Popular Science Monthly/Volume 80/February 1912/Modern Tenement Houses




THERE are now being completed in New York City two groups of tenement buildings, which without doubt embody more real improvements in tenement house construction than have ever before been seen in any one structure. Both groups are on East 77th Street near the East River. One is being erected by Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Sr., and the other by the Open Stair Tenement Co. Henry Atterbury Smith is the architect in each case and similar buildings after his designs are soon to be erected in Hoboken and further downtown in New York, in West 47th Street.

Whether science, learning or practical common sense has contributed more to the latest improvements in tenement-house construction as revealed in these buildings, it would be hard to say, but whichever it is Mr. Smith deserves the credit. He has given many years to the study of this problem and it was some time after he worked out its solution before he was able to persuade capital to adopt his plans. All of

Fig. 1. East 77th Street, New York, looking West. Vanderbilt Tenements on the right, and those of the Open Stair Tenement Company on the left.
Fig. 2. The Vanderbilt Tenements.

that is now of the past, however, and the first of his buildings is now nearly ready for occupancy.

Mr. Smith's chief aim and purpose in the construction and arrangement of his buildings is to secure for them the greatest possible supply of fresh air and sunshine, and conversely to eliminate every opportunity for darkness and bad ventilation. Instead of erecting one immense structure broken only by the narrow shafts and congested yards of most tenement houses, he makes each building a group of four units, each surrounding a spacious central court. This court is entered through a direct, unobstructed passage from the street. One of these entrances is seen at the right of Fig. 1. From the central court there are recessed stairways in each corner extending all the way to the roof, and with private entrances directly into each apartment.

These are the open stairs which form the distinguishing characteristic of all the tenement houses designed by Mr. Smith. The primary purpose of these open stairs is to do away with all interior passages and hallways and to provide each family with its own entrance from outside the building. The open stairs are in reality open on one side only as shown in Fig. 3, which gives not only a view of the interior of one stair well, but also a view of the well in the opposite corner of the court as seen from outside. Every particle of material in the stairway is fireproof and hardly a crack or a crevice is left in which dust or dirt may collect. The railings are of iron, and midway between the floors are iron seats to serve as resting places. To keep out rain and snow there are hoods over these seats, projecting outward at the proper angle to accomplish their main purpose without excluding air or light. Smooth glazed white tile on the walls of the well and large panes of thick glass in the hoods are designed to catch and reflect every available ray of light. There is nothing dark or dingy about such a stairway and its advantages over the foul-smelling, unsanitary halls of the average tenement are too apparent to require enumeration.

The top of each stair well is covered with a pergola like that shown in Fig. 4. The pergolas have iron framework holding glass panels over the top and glass windows part way up the sides, with numerous sections which can be opened when desired. Immediately under its roof the pergola is always open for ventilating purposes, but so that neither snow nor rain can find its way into the hall.

Another feature of the open stairs hardly less interesting than those already mentioned is their intensely practical usefulness in case of fire. It is a remarkable testimonial to their value in this respect that the city officials who pass on such matters have decided that no fire-escapes are required on tenements of the open stair type. The most practical fire proof quality of the open stairs is that they are the one means of leaving

Fig. 3. The Open Stairs, with outlook beyond, across the central court and into the stair well of the opposite corner.

the building with which the tenants are always familiar—the exits towards which they would naturally hasten in case of danger, and further that they allow of escape either in two directions—to the ground in the central court or upward to the roof whence the tenant may cross to another well and then descend. Beginning with the fact that the building itself furnishes almost nothing for flames to feed upon, and then noting that two routes to safety are always available and that no tenant is ever shut off from a direct avenue of escape unless the fire is actually at his own threshold, where there is not enough for it to burn to assume dangerous proportions, and the case for the open stairs as effective

Fig. 4. On Roof of the Vanderbilt Tenements. The pergola in the center covers one of the open stair wells, and at its right is a covered shelter for the use of tenants.

preventives of fire or escape therefrom is rather strongly established. No fire could gain much headway in any part of a building of this sort without soon being detected and located, and prevented from spreading by playing hose from the central court upon the entrance of the burning apartment.

What the architect might designate as the fenestration of the periphery, but would be more easily recognized by the layman as the window treatment of the exterior, is another vital feature of the plan to secure the utmost circulation of air. In the Vanderbilt group as seen in Fig. 2 all exterior windows are extremely high, extending from floor to ceiling, and have sashes in three sections so that two thirds of the
Fig. 5. A Kitchen in the Vanderbilt Tenements, showing cement flooring with unbroken, curved joining of floor and walls; also the triple-hung windows.

window may be thrown open. Moreover, each apartment has a strong, spacious iron balcony reached through the windows. These balconies have no communication with each other and are sufficiently wide to be used as sleeping porches if desired. The arrangement of the rooms is such that no outside widows open on toilets or hallways. All of them are either in kitchens or bedrooms and in a great majority of the apartments there is a direct cross draught through the rooms, from the street side to the inner court, or from the courts separating the various units.

Both the roofs and the cellars of the Vanderbilt buildings are in a

Fig. 6. Another View of a Kitchen, showing hood over the gas range.

sense the common property of all tenants. In the basements are laundries for the use of tenants who prefer not to do their washing in their own rooms, and the roofs provide ample space where children may play or for older folks to rest or do their light housework in the open air.

Within the tenements, all the woodwork and structural furnishings are planned in the simplest possible way. There is no attempt at ornamentation, but everything is done to further the effort to secure cleanliness and wholesomeness. The floors are of concrete monolythic construction, or all of one solid surface and they have the sanitary base which means that they round up gradually into the walls with no sharp joints or corners.

The buildings are lighted throughout with electricity, but there are gas ranges for cooking over which are wide metal hoods which carry the odors and vapors from the stove into a flue which runs up into a pipe extending high above the floor of the roof. Sanitary earthenware is used in the bath rooms and for the set-tubs in the kitchens.