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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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The First Multiple Dwellings
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The First Multiple Dwellings
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Apartment houses only became acceptable for middle-class people in the late nineteenth century, and not until the early twentieth century did the very wealthy begin to move into apartment houses. So the first multiple dwellings were the tenements that were erected largely for poor immigrants. So I think we'll look first at the mid-nineteenth-century tenements and at reform housing efforts before we turn our attention to middle-class apartment buildings.

Exactly when the first tenement appeared isn't known. Some historians have dated it back to the 1830s, others to the 1840s, but it's clear that by the 1860s tenements—that is, buildings that were specifically built to house large numbers of poor families in the same structure with very few amenities—begin to appear in large numbers.

In the 1860s and 1870s, hundreds of tenements are built, primarily on the Lower East Side and in other neighborhoods of southern Manhattan, as more and more poor immigrants are arriving in New York City. When these tenements were built, there were almost no laws regulating tenement construction. In the early 1860s, the laws mandated that there be a fire escape on a building, that it have a strong, fireproof party wall. But very little else was mandated, and even those rules that were on the books were largely ignored by owners because there was no way of making sure that these rules were followed.

The earliest tenements were built on the 25-foot-wide lots that were laid out as part of the New York grid, so it was on a lot that had been planned to house a single family. Suddenly you had 20 or 22 families living in a custom-built building. These tenements were built with almost no amenities. What I like to call pre-law tenements, such as the building that the Tenement Museum now occupies on Orchard Street, were built with four apartments per floor, three rooms in each apartment. That's 12 rooms on which only one room in each apartment had a window. The inner room and the second inner room had no windows. There was almost no light, no ventilation. Although water was available on Orchard Street, and sewage was available on Orchard Street, owners were not required to hook in to these lines, and so there was no water in the building. There were probably toilets in the backyard that could be flushed once a day perhaps, if even that, by an owner's representative. So conditions were very, very poor, and people lived in enormously crowded situations.

A tenement reformer named Ernest Flagg, also one of the great New York architects, wrote about the 25-foot-wide-lot tenement, and he said that "[T]he greatest evil which ever befell New York City was the division of the blocks into lots of 25 x 100 feet. So true is this, that no other disaster can for a moment be compared with it. Fires, pestilence, and financial troubles are as nothing in comparison; for from this division has arisen the New York system of tenement-houses, the worst curse which ever afflicted any great community." Now this may be a little bit overwritten, but nonetheless it gives you an impression of how terrible conditions were.

When the buildings were new, when the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street was new in the 1860s, it probably provided a decent place for immigrants, and the early residents were largely German in this case because most immigrants to New York in the mid-nineteenth century were German and Irish. But by the late nineteenth century, as little maintenance was done on the building as it deteriorated and as more and more people lived in the building, conditions got even worse.


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