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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
image Living Together Tenements
East River Houses
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East River Houses
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Model tenements begin to be built in larger numbers in the late nineteenth century. The City and Suburban Homes Company, which was a joint-stock company where the investors were mostly very wealthy families. Many of the largest industrialists in New York invested money in the City and Suburban Homes Company. And this company built entire square blocks of model tenements, including several buildings that were built exclusively for African American tenants. But even with all this model-tenement construction, it didn't answer the question. It never solved the housing problem. It was still more profitable to build speculative tenements, and far more people lived in the poor-quality speculative tenements than ever lived in model tenements.

One of the most interesting of the model-tenement complexes. And you can see the footprint of several model-tenement complexes here, and you can see the different experimentations with courtyard plans. The plan in this image is the East River Houses, often called the Shively Sanitary Tenements. And these are perhaps the most beautiful of all model tenements because they were built by a single individual, they were built by a member of the Vanderbilt family, and they were built specifically to deal with one of the major scourges in tenement areas, which was tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis was the major killer of Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. And if you were wealthy and you got tuberculosis, the cure, although it wasn't a perfect cure, was to go to the Adirondacks or someplace where the air was clean and sit and breathe fresh air and eat hearty food. But if you were poor of course you really couldn't afford to do that. The East River Houses were built specifically to cater to families where a member had tuberculosis. And this would keep a family together and also would be a way to help cure the tuberculosis. They're built off of the East River. There's a park between these buildings and the East River. And there are balconies, and there are triple-sash windows, and you could raise the windows up and the person with tuberculosis could go sit out on the balcony and breathe the fresh air coming from the East River.

I suspect it wasn't particularly successful in curing tuberculosis, but nonetheless it was an extraordinary idea of how to deal with one of the major diseases of the turn of the century. The balconies were designed in an extremely beautiful manner, and the Vanderbilts always claimed that they made a small profit from these buildings, but there are no records, and since they had enough money the profit was not a big issue. I've always wondered whether or not the profit was really there.

The apartments were very, very small in these model tenements. They were not great housing. Affluent people would not have wanted to live here. Most of life in these buildings centered in the kitchen, which was often the largest room. But there were separate bedrooms. In order to get from the kitchen to the bedroom, you didn't have to walk through another room. One of the problems with tenements is to get from one room to another you often had to walk through a bedroom, which meant that you had no privacy and that you would wake children up. Here each room is separate. There's a little vestibule in your apartment, which gave you some privacy from the public realm. There's cross-ventilation, there's fireproofing, there's running water. Even though the apartments were small they still had many amenities that people living in typical tenements did not have.


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