April 12, 1901 marks the date when the New York State Legislature passed the Tenement House Act of 1901, more commonly known as the “New Law” or “New Tenement Law.” This significant moment in New York City housing history resulted from intense pressure by housing reform groups, leading to Governor Theodore Roosevelt appointing a commission to study the issue of the need to reform existing housing law in New York in 1900. In February 1901, the commission issued a report to the new governor, Benjamin B. Odell, Jr. (Roosevelt had become vice president), recommending new legislation. The State Legislature almost immediately held hearings, and on April 12, 1901, only two months after the commission issued its report, the Tenement House Act of 1901 was enacted.
Though you may not be familiar with this law, its impact and legacy in neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and the East Village cannot be understated, as some of the most distinctive and ubiquitous structures in these neighborhoods are “new law tenements.”
The term ‘tenement’ is both a legal term, codified in city regulations, and a word commonly used to refer to a certain type of multi-family housing. As officially defined in the Tenement House Law of 1867, a tenement is any building housing more than three families, each living and cooking independently. In 1887, this definition was officially expanded to also include those buildings that housed just three families. However, “tenement” generally came to define only those multiple dwellings built for the poor and which contained few, if any, of the amenities demanded by wealthier apartment dwellers, such as private toilets, running water, gas lines, and one or more windows in every room.
Although many factors contributed to the substandard living conditions in New York City’s overcrowded tenement neighborhoods, the root of the problem lay both in the division of New York City’s blocks into narrow building lots, generally twenty-five feet wide and appropriate for single-family row houses, and the pattern of individual lot ownership that resulted from this division. Only with the construction of tenements built to house twenty or more households did this limited size of building lot become a problem.
The exact date of construction of the first purpose-built tenement in Manhattan is unknown, but it is often traced as far back as the 1820s or 1830s. However, it was after the Civil War and the mass migration of European immigrants to the U.S. that followed that large numbers of custom-built tenements began to appear on the streets of neighborhoods such as the Lower East Side, Lower West Side, and the South Village. The earliest tenements were erected before there was any substantial regulation of this type of housing. The first law that governed the actual physical form of tenements was not passed until 1879 and is known as the “old law.” Thus, the first wave of tenements erected in New York City prior to this law are called “pre-law” or “pre-old-law” tenements.
The typical pre-law tenement was about four stories tall and housed ten to twenty families on a narrow twenty-five foot wide lot. There were generally four units on each of the upper floors, with a pair of stores and two rear apartments on the first floor. Each apartment had two or three rooms. Windows only lit one room in each apartment; thus, most rooms had no immediate access to natural light or fresh air. These apartments were not supplied with gas or water, although both gas lines and water lines had already been laid on Village streets. Some tenements had a single water line with a tap in the hall on each floor. Most, however, had both the water source and toilets in the shallow backyard. In some cases the toilets were placed between a front building and a rear tenement erected at the back of the lot.
The 1879 law was the result of a campaign by reformers who had become concerned about conditions in New York’s increasingly congested neighborhoods. The result, the Tenement House Act of 1879 or “old law”, actually did not greatly improve conditions. This law had no effect on tenements that had already been constructed or on row houses that had been converted into tenements, and it did nothing to alleviate the problem of erecting buildings for large numbers of households on narrow lots. However, the law succeeded in prohibiting the construction of buildings with windowless interior rooms, requiring that all rooms have windows facing the street, rear yard, or an interior shaft. The most common design resulting from this requirement was the “dumbbell,” so named because the required air shafts created a building footprint that resembles the shape of a dumbbell weight. Thus these old law tenements are sometimes referred to as “dumbbell tenements” which is sometimes mistakenly thought to be a comment upon the mass-produced or rote quality of their designs.
Unfortunately, the shafts required by the 1879 law were so small that they provided little light and air to apartments below the top floor; instead, they became receptacles for garbage and created flues that sucked flames from one floor to another during a fire. In addition, the shaft windows of adjoining apartments were so close that privacy was virtually eliminated. Most dumbbell tenements in immigrant neighborhoods such as the South Village and East Village continued to be built with four apartments of two or three rooms per floor, although some had only two apartments per floor, with rooms set in a straight line, one after the other, giving rise to the term “railroad” apartment. Despite its shortcomings, the dumbbell was the most accepted plan for tenements for over twenty years, until the new tenement law was passed in 1901.
The failures of the 1879 law became evident almost immediately after its passage, but the owners of the extremely lucrative tenements (return on investment could be as high as 20 percent) resisted changes. It was not until early in the twentieth century that reform efforts bore fruit with the New York State Legislature’s passage of the new Tenement House Act of 1901. While this act did not officially ban the construction of tenements on twenty-five-foot-wide lots, it made it difficult to efficiently plan such buildings. Most new law tenements were built on lots with a width of thirty-five feet or more. As required by the law, these tenements had larger, if still relatively small light courts and occupied somewhat less of the total lot area. The new law mandated that all rooms have windows and each apartment have its own toilet facilities. Another important aspect of the law was its impact on older tenement buildings. The law mandated a series of changes designed to address the dangerous and unsanitary conditions in these pre-existing tenements. Changes included improved lighting, banning second windowless interior rooms (a provision later rescinded), and requiring the addition of one toilet for every two families.
In order to provide the required light and air for the 1901 Tenement House Act, “new law” tenements, unlike their “dumbbell” predecessors, typically looked like an ‘H’, ‘C’,’ ‘I’ or an ‘L’ from above, leaving a significant amount of open space left over on the lot. Another common feature of “new law” tenements is that they tended to be found on corners, because the two street frontages would assist in providing the necessary light and air for each window, which a long narrow building, closely sandwiched between two other buildings like an old law or ‘dumbell’ tenement, could not.
In order to make up for the smaller percentage of the lot which new law tenements were able the cover, and therefore the smaller amount of space they could build and income they could derive on each floor, new law tenements also tended to be taller than their predecessors. While pre-law tenements rarely exceeded four stories and old-law or dumbbell tenements rarely exceeded five, these elevator-less new law tenements often reached six or even seven stories in height. So while new law tenements offered more light and air and basic amenities to their residents than prior incarnations, they also offered almost unthinkable daily climbs for the residents of their upper floors.
Finally, while this had no particular connection to the requirements of the new law, new law tenements were almost always built in a Neo-Renaissance style, which simply became more fashionable around the time that the New Tenement Law took effect in 1901. Due to the new tenement law’s more onerous requirements for developers, 1901 was one of the busiest years for new housing construction in New York City, as a flood of new buildings were constructed in the early part of the year seeking to beat the deadline for the new law’s stricter requirements.
** Much of the information for this post was base on the report by Andrew Dolkart and GVSHP, The South Village, A Proposal or Historic Designation. To see the complete report, click HERE.