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February 8, 2006

New Reasons to Stare at One's Feet

In my readings for class about early 19th century architecture, I came across a new detail to look for: the entrances to vaults usually used to store coal in row house or brownstone basements. Usually found in the sidewalk, these little access points look like small manhole covers.

Curious, I spent my evening walk to Atlantic Avenue staring at my shoes. I hit the jackpot on Henry Street between Joralemon and State, where I must have seen at least five or six. According to my professor, one can actually be opened, though I have not had the energy or gumption to stoop down every four feet in the dark and try to lift each one up.

Does anyone live in a row house or brownstone that still has one? I love little details. I hope that this weekend I will have time to snap a photo.

Posted by callalillie at February 8, 2006 7:22 AM | City Life , History


Uhm, we have an entrance to our basement from the sidewalk, but I'm not sure this is what you're describing... it's more of a hatch than a small manhole cover.

Posted by: beth at February 8, 2006 10:13 AM

There are pretty small (like maybe 8 inches across?). You have a hatch in the sidewalk leading to your basement? How old is your apt building?

Posted by: corie at February 8, 2006 10:19 AM

I'm embarrassed to say I'm not sure how old. Definitely pre-1920. The basement it leads to is pretty neat.. vaulted brick archways... somewhere I could definitely see piles of coal. My hatch is designed for a person to climb out -- not your coal vault!

Posted by: beth at February 8, 2006 11:37 AM


I'm not sure about her sidewalk, but if you are in Red Hook I know a woman who lives on the corner of Van Brunt and Sullivan (i.e. across from the playground) who definitely has those (somewhat ominous) crypts in her basement. Until we grabbed a flashlight, she was certain she had discovered a 'secret tunnel'. Email me if you want her email, I'm sure she will let you get some snaps.


Posted by: jonathan at February 8, 2006 3:54 PM

my first post did not seem to have an email-back option.

i took your advice and searched for coal ducts on Clinton St.,
and it seems the original covers are most likely found on the nicer old slate sidewalks.

Posted by: Jonathan Binns at February 8, 2006 7:06 PM

I think I found some - on the blocks around my house. They fit your parameters and look like miniature versions of manhole covers - they look really small though - maybe 8inch diameter.

Some of them say something about gas and the others just have some municipal type acronyms on them. They are on the sidewalks but relatively close to the street. I'll take a picture and send one to you.

Posted by: jenn at February 11, 2006 2:13 PM

I think those are hatches for the coal, when it was delivered. It would be burnt to keep tenants warm during winter-time.

Posted by: Kwame at February 12, 2006 1:24 AM

There common in JC and Hoboken as well. In Hoboken, we fixed up our backyard and put in a patio. When excavating about six inches down we dug up tons of coal. Seems they would dump it in the back and go get some when they needed it to throw in the furnace.

Posted by: doggieballs at February 15, 2006 8:48 AM

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