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Tenemental Journey: Evolution of Apartment Building Design

April 4, 2014

Another spinoff of the Five Points (Porches, Points and Poverty) project, and including Building Construction Types; since I was discussing buildings so much, and learned new terms such as “dumbbell tenement” and how the laws changed affecting the design of buildings.
Landlords had been trying to pack in as much living space as possible in 25 foot wide lots, but were gradually required to give up more and more of that space (and then occupy bigger lots) so the people could have light and room to breathe.

Evolution of earlier tenement design

Previously “no law” (anything went; hence all the stuff you heard about in the Five Points)

1867 “pre-law” ( not a comprehensive set of rules, but did add the necessity of a window in each room; but did not specify an outside window, so it was interpreted to allow just a window to another room. This was also when fire escapes were first mandated.

1879 “old law”: windows specified as external; resulted in “dumbbell tenements”, which became the familiar turn of the century Manhattan tall narrow row buildings, with the narrow light shaft squeezed in.
So narrow, the ends were tapered by a diagonal wall with a window, as the space wasn’t even wide enough to fit a window on a perpendicular wall.

Here’s how they fit together:

(Me, being an introverted Thinking dominant, always likes to find out that there is a name for these things I’ve noticed my whole life; and wish I knew of it before.
My godmother lived in one of these, in W134th St. when I was really young, then moved to the Harlem River Houses, but a close church friend still lived either there, or in another one like it in the same area afterward. Now occupied by a highrise; one of the few places from my childhood to be gone. Her storefront church on Boston Rd. in the South Bronx was also in a building on a shaft like that. I found those angled walls at the end so intriguing. I actually had that in the 20’s building I lived in, but it rapidly opened up into a wider backyard).

There’s even a picture of a bathtub stuck in one of these shafts because they were so narrow.

Many of them did get a bit wider in the middle (the building gets narrower), usually where the stairway windows are. (The picture at top has the completely narrow one, and the other picture with the row of them has the latter). I’ve seen it described as “a front and rear tenement joined at the middle by the hallway”. (This looks like what the 1880’s №18 Baxter was, but others are clearly built as one building).
That I am finding is strictly a Manhattan-below-100th St. thing. Above there and in the Bronx, it’s mostly a small shaft toward the front (varying in size), and a bay in the rear (tapered like the dumbbell shafts, but still open out to the back yard). The buildings that had the gas explosion were like this, with a tiny shaft near the front (totally obliterated int he blast), and what were left was the narrower rear portion of one of them. Not sure if these count as true “dumbbell” tenements. Some, such as my godmother’s building, had both a shorter tapered shaft in the middle, and the bay at the rear, and some buildings in Brooklyn are something like that too.

This change of the laws explains what I’ve long noticed; that Brooklyn has relatively few true dumbbell tenements, compared to Manhattan. Most buildings that look like the older ones in Manhattan are still rectangular. (Occasionally, there may be a notch for a very tiny light shaft). Then it jumps to the newer ones with the wider bays.

Brooklyn wasn’t apart of NYC in 1879, and thus was not under its building laws. It was annexed in 1898, three years before the New Law went into effect. Hence only that narrow window of time for the dumbbells to be the maximum use of space.
So now when you do see dumbbells in Brooklyn, we can know within three years the estimated time for them to have been built.
You usually just see it narrow just once, and no hallway windows are seen.

I would think the lower Manhattan layout was perhaps an older design that stopped being built by the time Brooklyn was annexed, and the city above 100 St. was being built up; but the 22 & 24 Baxter tenements were in that shape, and first appear in the 1898-9 map (the time Brooklyn was annexed, and a lot of building going on uptown), so I’m not sure why I’m (so far) not seeing any of those in those other places.
Perhaps it has to do with the population density in lower Manhattan. Having the shaft wider at the hallway was probably to being more light into the stairway, and these Manhattan buildings are five and six stories tall, where their [old law] counterparts in the other boroughs are usually three and four.

1901 “new law”; buildings must be wider than 25 feet ( but with apparent exceptions as shown below), and the narrow light shaft replaced by wider, open bays (as time went on, ends were now wide enough to fit a perpendicular window), or an enclosed shaft so large, it was basically a court yard.

Bays and inner courts replace narrow shafts

So now we can get an idea of when buildings were built.
This doesn’t work in Brooklyn, however.

As time went on, more ornate style with gargoyles replaced by Beaux Arts.

10’s rougher façade brick finish texture becomes common, and is now usually either just red or beige (replacing smooth semi-glossy brick that was often orange, and with thinner mortar). This decade is when the mortar joints became thicker in the front (it was always thicker in the rear).

Cornices begin being reduced on some buildings, where they do not cover the whole parapet. (You’ll have the cement coping on top, then, going down, a few courses of bricks, and then a sloped usually pantile cornice surrounded by the bricks, and with angled beam supports underneath.

Jack arches (terra cotta flat lintels, but with skewed ends —considered an “arch” with 0 rise, and usually in sections —voussoirs, centered by keystones; when the springers; the stones on the ends are taller than the other stones, it resembles a crown) continued to be common, but were now interspersed with other designs, such as a “lintel” made of soldiers and supported by a steel slat, and many times the sides will be lined by a stack of stretchers; often with a stone square in the corner where the sides and top meet.

Stone (don’t think it’s usually terra cotta anymore; usually this grooved cement) is also sometimes used in different places.
Front window ledges also often made with this stone.
This is where in NYC the fancier hallways with plastered brick walls with moulding or texture, concrete floors covered with tile, and marble stairways (often with fancier wrought ironwork bannisters on the first floor) became popular.

Common “jack arch” found on many early 20th century buildings.
Even though it’s flat, it’s considered an “arch”
because of the arch-like skewed sides and keystone

20’s cornices replaced by various coped often uneven parapet designs. The most familiar will be a symmetrical pattern with a straight parapet over the windows on the extreme right and left of the front, and a broad arched or apexed section over the middle (the straight end sections are usually raised from where the mid section meets them, and there’s often a lower section between them. This is a Beaux Arts style reference to a “pediment“; think of the top of a Greco-Roman temple).

Most terra cotta design is replaced by different brick patterns; often raised courses and columns of bricks, and false [full semicircle] arches made with them (the arch is above the window, but the entire camber is filled with more bricks, often square ones, frequently laid in a 45° pattern, and supported over the window with steel slats. This is basically a “discharging arch” in this case used for a decorative purpose). Tablets spaced between windows (usually vertically) will consist of different decorative bond patterns (such as basket weave), enclosed by a box of raised bricks.

Jack arches also become less used, and windows are either framed with raised brick on three sides, or have no features near them at all.
Common front pattern is Flemish. There is also a lot of Cross bond, which is a wider pattern of alternation between headers and stretchers, with the result of the headers forming diagonally crossing patterns. These are often “vitrified” (made darker), forming a diagonal criss-cross pattern on the facade.

Court yards (middle or especially front) become more common than rear bays.
Brick window ledges comprised of raised rowlocks become common.
The plainer Tudor style also becomes common
By now, the design is so fancy and spacious, we would not usually call these buildings “tenements” anymore. (I would consider a true tenement as the narrower row buildings from the 10’s and before).

Even Brooklyn moved up to five and six stories in many of these buildings. (I call them the “Flatbush-style” buildings, as these were what were everywhere around where I grew up).

Typical 20’s style building layout found in newer neighborhoods like Flatbush (even down to the angled streets!)
These aren’t usually called “tenements”

30’s, 40’s Art deco was the next progression. Masonry become less ornate, but was replaced by nice linear designs (including in front fire escapes and other iron work). Many had those windows that wrapped around the corner of the building. (Denver is a city that has a lot of them, though they’re usually small, at 2 stories. And of course Miami Beach, though the one time I passed through Miami, I could not find how to get to the Beach to take a closer look at them).
The older of these were the newest looking buildings to use the segmental arches in the rear. Afterward, all windows use steel slats.

50’s, 60’s totally plain red brick, often concrete balconies (hardly any NYC buildings used balconies before this, though you can find front and back “porches” in other cities). So these were basically six story lowrise versions of the highrises that became common, especially for projects. Some projects were six stories as well, and were basically just x shapes plain red brick buildings with no balconies, but surrounded by “garden” grounds. (Hip Hop’s wellknown Queensbridge and Flatbush’s former “Vanderveer Estates, now being re-marketed as “Flatbush Gardens”, are examples. The latter has fire escapes; the former doesn’t).

Cocklofts have vents dispersed on the sides. I’m not sure if this is good, as several cock-loft fires I have seen in recent years, tend to spread pretty quickly (Never saw any of these newer buildings burn when growing up, and you would think they were firepoof). Many also have air conditioner sleeves below the windows.

By the 70’s, It seemed the highrise “box” had totally replaced the lowrise for multiple unit dwellings in the city.
What look like a 70’s form of the six story lowrise are the row of buildings built on Gates Ave. from Throop basically to Ralph (only that street; replacing an old commercial strip, from the few old buildings that remain).

These are where the windows get smaller, and the “design” is basically a vertical pattern formed by slight recessions forming a “slot” the windows are lined up in, and the wall between the window on each floor is covered with some metal panel, or something, which is painted; originally an almost black dark brown, but now repainted in colors like blue. The parapets are also covered with this.
You see this on many high rise projects as well.

Where most 70’s and later buildings went solidly with a fireproof “type 1″ construction, these are apparently still type 3, as they have fire escapes. (This to me is what ties them in as evolutions of the older buildings).
Some of the buildings on Gates have balconies instead. Perhaps these are newer 80’s buildings. It’s hard to tell otherwise. Other buildings have the even flatter, more “modern” windows, and at least one has the vertically sliding windows that are even more common on modern buildings.
There are also four story buildings that use beige vertically textured concrete blocks, which is a style that comes down to the present in type 1 high and low rise buildings (not sure when these were built), but still have fire escapes.

Afterward, (90’s-present) we get into a “retro” kick, but done in a totally concrete type 1 construction. Like rows of buildings in East Harlem (near the explosion), that copied the 100+ year old tenement design with horizontal masonry that features white lintels, with the imposts (rows of bricks the lintels rest on) replaced by horizontal concrete extensions of the “line” to the next window. Other old features such as quoins and even jack arches would return. Rear walls would be either cement block (usually cemented over, just like they do on renovated old buildings), or drywall covered with siding.

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One Comment
  1. Here’s the evolution of designs on old buildings in general, I had noticed from all the research Five Points.

    When I learned scene of the Riis picture at the beginning of that article (link at beginning of OP) was on Baxter, I assumed it must have been the really horrible “Bend” block, #165.
    When I first saw the Catling painting (around the time of the release of “Gangs of NY”), I assumed the Bend was the block in the center of the picture, and wondered which of those little gabled houses might be the building in Riis’ photo (which I then knew was “c1890″, but didn’t know the painting was much earlier, and most of those were gone by the time of the photo), still assuming that was the back of a building, and wondering what the front a a building in NYC with a rear design like that would look like.

    Now, I’ve recognized different styles, and that the Catlin painting was picturing early 19th century and earlier houses, and the Riis photo is of an [originally] industrial building. (Still not sure when it was built; and older buildings such as the Old Brewery, as well as newer structures, such as the Brooklyn Bridge vault walls, look similar.
    The style for industrial buildings didn’t change as much as it did for residential ones.
    The outline of the larger brick portion of #24 Baxter can be seen in several drawings, and it was a long flat-roof building. Though I’m still not even 100% sure which of the buildings in the complex was shown in the picture).

    On many of the common “pre-War” brick buildings still around, the front will feature different masonry designs, with different brick colors, textures, bond patterns, and stonework added; while the rears will have only red brick, American Bond.* The older of these buildings will have some form of terra cotta or other stone arch (even if it’s “flat”, having no curve), or maybe still a stone lintel, to support the tops of front windows, and segmental arches on the rear windows (which are structural and not decorative. Some fronts will incorporate them in design patterns, such as in some groups of Ridgewood and Astoria’s “Matthews Flats”). Beginning in the new century, double windows and some wider windows such as the hallway/stairway, when in the rear, would use I-beams instead of arches.
    Later buildings would replace all of these with steel slats.

    But this was basically the “old-law” and afterward, when a lot of design was added to façades, but not needed in rears, which wouldn’t be seen by many people.

    *(groups of five courses of “stretchers” or bricks laid lengthwise, separated by “king’s rows” of “headers”, which are the ends of the bricks laid flat. In New England, these rows are usually “Flemish”, which is alternating headers and stretchers, and the rows are further apart).

    Brick positions graphic produced for Wikipedia.
    Since replaced by newer image

    Before the mid-19th century, buildings (brick, like wood) used the same masonry design on all sides. The common brick on all buildings was a plain dark red or bright rust color (orange-red) porous brick, which is often painted for some reason (making the building look really “rustic” after awhile when it wears away, often exposing several coats of partly washed away paint jobs. This was nicely captured on the Five Points set of the “Gangs of New York” movie, when they realized they needed to add some aging effects with plaster, to make it look old).

    I notice schools from that period, with the “Victorian Institutional” style (like the really old looking ones with the elaborate non-flat roofs and steeples like a castle; think Aerosmith’s “School’s Out For Summer” video) when rehabilitated, will get the paint stripped, but then usually receive a new coat of paint roughly the same color as the cleaned old brick. This happened on two schools near me, and another one it seems got an all new brick façade, given away by the thicker mortar joints and new looking “pink”-er color and surface texture. It’s as if the original bricks on these old schools cannot be restored for some reason. I saw part of one of them exposed before paint was added later, and it looked fine from what I saw. Another school of that design in the ENY/Cypress Hills are was restored to the bright rust color though).

    The bond was usually plain “stretcher”, with all bricks laid the same way. Not sure what bonded the different layers together (that’s the purpose of headers, whose length connects to the next layer in). Probably just those little metal tabs, like they currently use to bond brick façades to concrete block walls).
    And the “joints”, which are simply the mortar sticking them together, were much thinner.

    Residences had lintels on all windows, and usually (at least for lower class houses) no other stone work. (Some 18th century “colonial” houses, like the one preserved nearby on the Bowery, use jack arches and Flemish bond like 20th century buildings, though with the thinner mortar joints, and it’s like this on all sides of the building).
    Lintels were either plain rectangular blocks, or they had raised moldings along the top edge. Window ledges were just plain slabs.
    The windows and floor scale were generally smaller.

    It seems houses universally had a side gabled roof with dormers in front and back. (These are called “peak” or “double-pitched” roofs, as it’s made of two sloped panels that meet at a ridge on top. The “gable” was actually the triangular shaped piece of wall formed by this. These buildings in Manhattan had the gables on the sides, so the slopes faced the front and rear. The Old Brewery is an example of the gable being in the front and rear, and the slopes facing the sides. “Cross-gables” are those typical turn of the century suburban homes that have gables on all four sides, and the ridges form a cross.
    Some of the gable houses that are still around in lower Manhattan are dated from the 1820’s and even earlier.

    Buildings built as “tenements” had flat roofs, though many houses were converted into what came to be called “tenements” as you hear about in the Five Points. Many flat roof buildings had a shorter top floor, seen in the smaller windows.

    These styles are generally categorized as “Federal” (1800 to 1835) and “Greek Revival” (1835 to 1855). The biggest difference between them is that the Federal used the Flemish bond Greek Revival added more vertical elements, such as columns, and especially door enframements, often capped off by a triangular pediment.
    Before these, it was the Georgian Style these had evolved from; think basically those “colonial” era house museums you see in historic areas, like in the South or New England. IT was part of a general category called “Colonial architecture”. “Colonial Revival” was a late 19th century attempt to go back to colonial architecture.
    Wooden louvered shutters also accompanied all of these (though they were cosmetic, and most removed eventually).

    Industrial buildings like 24 Baxter and the Old Brewery that used arched windows would have them on all sides (though they could have lintels as well, and some representations of the Brewery, such as for the movie, show a combination in the front. Also, you have to consider floors or windows being added later, and building extensions being added or different buildings being joined together, such as #24 still having a wooden front house, with a brick face added later, and being connected to #65, which apparently had the Federal house design).
    Any shutters would be plain (usually steel), and conform to the arch, if there was one.

    Some industrial or commercial buildings had gables as well, especially the older they were.
    You had the Rhinelander Sugar House, which was a large stone mill-like structure located near what’s now the entrance of the Brooklyn Bridge. (A single window has been preserved nearby on the second block of Cardinal Hayes Pl. where it opens into St. Andrew’s Plaza, bear Police Plaza. It used a low typical cambered segmental arch, though consisting of alternating rowlocks and soldiers. Since these “sugar houses” were used as prisons for some reason, it still has the bars in the window. Another window was moved to Van Cortlandt Park somewhere).

    67 Greenwich Street is from 1810, and looks like a later flat-roofed tenement, but was originally a Federal style house but the roof was converted into a full fourth floor in the mid 1800’s (so the new construction blends seamlessly).

    Here’s an article on the Federal Style houses of lower Manhattan

    Mid century, in the early old-law period, you also had what are called “arched lintels”, which are lintels shaped like an arch, but it’s one piece of concrete or stone (usually with raised, sculpted molding on top like some of the previous non-arched ones) that rests on the sides of the window. You see these a lot on brownstones (which also appeared during this time), as well as plain red brick buildings in really old sections like Williamsburg, Brooklyn. One of the Tenement Museum buildings on Orchard St. has these (though the molding has been shaved off), and it’s dated from the 1860′s.
    While the front windows will use these curved lintels, the rear windows on some of these began to have the standard segmental arch made of two rows of bricks, and with roughly the same shape as the front lintels. (Many did continue to use lintels in the rear. Looking now, I’m seeing more of them had lintels than I thought. 981-3 Broadway, Bklyn. are examples of this front, but using raised segmental arches in the rear).

    Those might be the first residential buildings to differentiate front masonry from rear masonry and use the plain rear arches that would be used on nearly every brick building for several decades, almost the entire “pre-war” period. So that is when arches started to replace lintels.

    The bricks in the front were almost always the bright “rust” color. They are often restored to their bright color when renovated.
    While the front still used the uniform stretcher bond, the American bond also became the standard for the non-decorative pattern in the rear.

    The next step was a group of slightly more ornate patterns. Flat lintels and even window ledges alike became highly sculptured (like the ones with upper moldings becoming more common, and ledges having corbels, which are decorative “supports” under them). These you also saw a lot on brownstones, as well as plain red brick buildings.
    Somewhere around the same time, other lintels (especially on smaller buildings) began getting light engraving, and even other than rectangle shapes. Soon, a common pattern on row buildings was a horizontal stone design with lines leading from where the lintel rests to the next window, going all the way across the façade.

    Afterwards is when the design became really ornate, where later old law period (fronts), also usually had glossy finished bricks in different colors; with a high prevalence of amber/orange and yellow.

    It would all come full circle in the post-war period, with plain red brick all sides, and steel slats on all windows.

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