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nent Ibouse IReform 


, 1834=1900 


'be ^Tenement IDouse Commission 

of 1000 

%awrence IDeillcr, Secretary 



T . 

tCenement Ibouse IReform 


;, I834=t900 

IPceparcJ) for 

tenement Ibouse Commission 
of 1900 

Xawrcnce IDeillcr, Secretary 

NEW YORK, 1834-1900. 


The Tenement House Commission of 1900 








The First Legislative Commission 1856 8 

Neglect and Greed tlie Eeal Cause of Bad Conditions 10 

Licensing of Tenement Houses Urged 12 

The Movement of 1864 Council of Hygiene 14 

The First Tenement House Law 1867 17 

The Movement of 1879 Mr. White's Model Tenements 21 

The New Tenement House Law 1879 25 

The Tenement House Competition 1879 The "Dumb-Bell" 

Plan 26 

The Second Legislative Commission 1884 28 

The Law Amended in 1887 31 

The Work of Jacob A. Eiis 31 

The Third Legislative Commission 1894 32 

The Tenement House Act of 1895 35 

The Model Tenement Competition of 1896 The City & Suburban 

Homes Company 36 

The Movement of 1899 Charity Organization Society 38 

The Tenement House Exhibition of 1900 41 

Poverty and Disease 44 

The Model Tenement Competition of 1900 46 



MAY 8, 1900. 
Mr. ROBERT W. de FOREST, Chairman, 

Tenement House Commission. 

DEAR SIR, In accordance with the resolution of the 
Tenement House Commission, of April 26th, I beg to 
transmit herewith a history of the movement for tene- 
ment house reform in New York. 

Respectfully submitted, 


Tenement House Commission. 


The movement for housing reform in New York dates 
back as far as 1834, when Gerrett Forbes, the City In- 
spector of the Board of Health, in his annual report giving 
the record of burials or deaths, called attention to the con- 
dition of the tenement houses at that time. 

The first attempt, however, to give any comprehensive 
idea of the condition of the dwellings of the poorer classes 
in New York City was not made until 1842, when Dr. 
John H. Griscom, the City Inspector of the Board of 
Health, called attention to the existing conditions.] 
Prior to this time, the City Inspector had contented him- 
self with simply reporting the various statistics available 
as to the number of deaths occurring during the year, their 
causes, and the ages of the people among whom the deaths 
occurred, with a few brief remarks explanatory of the 
statistics. Dr. Griscom, however, in addition to this 
formal report submitted a pamphlet of eighteen printed 
pages entitled " A Brief View of the Sanitary Condition 
of the City." In it he calls attention to the great increase 
of population in the city in 1810 and again in 1838, by a 
horde of ignorant immigrants who arrived here generally 
penniless, and who brought with them disease and misery. 
To this sudden increase of the city's population and the 
subsequent herding of these people in large numbers in 
the poorer quarters of the city was largely due the 
beginning of bad housing conditions in New York. 

Dr. Griscom's report dwells upon the crowded condition, 
and the insufficient ventilation of a great number of the 
dwellings in the city, also the fact that a large part of the 
population lived in cellars and basements, and in courts 
and alleys, he pointing out that there were then 1,459 cel- 
lars being used as places of residence by 7,196 persons, and 

that there were as many as 6,618 different families living 
in courts or rear buildings. The grave moral evils resulting 
from the indiscriminate mingling of the sexes in the same 
room are dwelt upon, as well as the fact that the causes 
of uncleanliness, poverty and sickness were not so much 
to be found in the " innate depravity " of the people as in 
the environment in which they were compelled to live. 

He urged that the City Legislature should prohibit the 
use of cellars as dwellings, and that the owner or lessee of 
every tenement house should be required to keep the out- 
door and indoor premises free and clean from everything 
likely to prove injurious to health, and that an immediate 
stop should be put to the practice of crowding so many 
human beings in such limited spaces, arguing that if 
there were any propriety in the law requiring ocean 
vessels to carry only , a certain number of people, there 
was equal propriety in requiring that only a certain num- 
ber of persons should occupy houses of this kind; and 
that, if a law regulating the construction of buildings 
in reference to fire was justifiable, one respecting the pro- 
tection of the inmates from the influences of badly 
arranged houses and apartments should be enacted. 

In 1846 the Association for Improving the Condition of 
the Poor, a charitable society organized in 1843, took up 
the question of the housing of the poor people of the city, 
maintaining that bad housing was the main cause of most 
of the poverty and sickness that existed. 

In 1853 they appointed a special committee " to inquire 
into the sanitary condition of the laboring classes, and the 
practicability of devising measures for .the comfort and 
healthfulness of their habitations." This Committee rend- 
ered a report of thirty-two printed pages in the fall of 
1853, which was published in the annual report of the 
Association for that year. The state of affairs disclosed 
by their investigations was one which called for prompt 
and effective remedies, and its effect on the public mind 
should have been great, for it brought to light the gravest 
social evils. 

The Committee, after making an examination of most 
of the tenement houses in all the different wards of the 
city, came to the conclusion that "the dwellings of the 
industrious class in New York were not adapted to the 
wants of human beings nor compatible with the health or 
social or moral improvement of the occupants." 

Among the evils which, in their opinion, were respon- 
sible for the prevalence of bad conditions were the fol- 

1. The crowded condition of the dwellings in which the 
poor were compelled to live. 

2. Too great density of population in certain districts. 

3. Neglect of ventilation a prevailing cause of ill- 

Nothing contained in the report of this Committee is of 
greater value than the demonstration of the principle that 
" the number of persons on a given area of soil cannot be 
increased beyond a certain limit without endangering 

Considerable attention was paid to underground dwel- 
lings by the Committee, it being pointed out that in 1850 
there were 18,456 persons crowded together in 3,742 
cellars, which " were always damp, badly ventilated, 
generally filthy, and beds of pestilence and disease." As a 
remedy for all these evils the Committee recommended 
that capitalists and owners of real estate should build 
model tenements; and also called attention to the necessity 
for legislative intervention, stating that "these crying 
evils cannot be remedied or essentially diminished with- 
out special legislative action. Pure air, light and water 
being indispensable to health and life, if tenements are so 
badly constructed as to preclude a proper supply of these 
essential elements, the law should interpose for the pro- 
tection of the sufferers, and either close up such dwellings 
or cause them to be so remodeled as to be fit for human 

In the following year the Association for Improving the 
Condition of the Poor made a sociological study of tene- 


ment conditions in the Eleventh Ward of the city, report- 
ing the number of inhabitants, the number of families, 
and the number of houses occupied by one, five, ten and 
twenty families respectively, also the distribution of 
nationality at that time. 

In the following year they organized a company to 
build a model tenement known as the " Workmen's Home 
Association" This Company erected a large building in 
Mott street, which unfortunately was not "model," in 
many respects, and later became one of the worst tene- 
ment houses the city has ever seen. 


One result of the disclosures made by this Association 
in 1853 was the appointment by the State Legislature in 
1856 of a committee of their own members " to make an 
examination of the manner in which tenant houses are 
constructed in the City of New York, and report the same 
to the Legislature, and also what legislation, if any, is 
requisite and necessary in order to remedy the evils and 
offer full protection to the lives and health of the 
occupants of such buildings."; This Committee, con- 
sisting of five members of the Assembly, Mr. A. J. H. 
Duganne, John M. Reed, Eli Curtis, William J. Shea and 
Samuel Brevoort, visited New York City on March 14th 
and again on March 25th of that year, spending altogether 
seven days in a personal inspection of some of the best 
known tenant houses in the city. 

In their report to the Legislature made on April 4, 
1856, they stated that in the brief time allowed them for the 
investigation they had been able to do no more than glance 
at evils of such magnitude as to imperatively demand a 
thorough and searching scrutiny, and asked that their 
Committee be continued throughout the summer so that 
they might make a more thorough examination of the evils 
disclosed by their brief investigation, stating that the ex- 
amination they had made had convinced them that the 
evils to be remedied were of a serious nature requiring the 

attention of the State Legislature, and demanding such 
action at the hands of the Assembly as would secure their 
ultimate removal. They further stated that *' partial re- 
turns rnnde up hurriedly by the captains of the police for the 
use of the Committee show that in twenty-two districts 
there are over 1,200 tenement houses of the very lowest de- 
scription occupied by no less than ten families each. In 
some of these, as many as YO different families reside, and 
into a few over 100 families are crowded. In one building, 
112 families are residing, some of them numbering Sand 10 
members, occupying one close unventilated apartment, and 
others huddle indiscriminately in damp foul cellars, to 
breath the air of which is to inhale disease. Here, in its very 
worst aspect are to be seen the horrors of such a mode of 
living. Here are to be found drunken and diseased men 
and women lying in the midst of their impurity and filth; 
idiotic and crippled children suffering from neglect and 
ill treatment, girls just springing into womanhood living 
indiscriminately in the same apartment with men of all 
ages and of all colors; babes left so destitute of care and 
nourishment as to be fitted only for a jail or hospital in 
after years if they escape the blessing of an early grave." 
In many localities the Committee found many of the 
apartments so destitute even of light as to render it an 
impossibility to read a newspaper, even though at noon 
time. TPurther, "in the houses visited by the Committee 
sights were presented to them alike startling and pain- 
ful to behold. Young faces haggard with want and sick- 
ness and bearing that peculiar look of premature old age 
imparted by early sin gazed at them from every corner; 
misery and vice in their most repulsive features met them 
at every step. Scarcely an apartment was ftee from sick- 
ness and disease, and the blighting curse of drunkenness 
had fallen upon almost every family. Here and there 
might be found, it is true, some attempt at cleanliness, 
some display of a love of home, some evidences of indus- 
try and sobriety with their natural accompaniments of 
cheerfulness and good health," "But these," the Com- 


mittee say, "in some instances were families that had not 
long been inhabitants of the neighborhood in which they 
lived, the demoralization and ruin apparent all around 
had not had time to do their work on them. It is to be 
feared the miasmal air will creep into their existence un- 
dermining the sturdy constitutions and prostrating its 
victims on a bed of sickness; health failing them, want 
will follow, and then must come crowding rapidly upon 
them neglect of home, neglect of children, uncleanliness, 
drunkenness and crime." / 



The Committee says: " This .is no fancy sketch, no 
picture of the imagination. It is a stern reality, enacted 
every day amid luxury and wealth, the natural and fear- 
ful result of the rapacity of the landlord in every crowded 
city unrestrained by conscience, and wholly unchecked by 

(These words, written forty-four years ago, sum up the 
causes of all our bad conditions in New York City to-day. 
The overcrowding, the poverty, the disease, the crime and 
vice, met with in New York in 1900, products of our tene- 
ment house system, have not come to us because of the 
narrow shape of Manhattan Island or of the lack of rapid 
transit^as has been claimed by superficial students of the 
subject for many years, [but because of the primary neg- 
lect of the habitations of the poor of this city at a period 
when they could have been cared for in time7\ 

Had the Committee done nothing else beyond making 
this statement of the conditions of that time, our debt to 
them would have been very great. 

After setting forth in most striking language the con- 
ditions found by them in their very brief inspection of the 
tenant houses of New York City, and urging upon the 
Legislature the importance of continuing the work 
throughout the summer, so that a proper and well-consid- 


ered plan of reform might be matured, the Committee 
pointed out that " to the wretched condition of the poor of 
New York can he traced an enormous proportion of the 
hurdens imposed upon the property holders of the city, 
and upon the State at large, for the support of paupers and 
criminals. From the foul atmosphere of the tenement 
houses spring the infectious diseases that so frequently 
spread through the city, sweeping away their thousands 
of victims, and not confining their depreciations to the 
class in which they originate, but penetrating into the lo- 
calities occupied by the wealthy, and rendering desolate 
many a household. Hundreds upon hundreds of paupers 
pour into the hospitals stricken by disease contracted in 
those hot-beds of pestilence, the tenement houses, and 
from them drunkenness mainly receives its victims, for 
what will sooner drive a man to the intoxicating cup than 
the absence of all attraction and all comforts from his 
home?" " It is no idle assertion to say that a reform by 
which the condition of the homes of the poor could be im- 
proved would remove a large proportion of the criminals 
from our prisons and the paupers from our almshouses/' 
The practical results which the Committee hoped to 
secure through legislative action, and to which they stated 
their inquiries would be directed through the summer, 

1. Ventilation and cleanliness in tenement houses so 
that the public heatth might be protected, the spread of 
infectious diseases checked, and the expenses of the public 
hospitals and almshouses decreased. 

2. An enactment against the renting of underground 
apartments or cellars as tenements. 

3. Eegulations as to the building of halls and stairways 
in houses occupied by more than three families, so as to 
insure easy egress in case of fire. 

4. The prevention of prostitution and incest, by pro- 
viding that only a sufficient number of rooms, or a room 
properly divided into separate apartments, should be 
rented to families; and by prohibiting subletting. 


5. The prevention of drunkenness by providing to every 
man a clean and comfortable home. 

It is extremely instructive to find that the Committee 
had become so interested in the tenement house question, 
that, notwithstanding the failure of the Legislature to 
continue their work throughout the summer, the members 
of the Committee, of their own accord, upon their own 
responsibility and at their own personal expense, decided 
to continue this work, rendering to the next Legislature, 
in March, 1857, their report and conclusions. This docu- 
ment constitutes the report of the first legislative commis- 
sion of inquiry on this subject in America. Nothing that 
has been written since that time has been of greater value, 
nor have any later investigations of a similar kind been 
more efficient, nor have they developed much further in- 
formation or knowledge, on the whole, upon this subject. 


If space allowed me I would quote at great length 
from this document because the conclusions reached by 
the Commission are so sound, the descriptions of the con- 
ditions they discovered are so able, and the whole paper 
couched in language that is not only forcible but convinc- 
ing. Accompanying their report, they submitted to the 
Legislature a bill entitled " An Act to Improve the Condi- 
tion of the Laboring Poor Residing in Tenant Houses in 
the City of New York, to Establish a Board of Home 
Commissioners in said City, and for other Purposes." 
The bill provided for a Board of Commissioners to consist 
of three citizens of New York who " should have power 
at any time between sunrise and sunset to visit, or cause 
to be visited, any tenant house ordinarily used as a com- 
mon dwelling or lodging for three or more families tran- 
siently occupying the same; and also to have power to 
enter and inspect, and properly examine all rooms, courts, 
alleys, yards and cellars used for such transient tenancy 
as aforesaid." If in the opinion of such Board, or any 
two of the Commissioners, after personal inspection, any 


such tenant house, rooms or premises was found to he un- 
fit for the purpose of residence by reason of dampness, 
darkness, dirt, filthiness or too low ceilings, ill ventila- 
tion, being underground, or any other good cause, the 
Commission was authorized to serve a notice upon the 
owner, agent, or lessee of the property, directing the 
premises to be put in proper order and condition within a 
specified time. And it was further provided that such 
house, rooms or premises should be deemed to be unten- 
antable and forbidden to be occupied for dwelling or lodg- 
ing purposes until such directions or orders of said Com- 
missioners be complied with. The Commissioners were 
further required to keep registered lists of the different 
tenant houses in each ward, of the number of tenants and 
lodgers occupying each of said houses, designating the age, 
sex, color and occupation or employment of each person; 
also the number of children between the ages of six and 
fourteen not in attendance on any school, and of the occu- 
pation of such children, and the Commissioners were em- 
powered to examine witnesses upon oath in reference to 
this matter. They were further empowered to keep a 
record of all lottery or policy shops, grocery stores, liquor 
stores, etc., etc. 

Among their other powers, they were authorized to 
direct and compel the owner, agent, lessee or keeper of 
any tenant house to thoroughly cleanse all the rooms, 
passages, stairs, floors, windows, doors, walls, ceilings, 
etc., to the satisfaction of the Commission; and the owners, 
or lessees of tenant houses were prohibited from sub-letting 
any part of their premises except with the consent of the 
Board of Home Commissioners. No compensation was to 
be paid to the Commissioners for their services, but their 
expenses were to be paid, and they were to be provided 
with a proper clerical force, and were required to render a 
report to the Legislature each year as to the work accomp- 
lished by them. 

This carefully thought-out scheme for a permanent 
body whose sole duty should be the care and regulation of 


the tenant houses of the city, here enunciated for the first 
time, was unfortunately not adopted by the Legislature. 
There has never been made any recommendation, which 
would have so reached the root of the whole problem as 
this proposition of the Assembly Investigation Committee 
of 1856. It was, in effect, a provision for the licensing or 
strict sanitary control of the tenement houses. 

Since this report was made forty-three years have 
elapsed. Conditions in many respects are the same in New 
York City as they were in 1857, only the extent of them 
has increased tenfold. I believe that the real solution of 
the tenement house problem will be found in the licensing 
of tenement houses, and predict that until that step is 
taken, we can expect little real benefit to result. 

Interest in this question aroused spasmodically every 
ten years and then allowed to flag is not calculated to 
secure beneficial results or much progress toward improved 
conditions. The subject is sufficiently large and difficult 
to require the constant and continuous thought and study 
of the best minds. 

Although the labors of this Commission did not produce 
immediate results, the Association for Improving the 
Condition of the Poor, which had waged its fight for better 
tenements since 1846, did not give up the battle. From 
1857 to 1864 they continued their campaign of education, 
from time to time calling the attention of the community 
to the condition of affairs, petitioning both the Legislature 
and the Common Council to enact laws and ordinances to 
remedy the evil conditions which had been growing 
steadily worse year by year. 


Not, however, till the first fruits of thirty years of 
municipal neglect had been gathered in the terrible " draft 
riots " of 1863, did the community become aroused to the 
dangers of the evils which surrounded them. When in 


those troublous times, during our Civil War, the tene- 
ments poured forth the mobs that held fearful sway in 
the city, during the outbreak of violence in the month of 
July, then, for the first time, did the general public realize 
what it meant to permit human beings to be reared under 
the conditions which had so long prevailed in the tenement 
houses in New York City, , 

Mr. N. P. Willis, a leading journalist, writing at that 
time, thus describes the impression made upon him by the 
sight of these persons. " The high brick blocks of closely 
packed houses where the mobs originated seemed to be 
literally hives of sickness and vice. It was wonderful to 
see and difficult to believe that so much misery, disease 
and wretchedness could be huddled together and hidden 
by high walls, unvisited and unthought of so near our own 
abodes. Lewd but pale and sickly young women, 
scarcely decent in their ragged attire, were impudent, and 
scattered everywhere in the courts. What numbers of 
these poorer classes are deformed, what numbers are made 
hideous by self -^neglect and infirmity! Alas, human faces 
look so hideous with hope and self-respect all gone, and 
familiar forms and features are made so frightful by sin, 
squalor and debasement! To walk the streets as we 
walked them in those hours of conflagration and riot was 
like witnessing the day of judgment, with every wicked 
thing revealed, every sin and sorrow blazingly glared 
upon, every hidden abomination laid before hell's expec- 
tant fire." 

Heeding this warning, some few months later in the 
spring of 1864, the leading citizens of New York formed 
themselves into what was known as the "Citizens' Asso- 
ciation" for the purpose of taking steps to improve the 
sanitary condition of the city. The alarmingly high death 
rate of New York at that time (there being one death in 
every 35 of the inhabitants) became a subject of the most 
careful thought and investigation. Accordingly, the Citi- 
zens' Association formed a sub-committee known as the 
Council of Hygiene and Public Health, which included 


the leading physicians of the city at that time. This 
Council of Hygiene organized in the month of April in the 
year 1864, and at once determined to undertake a complete 
and thorough sanitary investigation of the entire city. 
The city, which at that time was coincident with Man- 
hattan Island, was divided into 29 districts; an experienced 
physician was appointed as sanitary inspector in each 
ward, and, during a period of nine months the most thor- 
ough, complete and scientific sanitary inspection ever 
made of any city was made of the City of New York. 
This investigation embraced a description of the character 
of the soil throughout each district, the number of build- 
ings, the purposes for which they were used, whether 
business buildings, churches, schools, dwellings or tene- 
ment houses, etc.; whether built of brick, stone, iron or 
wood; the character of the streets, how paved, whether 
provided with sewers, etc. The " tenant houses" were a 
subject of special investigation in every district; the most 
notorious ones were fully described, not only as to their 
construction, but as to the character of tfre people living 
in them, the sickness prevailing in them, the death rate of 
them, etc., including nearly every conceivable detail. In 
addition to these investigations there were recorded the 
number of vacant lots, the number of liquor stores, 
brothels, stores for the sale of food, the number of stables, 
the influence of stables upon disease, the prevalence of 
preventable diseases in the districts, infantile diseases and 
mortality, and the excessive crowding of houses upon the 
lots. Never was a piece of social or sanitary work better 

In addition to these detailed reports, the Council of 
Hygiene had prepared for them a map showing the nature 
of the soil throughout the entire city, as well as the under- 
ground streams and water-courses. This monumental 
work of General Egbert L. Viele has been of incalculable 
value to the city. There was also presented a map of the 
entire Fourth Ward showing the exact arrangement of 
every building in each block throughout the Ward, giving 


the amount of land occupied, the shape of the building, 
the height in stories, the number of families occupying it, 
the number of persons, also whether certain contagious 
diseases had prevailed there during that year, and indicat- 
ing also the location of the different liquor stores in each 
neighborhood. Thanks to the foresight of Dr. Ezra R. 
Pulling, Inspector of this District, we thus have to-day a 
means of comparing conditions as they were in 1864 with 
conditions as they exist now in 1900. Besides these maps 
and diagrams, the report published by the Council of 
Hygiene contains a numberjof photographs showing some 
of the worst tenement conditions at that time, and also 
some of the other sanitary evils which then existed. This 
report constitutes a volume of more than 360 pages, and 
is unquestionably the most comprehensive and valuable 
study of this kind that has ever been made. 


As a result of the disclosures made by the Council of 
Hygiene in 1865 came the first legislative action in regard 
to tenement houses in this country. The first step was 
the establishment of the Metropolitan Board of Health in 
1.866, and one year later, in 1867, the enactment of the 
tenement house law. ; This act after defining a tenement 
house as " Any house, building, or portion thereof which 
is rented, leased, let, or hired out to be occupied, or is 
occupied, as the home or residence of more than three 
families living independently of one another, and doing 
their own cooking upon the premises, or by more than two 
families upon a floor, so living and cooking and having a 
common right in the halls, stairways, yards, water closets 
or privies, or some of thern^" provided that no building 
should be used as a tenement house unless ever} r sleeping 
room had a ventilator or transom window of an area of 3 
square feet over the door connecting with the adjoining 
room or with the outer air; that every such house should 
be provided with a proper fire escape to be approved by the 
Building Inspector; that the roof over the main hall should 


be provided with a proper ventilator; and that it should be 
kept in good repair and not allowed to leak, and that all 
stairs should be provided with proper banisters; also that 
every house should be provided with good and sufficient 
water-closets or privies, and that there should not be less 
than 1 to every 20 occupants, and that where there was a 
sewer in the street in front of such a house, the privies 
or closets should be connected with the sewer ; that no 
cesspool should be allowed in connection with a tene- 
ment house unless where it was unavoidable; that the 
yards of all new tenement houses should be graded and 
drained, and connected with the sewer; that no basement 
or cellar rooms should be occupied without a permit from 
the Board of Health, and that, even then, such rooms 
should not be occupied unless 7 feet in height from 
the floor to the ceiling, and also 1 foot of the height above 
the surface of the ground adjoining the same, nor unless 
there was an open area properly drained, 2 feet 6 inches 
wide, extending along the front of the room, nor unless 
the room had an external window opening of at least 9 
square feet. It was further provided that no underground 
room should be occupied for sleeping purposes without a 
written permit from the Board of Health. All tenement 
houses were also required to be provided with proper 
receptacles for garbage and other refuse, and the storage 
of combustible material was prohibited, as was the keeping 
of animals, except dogs and cats. All tenements were 
further required to be kept free from the accumulation of 
dirt and filth and garbage at all times. The name and 
address of the owner of every tenement house was also 
required to be posted in a conspicuous place in each build- 
ing. The health officers were to have free access to such 
buildings at all times, and the Board of Health was 
authorized to have vacated buildings that were unfit for 
habitation by reason of being infected with disease or 
likely to cause sickness among the occupants, or dangerous 
from want of repair. The law further provided that 
where there was a front and rear building to be erected 


on the same lot, there should be a clear, open space be- 
tween the buildings if they were one story high, of 10 
feet; 15 feet, if they were two stories high; 20 feet, if they 
were three stories high; and 25 feet, if they were more 
than three stories high; also that at the rear of every new 
tenement house there should be a clear open space of 10 
feet between it and any other building, but, unfortunately, 
discretion was given to the Board of Health to modify 
these requirements as to the amount of space when they 
saw fit. The law also provided that every habitable room 
should be at least 8 feet high, except rooms in attics, and 
that every habitable room should have at least one window 
connected with the external air, or, over the door a venti- 
lator leading into the hall, or into another room having 
connection with the external air; also that the total area 
of windows in every room communicating with the ex- 
ternal air should be at least one- tenth of the superficial 
area of the room; also that every habitable room of a less 
area than 100 square feet which did not communicate 
directly with the external air and did not have an open 
fire place should be provided with a separate ventilating 
flue. Every new tenement house was required also to 
have a chimney or open fire place running through every 
floor of the building, and for each set of rooms. New 
tenements were also required to have proper receptacles 
for ashes and rubbish, and running water was to be fur- 
nished at one or more places in the house or in the yard. 
Cellars were required to be cemented so as to be water 
tight, and the halls on each floor were required to be so 
arranged as to open directly to the outer air. A violation 
of the act was made a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine 
of not less than $10 or more than $100, or by imprison- 
ment for not more than ten days for each day that the 
violation continued, or by both such fine and imprison- 
ment, in the discretion of the Court. 

The Board of Health was also given power to make 
further regulations as to cellars and as to ventilation. 

During the same year an important amendment to the 


existing building laws of the city was passed, and in it 
were requirements relating to tenement houses. These 
concerned themselves chiefly with the method of construc- 
tion of such buildings with regard to dangers from fire. 
Among other things, it was provided that no front and 
rear tenements should be erected on the same lot unless 
they were both fireproof throughout; also, that every 
building of such a character should be provided with a 
proper fire escape; that the hall partitions from cellar to 
roof should be built of brick not less than 12 inches thick; 
that the floor beams should be of iron, and that the stairs 
should be fireproof. It was further required that where 
the first floor of such a building was used for business pur- 
poses of any kind, the first floor should be constructed 
fireproof, with iron beams and brick flooring, and that all 
coal bins and wood bins in the cellars of such houses should 
be built of fireproof material. 

It will be seen from this summary of the provisions of 
the law that, while many important questions had been 
provided for, the framers of the law had unfortunately 
lost sight of the main feature of the tenement house prob- 
lem, i. e., they had not enacted a provision restricting the 
percentage of the lot permitted to be occupied by such 
buildings. This was a most serious defect in the law, as 
was also the careless phrasing of the provision requiring a 
space of 10 feet to be left at the rear of tenement houses. 
The law was so worded that this space was to be left 
between the rear of a new tenement house and any other 
building; the result was that, where there was no build- 
ing in existence immediately behind the lot owned by the 
tenement house builder, he could build his building up to 
the entire lot limit. Not until twelve years later, in 1879, 
was this defect in the law remedied, by providing that 
there should be a space of 10 feet between the rear of 
every new tenement house and the rear line of the lot 
upon which the tenement was built.^ 

When one considers that there were, in 186Y, 15,000 
tenement houses erected before the passage of any tene- 


ment house law, without regard to the safety or health of 
the occupants, one begins to realize the magnitude of the 
task which confronted the newly organized Board of 
Health. The reports of the Association for Improving the 
Condition of the Poor for the following five years show 
a decided improvement in the tenement houses of the city, 
especially in regard to cellar dwellings and to the general 
sanitary condition of buildings, the Sanitary Police being 
able to enforce greater cleanliness than had heretofore 
existed. While the new law had remedied certain defects, 
and had to a certain extent improved existing tenement 
houses, yet it soon became evident that it did not meet 
the conditions in such a way as to secure good types of 
buildings among those newly erected. 

In 1871 we find the following statement in the report 
of the Association for Improving the Condition of the 
Poor for that year: " The tenant house system might be 
indefinitely enlarged upon but space forbids. Though 
greatly improved in late years., it is still the disgrace and 
curse of the city, that half of the inhabitants live in this 
class of houses, from which proceeds three-fifths of the 
crime and three-fourths of the mortality. If we would 
abate these evils, the wretched domiciliary conditions of 
the occupants of these tenements must be improved." 


Between this time and 1877 little attention was given 
to the tenement house problem, except in the regular work 
of the Board of Health arid the city Building Depart- 

In 1877 Mr. Alfred T. White, of Brooklyn, having seen 
the model tenements of Sir Sidney Waterlow's Industrial 
Dwellings Company in London, became imbued with the 
idea that the best way in which he could benefit the 
working people of New York City, or of his own City 
of Brooklyn, was by providing them with decent, com- 
fortable homes. He accordingly built his well-known 


" Home Buildings'' in Brooklyn upon plans similar to 
those of the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company of 
London, and one year later, directly opposite, built an 
entire block of similar model tenements, with a large park 
or court-yard in the center. From the time they were 
built these tenements have always been a success, both 
socially and financially. (Wide publicity was given to this 
extraordinarily successful experiment of Mr. White's, the 
result being that great interest was stimulated in the 
tenement-house problem. It was well that such interest 
was aroused at this time, as the public attention had been 
allowed to flag during the previous ten years. Mr. White 
lectured before the Social Science Association, sermons 
were preached in the different churches upon the subject, 
and the public press gave the greatest amount of atten- 
tion to this important topic. 

The educational work undertaken by the Association 
for Improving the Condition of the Poor in 1846, and 
carried on so successfully by them until 1871, was now 
taken up by another charitable society, namely, the State 
Charities Aid Association, formed in 3873. This Society, 
through its Standing Committee, " On the Elevation of 
the Poor in Their Homes," in 1877, again called attention 
to the need of reform, and leading architects of the city 
were asked to send in plans for improved tenement houses, 
so that the best intelligence of the community might be 
got to work upon the problem. It appears that at this 
time there were in New York City 25,000 tenement houses, 
and that the excessive mortality and sickness in the city 
at that time was held to be mainly due to the defective 
system of tenement-house life. 

On the 6th of December a conference of those interested 
in the subject was called by this Society, at which Mr. 
Alfred T. White described to them the very successful 
results accomplished by his model tenements in Brooklyn, 
which had earned 7-J- per cent., net, during the first year 
of their existence; also the successful results accomplished 
in London by the different model tenement house com- 


panies there were presented. At the meeting a Special 
Committee was appointed to " Consider the question of 
improved houses for the poor in New York City, with 
authority to secure the incorporation of a company under 
the best legal advice to erect such houses. " This Com- 
mittee rendered a report in April, 1878, stating that they 
had not found it desirable to recommend the building of 
model tenements at that time, but that they did recommend 
a thorough investigation and discussion* of existing tene- 
ments, hoping that something might be done toward re- 
forming them, and believing that it was much to be desired 
that public opinion should be enlightened as to the evils 
and dangers resulting to the whole city from the existence 
of many of the present tenements, and the urgent need of 
a more rigid enforcement of the laws already existing con- 
cerning them, and, further, a more thorough legislation 
that might up-root the evil, instead of merely repressing 
its growth. 

This Committee held frequent meetings and made per- 
sonal inspection of many of the tenement houses in the 
city, employing a special agent to make a detailed exami- 
nation of certain typical tenement houses. 

In January of the following year, a sub-committee was 
appointed to induce the clergy of the city to take up the 
question of tenement house reform and to preach on this 
subject on a Sunday to be agreed upon. The Sunday of 
February 23, 18Y9, was set aside as "Tenement House 
Sunday," and the leading ministers of the city delivered 
addresses upon the evils of the tenement house system 
and the necessity for ref orm A It was decided by the State 
Charities Aid Association that a large public meeting of all 
classes was desirable to bring home to the community the 
importance of this subject. Accordingly such a meeting 
was held in Cooper Union on February 28th, many of 
New York's leading citizens being present and speaking. 
At this meeting Mayor Cooper, who presided, appointed a 
sub-committee of nine members, known as the " Mayor's 
Committee," for the purpose of devising measures to carry 


tenement house reform into effect. The following gentle- 
men were members of this Committee: Messrs. D. Willis 
James, Frederick W. Stevens, W. W/Astor, Cornelius 
Vanderbilt, R. T. Auchmuty, James Gallatin, Henry E. 
Pellew, F. D. Tappen and C. P. Daly. 

The Committee rendered its report about one month 
later, making it public on March 25th. They proposed two 
plans, one charitable, the other commercial, recommend- 
ing the formation of a company to build model tenement 
houses upon a business basis, similar to the tenements so 
successfully built and managed by Mr. Alfred T. White, 
in Brooklyn. They further recommended radical changes 
in the existing tenement house law, and it is extremely 
interesting to find that they strongly urged a provision 
calling for the licensing of tenement houses, the very 
same provision which had been so eloquently urged by 
the First Legislative Investigating Commission in 1856, 
twenty-three years previously. This important and desir- 
able clause, however, was stricken out by the Legislature, 
and real tenement house reform was again postponed 

As a result of the recommendations of the Committee 
of Nine, the Improved Dwellings Association was formed 
with a capital of $300,000. Mr. W. Bayard Cutting was 
elected President of this Association, and Mr. Samuel D. 
Babcock, Treasurer. The Association was strictly a com- 
mercial enterprise, but with dividends limited to 5 per 
cent. Several lots of land were purchased on First 
avenue from Ylst to 72d streets and an excellent group of 
buildings, somewhat similar in plan to Mr. White's Brook- 
lyn buildings, was erected. These are still in good con- 
dition to-day, twenty-one years later, and have paid in all 
that time, regularly 5 per cent, dividends, besides reserv- 
ing a slight amount for a depreciation fund. The Com- 
mittee of Nine also recommended the formation of a per- 
manent society to carry on the work of tenement house 
reform, and the New York Sanitary Reform Society was 
thus incorporated with Mr. James Gallatin as president. 



Of greater importance, however, than either of these 
steps were the changes in the tenement-house law accom- 
plished as a result of this agitation. For the first time the 
percentage of lot permitted to be occupied by a new tene- 
ment house was limited, the new law requiring that no 
new tenement house should occupy more than 65 per 
centum of the lot. Unfortunately, however, a clause was 
inserted giving the Board of Health permission in special 
cases to modify this provision. Had not this unfortunate 
discretionary clause been inserted, there would have re- 
sulted real reform in the character of the tenement houses 
erected in this city. The result of the discretionary clause / 
was, as it has always been in New York it practically 
nullified the whole effect of the law T ; and in a few years 
the Board of Health was found to be permitting new 
tenements to occupy as much as 85, and even 90, per 
centum of the lot. 

The new law also remedied the defect of the former, 
in reference to the amount of space to be left at the rear 
of a tenement house, putting it into clear, legal verbiage. 
At the same time, the act established thirty sanitary 
policemen under the supervision of the Board of Health, 
and created a tenement house fund of $10,000 to be appro- 
priated annually and to be spent by the Board of Health 
for the sanitary inspection of tenement houses. The law 
also wisely provided that no room in a tenement house 
should be used for sleeping, unless it had at least one win- 
dow of a size of 12 square feet opening directly on the 
public street or yard, but again, unfortunately, the Board 
of Health was given discretionary power in this respectj 
it being added, u unless sufficient light and ventilation 
shall be otherwise provided in a manner approved by the 
Board of Health, "jthe result of which, was to practically 
nullify this provision^ The other main features of the 
law oif 1867 were re-enacted. 

Coincident with this agitation for tenement house re- 
form started by the State Charities Aid Association in 


1877 was a similar movement carried on by the Associa- 
tion for Improving the Condition of the Poor, which, in 
1878, took up again the work that it had abandoned in 
1871; in a series of admirable reports and pamphlets, 
calling attention to the great importance of reform in the 
dwellings of the poor, nor did it confine itself to this ad- 
ditional work of describing existing conditions, but 
started also a more active personal inspection of the tene- 
ment houses of the city, sending complaints to the Board 
of Health of violations of the law, and doing everything 
in its power to compel the authorities to secure the proper 
enforcement of the statutes. 

This work they continued off and on from 1878 until 
1884, the time of the next large agitation for tenement 
house reform. 


In December of 1878, Mr. Henry O. Meyer, at that 
time the proprietor of the newspaper known as the San- 
itary Engineer, and who was much interested in this 
movement, in connection with Messrs. D. Willis James, 
F, B. Thurber, Henry E. Pellew and Kobert Gordon, of- 
fered prizes of $500 for the best architectural designs for 
a tenement house on an ordinary city lot, 25 feet wide by 
100 feet deep. A special programme setting forth the 
conditions of this architectural competition was printed 
in the Sanitary Engineer, and the following gentlemen 
were appointed a jury of award to determine the merits 
of the different plans: Mr. R. S. Hatfield, architect; Prof. 
Charles F. Chandler, President of the Board of Health; 
Rev. John Hall, Rev. Henry C. Potter and Robert Hoe. 

No less than 190 architects from all parts of the United 
States, and even from Canada and Great Britain, sent in 
plans in competition. These plans, numbering 206, were 
placed on free exhibition and attracted wide-spread in- 
terest. Many of the plans were reproduced in the papers 


at that time, and the Sanitary Engineer, the journal 
which had inaugurated the competition and had author- 
ized the prizes, printed an elaborate series of articles, re- 
producing the ten leading plans and describing the merits 
of each in detail. The first prize was awarded to Mr. 
James E. Ware, and from this time dates the introduction 
into the tenement house system of New York City of 
what is known as the u double decker dumb-bell tene- 
ment " so-called because of the shape of the outline of the 
building, which in the middle tapers in, very much like 
the handle of a dumb-bell. 

This is the type of tenement house which to-day is the 
curse of our city. Many people have pointed out that 
what was considered a model tenement in 1879 is in 1900 
considered one of the worst types of tenement houses ever 
constructed. Had these people studied more thoroughly 
the movement for tenement house reform, they would have 
found that in 1879 there was almost universal condemna- 
tion of the award of the prize to this type of building. In 
this connection, it is not inappropriate to quote part of an 
editorial from the New York Times, dated March 16th, 
1879. " The prizes offered by a committee of gentlemen 
appointed by the proprietor of the Sanitary Engineer 
have been conferred upon the designers of tenement house 
plans. The limitations of the designs by the architects 
were the shape of the lots, and cheapness of construc- 
tion; they were required to plan a cheap house or houses 
with air and light in the rooms, on a lot 25 feet broad, en- 
closed between other houses and 100 feet deep. If the 
prize plans are the best offered, which we hardly believe, 
they merely demonstrate that the problem is insoluble. 
The three which have received the highest prizes offer 
a very slightly better arrangement than hundreds of 
tenement houses now do. They are simply double houses, 
front and rear, with the space between occupied by halls and 
water-closets. They have all the disadvantages of double 
houses, which have so often called forth sanitary censure 
and even adverse legislation. The only access to air, 

apart from the front, is through the courts in the small 
spaces between the houses. To add to their ill effects 
each suite on the second story has apparently that old 
nuisance, a dark bedroom, which, under the present 
arrangement, is a prolific source of fever and disease. 
The only advantages offered apparently over the old sys- 
tem are in the fireproof stairways, more privacy of halls 
and the ventilation of water-closets. But it may be fairly 
said that if one of our crowded wards were built up after 
any one of these prize designs, the evils of our present 
tenement house system would be increased tenfold." 

How true this prophecy of 1879 .was, we to-day fully 
realize, for we are reaping the evils of that system of the 
prize plan of 1879, built all over the crowded wards of 
this city; and, in truth, the evils that threatened the city 
in 1879 have been increased tenfold. It is this plan which 
has produced a system of tenement houses unknown to 
any other city, which has produced the evil of the "air 
shaft," a product solely of New York, and one which 
makes our housing conditions the worst in the world. 

After this movement of 1879 had accomplished a 
change in the existing law and the building of two model 
tenements, those interested in the problem apparently re- 
laxed their efforts, feeling that what they had sought to 
accomplish had been accomplished. Nothing of import- 
ance was done in this movement from that year until 
1884, except that the Association for Improving the Con- 
dition of the Poor still continued its inspection of existing 
tenement houses, and its system of sending complaints to 
the Board of Health, trying to spur that body into a more 
energetic enforcement of the laws. 


In 1884, Professor Felix Adler, of the Society for 
Ethical Culture, delivered a series of lectures upon the 
terrible condition of the tenement houses at that time; 
his own work and the work of members of his society 


among the poor in the city, having given him an insight 
into the wretched condition of their dwellings. This series 
of lectures created great interest in the public press, and 
the community became thoroughly aroused to the neces- 
sity for reform in this direction. Accordingly, a bill was 
introduced in the Legislature and passed on June 2, 1884, 
appointing a Commission " to examine and to investigate 
and inquire into the character and condition of tenement 
houses, lodging houses and" cellars in the City of New 
York." This Commission was composed of the following 
gentlemen: Alexander Shaler, Joseph W. Drexel, S. O. 
Vanderpoel, Felix Adler, Oswald Ottendorfer, Moreau 
Morris, Anthony Reichardt, Joseph J. O'Donohue, Abbot 
Hodgman, Charles F. Wingate and William P. Ester- 

The Commission made an investigation of a number of 
the tenement houses in New York, from June of that year 
until the following January, making in its report to the 
Legislature twenty distinct recommendations. These 

The abolition of all privy vaults; a change in the law 
extending the requirements for new tenement houses to 
all old buildings, altered to be used as tenement houses; 
that water should be supplied upon each floor of every 
tenement house; that every tenement house occu- 
pied by eight families or more should have a janitor 
residing upon the premises; that all cellars should 
be concreted; that rooms and halls in all new tenement 
houses should have direct light, and communication 
with the external air; that the definition of a tenement 
house should be so amended as to include all houses occu- 
pied by three families or more; that the misuse of water 
closets by the tenants should be deemed a misdemeanor; 
that the Board of Health be required to make a semi-an- 
nual inspection of all the tenement houses in the city: 
that the number of sanitary policemen should be increased 
from thirty to forty, and their duties limited entirely to 
the inspection of tenement and lodging houses; that the 


name and address of the owner of every tenement house 
should be filed in the Department of Health; that there be 
set aside a special fund for the use of the Board of Health; 
that a registrar of statistics for the Board of Health be 
appointed; that the Board of Health be required to make 
an annual report of its work to the Mayor; and that a 
permanent Tenement House Commission, composed of the 
Mayor and the Heads of the Department of Health, Public 
Works, Buildings and Street Cleaning, be appointed to 
meet once each year to consider the desirability of change 
in the tenement house laws; also that certain streets in 
the city be opened up so as to do away with Mulberry 
Bend, a notorious "slum" district; and that free public 
baths be established by the city throughout the tenement 
house districts; and that electric lights be placed in all 
streets of such quarters. 

The Commission published a report of some 235 pages 
containing not only these recommendations, with the 
reasons for them, but also the results of a sanitary inspec- 
tion of nearly 1,000 tenement houses carried on under 
their direction. 

The Commission, however, did not take up the larger 
phases of the problem, believing that the time allowed 
them for such a study was not sufficient, and believing 
that the Legislature would appoint a further commission 
to undertake this work. 

It is greatly to be regretted that the Commission of 
1884 did not make a more thorough study of the tenement 
house question and of existing conditions. They gave al- 
most no attention to the buildings erected since 1879, but 
contented themselves with the examination of old types 
of tenement houses. 

During the same year, the Association for Improving 
the Condition of the Poor took advantage of the increased 
public interest in the subject and published in their annual 
report, in a somewhat popular form, a detailed description 
of some of the worst tenement houses in the city, 
illustrating these with pictures. 



The recommendations made by the Tenement House 
Commission of 1884 to the Legislature did not, however, 
result in legislation until 1887, when the Tenement House 
Law was amended in several important particulars, the 
main change being the increasing of the number of 
sanitary police from 30 to 45; 15 of these to spend their 
time in the inspection of tenement houses exclusively. 
The new law also provided for a permanent Tenement 
House Commission, to meet once in each year to discuss 
the needs of tenement houses; the Commission to be com- 
posed of the Mayor and the Heads of the Departments of 
Health, Public Works and Street Cleaning. The law also 
provided that, in all tenement houses where there was 
more than one family on a floor and the halls did not open 
directly to the outer air, such buildings should not be 
used. Among the other changes accomplished was a pro- 
vision that there should be one water closet for every 
fifteen occupants, instead of one for every twenty oc- 
cupants, as under the previous law. Also, the owners of 
all tenement houses were required to file their names and 
addresses annually in the Board of Health, and the Board 
of Health was required to make a regular semi-annual in- 
spection of every tenement house in the city. Probably 
the most important feature of the law was the extending of 
the provision in relation to new tenement houses, as to the 
percentage of lot permitted to be occupied to all old build- 
ings that might be altered to be used as tenement houses. 

From 1884 until 1894 nothing was done in the move- 
ment for tenement-house reform beyond the usual work 
of the Association for Improving the Condition of the 
Poor in sending complaints of sanitary abuses in certain 
tenement houses to the Board of Health for their attention. 


Any record of the movement for tenement-house 
reform in New York, which left out of account the work 
of Mr. Jacob A. Riis, would be sadly defective. For over 


twenty years Mr. Riis has continually waged his " battle 
with the slum." Beginning in 1880 as a newspaper 
reporter stationed at Police Headquarters, his work led 
him frequently into the tenement house districts where 
he gained an intimate knowledge of the conditions. Since 
that time Mr. Riis has continuously urged the necessity 
of tenement house reform, and of the betterment of all 
the conditions of life for the working people of this city. 
His articles in the magazines and newspapers, especially 
his well-known books " How the Other Half Lives," " The 
Children of the Poor," and "A Ten Years' War," have 
probably done more to educate the general public on this 
question than the writings of any other person. To his 
active efforts are due the tearing down of the worst slum 
New York City ever saw, the old " Mulberry Bend," and 
also the destruction of a number of unsanitary rear tene- 
ments. It was the active influence of Mr. Riis and his 
work more than anything else which led to the appoint- 
ment of the Tenement House Commission of 1894. 


In 1894 one of the New York newspapers, the Press, 
printed a series of articles upon the condition of the tene- 
ments, and caused to be introduced in the Legislature a 
bill authorizing the Governor to appoint a commission to 
inquire into all the phases of the tenement house problem. 
Through the efforts of the Press this bill became a law, 
and the following Commissioners were appointed: Eichard 
Watson Gilder, Chairman; W. D'H. Washington, Cyrus 
Edson, Roger Foster, Solomon Moses, George B. Post and 
John P. Schuchman, Edward Marshall, the City Editor of 
the Press, through whose efforts this legislation had been 
accomplished, being appointed Secretary and executive 
officer of the Commission. The Commission organized in 
May of that year and entered upon an active and vigorous 
investigation of the tenement houses of the city through- 
out the summer and fall, giving especial attention to cellar 


dwellings, examining in all 8,441 houses. The Commission 
published in 1895 a voluminous and elaborate report of 
some 650 pages showing the results of their investigation. 
The report touches upon the questions of immigration, 
density of population, overcrowding, different types of 
tenement house plans, questions of fire-proof construction, 
death rates, etc. , pays especial attention to those tenement 
houses known as rear tenements, i. e., buildings built on 
the rear of the lot behind a front tenement house, with an 
intervening courtyard of about 25 feet between; also the 
subordinate public questions of the need of public parks 
in tenement neighborhoods, the need of dock parks or 
recreation piers, the need of public baths, the questions of 
rentals, of improved tenement houses erected by philan- 
thropic or quasi-philanthropic societies, the work of the 
previous Commission appointed in 1884, the evils of prosti- 
tution in tenement houses, questions of plumbing and 
sanitation; and paid special attention to the great danger 
arising from tenement fires, making minute examination 
of the fires that occurred while the Commission was in 
existence, and taking a great deal of testimony on this 
subject, and on other subjects connected with the different 
phases of the tenement house problem. The report con- 
tains a number of illustrations of different types of tene- 
ment house plans, also photographs of certain bad tene- 
ment conditions found by the Commission, as well as 
many interesting maps and charts. 

The Commission made to the Legislature the following 
recommendations : 

1. That the law be perfected so as to give to the Board 
of Health unquestioned power to condemn and destroy 
tenement houses unfit for human habitation. 

2. That the percentage of lot allowed to be covered by 
new tenement houses be limited to 70 per cent. ; also that 
no more air shafts be covered over by the roof. That the 
first floor of all new tenement houses should be fireproof 
and contain no openings to the cellar ; that every water 
closet should have a window to the outer air, and that the 


floor of all water closet compartments should be made 

3. That certain dangerous trades be prohibited in tene- 
ment houses so as to prevent danger from fire, the Com- 
mission having found that a great many tenement-house 
fires were caused by the boiling of fat in basements. 

4. That the ceilings of all habitable basements should 
be at least 2 feet above the ground. 

5. That no wall paper should be permitted in tenement 

6. That all dark hallways should be lighted by artificial 

7. That at least 400 cubic feet of air should be provided 
for every adult, and 200 cubic feet of air for every child 
under twelve years. 

8. That the use of tenement houses for lodging houses 
or stables, or for storage of rags, should be prohibited. 

9. That the discretionary powers of the Board of 
Health should be limited. 

10. That the law in reference to the filing of the 
owner's name in the Board of Health should be perfected. 

11. That the number of sanitary inspectors of the 
Board of Health should be increased by fifteen, and 
increasing the number of sanitary police by five. 

12. That not less than two small parks should be laid 
out within three years in certain districts of the lower 
East side. 

.13. That no school buildings should be erected unless 
the same were provided with a proper out-door play- 

14. Urging the adoption of rapid transit facilities. 

15. The establishment by the city of free fully equipped 
public baths all the year around. 

16. The establishment by the city of drinking fountains 
and public lavatories in tenement-house districts. 

17. That the system of lighting the streets by elec- 
tricity be extended to the tenement- house districts as 
rapidly as possible. 


18. That the streets in the tenement-house districts be 
paved with asphalt. 

19. That a thorough inquiry be made as to the sanitary 
condition of some of the public schools in the city, and 
the sufficiency of school accommodations in certain dis- 
tricts. Also that the Kindergarten system be largely 

20. Making the punishment for prostitution in the 
tenement houses more severe. 

21. Abolishing the permanent Tenement House Board, 
composed of the Mayor and heads of the five city depart- 
ments, appointed under the Act of 1887. 


As a result of the work of this Commission, the Legis- 
lature passed a new tenement house law in 1895, which 
included among its provisions some of the changes recom- 
mended by the Commission. A great number of them, 
however, were not adopted, the changes in the law being 
a slightly increased security against fire in the construc- 
tion of new tenement houses, and a most unfortunate 
change in the portion of the law in relation to the per- 
centage of lot permitted to be occupied. The law, since 
1891, limited the amount to 65 per centum of the lot, and 
had given the Building Department no discretion whatso- 
ever to increase this amount; the Tenement House Com- 
mission, unfortunately, not being familiar with the law, 
believed that the Building Department possessed such dis- 
cretion, because they found them exercising it; (the result 
was that they inserted in the new law a clause that the 
Commissioners of Buildings might permit as much as 75 
per cent, of the lot to be occupied in special cases, the 
result of which has been that every case has become '* a 
special case," and all new tenement houses are permitted 
to occupy 75 per cent, of the lot. 

The recommendations of the Commission for the estab- 
lishment of two small parks for the lower East side were 


adopted, and the parks are now in existence, to the great 
gain of the city. Also the clause requiring the establish- 
ment of a suitable playground in all new public schools 
was adopted, as were the recommendations for a system 
of recreation piers along the river. The city now possesses 
five of these piers. 

While the Commission's labors did not result in any 
great improvement in the character of the tenement 
houses erected in New York City, yet the collection of 
facts presented in their report did most certainly succeed 
in creating an interest in this most important subject. 


The following year, in 1896, the Association for Im- 
proving the Condition of the Poor, through its Depart- 
ment of Dwellings, called on March 3d and 4th a series 
of conferences to consider the advisability of building 
improved tenement houses in New York. As a result of 
these conferences, the City and Suburban Homes Com- 
pany was formed for the purpose of building model tene- 
ment houses in New York as a business investment. 
Many leading men of the city became stockholders of this 
company, and the work of building model tenements was 
a few months later begun under the leadership of Dr. E. 
K. L. Gould, who some years previously had conducted 
for the Department of Labor of the United States Gov- 
ernment a comprehensive inquiry into the question of 
the housing of 'the working people in different parts of 

A special architectural competition was held for the 
best type of tenement house plans, and an excellent type 
of building was finally chosen. One million dollars was 
subscribed as the capital of the new enterprise, and a 
splendid group of buildings was erected at 217 to 233 West 
68th street and 214 to 220 West 69th street. There are two 
sets of buildings, one back of the other, with an open 


court-yard 20 feet wide and about 150 feet long between 
them. One group of buildings occupies a space 225 feet 
long by 100 feet deep, equivalent to nine city lots, and the 
other building occupies a space 200 feet long by 100 feet 
deep, equivalent to eight ordinary city lots. The buildings 
are divided into a number of apartments containing two 
rooms, three rooms, four rooms and five rooms, and are 
so arranged that every room has direct light and air either 
from the street or yard, or from large open court-yards 
facing the street, of a width of 18 feet and of a depth of 
60 feet, or upon a large court-yard in the center, of an area 
of 529 square feet. The amount of space occupied by halls 
and stairs and partitions is minimized, thus securing a 
larger area available for floor space. The buildings were 
designed by Mr. Ernest Flagg, the well-known New York 
architect, who has given much thought to the study of 
scientific tenement house plans, and the buildings illus- 
trate most admirably his contention that the secret of 
tenement house planning lies in constructing a building 
more of the shape of a square, than of a long parallelo- 
gram. Every apartment is a home in itself; every room 
has quiet, good light and air and good ventilation; the 
staircases and stair walls of 'the buildings are entirely fire- 
proof; the halls and stairways are well lighted and steam- 
heated; in the two houses are nine separate entrances from 
the street and every entrance has two stairways and two 
dumb waiters; the partitions between the different 
dwellings are deafened; every apartment is supplied with 
its own private water-closet, and most of the apartments 
have a small private hall; the buildings are furnished with 
most modern conveniences, such as stationary wash-tubs 
and sinks in the kitchen, hot water, gas ranges, wood and 
coal closets, and laundries and bathrooms on the first floor. 
All rents are payable weekly. The rents are about the 
same as the rents of ordinary tenement houses in the same 
neighborhood and average for two rooms $6.80 a month; 
for three rooms, $11.40 a month; for four rooms, $14.60 a 
month. The buildings are occupied by the better class of 


working people, respectable mechanics, letter carriers, 
railroad employes, coachmen, policemen, etc., the Com- 
pany preferring to cater to the best element among the 

The enterprise has been a distinct success, both from a 
social and financial point of view, the profit on these 
buildings having been a little over 5 per cent, during the 
first year. 

The Company has also built a number of small houses 
in the suburbs for persons of small salaries who desire to 
have homes of their own rather than to live in the city. 
It has also, during the past year, completed a second 
group of buildings at First avenue, 64th and 65th streets, 
similar in plan to the first buildings, except that a few 
slight improvements have been made in the interior 

A third group of buildings is now being planned and 
will be shortly erected, and there is every reason to believe 
that the Company will extend its operation for some time 
to come by erecting new buildings in different parts of the 


In the spring of 1898, the writer, having for a num- 
ber of years been impressed with the belief that bad tene- 
ment house conditions were the cause of most of the 
problems in our modern cities, presented to the Charity 
Organization Society of the City of New York, of which 
he was a member, a plan for the formation of a society 
which should continually seek to improve the condition 
of the tenement houses : 

1. By securing wise remedial legislation in reference 
to new buildings, and by preventing the enactment of 
bad legislation. 

2. By securing the enforcement of existing laws in 
relation to tenement houses. 


3. By stimulating the building of model tenement 
houses on a large scale, and 

4. By gradually improving old bad tenements in the 
city by altering them to suit the needs of the tenants. 

Some few months later the Charity Organization So- 
ciety decided to take up this work, and a standing com- 
mittee of the Society, known as the " Tenement House 
Committee of the Charity Organization Society," was 
formed for that purpose. The Committee was composed 
of the following gentlemen: Mr. Frederick W. Holls, 
Chairman; Felix Adler, Constant A. Andrews, Robert W. 
de Forest, Edward T. Devine, John Vinton Dahlgren, 
Ernest Flagg, Richard Watson Gilder, George B. Post, 
Jacob A. Riis and I. N. Phelps Stokes. The writer has 
had the privilege of acting as Secretary and Executive 
officer of this Committee since its existence. 

The members of the Committee devoted themselves 
during the first six months to the work of framing a 
series of tenement house ordinances, which should be 
supplemental to the existing tenement house laws, em- 
bodied in the Greater New York Charter?; As they had 
been advised that it was not within the power of the local 
authorities to enact ordinances which should conflict with 
the provisions of the existing law, the Committee were 
necessarily obliged to limit themselves to only such recom- 
mendations. They accordingly submitted to the Munici- 
pal Building Code Commission a series of fifteen tenement 
house ordinances, with a statement setting forth the rea- 
sons for them, and the advantages to be gained thereby. 

The proposed ordinances provided that in all new tene- 
ment houses no air shaft should be less than 6 feet wide in 
any part, nor less than 150 square feet in superficial area; 
that no new tenement house should exceed six stories in 
height unless it was fireproof; that all living rooms in 
tenement houses should contain at least 600 cubic feet of 
air space; that for every new tenement house containing 
twenty families or more, there should be provided at least 
one bath tub or shower bath in a separate apartment for 


the use of the tenants, and where there were more than 
twenty families in any such house, there should be pro- 
vided additional bath tubs; that every tenement house 
thereafter erected or altered, four stories or more in height, 
should have the first story made fireproof; that the walls 
of all tenement houses thereafter erected should be carried 
up 3 feet 6 inches above the roof on all four sides, so that 
the roof might be used as a playground; that no wooden 
building of any kind whatever should be placed on the same 
lot with a tenement house within the fire-limits of the city; 
that it should be mandatory upon the Corporation Counsel 
or his assistant to immediately file a Us pendens in the 
County Clerk's office upon receipt from the Department of 
Buildings for prosecution of every violation of the tenement 
house laws, ordinances or regulations; that in every new 
tenement house the stairway connecting the cellar with the 
first floor should not be located in whole or in part under- 
neath the stairs leading from the first story to the upper 
stories; that no closet should be constructed underneath 
any staircase in any tenement house; that every new 
tenement house and every existing tenement house in 
which the halls were not light enough in the daytime 
on all floors to permit an ordinary person to easily read 
without aid of artificial light, should have every door lead- 
ing from the public halls to rooms provided with ground 
glass panels of an area of not less than 6 square feet; that 
in every new tenement house all interior shafts should be 
fireproof and provided with fireproof self-closing doors to 
all openings. It was also asked that the following provi- 
sions of the existing building laws be continued in effect, 
viz., that the bulkhead doors of all tenement houses should 
at no time be locked, but might be fastened on the inside 
with a hook or bolt; that in all tenement houses where 
wooden stud partitions rest over each other, the space be- 
tween the studs should be filled in solid with fireproof 
material to prevent the spread of fire from floor to floor; 
that the cellar floor of every tenement house should be 
concreted with concrete not less than 3 inches thick; and 


that where a kitchen range or stove was placed within 12 
inches of a wooden stud partition the woodwork should 
be cut away and filled in with fireproof material. 

These ordinances were printed in a small pamphlet, 
made public in June, 1899, and attracted widespread com- 
ment in the daily newspapers in this city, and in fact all 
over the country. The criticisms were uniformly favor- 
able. These recommendations were also officially ap- 
proved by the New York Chapter of the American Insti- 
tute of Architects, by the Architectural League of New 
York City, by the Association for Improving the Condi- 
tion of the Poor, the Children's Aid Society, the Univer- 
sity Settlement, the College Settlement, the Nurses' Set- 
tlement, and by most of the prominent citizens of this 
city, including many of the heads of the City Depart- 

None of these recommendations was adopted by the 
municipal authorities. 

Being convinced that no real progress in tenement 
house reform was to be made unless the whole commu- 
nity was aroused to a knowledge of existing conditions, the 
Tenement House Committee set itself to work to prepare 
for the public such a statement of tenement house needs 
that the most unconcerned could no longer neglect taking 
action looking toward the amelioration of the living con- 
ditions of the working people in New York. 


With this end in view a plan for a tenement house 
exhibition was prepared in the fall of 1899, and the Com- 
mittee devoted its entire time from then until the begin- 
ning of the present year in preparing this work. The 
Exhibition was held in New York City in a large building 
on Fifth avenue for a period of two weeks, and in that 
brief time was viewed by over ten thousand persons of all 
classes, from the millionaire to the poorest, unskilled 


The Exhibition included five models, over 1,000 photo- 
graphs, over 100 maps, and many charts, diagrams and 
tables of statistics. It was most comprehensive in its 
scope, including a study of tenement house conditions in 
New York City at the present time, a study of model 
tenements in America and throughout Europe, a study of 
suburban tenements and working people's cottages both 
in America and Europe, model lodging houses and hotels 
for workingmen in America and Europe, and a series of 
studies of public parks, playgrounds, libraries, baths, 
cooking schools, etc. The Exhibition also included in its 
study of existing conditions in New York exhibits show- 
ing density of population, death rates prevailing in tene- 
ment districts, the distribution of nationality in the city, 
charts showing overcrowding, dangers from fire, health 
conditions, etc. 

During the second week of the Exhibition, a series of 
conferences was held every evening, with leading special- 
ists discussing such different phases of the tenement house 
problem as "The Exhibition and Its Meaning," " Model 
Tenements," "Improving Tenements by Personal In- 
fluence," "The Tenements and Poverty," "The Tene- 
ments and Tuberculosis," " The People Who Live in Tene- 
ments," " The Duty of the City to the Tenement Dweller," 
" The Tenement House Problem and the Way Out," etc. 

This exhibition was the first tenement house exhibition 
ever held, and marks a distinct step in advance in the 
treatment of the tenement house problem. Perhaps one 
of the most interesting features of it was the cardboard 
model of an entire block of tenement houses in the City of 
New York. To those unfamiliar with the state of affairs 
in this city, the conditions here presented are almost 
beyond belief. The block chosen was one on the East 
side of New York, being the block bounded by Chrystie, 
Forsyth, Canal and Bayard streets, comprising an area of 
200 feet by 400 feet, or eighty thousand (80,000) square 
feet. Nearly every bit of the land was covered with tall 
tenement houses six stories high. This block on January 


1, 1900, contained 39 different tenement houses having 
605 different apartments or sets of rooms, and housing 
2,781 persons; of these 2,315 were over 5 years of age and 
466 under 5 years. In the block there were 263 two-room 
apartments, 179 three-room apartments, 105 four-room 
apartments, 21 five-room apartments, making a total of 
1,588 rooms. There were only 264 water closets, and not 
one bath in the entire block, and only 40 apartments were 
supplied with hot water. The block contained- 441 dark 
rooms having no ventilation to the outer air whatsoever, 
and no light or air except that derived from other rooms, 
and there were 635 rooms in the block getting their sole 
light and air from dark, narrow "air shafts." Duringthe 
past five years there have been recorded 32 cases of tuber- 
culosis from the block, and during the past year 13 cases 
of diphtheria. The records of the Charity Organization 
Society and the United Hebrew Charities show that dur- 
ing a period of five years 660 different families living in 
the block have applied for charity. The rentals derived 
from this block amount to $113,964 a year. If this were 
an exceptional case and these conditions limited simply to 
one part of the city, the question would be serious enough, 
but when one considers that the block thus shown was 
selected merely as characteristic of the conditions through- 
out the City of New York, and that nearly every block is 
similar, one begins to realize the terrible extent of the 

The exhibition showed step by step the different changes 
that have taken place in New York's tenement houses 
since the early days, and all the evils of the present tene- 
ment house system were thoroughly exhibited, special 
emphasis being laid upon the terrible evils of the dark un- 
ventilated "air shafts" which are the chief characteristics 
of the present type of buildings, and which have been most 
aptly characterized as "culture tubes on a gigantic scale." 

The sunlight almost never penetrates below the top of 
the fifth floor in these shafts. Bringing up children in such 
darkness and amidst filthy odors, insures its inevitable re- 


suit: Twenty-five million dollars are annually expended for 
charity in the State of New York. It is a simple matter 
to investigate the records of our reformatories, hospitals, 
dispensaries, and institutions of similar kind, to find out 
what proportion of the patients and inmates come from 
tenement houses. In New York, we know that nearly all 
are tenement house dwellers. We also know that most 
of our criminals are young men between the ages of 
eighteen and twenty-five, and that the majority of them 
come from large cities, the breeding places of vice and 


Another striking feature of the tenement house exhi- 
bition was the series of poverty and disease maps showing 
the extent of poverty and disease in the tenement districts 
of the city. These maps showed on a large scale each block 
in the tenement house district, indicating which buildings 
were tenement houses, and which, business buildings, or 
used for other purposes. They gave the street number of 
each building, the height in stories, also the amount of 
land covered, the shape of the building and the small 
amount of land left vacant for light and air. The maps 
were arranged in two parallel series, one of "poverty" 
maps, the other " disease " maps. Upon the " poverty " 
maps were stamped black dots, each of which indicated 
that five different families from the building had applied 
for charity to one of the leading charitable societies in the 
city within a definite period of time. It seems beyond be- 
lief, yet it is a fact, that there was hardly one tenement 
house in the entire city that did not contain a number of 
these dots, and many contained as many as 15 of them, 
indicating that 75 different families had applied for charity 
from that house. Similarly on the "disease " maps, which 
were placed directly below the "poverty" maps, district 
by district, so that a comparative study of them might 
be made, there were stamped black dots, each indicat- 
ing that from that house there had been reported to the 



Board of Health one case of tuberculosis within the past 
five years. While these dots did not cover the buildings 
to the same extent as they were covered in ttye " poverty " 
maps, it was appalling to note the extent of this disease; 
nearly every tenement house had one dot on it, and many 
had three and four, and there were some houses that con- 
tained as many as twelve; other colored dots indicated the 
prevalence of typhoid fever, diphtheria, etc. The maps 
also contained upon each block a statement of the number 
of people living there, so that the student thus had oppor- 
tunity of weighing all the conditions that helped to pro- 
duce the epidemics of poverty and disease. The maps as 
they appeared in the exhibition might well earn for New 
York City the title of the City of Living Death. 

The exhibition was planned and developed to prove to 
the community the fact that in New York City the work- 
man is housed worse than in any other city of the civil- 
ized world, notwithstanding the fact that he pays more 
money for such accommodations than is paid elsewhere, 
being compelled to give more than one-fourth of his in- 
come for rent. That this was conclusively proved, no one 
who saw the exhibition could doubt. Photographs illus- 
trating the worst housing conditions and typical housing 
conditions in over fifty different large American cities 
were exhibited, and there was no city in the United 
States where the workingman was not infinitely better 
off in this respect than he was in New York. 

The exhibit of model tenements included photographs, 
architectural plans and tables of statistics from the very 
many model tenement companies in London, also exhibits 
of the work carried on, both by private corporations and 
by the municipality in Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sal- 
ford, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Paris, Rouen, Lyons, Berlin, 
Dresden, Leipzig, Copenhagen, and other European cities. 
The tables of statistics were most complete, giving nearly 
every item of interest connected with such enterprises, 
from the size of the rooms to the character of the tenants 
and the amount of profit upon the investment. 


The study of model lodging houses showed the develop- 
ment of the lodging house in New York City from the 
worst type of lodging in the police stations up to the more 
recent and admirable municipal lodging house and Mills 
Hotels; similar work carried on in London, Southampton, 
Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Copenhagen was 
also shown, as were the very large number of places 
where employers and private companies had built model 
small houses for workingmen in suburban districts. 


In connection with this exhibition, the Tenement 
House Committee of the Charity Organization Society 
authorized an architectural competition for the best plans 
of model tenements, upon lots of a size 25 feet wide by 100 
feet deep; 50 feet wide by 100 feet deep: T5 feet wide by 
100 feet deep, and 100 feet wide by 100 feet deep, under 
conditions applicable only to the City of New York at the 
present time. Over one hundred and seventy different 
architects took part in this competition, and the result 
was that many excellent plans were submitted. Four 
prizes were awarded, the first being a prize of $500, 
which was awarded to Mr. R. Thomas Short, a New York 
architect. The object of this competition was to arouse 
interest among architects in the scientific planning of 
tenement houses, the Committee feeling that a large part 
of the solution of the tenement house problem lay in this 

The exhibition contained many other interesting and 
instructive features, and created the most widespread 

Such has been the history of the different movements 
for housing reform in New York from 1834 to the present 




1842. Annual Report of the Interments in the City and County of 
New York for the Year 1842, With Eemarks Thereon, and a 
Brief View of the Sanitary Condition of the City. Pre- 
sented to the Common Council by John H. Griscom, M. D. , 
City Inspector. New York, James Van Norden, Printer to 
the Board of Assistant Aldermen, 1843. Document No. 59. 
(Library, Academy of Medicine, 17 West 43d Street.) 

1853. First Report of a Committee on the Sanitary Condition of the 
Laboring Classes in the City of New York, with Remedial 
Suggestions. New York, John F. Trow, Printer, 1853. 
Pamphlet, 32 pages. (Published in Annual Report of the 
Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor for 

1857. Report of the Select Committee Appointed to Examine into 
the Condition of Tenant Houses in New York and Brooklyn, 
March 9, 1857. Assembly Document No. 205, 54 pages. 
(State Library, Albany, N. Y.) 

1857. An Act to Improve the Condition of the Laboring Poor Resid- 
ing in Tenant Houses in the City of New York; To Establish 
a Board of Home Commissioners in said City, and for Other 
Purposes. Assembly Bill No. 568. (State Library, Albany, 
N. Y.) 

1865. Report of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health of the 
Citizens' Association of New Yerk upon the Sanitary Con- 
dition of the City. D. Appleton & Co. 360 pages. A num- 
ber of maps, diagrams and illustrations. 

1867. Report Relative to the Condition of Tenement Houses in the 
Cities of New York and Brooklyn, Assembly Document No. 
156, 34 pages. (State Library, Albany, N. Y.) 

1884. Report of the Tenement House Commission of the State of 
New York, February 17, 1885. Senate Document No. 36. 
235 pages. (State Library, Albany, N. Y.) 

1887. The Tenement House Problem in New York, January 16, 1888. 
Senate Document No. 16. 52 pages. 


^1890. "How The Other Half Lives." By Jacob A. Eiis. Charles 
Scribner's Sons. 1890. 304 pages many illustrations. 

1893. " Poor in Great Cities." Charles Scribner's Sons. 1895. 400 

pages many illustrations. 

-^ 1893. The Housing of the Poor in American Cities. By Marcus T. 
Reynolds. American Economic Association. Volume 8. 
Nos. 2 and 3. 132 pages. 

1894. Report of the Tenement House Committee, as Authorized by 

Chapter 479 of the Laws of 1894. Assembly Document No. 
37. 650 pages many illustrations, maps, charts and dia- 
grams. (State Library, Albany, N. Y.) 

1895. The Housing of the Working People. By E. R. L. Gould. 

Eighth Special Report of the Commissioner of Labor, Wash- 
ington, D. C. 461 pages many illustrations. 

1899. A Ten Years' War An account of the battle with the slums 
in New York. By Jacob A. Riis. Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 
267 pages. Illustrated. 






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