary.

Mr. Henry states with admirable clearness the grounds of the general confidence in the efficacy of Building Laws, “I am free to confess myself one of that very large class, the public, who believe in a building law because there is one, * * * ”Why he should add, “though not as unreasonably or blindly as Mr. Robinson would have us believe,” I do not understand. To believe in a building law—notice the creed formula, “I believe in”—because there is one, is hardly to be called other than a blind belief. Although Mr. Henry states the grounds of the public confidence probably with perfect accuracy, he would, I think, on reexamination revise the statement as applying to himself.

Leaving such criticism of mere words and looking at the substance of his article, I am at a loss to understand how much weight Mr. Henry is willing to grant to general principles. What is the use of laboriously establishing a general principle if we are not to apply it to the solution of special cases? Or is it Mr. Henry’s argument that not enough facts have been collated for the induction yet of a general principle? It was to meet this objection that I quoted Spencer whose insistence upon an array of facts before reaching his conclusions is strongly marked. What validity attaches to the decision of a majority?

“The majority is not always right,” says Mr. Henry, and again he says, halting between two opinions, “it must not be inferred that the majority is always wrong.” When then is the majority right, and when is it wrong? If the existing state of affairs at any given time were the best possible, an argument that the majority was always right might be sustained. Atone time people did think that nothing better was possible than the way they had arranged things. Each obsolete institution has, in its day, been regarded as the ne plus ultra of perfection. Much of this feeling survives still, as for instance, in Mr. Henry’s naive assertion that he believes in the building law because it exists. We have, however, reached the point of admitting with our intellects, what our hearts often fail to respond to, that better things even than what we have are attainable; that “ the latest novelties “ may be improvements in social as well as in plumbing arrangements.

In a progressive society opinions must constantly change; the existing general opinion must always be in process of adaptation by the influence of the ideas of some individuals, at first few in number, and only slowly gaining numerical strength. So we may say that it is mathematically demonstrable that in a progressive society the majority is necessarily and invariably wrong, the minority inevitably right, and that at any period one individual is more right than any other, and than all others, if we had but the ability to pick him out from the rest.

It would be bad enough in all conscience if we were ruled by a majority: the actual state of affairs is far worse. Does Mr. Henry really suppose that the members of the Legislature are intelligent and benevolent? Is he infantile enough to imagine that they discuss measures upon the basis of abstract justice? Does he not know that the knock-down arguments are the smallest and meanest political expediencies, or, still worse, conclusive arguments from the powerful, because rich, parties who are demanding privileges through legislation?

The majority of the people is supposed to govern; in point of fact, just as in any college class or literary society, the few who value the emoluments or honors work to control and do control the nominal majority. The difference is that in the minor societies the officers must do tolerably well, or members drop out and funds vanish: in our political societies a protesting member may secede in spirit, but he is forced to pay all the same.

Admit, for the moment, as I will cheerfully admit, that some laws are made because of a surviving belief in their efficacy, and with the best intentions. Suppose, for instance, as will probably happen, that Mr. Henry’s wishes are gratified and that more inspectors are hired and all buildings, even completed ones, are systematically inspected, what will be the result?

After six or eight years some other accident will happen and then the cry will be, as Mr. Henry urges now, that people move in and out so frequently that inspection is useless. “People ought not to be allowed to move without a permit!” Forthwith we shall have laws compelling an inventory and statement of goods and weights and so on, to be filed with the police before anybody can move in or out, and following that, more restrictions, until we reasonably and properly enact that each citizen must have a passport, certifying that he is permitted to exist by the bounty of Mike Flannigan—his mark—Chief of Police and type of the watchful care of the State, viz., the ward caucus, over the unfortunate engineer, architect or literary man who does not know enough to take care of himself. Why not?

Let Mr. Henry understand that the law is not, as he suggests, an interesting curiosity, to be preserved in a glass case and admired along with the Venus Anadyomene and the Parthenon ruin. The law is a regiment with murderous weapons. The law means the rule of force. It is as Mr. Henry in his previous paragraph says, “ the solitary fetish of modern life.” The law is a survival of the time when it was held that knowledge and ability rested with the few, which is true, and that therefore the few should have power to force the rest to obey them, which is false; and the falsity of which Democracy arose triumphant to demonstrate. That the many should not have power to force the few to obey them is a new truth, to which Democracy is as yet a stranger, and to support which but a few have as yet come forward.

Whoever may be wise it is for him to persuade others that he is so. Power, whether in the hands of one or of many, is sure to be used by those who wield it for their own advantage, regardless of the wishes of the rest, even though ostensibly, perhaps even sin cerely, intended for their good. The most severe oppressions have been committed always by those who have been most sincerely benevolent. The Inquisition was a benevolent institution. The present Czar is said to be gentle and well-meaning toward his subjects; he is certainly not devoid of power: yet witness the misery to which his people have been reduced by the well-meant exertions of their guardians the State functionaries.

Liberty is to be the watchword of the future, as it has been the watchword of the past, through the advancing ages. Though, for the moment, the crowd sees no salvation but in the intensification of law, the time will come when Liberty shall again be adored as the supreme good.

In the hamlet where I live each person who wants a street lamp in front of his house gets it by paying for it. That is freedom. Before long, no doubt, we shall have street lamps forced upon us, and those who might not pay would have their houses sold and be turned out into the street. This is slavery, much to the advantage of those who prefer brilliantly-lighted streets to the welfare of their neighbors. They will have indeed obtained their lamps, but at the expense of others.

To obtain things at the expense of others is held to be a virtue, at the present time, if done in accordance with the rules of the hayseed and ward-bummer legislature.

All this is known to a few people; known I judge, to Mr. Henry; he perhaps does not realize that this knowledge is a possible basis for practical affairs. Few, even of those who read Mill, Spencer, Buckle, Ibsen, Tchernychefsky, and the rest of the advocates of liberty, realize what their teachings lead up to.

No force at all must be the goal toward which we strive • and at present as little force as possible. That is to say we should use force only as far as we are compelled by others who use force against us.

This at once bars all statute laws save such as are destined to protect against violence. Even for this end statute law is unavailable, simply because it is impossible to define aggression. The old institution of jury trial is far more efficient. But when I say jury trial I do not mean the wretched affair of to-day. The pure jury trial regards the jurors as sovereigns, each with a veto. They are superior to any law. The attempt to limit their function to ascertaining facts is an encroachment by the judges. Not even now could a juror be called in question for refusing to coincide in a verdict without giving any reason for his refusal. The most that could be done would be the intolerable and tyrannical course of some judges in refusing the verdict and ordering a new trial. In a real trial by jury the lectures and scoldings that are sometimes administered by judges would be out of place.

With such a jury trial the widest opportunity for experiment and improvement in methods would be obtained, while people would use dangerous buildings at their own risk. Only such injury as might be done to passers could be properly taken cognizance of, and only then if malice or criminal carelessness were proved.

We are not entitled to make laws helter-skelter for every object that, in our limited conceptions, seems desirable. How about the people who think the opposite is desirable? If others do not injure us we must not attempt to control them. Even if we must control them by force or perish under their attack, we must remember that it is a bad business at the best, and resorted to only under protest and with full knowledge of its temporary character. Such are the principles which will prevail after the present fetish worship of law subsides.

I have spoken of general principles. One or two specific points I will mention. Mr. Henry speaks of the fire-limit laws as manifestly beneficent. I have already pointed out that manifest beneficence is not a valid ground for a resort to force.

In this particular case, however, fire-limit laws are not usually made for the sake of their beneficence. A city that is already built up with wood never enacts laws compelling people to take down their wooden buildings and rebuild with brick, although that would be quite as beneficent.

The real object of fire-limit laws is to favor speculators. Where there is reason to suppose cities will grow, speculators buy up in advance and have fire-limit laws passed to keep out buildings that would lower the speculative price of their land. They are on just the same plane as the restrictions that are sometimes put into deeds; favorable to those who profit by them, unfavorable to the one who cannot afford to build a brick house. As for the increase in the number of inspectors, if Mr. Henry owns a building and wants it inspected, why doesn’t he pay for it himself? Why should he make people who don’t want buildings inspected pay for his gratification? Fire-escapes, too, may be good things for those that want them. Are those who choose to take their chances to be deprived of all responsibility? If they estimate the cost of a fire-escape to be a inadvisable expenditure; if they should perhaps prefer to donate the money to some church as a more necessary fire-escape, who shall forbid them?

Or, if people are to be compelled to pay for fire-escapes because they are good things, why stop there? Fresh air is a good thing; let us have inspectors who will compel the riddling of every house with pipes and registers and whirligigs. Well-cooked food is an excellent thing. A corps of efficient inspectors should be appointed to enter each house while dinner is in preparing and throw into the street what is not good enough for their fastidious noses; as they now destroy poor venders selling stocks of food.

Mr. Henry’s “dishonest and wicked contractor” is but slightly inconvenienced by the building laws; the false security they engender by placing bad work on an equality with good in the general estimation is really a far more active agent to produce poor work, than their literal prohibitions are to prevent it.

An end to it all. There was a time when America led in the march toward freedom. There was a time when a man named Jefferson had much influence; when the principle prevailed that the best government governs least. But now we are in a stampede. Socialism is our goal. Let the State own everything and dole out to us, her servants, our portions,—what we work for, or what we can steal or wheedle her out of, like other slaves. Nothing less is the avowed object of the new Nationalist party and many who sympathize with it.

Each year the province of government extends. Each year the State encroaches on our liberties; and we do not even know that they are encroached upon!—do not even know that the assuagement of our ills is to be looked for in more liberty than in less.

More liberty! We do not even know that we lack liberty, we think that there could be nobody freer than we.

Yet we have gone too far to retreat. Already Europe is pushing us hard. To this young and favored land liberty will again return. Liberty, golden-pinioned, grown to her full strength, shall again lead us to a civilization that the present dreams not of, in comparison with which the present can scarcely be called civilization; when man shall meet man in friendship, not in struggle; when the rifle and the gallows and the jail shall go the way of the sword and the stocks and the rack; when truth and peace shall flourish out of the earth.

John Beverley Robinson, “What an Architect does for His Money,” Engineering Magazine. 2 no. 6 (March, 1892): 729–742.

John Beverley Robinson, “Modern American Country Houses,” Engineering Magazine. 5 no. 3 (June, 1893): 365–382.

[This article includes discussion and illustrations of homes designed by Robinson.]


By John Beverley Robinson.

It has recently been seriously proposed to enact various laws restricting the practice of architects upon esthetic grounds. For one thing, it has been urged that the height of all buildings in a

block, or on a street, should be made uniform, to prevent the irregular appearance of differing heights. For another, the limitation of the excessive height of buildings has been asked and will probably be enacted, although this is a measure rather in the interest of adjacent proprietors than of alleged artistic importance. Again, a law has lately been enacted which provides that the societies which, from the admitted ability of their members, exercise the function of advisers in public art matters, shall have their power confirmed and their mandates enforced in New York city.

Even as a national matter, a bill has been proposed in Congress creating a National Art Commission which shall control all artistico-political work of the federal organization.

Besides these, the bill to limit competition among architects in New York by means of licenses, has been pushed of late more earnestly than ever; and will probably before long be engraved on bronze along with the other bills of similar undying fame to protect established traders from the competition of peddlers.


It is not with the laws that are intended to limit the construction of buildings to fixed methods that this article will deal. Architects in general are so unanimously of the opinion that the clerk of a bureau surpasses them so much in honor and intelligence that they cannot get along at all without his imprimatur as to make it appear supererogatory to question them further on this point.

Animated by the popular admiration of those who assert a superiority of wisdom, the effort to bridle the unrestrained activity of malignly-disposed architects has gone several steps further; has been, or is about to be, extended from the regulation of constructive practice, where there is the shadow of a plea of safety to the innocent bystander, to be secured far beyond into the domain of esthetics, where no possible damage can result to anybody in spite of the absence of regulation.

The beginning has been made by the establishment here and there of various bodies which propose to exercise some kind of censorship of art, whether with or without the addition of the powers of the law.

The gentlemen composing these committees are, no doubt, men of ability,–men of refined taste and the sincerest motives. Their charges that the American people are crude in tastes and barbarous in their public adornments are also, no doubt, in the main true enough.

But their conclusion that it is well for those of refined taste to use measures to force refined designs upon the public is not the only conclusion possible.

It is quite possible that for a time the establishment of some kind of art-censorship would produce an apparent improvement in the quality of public works of art; it is the sequel that is most to be feared,—the continual growth of the idea of repression, the gradual walling-up of all the by-paths, the gradual confinement of all activities to the beaten highway, with not even a look possible over the lofty barriers, into the joyful fields of liberty on each side.

It is just as well to admit at the start that, in comparison with the older nations, America is crude. Compared with London and Paris, as far as the elegances of life are concerned, New York and Boston are of but a wild western type of civilization. We lack the records of the centuries about us; we lack the traditions of race and home; we lack the esthetic sense and critical discernment that come with high cultivation.

But, on the other hand, with the faults of youth we can hardly avoid having some of its virtues. Happy the nation that history wearies, says d’Alembert.

The crudity that comes not from innate viciousness, nor from the world-weariness of decrepitude, but from a sheer desire to accomplish great things hastily, but sufficiently, may be itself reckoned rather a virtue than a fault. Such are most of our faults,—the faults of boyishness, not of depravity. Roughness, rather than coarseness, of taste; energy in doing rather than over-delicacy in method; a desire first to gratify material needs before esthetic needs are even experienced—such are unavoidably the characteristics of a nation that is but a child among nations.

Is it possible that such traits can be changed for the better by authority imposed ab extra? Is it possible to force upon the undeveloped taste the pabulum that gratifies the most highly developed? Or, if it be said that it is the development of taste that is sought, is it possible to develop taste by legal compulsory methods? I speak of legal compulsory methods, because to this tend all organizations avowedly based upon a respect for authority. In so far as they abstain from appealing to the law to force their standards upon others, and rely only upon their earnest advocacy by persuasion, no reasonable man can object to them. But, for the most part, no sooner are they well established than they are bent upon “getting a bill passed” at Albany or Washington to relieve them from the labor of preaching their faith and to have it imposed willy-nilly upon the poor savages, the objects of their missionary efforts.

Thus there are now laws made, or urged upon the lawmakers, for half-a-dozen objects with which architecture has to do,—among them the law to restrict the height of buildings, and another law to make all the buildings in a row of the same height, and another to permit architects to practice at all only by license of an all-wise government bureau.

Restrictions of height are defensible, although I think hardly justifiable, on grounds of invasion of the liberty of others, as are also license regulations; when it comes to purely esthetic considerations, such as the uniformity of cornice lines, or the prohibition of all statues that are not approved by a certain committee, there is no pretence of protecting the rights of others possible. And to force objects of art upon a people too young to appreciate them, too young even to be schooled by them, is like forcing a school-boy to throw down his bat and ball and asking him to content himself with a Greek coin or a Cinquecento book cover.

The truth is that all such efforts at implanting an older civilization in unprepared soil must fail; it would be happy if failure were the only thing to be feared.

Too often the enginery of authority succeeds in its self-appointed task, crushes out crudity, and with it dash and spirit, establishes refinement, and with it the mediocrity of all school-standards.

Set up an authority of any kind to which artists must bow, even though the standard at its beginning is one which is admired by the artists themselves, and no sooner is it established than it begins to deteriorate. Outside workers, who must satisfy its criteria, cease to strive for what they really deem best, and try only to do what is known to be suited to the committee’s views. Vacant seats in the committee are filled by new names in sympathy with the majority of it.

Gradually an artificial standard is erected; refined or vulgar, according to the quality of taste in the community at large; representing necessarily the average culture and enforcing average estimates of merit.

It is because the organized body represents the community that French art has retained its progressiveness, in spite of its many defects. The French people is, upon the whole, the most advanced nation, especially in artistic matters. It has always rebelled against authority quite as effectually as the Anglo-Saxon race, although by different methods. The remnant of authoritarianism there could not exist, did it not defer to, and as much as possible embrace, the spirit of liberty that is always asserting itself in spite of the organizations.

The extraordinary part of it is that what we condemn ourselves for most severely, are precisely the things which the French critics speak well of; while what we pride ourselves upon, they treat with coolness if not contempt.

It is not our quasi-classic performances that please them. They have not a word for such clever things as the Madison Square Garden, in spite of its charm.

Originality they must have, before refinement even, so they overlook our most delicate carvings and pass beyond to commend our fifteen and twenty story office buildings, wherein, as the critics say, new problems have been met with skill and originality.

Now to erect the standard of the majority here would be to stifle growth before it has grown strong enough to live in the face of such attempts; American art, instead of working out its own salvation, by its own somewhat halting and wobbling methods, would become a mere dead tradition, imposed upon a careless and tasteless multitude by an artificial and soulless machine.

It is to be regretted that Americans have so far lost the spirit of the founders of the republic that such extensions of governmental functions are entertained at all.

The theory of a democracy is that the majority, although possessed of power to do anything it pleases, voluntarily abdicates that power, and willingly aids in establishing all possible liberty for the minority, in view of the time when the majority itself shall become a minority, and might suffer from any means of oppression that it had permitted to be erected.

In practice we find each party alternately, when it comes into power, bent upon enacting as many new laws as possible, each law requiring as many officials as possible to carry it out, which will be just so many votes to keep itself and themselves in office. Each law, besides, requires an increase of the amount of taxation, and is doubly welcome if it discovers new channels for expenditure. Every dollar spent, every board and committee appointed, every piece of special legislation enacted, means just so many more beneficiaries, so many more votes, so much heavier betting on the reëlection of the party ticket.

The process must defeat itself.

The manifest absurdities and inconsequences of our political scheme, let alone its corruption and trickery, will in the end destroy our superstitious confidence in it. We shall learn, by the saddest experience, what our brains are not big enough to teach us by a priori inference, that it is impossible for a majority to do anything and everything it pleases without involving us all in danger.

In the end we shall learn that the only possible function of government is the defense of the liberty of individuals; that art and science and cultivation must be slow growths, and cannot be fostered by governmental methods; and that, even if they could, the cost of indefinite increase of public expenditures becomes too great to bear, the inefficiency of indefinite increase of government bureaus too great to tolerate, the tyranny of indefinite enlargement of governmental functions too heavy for a free people to survive.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.