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In the 19th century, more and more people began crowding into America’s cities, including thousands of newly arrived immigrants seeking a better life than the one they had left behind. In New York City–where the population doubled every decade from 1800 to 1880–buildings that had once been single-family dwellings were increasingly divided into multiple living spaces to accommodate this growing population. Known as tenements, these narrow, low-rise apartment buildings–many of them concentrated in the city’s Lower East Side neighborhood–were all too often cramped, poorly lit and lacked indoor plumbing and proper ventilation. By 1900, some 2.3 million people (a full two-thirds of New York City’s population) were living in tenement housing.
The Rise of Tenement Housing
In the first half of the 19th century, many of the more affluent residents of New York’s Lower East Side neighborhood began to move further north, leaving their low-rise masonry row houses behind. At the same time, more and more immigrants began to flow into the city, many of them fleeing the Irish Potato Famine, or Great Hunger, in Ireland or revolution in Germany. Both of these groups of new arrivals concentrated themselves on the Lower East Side, moving into row houses that had been converted from single-family dwellings into multiple-apartment tenements, or into new tenement housing built specifically for that purpose.
A typical tenement building had five to seven stories and occupied nearly all of the lot upon which it was built (usually 25 feet wide and 100 feet long, according to existing city regulations). Many tenements began as single-family dwellings, and many older structures were converted into tenements by adding floors on top or by building more space in rear-yard areas. With less than a foot of space between buildings, little air and light could get in. In many tenements, only the rooms on the street got any light, and the interior rooms had no ventilation (unless air shafts were built directly into the room). Later, speculators began building new tenements, often using cheap materials and construction shortcuts. Even new, this kind of housing was at best uncomfortable and at worst highly unsafe.
Calls for Reform
New York was not the only city in America where tenement housing emerged as a way to accommodate a growing population during the 1900s. In Chicago, for example, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 led to restrictions on building wood-frame structures in the center of the city and encouraged the construction of lower-income dwellings on the city’s outskirts. Unlike in New York, where tenements were highly concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods of the city, in Chicago they tended to cluster around centers of employment, such as stockyards and slaughterhouses.
Nowhere, however, did the tenement situation become as dire as it was in New York, particularly on the Lower East Side. A cholera epidemic in 1849 took some 5,000 lives, many of them poor people living in overcrowded housing. During the infamous New York draft riots that tore apart the city in 1863, rioters were not only protesting against the new military conscription policy; they were also reacting to the intolerable conditions in which many of them were living. The Tenement House Act of 1867 legally defined a tenement for the first time and set construction regulations; among these were the requirement of one toilet (or privy) per 20 people.
“How the Other Half Lives”
The existence of tenement legislation did not guarantee its enforcement, however, and conditions were little improved by 1889, when the Danish-born author and photographer Jacob Riis was researching the series of newspaper articles that would become his seminal book “How the Other Half Lives.” Riis had experienced firsthand the hardship of immigrant life in New York City, and as a police reporter for newspapers, including The Evening Sun, he had gotten a unique view into the grimy, crime-infested world of the Lower East Side. Seeking to draw attention to the horrible conditions in which many urban Americans were living, Riis photographed what he saw in the tenements and used these vivid photos to accompany the text of “How the Other Half Lives,” published in 1890.
The hard facts included in Riis’ book–such as the fact that 12 adults slept in a room some 13 feet across, and that the infant death rate in the tenements was as high as 1 in 10–stunned many in America and around the world and led to a renewed call for reform. Two major studies of tenements were completed in the 1890s, and in 1901 city officials passed the Tenement House Law, which effectively outlawed the construction of new tenements on 25-foot lots and mandated improved sanitary conditions, fire escapes and access to light. Under the new law–which in contrast to past legislation would actually be enforced–pre-existing tenement structures were updated, and more than 200,000 new apartments were built over the next 15 years, supervised by city authorities.
Life After the Tenements
By the late 1920s, many tenements in Chicago had been demolished and replaced with large, privately subsidized apartment projects. The next decade saw the implementation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which would transform low-income housing in many American cities through programs including slum clearing and the building of public housing. The first fully government-built public housing project opened in New York City in 1936. Called First Houses, it consisted of a number of rehabilitated pre-law tenements covering a partial block at Avenue A and East 3rd Street, an area that had been considered part of the Lower East Side.
Among the trendy restaurants, boutique hotels and bars that can be found in the neighborhood today, visitors can still get a glimpse into its past at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, located at 97 Orchard Street. Built in 1863, the building is an example of an “old-law” tenement (as defined by the Tenement House Act of 1867) and was home over the years for some 7,000 working class immigrants. Though the basement and the first floor have been renovated, the rest of the building looks much the same as it did in the 19th century, and has been designated a National Historic Site.
Tenement history: what can tenement features tell you about the history of your home?
In our latest #StoryOfOurStreet blog, Ana Sanchez of National Trust for Scotland explores six features of a tenement, explaining what these tell us about tenement history.
Since the 1800s, tenements have provided a home to Glasgow&rsquos citizens. Tenement House, cared for by National Trust for Scotland, allows visitors to find out what life was like for tenement dwellers.
In this blog, Ana Sanchez takes us through tenement features and explains what they tell us.
This Victorian feature adds a decorative feature to the top of a living room whilst also protecting the outside stonework and blocking noise from neighbouring flats.
Interestingly, some tenement flats had these placed slightly off centre, to help bounce the light off mirrors and make the room appear bigger. These take their inspiration from the medieval era, when a rose above a table indicated the freedom to speak.
This tenement feature of windows above interior and/or exterior doors allowed the flat to be filled with natural light, particularly important before the advent of electric lighting.
Most tenements were kept cosy with a coal fire, with many homes not having central heating until at least the second half of the 20th century. Look out for decorative tiles, which have sometimes been covered up, particularly if a bedroom fireplace has been blocked up at some stage.
These are one of the most unique features of tenement housing, and decorated the stairwell and landing of tenement buildings. Because these were areas held in common, tiles were popular for being easy to clean and there were some lovely examples of art nouveau tiling around the city of Glasgow.
Another distinctive feature, a set-in bed provided extra sleeping space and could be tucked away out of sight during the daytime. These beds are only found in pre-1900 flats as they were banned for health reasons thereafter.
The bed was traditionally in the parlour opposite the outside window facing the street, and had space for storage either above or below.
This feature made the most of the fact that in the days before central heating, the kitchen was usually the warmest room in the house. This type was built above floor level and could be hidden away behind curtains during the day.
Bauman, John F., Roger Biles, and Kristin M. Szylvian. From Tenements to the Taylor Homes: In Search of an Urban Housing Policy in Twentieth-Century America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.
Day, Jared N. Urban Castles: Tenement Housing and Landlord Activism in New York City, 1890–1943. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Ford, James. Slums and Housing, with Special Reference to New York City: History, Conditions, Policy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936.
Hall, Peter. Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century. New York: Blackwell, 1988.
Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Home page at http://www.tenement.org.
Plunz, Richard. A History of Housing in New York City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.
Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York. New York: Scribners, 1890.
The Expenses of a Typical Sweatshop — around 1900 Prices received from manufacturer for 300 coats: $225 Thirteen Jewish shop workers Three operators $15 each Three basters $13.30 each Three finishers $10.00 each Two pressers $12.00 each One trimmer and busheler (the boss himself) $17.00 One button sewer $9.00 Six Italian home workers to do felling (stitching flat seams) $2.00 each Rent and miscellaneous costs: $9.00 Profit $38.10 Statistics courtesy Lower East Side Tenement Museum
Expansion of the Garment Industry
Between the 1870s and 1900, the men’s and women’s garment industries rapidly grew into mature and important sectors of the American economy. Consumer demand for cheaper clothes rose dramatically, capital investment tripled, and the work force grew from about 120,000 to 206,000. New York City dominated the industry, producing more than 40 percent of all ready-to-wear clothes in the country.
In the early 20th century, many clothing makers moved out of New York City, seeking cheaper labor and production facilities. In the 1920s, Chicago and Rochester became centers of the men’s clothing industry. Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, San Francisco, and Cincinnati were busy production sites. By the 1930s, Los Angeles had developed a booming sportswear industry. Production in each of these cities had its own characteristics, but all relied on a mix of modern factories, contract shops, home workers, and sweatshops.
Cloaks were some of the earliest women’s ready-to-wear garments. They were easy to produce because an exact fit was un necessary. By the 1910s, women could purchase a complete ready-to-wear wardrobe.
Once established, the women’s clothing industry soon surpassed the men’s in size and work force. More than the men’s, it took advantage of the added flexibility of contract production to respond to constantly changing styles.
Tenements - HISTORY
Tenement Evolution and History, 1880's "Old Law" to post 1901 "New law"
Back in the second half of the 19th century, the walk-up tenement buildings were well established in New York City's East Village as cheap quick housing for the masses of newly arriving immigrants flooding into the city in waves at various times. Many of these tenements were built by individual land owners usually one or two together. They provided rental income as well as a store on the ground floor. Many tenement owners ran a store front and rented the residences above.
Until the early 1800's or so, the Lower East side of Manhattan along the East River was a salt marsh. The coastal wetland provided habitat for waterfowl. These marshes were filled in, and by 1845 the first buildings had appeared on the former marsh. These buildings provided housing for tradesmen and for businesses such as the large lumber yard near 14th Street. By the 1890's, the lower East Side was populated by many thousands of immigrants, jammed into the, dark, crowded tenements, devoid of light, air, and indoor plumbing.
By the 1880's and 90's there was a major building boom in this area with hundreds of 5, 6 and 7 story tenements being built. The 7 story came later in the period but none of these building had elevators. As a result the apartments on the top floors were the cheapest, also they were the hottest and the coldest on account of being directly under the exposed black tar roof in the era before wall and attic insulation!
Tenement with cast-iron window sills and pediments circa 1870's
Note the lack of ornamentation, keystones, spandrel panels etc. This was the style pre 1880. Many of the facade parapet wall cornices were made of wood during this period, wood gave way to sheet metal.
An example of a circa 1899 tenement
Note the terra-cotta ornamention around almost every window- figural keystones, spandrel panels, corbels, moldings & window headers. This was the style of the 1880's and 1890's This was actually a pair of identical buildings on two adjacent lots.
After the law change in 1901, the so called "Old law" style of tenement were suddenly too costly to build to code, the requirements for more light, light in every room, more fresh air, and indoor plumbing changed the whole picture. Many tenements were still built for a time that violated the 1901 laws, but soon with enforcement, the type of buildings that were built evolved to fit the new building codes and requirements.
By the 1930's, the old law tenements were deteriorating rapidly from neglect even though they were solidly built by today's standards, and were a scant 30-40 years old only. The deterioration came from landlords who only collected rents, and tenants who did not care for their living spaces. The Housing and other city agencies began looking into "slum clearance" projects to build high-rise city housing for the poor to replace the dilapidated tenements. Entire city blocks East of Avenue D from Houston Street to 14th Street and elsewhere were razed to clear land for the new construction.
Note that the new style tenement's "footprint" if you will- was wider, with 6 bays across instead of the formerly standard 4 bays. The typical floor plan shown for this particular building featured two apartments instead of four in this upscale building built more for the middle to upper class renters. Note that this building had an elevator, uniformed attendants and 7 to 8 rooms plus bath, they also featured maid's quarters, and rooms designated as "library" and "Parlor." Bedrooms in the period were known simply as "Chambers" on the floor plans and advertisements which included basic floor plans such as the "Dorothea" above. This building still stands at that location, as does the building partially shown to the right of it. A large tree partially blocks the view today.
667 Madison Avenue, a circa 1920 example of the tenement building evolving by then into the luxury high-rise apartment building that would continue the upward growth in height and bulk.
The floor plan of 667 Madison Avenue shows two spacious luxury residences per floor. Each had a library, parlor, dining room, reception room, elevator, butler's pantry, coat room, serving pantry, kitchen, 4 chambers (bedrooms), bathroom, 2 servant's room and bath, 2 wardrobe closets and a linen closet.
This building was demolished early in it's life- by around 1950 and replaced with this 25 story high-rise
Another aspect of city life back in the 1890's was the widespread use of coal for cooking, heating and more. Coal soot and the polution from burning coal, including acid rain quickly turned building facades black. In fact, one reason glazes were used on terracotta was to provide an pristine smooth easy clean surface.
No photo better illustrates the coal soot/black facades better than these two photos of the Municipal Building near the Brooklyn Bridge. It was constructed around 1915 and the first view shows the pristine white building under construction at that time
This photo however, taken just 21 years later in 1936 shows the facade being cleaned by a crew with moving scaffolds, it can clearly be seen where they cleaned and where they hadn't yet! The black filth was deposited over just 21 years' time
The Evils of High Lot CoverageModel of a tenement block on the Lower East Side, shown in the Tenement House Exhibition of 1900. The Tenement House Problem, by Robert W. DeForest and Lawrence Veiller, 1903. Sequence of floor plans showing the evolution of an “old time first-class dwelling-house” covering roughly half the lot area, into a “dumbbell” or “double decker” tenement building covering most of the lot area. Report of the Tenement House Committee,1895.
Left: Airshaft of a dumbbell tenement in New York. Photograph taken from the roof, c.1900. Right: Bandit’s Roost in a tenement alley in New York, c.1890. Photograph by Jacob Riis. Wikimedia. National Archives and Records Administration.
As tenements evolved into 4- or 5-story walkups covering 90 percent of their narrow lots, they aligned to create dense blocks. High ground coverage was a predictable response to Manhattan’s high land costs, but dense tenement districts created sinister conditions. “Slum” problems of crime, disease, and family breakdown resulted from a complex mix of bad-quality housing (windowless rooms, shared toilets, etc.) with social issues of poverty, overcrowding, poor medical care, and exploitative working conditions. Ameliorating slums by upending American capitalism and politics posed a challenge. Lowering ground coverage and mandating higher building standards became, by contrast, an appealing technocratic solution for architects and reformers.
Greedy tenement owners, who had fatally weakened laws passed in 1867 and 1879 helped the reformers’ case. The 1879 law, for instance, had grandfathered in the worst tenements and largely ignored fire safety and sanitation standards of shared hall toilets. The resulting “dumbbell” tenements with their narrow, enclosed airshafts typified the evils of high lot coverage and “slum life.”
The 1901 Tenement House Law, which finally mandated larger lot sizes, courtyards, modern amenities (heat, hot water, larger rooms, and private bathrooms), and included a regulation limiting overcrowding, was a watershed. Still, these “New Law Tenements” – tens of thousands of which rose across the city – could be built at 70 percent coverage on mid-block lots and at 90 percent at corners, but the larger courtyards required demanded they occupy at least two of New York’s narrow lots.
In the minds of the real estate industry and even of many reformers, the New Law Tenement had solved the problems of dense ground coverage by delivering larger light courts, brighter and better ventilated apartments, private sanitary and water facilities, modern heating, and better fire safety. Housing idealists remained unconvinced. To their dismay, many Old Law tenements survived and there were minimal penalties for allowing buildings to rot or remain substandard. New Law tenements also compared unfavorably with garden apartments in Queens and the Bronx, and reformers preferred models of modernist social housing being created in Europe in the interwar years.
In Manhattan over one-fourth of the blocks were covered solidly by buildings or had less than 11 percent of the area not covered and over half of the blocks had less than 21 percent, of the area not covered by buildings.
(Report of the New York City Commission on Congestion and Population, 1911, p. 9)
The most deep-seated evil of the tenement districts in Manhattan lies in the extension of buildings over the rear parts of the lots notwithstanding that much of the rear building was more sanitary and durable than the front building in other words, in the occupation of space which should never have been built upon. The dark bedroom was the product of this rear building, first beginning with two stories and then gradually raised, often without strengthening of the walls, to five or six stories.
(Regional Survey of New York and Its Environs, Volume VI, Buildings, Their Uses and the Spaces About Them, 1931, p. 125)
(A 1903 report by Robert W. de Forest and Lawrence Veiller) drew attention to the fact that the evils of the tenement houses were primarily “insufficiency of light and air due to narrow courts or air shafts, undue height, the occupation by the building, or by the adjacent buildings, of too great a proportion of the lot areas.” This was put down as the major evil, and the principal recommendation was to correct this evil by new tenements with large courts providing light and ventilation for every room in the buildings. An enormous number of new tenements having more ample light and air than the old tenements have been erected.
(Regional Survey of New York and Its Environs, Volume VI, Buildings, Their Uses and the Spaces About Them, 1931, p. 127)
Urban growth problems
Although the passage of zoning laws signaled a major transition toward governmental intervention in the marketplace, the laws were largely negative in their results. The zoning laws did not encourage adequate housing, nor did they provide a basis for coordinating housing and city planning. The result, instead of well-planned cities, was major overcrowding and a type of residential (living) building called tenement housing.
Tenement housing was the first style of apartment buildings. By 1903, New York City's eighty-two thousand tenements housed nearly three million people, nearly all of whom occupied the lowest economic rung of society.
Tenement housing offered few advantages other than cheap rent. The buildings were erected close together so that there were no lawns. The Lower East Side of New York at the turn of the century was a typical tenement ghetto (a poor, crime-ridden section of the city). There, the basic tenement buildings were five stories high and contained twenty three-room apartments, four to a floor. Each apartment or flat contained a front room, small bedroom, and kitchen, for a total of 325 square feet. The only room to receive light or ventilation (air) was the front room. As other tenement buildings were constructed around it, however, both light and ventilation were cut off.
Tenements built before 1867 did not have toilets, showers, or even running water. Common (used by all tenants) toilets were situated in between buildings, toward the rear of the lots, and may or may not have been connected to public sewage lines. Garbage was disposed of in a large box kept in front of the buildings, but it was not picked up on a regular basis. Many tenements were without heat. The buildings that had heat posed a serious health threat. The fumes and smoke from the coal-burning heaters had nowhere to go without proper ventilation.
Middle-Market DesignManhattan House (1951), designed by Gordon Bunshaft (SOM) and developed by the New York Life Insurance Company. Photograph by Wurts Bros, c.1951. NYPL. Manhattan House ground floor, showing the gardens around the building and the modification of East 66th Street. Drawing included in a Manhattan House official prospectus, c.1950. The Skyscraper Museum.
Chart showing the shares of publicly-owned, publicly-aided, and privately-owned housing built in New York City from 1950 to 1959. Published in the report Building a Better New York, submitted by the Special Adviser on Housing and Urban Renewal to Major Robert F. Wagner in 1960. Courtesy of Alexander Garvin.
As New York City rebounded during and after World War II and pressure grew for high-quality rental apartments, private companies began to rethink their aversion to residential development in Manhattan. Some began buying up older tenements and commercial buildings that were moderately priced, yet located in areas ideal for residential growth.
A pioneering project was Manhattan House, which was developed without subsidies by the New York Life Insurance Company from 1947-51. Located between 65th and 66th streets between Second and Third avenues, it occupied a full block in an area that was undergoing significant change as the elevated train tracks that had imprisoned that swath of the city were either recently demolished or scheduled for demolition. An old trolley barn, tenements, and assorted commercial buildings were so affordably priced that New York Life bought extra property in the surrounding blocks.
The clean, crisp modernist design by architect Gordon Bunshaft, principal at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), which was associated with the firm Mayer & Whittlesey on the project, was an immediate success and attracted famous tenants such as Benny Goodman, Grace Kelly, and furniture designer Florence Knoll, as well as Bunshaft himself. The apartments were spacious, but the overall density was high at 478 pp/acre. Thanks to New York Life’s interest in long-term profits, the building was more “tower in a garden” than “tower in the park” and covered a higher percentage of land (59 percent) than the vast publicly subsidized projects that were its contemporaries.
The postwar volume of privately-developed housing was less than hoped, and minor compared to either new office towers or suburban growth. Had the private sector fully engaged in redeveloping housing in Manhattan, the city would today look quite different. However, the growing fiscal problems and continuing middle-class flight prevented a massive unsubsidized recovery that might have remade the city at a much higher density level.
What You’ll Pay
Of the 129 apartments listed for sale on UrbanDigs in mid-December, the least expensive was a one-bedroom, one-bath walk-up co-op with city views and an in-unit washer-dryer, offered for $399,000 with income restrictions ($40,176 for one or two people, $46,872 for three or more). The most expensive, at $13.995 million, was a five-bedroom, five-and-a-half-bath condo on the 28th floor of 215 Chrystie Street, atop an Ian Schrager hotel.
Of the 176 rentals listed, the least expensive was a studio in a prewar condo listed for $1,550 a month, furnished or unfurnished the priciest was a four-bedroom, four-and-a-half-bath penthouse with a rooftop terrace offered furnished for $50,000 a month (in the same building as the priciest condo for sale).
The median price for all apartments sold in 2020 through mid-December was $950,000, compared with $999,999 in 2019, according to data compiled by UrbanDigs. The median sale price for one-bedrooms remained unchanged, at $775,000 for two-bedrooms, the median was $962,500 in 2020 through mid-December, down from $1.32 million during the same period in 2019 and for three-plus-bedroom apartments, the median sale price was $1.365 million, down from $3.535 million in 2019.
Seven of the nine sites at Essex Crossing are already open or under construction. The Artisan, a 28-story rental building, is now leasing market-rate apartments, starting under $3,000 a month for studios. One Essex Crossing is a condominium building, with sales starting next year, from $890,000.
Overall, residential sale prices in the neighborhood have dipped only 5 percent in the wake of Covid-19 (something UrbanDigs’s data bears out), said Mr. Goldman of LoHo Realty, while those in other areas have decreased by about 20 percent. “Our price adjustment is healthy — very healthy — compared to other downtown neighborhoods,” he said.
Glasgow's image as a Victorian city owes much to the grey, beige and reddish sandstone tenemented streets erected mostly between 1850 and 1900. Governed by the Glasgow Police Act, these four-storied blocks, never taller than the width of the street, were built in city blocks with short gardens, drying greens and outside lavatories or ash pits at the centre.
Tenement construction increased 600 per cent between 1862-72 and 21,000 tenement flats were built between 1872 and 1876. Each floor of the 1875 model working class tenement comprised a single room flat sandwiched by two two-room flats. Few had lavatories. The standard middle class flat was three-roomed but those in the Novar Drive area were much larger, and those in Terregles Avenue, Pollokshields (1895), ran to a parlour, dining and drawing rooms, two bedrooms, a bathroom closet, pantry, kitchen and a servant's bedroom.
The most coherent tenement districts lie around West Princes Street, or the streets between Partickhill and Byres Road. Only the poorest streets, such as West End Park Street, lacked elaboration. Most tenement flats had a bay window providing the street with a rhythm of bay window towers. Grander tenements had external carving, decoration, bay windows, close doors or stained or painted glass in the stair windows, iron balustrades, or halls lined with decorative tiles (a "wally" close). A number were overtly classical, designed by "Greek" Thomson, or by Alexander Taylor at Clarendon Place (1829). Most dramatic was the sweeping curve of the golden stone-fronted Minerva Street leading into St Vincent Crescent (1849–1858) by Alexander Kirkland. Machine-cut Dumfriesshire red stone at the end of the century brought tenements with rippling bay windows, tall decorated chimney-stacks and many other details of the Glasgow style.
Tenements were class-neutral ranging from the tiny, single room flat to an enormous elite apartment. They gave Glasgow physical homogeneity and provided the semblance of having a more integrated community than those cities whose wealthy had fled to detached houses in the suburbs.