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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
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Dumbbell Tenements
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Tenements
Dumbbell Tenements
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The plan of the buildings is extremely interesting. The apartments were less than twelve and a half feet wide, and the rooms measured maybe 11 by 13, and the inner room, the second inner room, was a tiny little bedroom, which must have been an extraordinarily claustrophobic place in which to live.

This type of plan was attacked by tenement reformers. There were a lot of people that wanted to improve by legal mandate the construction of tenements. And there was a huge campaign to get buildings like this building to be declared illegal to construct anymore. And the first major tenement house law was passed in 1879 and led to what are referred to as old-law tenements or dumbbell tenements.

These were tenements that were built on a 25-foot-wide lot, still. And they were an effort at reform, but were a failure because although the reform required that there be a window in every room, many of these windows looked out on tiny little shafts. The buildings were pinched in the middle so that they had a dumbbell shape, thus the term dumbbell tenement. And they had these tiny light slots or light shafts in the middle that were so narrow that you could actually reach out and shake your neighbor's hand. They received almost no light, unless you lived on the top floor. If it was a hot day and people opened their windows, you might have 20 or 22 families living with their windows open in this tiny little shaft, so [imagine] the noise and the smells of all of these apartments. Plus people could throw garbage out into them, and there was no way of actually getting into the light court to clean it. And they served as flues in a fire.

So basically it was a disaster. As House and Garden magazine wrote, "The dumbbell block is perhaps the worst type of tenement ever allowed in a modern, enlightened community. The halls and ten of the fourteen rooms on each floor are dark and ill-ventilated, dependent for light and air solely upon narrow airshafts which give little or no light below the top floors."

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