By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
The Grid of 1811
Tenements are simply defined as multi-family, rental apartment buildings for three or more families, with independent cooking facilities and sleeping quarters. (Originally, they had no indoor plumbing.) At a time when only the lower-income class dwelt in multi-family buildings, tenements were cheap to build, cheap to maintain, and utilized space very efficiently.
In 1894, civic reformer and architect Ernest Flagg, wrote:
“The greatest evil which ever befell New York City was the division of the blocks into 25-[foot] by 100-[foot] [building lots, approved by City Hall in 1811]…for from this division has arisen the New York system of tenement houses, the worst curse which ever afflicted any great community.”
When Mr. Flagg wrote this, there were already 43,000 tenement buildings in Manhattan, and another 34,000 in Brooklyn. In a city where 97% of all residents were renters, two-thirds of them lived in tenements!
Lacking any zoning laws or uniform building codes, builders were able to fill their sites from side to side with four-to-six stories, leaving only a small backyard for privies, garbage, and a shallow well. Maximizing rentable space, each tenement floor was divided into four apartments of three rooms each, with windows in only one of them. Conceived as an economical response to growing demand for housing, by 1870 tenements had become social, political, health, and safety dilemmas.
Builders of even limited means would not think of constructing even a utilitarian building without ornamentation. According to a study conducted by the Tenement Museum, by the time Lucas Glockner arrived in the first wave of German immigration (and led by his desire to be a land owner), he completed his first tenement in 1864 for his family and others. These buildings were truly of the cookie-cutter type, from stock building plans or simply repeated previous experience. Standardized windows, doors, lumber, and trims of sheet metal or cast clay were available at lumberyards. Glockner applied the prevailing Late Victorian or Italianate style of decoration, a fashion so prevalent that we can find nearly identical examples throughout New York City today.
The Immigration Flood
Many histories and exposés have been written about the slum conditions within tenement neighborhoods. The historic Lower East Side (LES) of Manhattan is the most well-known of the tenement phenomena. In the 1890s, the LES was the most densely populated neighborhood anywhere in the world, with about 1,089 persons per acre.
Early waves of European immigration, from 1840 on, consisted mainly of German and Irish citizens. Between 1855 and 1890, eight million immigrants were registered through New York State’s official Immigration Center on an island called Castle Garden. (It is now named ‘Castle Clinton’ after DeWitt Clinton.) From 1892 to 1954, Ellis Island processed 12 million people. Additionally, mixtures of immigrants from the South and through Canada traveled overland to New York City, drawn by jobs and commercial opportunities.
The city was compact, with residences and factories in close quarters. Most immigrants came with very little, and would take whatever jobs were offered close to where they landed. The tenements were a vast improvement over the ramshackle wooden houses scattered around the city. For many immigrants, even though tenements had no running water (until the 1880s), no indoor toilets (until the 1890s), nor electricity (until the 1910s), the tenements may have surpassed the homes they left in the Old Country. Large, extended families in small rooms were not necessarily problematic, as they may have been accustomed to such tight living conditions.
Fight to Reform
For the many poor immigrants, life in the tenements may have been barren and difficult, but there was no alternative. For the established New York middle class, however, the tenements presented challenges they could no longer tolerate. Reform movements chipped away at the underlying conditions within the tenements, pioneering the idea that governments could regulate the residential environment.
In the typical five-story tenement layout, 40 out of 60 rooms had no natural light or ventilation, nor did the stairwells or hallways. Street-facing rooms were considered premium because of their openness, compared to the darkness and stench of the backyard privies. The hazard of fire from wood-burning stoves and candles was a constant threat. For many families, taking in boarders was necessary to pay the rent. At times, boarders would sleep in shifts on the same beds, depending on their work schedules; sometimes 10 or more people could occupy and sleep in the same apartment, in less than 325 square feet of space.
Although small improvements were introduced to better sanitation and ventilation from 1865 to 1900, existing tenements were typically grandfathered in with their existing conditions. Jacob Riis’ exposés in the 1860s, a cholera epidemic, and the draft riots during the Civil War all contributed to reform movements for tenements. Finally, the Tenement Housing Act of 1901 imposed requirements that greatly changed new tenement construction. For 97 Orchard Street and many other existing tenements, this also meant adding two water closets in the hallway of each floor, adding internal windows for ventilation, and transforming the basements into commercial uses. With further building code changes in 1925, 97 Orchard’s owner chose to close the upper floors to residents forever, rather than add more expensive changes.
Even some pre-1901 tenements are still in existence, but with mandatory amenities added. Many have been stripped of their ornamentation, ornate cornices, and door trim. Nevertheless, they are still recognizable throughout the city, on Hudson, Christopher, Greenwich, West 10th, and other streets in the West Village. (Hint: Look for four windows across and iron fire escapes above a central entrance door.)
Today, tenements still serve as starter dwellings—the ‘affordable’ category that the city is working so hard to maintain. But today, zoning and building laws restrict the number of people in each apartment, the minimum size of each apartment, as well as minimum light and ventilation requirements, and fire protection. Of course, all multi-family units must have cooking and bathing facilities, no matter how minimal. If tenements are the “worst curse which ever afflicted” the city, today they have been reformed to better serve the city’s population.
The Tenement Museum is located at 97 and 103 Orchard Street (at Delancey Street), and features a Visitor Center. For more information, call (212) 431-0233, or visit tenement.org.