New York Tenement Life In The 30's and 40's

The Tenement As History And Housing
by Ruth Limmer and Andrew S. Dolkart

The bulge of Manhattan now known as the Lower East Side was originally farm land. When it began to be developed for residences late in the 18th century, no law governed street layout. (That was not to happen until 1811.) If separate grids, with streets going in different directions, were conjoined, so be it.

Each block was further divided into individual lots, typically 25 feet wide by 100 feet deep, that were then sold or leased to owners or developers who generally erected single-family row houses on them.

They were fine, almost generous, so long as the City was of medium size and its residents lived in row houses. But soon enough a swift influx of population required not single-family houses but multiple dwellings. Now, on the lot which had been designed for a single row houses, a building inhabited by 20 or more families rose five, even six, stories high.

The Lower East Side
The area surrounding the Tenement Museum was built up - primarily with masonry row houses - early in the 19th century. Most of the land had been owned by just two people: Hendrick Rutgers held the property south of what is now Division Street; James Delancey (or de Lancey) owned the land to the north. Here too, when the district was laid out, two non-aligning grids abutted each other, with the Rutgers' land having long streets running generally east/west and the Delancey property's long streets running north/south.

In the 1840's and 1950's, just as more and more of the original dwellers on the Rutgers and Delancey lands moved fashionably north with other affluent New Yorkers, immigrants began to flow into the City. In the decade of the 1840's, the population of the City increased by more than 60 percent, from 312,710 to 515,547; the following decade brought the population up to 813,669, an additional 58 percent.

The newcomers were largely Irish (forced to emigrate because of the Great Famine) and German (many of whom left following the Revolution of 1848). Both groups settled on the Rutgers/Delancey grids, with the Germans centering themselves in the area north of Division Street and east of the Bowery (including Orchard Street) in what became known as Kleindeutschland ("Little Germany"), where they moved into housing built as multiple dwellings or converted from row houses.

By 1843, the Association for Improving the Conditions of the Poor described these multiple dwellings - these early tenements - as "generally defective in size, arrangement, supplies of water, warmth, and ventilation; also the yards, sinks, and sewage are in bad conditions."

And so they remained.

Overcrowding On The Lower East Side
The tenement at 97 Orchard Street was competed in 1864, the same year in which Sherman marched through Georgia, Tolstoy began "War and Peace," Pasteur invented what came to be called pasteurization, and a heroine named Octavia Hill took on the long battle to reform the conditions of the tenements of London.

In New York City, a similar reform enterprise began. It was led by an association of reformers who established an activist Council of Hygiene and Public Health. The Council took a survey, whose results shook the City. Among its findings was that 495,592 people - possibly more than half the entire population of the City - lived in tenements. On the Lower East Side, the numbers worked out to 240,000 people to the square mile. The Council reported:

"It is only because this rate of packing is somewhat diminished by intervening warehouses, factories, private dwellings, and other classes of buildings that the entire tenement-house population is not devastated by the domestic pestilences and infectious epidemics that arise from overcrowding and uncleanness...Such concentration and packing of a population has probably never been equaled in any city as may be found in particular localities in New York."

97 Orchard Street
No. 97 - five short stories with basement, and designed to house 20 families - was one of three adjoining tenements erected on the site of the former Orchard Street Church. Lucas Glockner was its builder and owner. An immigrant tailor who lived on St. Mark's Place before moving into his completed Orchard Street building - a structure valued at $8000 - Glockner went on to erect or purchase other tenements, four of which remained in the Glockner estate until early in this century.

Although the architect of #97 and its twin at #99 is unknown, many of the men who designed tenements either had been trained as builders or had studied architecture in Europe prior to emigrating to America. Here they either chose to work for fellow immigrants or were forced to enter the American market at a low end of the design scale.

The unknown architect designed a facade that was a simplified version of the Halianate style. As commonly applied to tenements in the 1860's, the facade was a trickle-down version, in brick, of the brownstone Italianate facades of the row houses and mansions popular with the City's wealthier families.

Within #97, its 20 three-room apartments, typical of their kinds, were arranged four to a floor, two in front and two in the rear. They were reached by an unlighted, ventilated wooden staircase that ran through the center of the building. The largest room (11' x 12'6") was referred to an plans as the living room or parlor, but residents called it the "front room." Behind it came the kitchen and one tiny bedroom. The entire flat, which often contained households of seven or more people, totaled about 325 square feet.

Only one room per apartment - the "front room" - received direct light and ventilation, limited by the tenements that would soon hem it in. The standard bedroom, 8'6" square, would have been completely shut off from both fresh air and natural light, but at #97, the bedroom had casement windows, opening onto the hall, that appear to be part of the original construction.

There was, of course, no toilet, no shower, no bath; not is there any indication that water was available within the apartments, although water from the Croton aqueduct had begun to flow into the City by the early 1840's. The building's privies, located in the rear yard, might or might not have been connected to the sewer pipes running beneath Orchard Street.

Heat, on the other hand, was available. Each kitchen had a fireplace, which could have burned either coal or wood; gas, which was available in the Tenth Ward by the time #97 was built, was not piped in until some time after construction was completed. Cooking stoves, which tenants had to purchase on their own, would have burned coal in any case and may have been the source of heat.

Garbage was disposed of in boxes set in front of the house. A particularly lurid description of what some garbage boxes contained was printed in the New York Tribune in 1863:

"composed of potato-peelings, oyster-shells, night-soil, rancid butter, dead dogs and cats, and ordinary black street mud, (the garbage boxes formed) one festering, rotting, loathsome, hellish mass of air poisoning, death- breeding filth, reeking in the fierce sunshine, which gloats yellowly over it like the glare of a devil whom Satan has kicked from his councils in virtuous disgust."

While true, at least emotionally, it is open to debate whether conditions were quite so awful in front of #97. After all, its owner chose to live within.

"Old Law" Of 1867
Three years after #97 went up, the first of the tenement laws (called the "Old Law") was enacted. Among its requirements were the provision that one toilet (or Privy) be provided for every 20 people; that privies by connected to sewers where these were available; that interior bedrooms be provided with a 3-foot square transom over the door.

Did Glockner make these improvements? We can assume, from the casement windows mentioned above, that he didn't need to construct transoms. But we don't know whether the privies were already connected to the sewer lines. What we do know is that on just 5 1/4 blocks of Orchard Street located within the Tenth Ward, at least 34 tenements were erected between 1866 and 1873. Inevitably, even if the State was concerned about enforcing its housing act - there is no indication it was - inspectors would have been hard pressed to do so.

No. 97 was not affected by the next round of tenement laws enacted in 1879. Only tenements built after that date had to meet its requirements: that all rooms have access to air. Since inner rooms had no way of facing the street or back yard, the law effectively required windows opening on air shafts. The result was the "dumbbell" tenements, so named because the indentations of the air shaft created a building footprint that resembles the shape of a dumbbell weight.

The same law (amended in 1888 and 1889) required the replacement of backyard privies with "school sinks" - so named because they were first used in public in schools. The term describes sewer-connected privies with "an ostensible means of flushing." It isn't known when they were installed at #97, possibly in the 1890's.

In any event, we know from a survey in 1902 that #97 had six school sinks at the southwest corner of the backyard. They would have followed the standard model: with individual wooden seats, usually 18" high, affixed within wooden compartments that measured 2'6" wide by 3'9" deep. Each compartment would have had a door with some sort of slit or hole for light and ventilation, and the doors were supposed to be locked, with tenants retaining the key to a single compartment.

In 1903 a civil engineer, after specifying how these school sinks might be built, noted that janitors, who were to flush the sinks each day with water piped into the trough, didn't customarily do so. The job, he wrote, "is a disagreeable and foul one and the stench excessive."

Legislation With Teeth
The legislation that was to have the greatest impact on the physical character of #97 was the Tenement House Act of 1901. The result of rapidly deteriorating conditions and the alarm that they bred among middle-class reformers, the Act basically outlawed the construction of new tenements on 25-foot wide lots, required improved sanitary arrangements and access to light, and mandated changes in pre-existing tenements.

Owners of Old Law tenements, and of pre-Law tenements like #97, feared the changes would increase their expenses and lower their rent rolls, and they were vociferous in opposing some of them. Where the improvements did not require major structural change they reluctantly went along. Thus, where a public hall on any floor was so dim that a person couldn't read without the aid of artificial light, they inserted translucent glass panels into the wooden doors of apartments or cut a sash window into the partition wall between the hall and a room that looked out onto the street, the backyard, or the air shaft.

Additionally, to provide illumination from sunset to 10 pm, owners were required to install a light near the stair on both the entrance and second floors, and they had to provide a ventilating skylight directly over the stair. The latter was not installed at #97 until after the survey in July 1902.

As for the dark interior rooms of pre-Law tenements, these were now required to have a window - at least 3' X 5' and operable - cut into the partition that separated them from rooms whose windows faced the outdoors. But only a single interior room was to be so altered. The second inner room - the bedroom in each apartment in #97 - became illegal unless an air shaft was built for ventilation.

This provision of the law meant not only significant structural alterations, but the loss of rentable space because the shaft would have to be cut into the square footage of each apartment. Opposition was overwhelming. In 1903, the provision was dropped in favor of a partition-window, and that is what #97 has - windows in all the partition walls.

Still more important to tenement dwellers was the provision that all school sinks and privies "be completely removed...[and] replaced by individual water closets...properly sewer connected." Not only were the tenants of #97 to get real, flushable toilets in a separate compartment but also one toilet was to be provided for every two families. Despite the fierce opposition by owners, this provision stood and was even strengthened in a later amendment: now each compartment had to have a window opening directly to the outer air.

Another uproar came from the landlords.

This time the government refused to knuckle under to the opposition, so tenement owners settled for noncompliance. Noncompliance led to a court case in which the defense asserted, among other things, that the law violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. It was now the United Real Estate Owners' Association against the City (specifically the Tenement House Department of the City of New York versus one owner, Katie Moeschen). The jury trial found for the City, and so did every jurisdiction of appeal, up to and including the US Supreme Court in 1906. Owners who did not begin to install toilets in 1904, when the State courts rendered a verdict, now had no additional space in which to maneuver.

The owner of #97 - no longer Glockner, as he sold in 1886 - faced up to inevitability in 1905. He had two gas-lit water closets constructed on each floor in space that had previously been part of the inner bedrooms of the apartments along the south side of the building. Two fireproof air shafts were cut, and because the toilets and shaft combined to make the bedrooms uninhabitable, the partition walls of the south-side apartments were shifted to form smaller three-room apartments.

This renovation was undertaken by Otto Reissmann, an architect specializing in tenement alterations (he did ten on Orchard Street between 1904 and 1908). He also added new fronts for the commercial establishments on the first floor of #97 by removing the front wall and constructing the storefronts we see today, which rest on the older storefronts at the basement level.

No law required the installation of electricity, and #97 was not wired until some time after 1918. From then until it became a museum in 1988, no further changes were made.

NO. 97 Today
In finding #97, The Tenement Museum located the perfect building in which to reveal the history of tenement life on the Lower East Side. A pre-Law building, sealed from change since 1935, it stands as a monument to America's urban poor, to the architects and owners who designed and built their housing, and to the reformers who fought to improve it. Today, save for the basement and first floor, renovated to greater and lesser degrees for Museum purposes, 97 Orchard Street is as authentic as a tenement can get, right down to impossibly cramped but still useable water closet in the hall next to the exhibition space. Be our guest.