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improving the situation in the United States were made by philanthropies since there was no accepted role for the government.19 From the first they took a two-pronged approach – lobbying for the enactment of housing and sanitary codes, and building model tenements that they hoped would demonstrate the feasibility of providing hygienic, comfortable housing for the working poor at market rates.

Several philanthropic or semi-philanthropic organizations sponsored competitions for the design of improved tenements late in the nineteenth century. Architects such as Ernest Flagg, I. N. Phelps Stokes and Henry Atterbury Smith tried to create buildings that would allow greater ventilation and better living conditions for the tenants and they built a series of “model tenements” with the aim of providing a practical example of what could be done in the hope that others would follow their lead. Between 1877 and 1905, there were several different model tenement projects in New York. The architects of these projects concentrated on ways to improve the light and ventilation and they created various plans to achieve this while still maintaining an economically feasible density.20 Large-scale planning by companies that were able to purchase entire blocks or more, enabled them to eliminate individual lots to create large buildings with central light courts. In this way, although the apartments were no larger than those in traditional tenements, they did provide improved light and air.

The Tenement House Act of 1867 was the country’s first comprehensive housing reform law.21 Although the law was weak and largely ignored due to a lack of enforcement provisions, it was the first attempt at government regulation of tenement houses and established the foundation for future legislation. Continued efforts at reform led to the Tenement House Act of 1879, and the creation of dumbbell tenements, which were later known as “old law” tenements. By requiring that all rooms had access to light and air, interior windowless rooms were eliminated and the tenement plan began to take on a “dumbbell” shape, created by air shafts on each side of the buildings. Designed to meet the requirements of the law, the early dumbbell tenements were unsuccessful; the shafts were too small to provide sufficient light and air to lower floors and acted as flues for spreading fires. 22

Concern about continued deteriorating housing conditions for the poor became more publicized in the 1880s and 1890s through the work of Jacob Riis. A journalist and photographer, Riis documented the conditions inside the tenement houses and published his first book, How the Other Half Lives, in 1890. The movement intensified in the late 1890s due to the work of

19 While European governments became involved in the construction of low-cost housing, here the government was only allowed to legislate minimum standards, such as those imposed by the Tenement House Act of 1867, revised in 1879 and 1901.

20 New York model tenements included those built by Alfred T. White in Brooklyn, the Improved Dwellings Association, and the Tenement House Building Company. To improve light and air in the buildings, the architects’ designs included open stair tenements, buildings with open courtyards or light slots, and other arrangements to provide more open space.

21 The 1867 law defined the word “tenement” and among its requirements were at least one toilet or privy for every 20 people, connected to the sewer if possible; fire escapes; and interior transom windows for ventilation. Lower East Side Tenement Museum, “Housing, Tenements” available on-line (July 17, 2009) at: http://www.tenement.org/Encyclopedia/housing_tenements.htm.

22 Additionally, the light shafts became garbage receptacles and virtually eliminated privacy between adjacent buildings and apartments. Andrew S. Dolkart, Biography of a Tenement House in New York City (Santa Fe, NM: The Center for American Places, Inc., 2006), 61. G.X. Mathews employed light shafts, as required by the 1901 Tenement House Act, to provide light and air to each room.


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