By Brian J. Pape

You know the fire escapes I’m talking about, the iron staircases attached to the walls of buildings all over NYC.

Some are simple, some are ornate, but they are almost all welded and riveted steel bars anchored with bolts to masonry walls. Back in 1860, however, when the Department of Buildings first ordered the erection of fire escapes on tenement houses in New York City, fire safety was a major concern.

The first person credited with a patent for a fire escape was Anna Connelly in 1887. The exterior staircases were cheap to build and could be added to the existing construction very easily, without the need to restructure the walls. The fire escape invention seemed to be a simple and cost-efficient way to address the city requirement.

Then on March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Greenwich Village was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city, and one of the deadliest in U.S. history.

Terrified garment employees on the 9th and 10th floors crowded onto the single exterior fire escape, which city officials had allowed the Asch Building to erect instead of the required third staircase (the interior stairways were illegally locked by the business owners). It was a flimsy and poorly anchored iron structure which may have been broken before the fire. It soon twisted and collapsed from the heat and overload, spilling about 20 victims nearly 100 feet to the concrete pavement below. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers who died from the fire.

In the years from 1911 to 1913, sixty of the sixty-four new laws recommended by the Factory Investigating Commission were legislated with the support of Governor William Sulzer. As a result of the fire, the American Society of Safety Engineers was founded in New York City on October 14, 1911

Surely no other form of emergency egress has impacted the architectural, social, and political context in metropolitan America more than the balcony fire escape. The fire escape is still a predominant feature in many major American cities, and will remain as long as older existing buildings have no better means of providing a means of emergency escape.


Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP, is a GV resident, licensed architect, and licensed real estate salesperson, specializing in historic preservation and green architecture.


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