Thursday, February 18, 2016

History of the tenement: complete series

Here is the complete list of posts, in order, in the series on The History of the Tenement in New York (I've included the popular A history of the slums of New York post that complements the tenement history):

    Preface: A history of the slums of New York

Introduction
Why are tenements so diverse?

Anti-Catholic town, Anti-Catholic architecture
How architecture began in NYC

    (an outlier hypothesis)
    A digression

Banks, Romans, fashion-mongerers and modernism
What Roman architecture tells us about our notion of time and fashion, progress, and our cultural personality

Ghetto real estate
How and why the slums -- and the apartment building -- began

The inverse law of ghetto real estate
The economics of exploitation

External vs internal
A summary so far of the divergent purposes of design

Political history
Clarifying the origins of our two political parties and their significance for the immigrant labor ghetto

What's a tenement?
Law and changing perceptions

A market lesson in brick
The oldest and tallest tenement, and how it got that way

New Law, Old Law, Pre-Law, lawless
Quick history of housing laws and how to identify tenement periods

Don't believe what you read
...or see on a cornice or on a NYC gov't document

Don't trust historians
How the limits of professionalism can mislead

And ignore the know-it-alls
Know their bias and agenda

Personality, humor and taste
in tenement design of the 1880's and 90's

From the depths of Schopenhauer and Wagner to the surfaces of Nietzsche and Wilde
Romanticism and aestheticism merge in a tenement on Madison Street

Exhibitionism
The last hurrah of wealth and privilege

The law of unintended consequences
What conduces to freedom, expression and innovation?

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The law of unintended consequences

Garbage transformed New York forever. It preserved the old and turned the new into the spectacular and grandiose. How? Here's the story.

Social reformers in the 19th century replaced the eugenics explanation for poverty -- that the poor were poor because they were genetically defective, incapable of civilization by their very nature -- with a socio-economic explanation: substandard living quarters. The tenement's core defect was the airshaft, the space between two tenements in the interior of the lot. Its purpose was to bring natural light and fresh air into interior rooms, but it turned into a permanent mulch for garbage instead. Dug to the foundation, and without easy access or egress, garbage once thrown into it, stayed there. It was unsanitary. When it burned, the airshaft acted as a flue to spread the fire. The airshaft caused many deaths during its twenty-two year reign.

Reform came with the New Law and its requirement that every multiple dwelling have a large courtyard for garbage storage-and-removal. The courtyard prevented redevelopment on single lots -- if you had a four story building covering 80% of the lot, redeveloping it to six stories but with a large courtyard would lose rental space not gain it. As a result, only landlords or developers owning multiple adjacent lots could redevelop a building. Owners of single lots were out of luck. They had to sit with their property as is forever. Historical preservation was not the intention of the New Law, but that was its consequence.

The exception was the corner lot, of which the law allowed nearly 100% lot coverage. So you'll see four and five story tenements all in a row in the East Village on 2nd Avenue, for example, between spectacular New Law tenements on the corners like bookends.

The New Law tenements, despite being constructed along distinguished, elegant principles of the Academie des Beaux Arts, and are impressively grand, harmonious, and dignified, are actually repetitive, largely unimaginative and full of mass-produced ornaments. They look like impressive mansions of the wealthy, but they are not particularly interesting. Once you've seen a few different styles, you've seen them all. Ironically, people view them as special because they are expensive looking, while the Old Law tenements, original, wild, unique, distinctive, are viewed as cheap, mass-produced and without design.
Two New Laws, about as distinct as New Laws get
The invention is limited by the narrow range of ornaments available and the structural elements in which they can be arranged. Occasionally you'll see unusual and subtly distinct solutions to structural design, but more often you find easy iterations of the familiar. This little mini-frieze ornament can be found all across the city without any alteration:
The gryphon frieze on Avenue B
not to mention all those corner stones, pediments, broken pediments, scrolling pediments, every one of them imitations of models two thousand years old. They are beautiful...and stifling. The age of wild invention, of personal design was ended by academic principles of superior right and correct standards. 

Garbage and the law of unintended consequences. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Exhibitionism

Stanford White: a rich man's architect for whom interior design was as important or more important than the facade or the structure. After all, the rich enjoy the interior; the exteriors belong to the plebeians.

White was one of the many exponents of the City Beautiful Movement, a moment in US Gilded Age history when the matured nation recognized itself as international. It began with the Chicago Exposition in 1893 which brought European trends for Americans to immitate. New York now had in Chicago an American competitor, and compete it did. The models would all be drawn from the principles of the Parisian Academie des Beaux Arts, which meant Greco-Roman temples and derivatives. For tenements it meant uniformity of ornaments, abandonment of masks in favor of a select few frieze designs and abstract elements of architraves. The Gilded Age movement expressed itself fully, though, in the bank building. It's no surprise that White's masterpiece was the Bowery Bank. But the structure is full of surprises.

Start with the exterior. Lying on the Bowery, a street that curves concavely to the west, the lot on which the Bowery Bank is slanted, slightly rhomboid -- the sides are not perpendicular to the street. To compensate for the angle, and still have a grand three-dimensional entry with depth that would give the impression of a single point perspective in a rectangular space, White foreshortened the north side of the arch so that the coffers of the arch on the northmost are a bit smaller than the ones just next to them, and those are smaller than the ones next to them to the north side until the southmost coffers are about twice the size of the northmost ones. The difference is so gradual that you will not notice it at all unless you look up and carefully attend. It is so unnoticeable that I can't find a single photo online of just the coffers showing the gradual change in relative size. This photo gives a sense of it once you know -- otherwise it just looks like the photo was taken from a spot to the right.
White could have designed a rectangular entry, compromising the regularity of the interior space. Instead he preserved the interior, contorting the exterior. It pays to go there and see it yourself, since the play on perspective is even more effective when seen through two eyes.

The interior seems exactly as extravagant as you'd expect: huge columns made of multicolored veined marble, holding up a huge coffered dome, also marble but unblemished white. It's a spectacular space, impressive wherever you look.

You'd never guess that there is no dome. The coffered ceiling is held up not by the columns, but by an unseen metal frame above it. The columns could not possibly sustain a dome -- they're hollow plaster with rolls of burlap inside. Both the columns and the ceiling are not marble but cheap plaster, the columns cleverly painted. All of it is fake, a fraud. But you'd never know.

What had begun as a movement to enhance the grandeur of the city, ended as an empty showcase for wealth -- ornament for the sake of show not for structure, mere appearances, the display of wealth for the sake of impressing, junk jewelry and lots of it, unrepentant exhibitionism.

The Gilded Age was succeeded by social reform emerging out of revolutionary sentiments socialist, communist and anarchist. It was a reaction to this excess of pompous, self-congratulatory wealth. The Beaux Arts structure was replaced by the inspiring utopianism of Art Deco, closely associated with the cult of the social-political hero -- Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin and FDR. Only later did the sound socialist principles of the Bauhaus return architecture to sanity, morality and service to the working class.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Paper-pushing paper-pushers pushing persons

Here's what's most wrong with bureaucracy. The categories of right and wrong are budgetary items, not human concerns. Where the budget allows for discretion, no process is necessary. Through these little items, a world can be changed without accountability or transparency or process.

I spoke again to a Parks and Recreation deputy about the placement of the ping pong table in Tompkins Square Park to find out what their decision process was. Recall that Parks placed it right smack in the middle of the seating space that is used only by either a mixed group of homeless people or low-income people of color. It was uniformly avoided by the mainstream, the middle-class, the young white gentrifiers. For the homeless especially, this was a space to socialize with the only people who want to socialize with them, who like and respect them, identify with them: other homeless people. Socializing is an essential need for a social species. For some of these folks, it seems more important to them even than a home. The park is public; they have every right to be there. They are not criminal or disruptive; they are not less human than anyone else, or less a part of the public than anyone.

This was the second Parks deputy I've asked about the table. From his answer, it seems no one in the Parks Dept. knows that there even was a second ping pong table. They are in good company. The local Councilmember was not informed of it, neither was the Community Board. The Dept. deputy said that a ping pong table addition is a minor item.

That's evident from the lack of process, consultation with the councilmember and the community. I tried to explain to the deputy that while from the perspective of the Dept. it is minor, it might be an important matter to people, you know, human beings that are supposed to be served by the park and its administration. He responded that this was a minor decision. I tried again to explain that from the Dept.'s budget or definitions it may be minor, but for the people affected, it may be important. He responded, no, this is a minor decision. Then he complained that if the Parks Dept. consulted on every minor decision, nothing would ever get done.

In other words, they are clueless as to what decisions effect important changes in the park because they evaluate major and minor only through the budget lines. Driving the homeless from their socialization space is not a budget item in the Ping Pong Category Line. Social control has found its hiding place in the paper-pusher's pile.

The month before, a different Parks deputy suggested that the choice of placement was intended to drive away the homeless. That certainly is not minor. It's probably illegal to identify a specific, non criminal demographic for exclusion from a park without any process.

So either Parks is clueless or it is conducting gentrification and displacement through unaccountable means. Here's the map I presented to the Community Board. You'll notice the top right section "USELESS" indicates a roughly 2500 square foot space that is not only empty, but unused by anyone. no one goes there because there's nothing there, it's a dead end, it's not in a crosswalk. It's just a large, dead space in a park. It's an embarrassment to the administration. It's large enough for two or three ping pong tables. All it needs is a barrier -- row of benches, say -- to prevent ping pong balls from running into the basketball courts.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Affordable housing and non profits (video snip)

Here's a very brief snippet from the Occupy AltBank talk on zoning and affordable housing last week posted on facebook by Sumumba Sobukwe, an active member of AltBank and cocreator of Occu-Evolve.

Here again is the presentation in the form of blogposts:

The origins and history of zoning and the Amenities Dilemma

Zoning with a conscience

Contextual zoning and "affordable" housing

Collusion between gov't, developers and non profits: the cooptation of the left

the current mayor's plan

Saturday, February 13, 2016

From the depths of Schopenhauer and Wagner to the surfaces of Nietzsche and Wilde

I'm almost done, and saved best for last. Most terra cotta between 1880 and 1901 was cast in the mold of the British architectural fashion of the 1860's, lots of late Italian Renaissance or Mannerist figures, masks and rinceaux. But not all. Much of the terra cotta reflects a German character. New York had the third largest German speaking population in the world after Vienna and Berlin. The local German-speaking newspaper, the Staats-Zeitung, by 1900 had the widest German-speaking circulation of any newspaper in the world. The Bowery Amphitheater, one of the largest theaters in the country, became the Stadt Theater in the mid 19th century where German opera was performed. German culture was prominent throughout the Lower East Side.

So it should not be surprising to find examples of Teutonic masks on tenement facades


or Teutonic themes out of Wagnerian opera

slide from the presentation to the Chinatown Working Group
It's not clear to me whether Brunhilde and Siegfried have distinctive iconographic markers, but between the above masks over the central doorway there's a third mask who wears the winged helmet of Wotan


so you can be confident that the viewer is intended to understand that these three masks represent the faces of the heroic figures in the Ring Cycle. 
The German-speaking immigrant might well be moved by the stirring music of the opera as he steps onto the stoop, observed by these three. 

But when this building was constructed, the Schopenhauerian-Wagnerian moment in the arts had already given way to its reaction. The appeal to human truth in the depths of tortured psychological motives of a thing-in-itself lurking behind appearances and churning out those appearances, was replaced by an aesthetic movement leaning towards art for art's sake, indifferent to truth, art as a surface, reality itself nothing but surface of views, even depths just a folding of a surface. 

That's unmistakably represented in this ground floor. Notice that the arches do not match the shape of the windows. They are not structural, nor could an arch of that shape support a structure. The surface gives the impression that there is a structural wall behind an ornamental surface, although it's clear that it's all just part of one surface, one artistic intent. The ornaments, entirely non structural, look a bit like a gift wrap over the building -- the little strip of the structural arch is recessed -- it's deeper than the rest of the wall. The intent is quite clear and it's effective, a kind of trompe-l'oeil in red sandstone and terra cotta. The human emotions portrayed in and by the masks themselves represent the play between the humanly real and the unreal artistic characters in a drama. It's a recursive interplay on the surface of art representing the real by art, a mere surface. The whole is a wonderful thing of charm, elevating the driven emotional psychology of Romanticism into the lightness of the aesthetic movement. 

The reaction to aestheticism came from the labor movement and from socialism. And to see why, we'll look at a bank building, one of the greatest and cleverest designed in a decadent aesthetic ideology damned to fall. 

One post script: shortly after I gave this talk, the landlord sandblasted the facade, compromising the entire ground floor. It's ironic that terra cotta, which can last for many thousands of years despite rough weather -- Roman amphoras at the bottom of the sea are still intact, would be ruined in a day by a landlord who has not a clue of the ageless value under his nose. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Personality, humor and taste

A quick post today on the signatures of tenement designers. The Herter Brothers were German-Americans who worked for many Jewish clients although they themselves were not Jewish. Kerri Kulhane, in her superb historic district survey of the Chinatownn & Little Italy, points out that it was often the immigrant landlords who preferred the gauche and splashy ornaments, while Protestant elite landowners like the Astors, avoided it as poor taste beneath them. The Herters not only included terra cotta masks and rinceaux panels, they developed themes so distinctive that anyone can recognize their imaginative hand and eye instantly. We've already seen the Moses
Although the bust of Moses is unique, the image of pharoah appears on Orchard Street tenements as well, and the Star of David and half shells became a frequent element on their buildings. 
Photo: Stefania Zamparelli

60 Bayard St. (1 Elizabeth St.) immediately above holds a particular fascination. The half shells contain horned gremlins with Chinese faces. The Star of David is displayed prominently as well. Bayard Street was a Jewish neighborhood when the building was constructed in 1888, but the Chinese demographic was beginning to grow as well. You'll notice that the brick and terra cotta match. The lintels are red sandstone, and the columns of red granite, also matching. Looking across the street, the terra cotta, the brick and the stone are all of different colors highlighting the different architectural materials, one of the points of the using different materials. 60 Bayard is a kind of clever -- and elegant -- joke: all these different materials, all matching and almost indistinguishable from one another.

The Herters also designed the Eldidge Street Synagogue, all in sand-tinted terra cotta. There it lends a dignity of uniformity. On the tenement, it's wry.

All the buff color tenement's masks are gremlins -- a kind of Walpurgisnacht fantasy with late Renaissance ornament.
Photo: Stefania Zamparelli

Next up, the most sophisticated aesthetic statement from the German community

Thursday, February 11, 2016

And don't believe the know-it-alls

We began this series on tenements with the question, "why are some tenements so ornate?" Why would the tenement owner bother with all that terra cotta? Along with the irrational answers to that question, there's an additional response: terra cotta is a molded ornament, so it lends itself to mass production.

You can see what's going on with this repsonse. One, there's an expression of inside historical, artistic knowledge about terra cotta and how its made. But also there's an attempt to explain away the ornament question by disparaging the tenement-as-art, describing it as cheap, common and unoriginal. Why did the owner bother with ornament? -- because it was no bother. I've even heard these know-it-alls discredit the tenement as not even designed -- the landlord went to the warehouse, ordered a dozen of these, half a dozen of those, and had the construction crew install them over all the windows.

As you probably expect by now, I'm going to bury these self-servers of little knowledge. While it is true that terra cotta can be mass produced, and certainly was for the spectacular, lush and expansive New Law tenements (which no one complains of as mass produced, so easily are we impressed), the Old Law single-lot tenement almost always has at least some distinctive terra cotta piece unique to itself. Sometimes it is all covered with unique pieces. And sometimes still, it is structurally displayed with undeniably complex design. Ecce, demonstrare:


What you see here is a truly bizarre design. The squat columns do not need to be squat. They could have been traditional columns and the arch could have started higher up. It would have been cheaper to have no arch at all, and no interrupting band along its way up, except that would have exposed the cut bricks. The careful thought in this design is everywhere apparent. But that's just the start.

The masks atop the two pilasters are different -- one sports only a mustache, the other a beard. On each floor, there are two masks. No two of them are alike.


The windows alternate between segmental arches and flat ones, and the ground floor has broader segmental arches over bay windows. Way up high, there are terra cotta caryatids -- full body figures, both unlike, one female, one male.


The entire structure forms a columnial rise to an arch at the top, with a rectangular cornice. As you look at the all the elements together you can see that the design plays out as a counterpoint between the rectangular and the arched. You can see it in the entry (vertical pilasters and horizontal bands cutting across the segmental arch) as well as in the choice of rectangular cornice over the arched top floor. Three colors of terra cotta, tinted brick, diverse bands and plaques of terra cotta -- "mass produced" doesn't explain any of this diversity. The caryatids are unique to this building, as are most of the masks. And the squat columns are the proof of design. This tenement was built around the same time as Henry Hardenbergh's prestigious, elegant and fashionable Schermerhorn Building on Lafayette Street, about eight blocks away. The Schermerhorn is also multi-colored, covered with terra cotta. Most distinctive are its columns. They are squat.


The masks are wildly mustachioed, just like our tenement example, and the female face are like too. 



The tenement is of course far more modest. It's constrained by a 25' frontage and no corner to wrap around. But the designer has set out to reconcile those limitations with harmony of forms -- the arch as a unifying, harmonizing principle balanced with the rectangular shape of the building. What he came up with has the feeling of an experiment with all the elements drawn from the most fashionable design of the day. All built for immigrant labor. 

Or take a look at a Herter Brothers building: 
These are all unique masks and panels, not found on any other buildings. But just as the designers added something distinctive to (just about) every building, the Herter Brothers also added elements that identified the building as one of theirs. Those will be the ones repeated in more than one building. These designs were the architects' signatures. When you walk through the Lower East Side, you are looking at the portfolios of Gilded Age architects. 

Prior to the 1880's and the appearance of terra cotta, designs were all alike. After 1901 and the emergence of the City Beautiful Movement, design was ruled by Parisian models and architects who studied in Paris. It's only between around 1880 and 1900 that we see this efflorescence of originality in the streets, this display of personality and diversity and originality. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Don't trust historians

Here's an easy quiz. You'll find the cornice bust below on Broome Street. It was built in the 1890's when the neighborhood was largely Jewish and Italian. It's the largest bust on the Lower East Side. Who is this man with the flowing beard?


If you need a hint, notice the stars of David:


Well that was easy. Obviously, it's Moses. But why is it obvious? It isn't to historians, because...they're historians.

When you first see this from the street, you immediately recognize Moses, but maybe you wonder, what's he doing there? Was this a religious building? What's the back story? When you get home you google up the address and look for clues. You access the social historians, the preservationists, the architectural historians. They all concur. There's no evidence that this is Moses. Usually it's "The bust may be a representation of Moses, but we cannot confirm." "We don't know for sure who is represented." "It may be Moses or it could be Abraham."

You turn from your computer thinking, if the authorities don't know who it is, then it must be quite a mystery. I thought it was Moses, but now who knows? This is where professionalism misleads. If there's no documentation, the historian can't commit to speculation. That's what historians are for. Reliable research. But notice, research does not equal truth. It's just one means to it, and not always the most reliable.

So first, let's settle the facts. It's Moses. How can you tell? Because it doesn't say "Moses" on it. Because it's obviously Moses, and anyone placing a bust of Moses would know that everyone seeing it would recognize it as Moses without a name.

But what if it wasn't Moses? Well, consider if it was the landlord's cousin Seymour. You can be damned sure that Seymour's name "SEYMOUR" would be up there because Seymour and his whole landlord family would know that if "SEYMOUR" weren't up there, everyone looking at the bust would mistake it for Moses.

So the fact that there's no record of it not only doesn't cast doubt on Moses' identity, it substantiates that the bust is Moses. The absence of record is the evidence.

But what about Abraham? Couldn't it just as well be Abraham?

No way. When you think of Moses, what image do you see? Wise-looking, dynamic old man w/flowing beard. There's a ton of iconography for Moses and it's all wise, dynamic old man w/flowing beard. This is not Charlton Heston's invention or Cecil B. DeMille's. It's all over the Renaissance, and the most famous, Michelangelo's, has the same sideward glance as 375 Broome.




Now, when you think of Abraham's face, what image do you see? Um, nothing. There's no facial iconography for Abraham and for good reason.

Abraham's mythic, not heroic. Everything about him is beyond the human and not even quite humane. He's somewhere beyond the human scale. His faith is an ideal aspiration, not a graspable possession. No father wants to be Abraham, and you can be damn sure no son wants Abraham as a father.

Compare Moses. He abjures his privilege, power and wealth in the establishment culture to go seek out his Jewish roots (every assimilated Jew will resonate with this one), returns as defender of his people to speak truth to power and lead his people in victory. And he's human -- he stutters, makes mistakes, and pays for it by never seeing the land he brought his people to. What a story! Who doesn't love Moses? Who doesn't want to be just like him? He's the rock star of the Old Testament, and the moral, humane center of it. The only hero comes close is Esther. David is cool, but what a mess that man is. Nope, Moses is the model.

It's worth reflecting that it actually wouldn't matter if the landlord wanted it to look like Seymour. It wouldn't matter if the artist used his brother Irving instead of Seymour as a model. It wouldn't matter if, after it was unveiled, the four of them bickered over who it really was. What matters is that the bust had no name, so it was given to the viewer in this culture to decide, and that's going to be Moses. There are multiple truths. The answers you find depend on the questions you ask. The question, "Who is it really?" hides a bunch of assumptions that research alone can't tease out.

So there he is, high above Broome Street, still looking over his people, though they've long since gone astray. Under the bust there's a mask of another old man. It appears in several Herter brothers buildings (375 was designed also by the Herter brothers -- non Jewish Germans who built many tenements and the Eldridge Street Synogogue for Jewish clients). Whomever it represents in the other buildings, here it fits right in with the iconography above it


Now tell me that man isn't your angry pharaoh dad who totally disapproves but's got to give you grudging respect. You win Moses.

Next up, don't believe the know-it-alls.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Don't believe what you read

A few years back, Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, one of the city's preeminent preservationist organizations, drew up a letter boasting the extraordinary historical buildings in the East Village, based on the results of a $13,000 research grant. Prominently mentioned in the letter is this little building, 165 Avenue B:


described as "an 1890 Katz building." Why 1890? Because


See? It says "1890" right there! Impressive research, well worth $13,000, I say. 

Well. Anyone who knows anything about tenements -- which apparently is no one, given that the preeminent authority on preservation doesn't (and this is one of the reasons for this series -- to educate, thank you very much) -- would easily recognize that that little building 165 --


predates the others on the block and was built prior to the 1860's. Compare the 1860's
with the pre 1860's


I've chosen a townhouse because, remember, architectural style does not respect class, only purpose. 

You don't have to rely on the external form, by the way. The internal principles coordinate perfectly with the external ones. Looking at a googlemap overhead, you can see that the original structure was extremely shallow


But what's the thing at the back of the building? And how do you know that that wasn't part of the original building? 

If you've been looking at these overheads for a while, you know a late extension when you see one. It's just a matter of corroborating it. If you've been reading this series, you already have recognized that the shallow rectangle looks just like the oldest of the footprints (that's #1 and #2 below)
So let's look at old real estate maps, now that we know what to look for. You can find these on line at the NYPL, among other sources easily googled. Notice first that a shallow structure had been built at 165 by 1853


at a time when almost the entire block had been developed.


Recall that the city in the 1880's saw a huge increase in immigrant labor spurring a development craze of Old Law 6-story tenements built deep into the lot. By 1897 most of the buildings on this street had been redeveloped into Old Law Tenements, and by 1911 -- ten years past the New Law -- all of them had been with the exception of 165 and the corner lot which, because it could be built over the entire lot and not need a large courtyard carve out of it. You'll notice also that the Old Law tenements are built further out to the street, leaving 165 a little recessed. 

Deeply built Old Laws surrounding 165, and the New Law on the corner by 1911.
In other words, this block was being redeveloped in the tenement boom of the 1880's-90's. 165 was the last remaining pre-law tenement on the block, when in 1901 the New Law cut off all redevelopment for midblock single lots. The corner lot went on to become a New Law Tenement, the landlord buying the lot next door to maximize his rental space. 

165 missed its chance for redevelopment. It's still here today. Preservation of small lots was one of the unintended consequences of the New Law. By 1916, the landlord made the best of a poor lot by extending the rear still complying with the New Law courtyard requirements. 


The coloring, which you can clearly see was done by hand, covers the recess. The recess is represented by the line where the width footage number lies. Now take another look at the googlemap overhead. Can you see the recess?


If not, then look at the front again. The space that the drainpipe occupies is that little recess. 


But wait, wait, wait just a minute! The cornice says "1890," damnit. 

When I gave this talk at the Janina, this old guy -- must have been 90 if he was a day -- in the front with a big smile and a guffaw said, "The cornice is from 1890!" 

Jacob Riis, in his classic How the Other Half Lives, written in 1890 (!) mentions this towards the end of the book. 
The practical question is what to do with the tenement. I watched a Mott Street landlord, the owner of a row of barracks that have made no end of trouble for the health authorities for twenty years, solve that question for himself the other day. His way was to give the wretched pile a coat of paint, and put a gorgeous tin cornice on with the year 1890 in letters a yard long....That was a landlord's way, and will not get us out of the mire.
Replace "Mott Street" with "Avenue B" and you've got the story of 165. Most likely the landlord bought the building that year. His cornice may have persuaded prospective tenants that the building was new, or it may have been a convenient means, along with a small bribe, for the buildings inspector to overlook any violations and record the building as newly built and therefore compliant with the law -- the cornice covered him in case anyone asked.

Apparently $13,000 is not enough to pay for a reading of a classic that is online for free. All the important preservation organizations, btw, signed on to this letter which then went to the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission. If they ever bother to investigate the building for landmark designation, I'm sure they'll be lenient with GVSHP -- after all, anyone can make a mistake. But what will they think about the rest of their claims? At least the mistake was in the right direction. LPC will be pleasantly surprised that the "1890 Katz" building, although neither 1890 nor built by Katz, is in fact one of the oldest tenements in the neighborhood.

This kind of mistake is all too common in the understanding of tenements. The city's documentation doesn't record construction dates prior to around 1910. If you look up the PLUTO (Primary Land Use Tax Lot Output) data or map, you'd think that the entire Lower East Side and East Village were all built in the year 1900. It doesn't take more than a moment's thought to figure out that they haven't transferred the construction data from the Municipal Records into digital form. "1900" is a default indicating "sometime prior to 1900." Why PLUTO doesn't say that explicitly is a matter people should take up with them. A few years ago, they had the grace to add the letters "est" (estimated). But that's yet another misrepresentation (not to say "lie"). They've made no estimate of say, this building was built prior to 1830, compared with another built around the 1880's or 90's. This is a default value, not an estimate. Arrgh.

One last anecdote. I once pointed out to the GVSHP director that 1st Avenue was older than most of the rest of the East Village -- most of the buildings were already standing during the Civil War. He responded that he thought I'd overestimated the age of the buildings. Now you know where he got his information. Not from looking at the buildings.

So: don't believe everything you read, whether it's a city document or a cornice. You need knowledge first before reading, since documents lie for all sorts of reasons. Who wrote the document and for what purpose? What were the tacit assumptions under which the document was made? What were the biases? Knowledge is an integral acquisition through experience of all aspects of human activity. Which leads us to the next piece.

Next up, don't believe historians either. 

Monday, February 08, 2016

New Law, Old Law, Pre-Old Law, Lawless

Tenement styles coincidentally coordinate with housing laws. Prior to any housing law, tenements were built like townhouses but a bit taller -- shallow, not deep into the lot, and plain on the face except for minimal Greek lintels (eyebrows over the windows).
Around the 1867 law that required windows in every room, tenements began to be built a bit deeper into the lot, always five stories (at least on the Lower East Side -- Brooklyn tenements of the same period are often only four stories, a not surprising indication of lesser housing demand). The Greek motifs were traded for "Italianate" ones -- arched instead of horizontal lintels, otherwise still plain unornamented facades.  (#4 below)


The 1867 law was universally unpopular. The landlords cut windows into every internal room, but facing the interior hallway-stairwell, so no fresh air or natural light came in through them. They merely robbed the immigrant tenant of privacy. The law was a burden to the landlord and a disservice to the tenant. Nevertheless, it took the city gov't twelve years to improve the law. (Compare the one year that the city took to fix the shadow problem for the real estate industry between 1915 and 1916.)

The 1879 Tenement House Act (now called the Old Law) required windows facing fresh air and natural light. A trade journal, Sanitary Engineer, hosted a competition for the best design. The winner's design conceded the least to the law, the most rentable space to the landlord, and allowed the footprint of the building to extend into any lot without bound. It was the dumbbell tenement, named for its distinctive footprint which allows minimal light and fresh air all along its side abutting the adjacent building. The dumbbell tenement appeared on the scene coincident with the sudden rage for terra cotta, making it easy to identify them. If you have any doubt, you can always look at the footprint from google maps.

The dumbbell had literally fatal flaws. In a fire, the airshaft acted as a flue spreading fire to the upper floors and to the adjacent building. Even worse, the airshaft was dug down to the foundation with no convenient egress. It was not designed for garbage removal. If any garbage accrued, the tenants assumed that garbage was its purpose -- people usually learn from example, and who would educate them otherwise? The result was an unsanitary nightmare. Parts of the immigrant ghetto were virtually quarantined, they were so unhealthy.

Again, it took the city decades to fix. During a progressive age of good gov't -- a moment when the elite Republicans recognized that they couldn't regain political control over a majority labor city without serving labor better than the Democrats -- a New Tenement House Act not only fixed the problem but also changed the face of the streetscape with several unintended consequences. The New Law required that each building have a large courtyard for garbage storage and removal. This yard had to be so large that single-lot landlords couldn't redevelop their buildings without losing space. In effect, the New Law forced the preservation of single-lot buildings throughout the city. The exceptions was the corner lot, which can be built more deeply into the lot and which benefits more from the open interior of the block to allow window access.
If you look at the streets of the East Village or Lower East Side, you'll often see rows of five story buildings between spectacular corner buildings, six stories tall, like bookends.

The five story buildings were probably all owned by different owners who couldn't redevelop because of the New Law courtyard requirement. If you go to Washington Heights, what you first notice in the neighborhood is the scale of the buildings, much more expansive than the LES. Washington Heights was built after the New Law. 

Next up, don't believe what you read.