As mentioned in the GVSHP testimony at the designation hearing for the Sullivan-Thompson historic district, the majority of the historic fabric in this district is its tenements. Here is a laboratory and cross-section of tenement types which served as the homes for much of NYC’s African American community in the 19th century as well as many of the city’s immigrants before and after the turn of the 20th century (click HERE for more information on the history of the tenement house laws). An article by Anthony Robins on the development of SoHo, described some of the history of the area to the west of SoHo, now known as the Sullivan-Thompson Historic District, and its tenements.
Although it abuts SoHo, the Sullivan-Thompson historic district is quite distinct from its eastern neighbor both historically and architecturally. SoHo was originally developed as a residential area but quickly transitioned into a commercial area by the mid-19th century and later manufacturing dominated the area. Both of these functions are reflected in its cast iron loft architecture we see there today. The area in the Sullivan-Thompson historic district, by contrast, has been largely residential over the course of its 200+ year history. The first wave of development consisted of row houses built for the middle to upper-middle classes in the early 19th century, generally moving into the area from points further south in Manhattan.
As these New Yorkers moved out, African American’s moved in, the first wave settling following the abolition of slavery in New York State in 1827. Row houses were ‘tenementized,’ housing multiple families, and some purpose built, pre-law tenements were constructed in this area known as Little Africa.
Following the passage of Tenement House Act of 1879, what would later be known as Old Law tenements, were constructed housing the increasing immigrant population in the area, largely Italian-American.
By the beginning of the 20th century, most of the African American community had moved north and Thompson Street and its surrounds had become a predominantly Italian-American enclave. With the passage of the Tenement House Act of 1901, tenements constructed during the 20th century followed the parameters of the new law requiring greater air and light to the dwelling units than seen previously and typically these new buildings occupied larger lots. Reformed housing is also seen in the district (click HERE to learn more).
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