Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Room With a [Legally Mandated] View: Housing Laws at 97 Orchard

This post explores the legislation behind the design of tenement houses, and how changes in regulations can be seen at 97 Orchard Street. The Tenement Museum's “Hard Times” tour visits two apartments occupied during different periods of tenement house legislation— before and after the New Law of 1901.

97 Orchard is a pre-“Old Law” tenement, which means it was constructed before the passage of Tenement House Law of 1867 (the “Old Law”). This was the first law of its kind, listing requirements for adequate living conditions within tenement buildings.

In 1901, the “New Law” requiring vast changes to buildings like 97 Orchard Street, (called “dumbbell tenements,” because of their shape), in an effort to improve the health and safety of residents.  Dumbbell tenements were built for maximum occupancy, not for quality. Their structure was simple: four 325-square-feet apartments per floor, three rooms per apartment, and a window that wouldn’t necessarily let in much light or air. The Gumpertz family occupied their second story apartment from 1870 to 1883, just prior to the passage of the New Law, so they wouldn't have enjoyed the resulting upgrades.

The Gumpertz family resided at 97 Orchard Street  prior to the "New Law" upgrades

These reforms targeted specific (and unpleasant) aspects of tenement life, such as lack of ventilation and light, and sanitation of bathrooms. The New Law of 1901 meticulously described how every inch of a tenement house should look and function. The result was greatly improved ventilation, sanitation, and safety.

Here are a couple of the law's key provisions. They make distinctions between pre-existing buildings (like 97 Orchard) and new construction:

Chapter III “Light and Ventilation”, Title I, Section 67: Rooms, lighting, and ventilation of.— In every tenement house hereafter erected every room, except water-closet compartments and bathrooms, shall have at least one window opening directly upon the street or upon a yard or court. (New Law, 29)
Chapter III, Title II “Provisions applicable only to now existing Tenement Houses”, Section 79: Rooms, lighting, and ventilation of, continued.— No room in a now existing tenement house shall hereafter be occupied for living purposes unless it shall have a window upon the street, or upon a yard no less than four feet deep, or upon a court or a shaft of no less than twenty-five square feet in area, open to the sky without roof or skylight, or unless such room has a sash window opening into an adjoining room in the same apartment said sash window having at least fifteen square feet of glazed surface, being at least three feet by five feet between stop beads, and at least one-half thereof being made to open readily. An alcove opening of no less dimension than said sash window shall be deemed its equivalent. (New Law, 33)

Does this sash window sound familiar? If you’ve visited the Baldizzi’s apartment, right next to the Gumpertz’, you might have noticed that there's one over the kitchen table. The Baldizzis occupied this apartment between 1928 until 97 Orchard closed in 1935. It showcases the physical changes required by the new law. After paying a visit to the Gumpertz’, the Baldizzi’s apartment is noticeably more airy and better lit.

The "New Law" required interior windows like this one in the Baldizzi kitchen.

If you exit the Baldizzi apartment and look down the hallway to your left, you’ll see another important upgrade--a bathroom. They're not pretty, but these inside toilets were a significant upgrade from the outhouses set up in the yards behind tenements.

Sure, it's humble, but it's better than an outhouse!

In the 1930's, housing laws required further upgrades that proved too costly for some landlords, so many buildings, including 97 Orchard, were closed rather than renovated. In 1935, the residents of 97 Orchard were evicted, and the tenement closed its doors to residents for the last time.

-- Posted by Ana Colon

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