Today we take for granted that every building has an architect behind it. You need an architect to create a blueprint, right? Then an array of engineers, craftsmen and laborers follow the plans, and voilà, you have a building.
In New York City, it wasn’t always so. Today “starchitects” are having their moment, but it was only just shy of a century ago, in 1915, that New York State established an examination that architects had to pass to become professionals (whereas plumbers, for example, had to be licensed by 1881).
Until a Vermonter named Richard Morris Hunt became the first American to enroll in the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1846, American architects received little specialized education. Stateside in 1857, Hunt was one of a group who came together to form the American Institute of Architects, which sought to “promote the scientific and practical perfection of its members” and “elevate the standing of the profession” (according to the AIA website).
Urban historian Barry Feldman, who leads tours of Lower East Side tenements, says, “Until the mid-19th century, tenement construction was primarily the responsibility of builders, hired by landlords, who replicated the standardized ‘railroad’ design available in guides. As building construction intensified and the ‘flat’ concept was introduced, managing developers who employed subcontractors — masons, carpenters, plumbers — became common. Primarily, architects of this period were experienced builders and developers who came up through the ranks.”
But all of those cheap, dark, crowded and unsanitary tenements that covered the Lower East Side were considered unsustainable by the latter half of the 19th century. The city wished to quell the disease and violence the tenements engendered, so a series of building regulations was enacted. As Columbia University professor Richard Plunz details in “A History of Housing in New York City,” in 1860 a superintendent of buildings was established within the Fire Department to enforce structural safety laws; in 1866 the state legislature approved a law setting standards for building construction in the city; in 1867 the Tenement House Act officially raised standards for low-cost housing design, and so on.
“With enforcement of review procedures, the growing architectural profession found a new way to justify its existence: technicians were needed to translate building practice into the terms of accountability required by the city,” Plunz writes.
Although the remarkable spread of tenements to house hordes of immigrants had its drawbacks — to put it mildly — specimens from this period remain around lower Manhattan, showing that you don’t always need an architect to build structures that last.