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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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Model Tenements
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So model tenements begin to appear in the 1870s. In fact the first model tenements in America are located in Brooklyn in the neighborhood that's now called Cobble Hill. They're called the Home and Tower Buildings, and they were built by a man named Alfred Tredway White. White was a wealthy businessman who was a member of the Unitarian Church. It was through Unitarian theory that he became very much involved in progressive reform efforts. And he built a series of buildings for the working poor, for what was known in the nineteenth century as the "deserving poor." These were hardworking people that just couldn't make enough money to live in decent conditions. You were required to be a family with two parents, you had to be employed. They were very careful in screening people to make sure that there were no alcoholics or anybody with social problems who might have a negative impact on the structure.

The buildings have small apartments, but they were very carefully designed to be fireproof. All the entrances are from balconies so in case of a fire you'd go out on the balcony and then you'd go down the stairs, which also were open, so that you would never have an enclosed stair where smoke would rise. Also there was running water in each apartment. Each apartment has cross-ventilation, it has windows that look out on the street or that look out onto a huge courtyard in the back. And there were baths in the basement. This isn't something that sounds like much to us today, but at a time when most poor people had no access to bathing facilities at all, not even public baths—which were something that didn't develop until the early twentieth century—the idea that you could actually go into the basement and take a bath was an extraordinary improvement.

There wasn't a lot of money to expend on architecture in these buildings, so most of the beauty of the building is in the structure. They used the brick in interesting ways—they put little towers at the ends, and the iron balconies were designed in a beautiful manner.

And they also had enormous courtyards. And these were also doubled as a place where children could play at a time when it was considered that children who played in the street would somehow grow up to be criminals, and that the street was not a healthy place for children to play. The idea that children could play in a large backyard court and that their parents could look out the window and supervise was very important. You not only had an enormous amount of light and air because of these courts, but you also had a safe place for children to play.


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