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.

Rear room in a tenement, East Village

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.

Demolition clearing of the slums, 1935

Example of a so called "New law" tenement, 331 W 101st Street, West Harlem 1913

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;


24 slides of history and some of my work

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;

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