Metropolitan cities in the late 1800’s enjoyed the benefits of industrialism, strong economies, advancements in transportation and infrastructure, and a variety of entertainment options during the Gilded Age. An influx of immigrants, coupled with Americans settling into city life after the great migration created a vast pool of eager Americans ready to offer their skills and trades in exchange for the opportunity of city life. While the vibrancy of city life abounded, the underbelly of New York City also thrived. The population surged from 96,373 at the 1810 census to 1,206,299 at the 1890 census.1 With the twelve fold increase in population the city also saw an alarming rise in crime, poverty, sanitation problems, corruption, and exploitation of a system ill equipped to absorb the burden of such rapid growth. Eighty percent of the city’s population was housed within the city’s tenement buildings, numbering upwards of thirty five thousand structures in 1893.2 The cultural landscape of New York City mirrored most other large U.S. cities of that time. Districts and neighborhoods within cities were sharply defined by ethnic neighborhoods heavily populated with immigrants of shared nationalities. Mutual aid societies, fraternal organizations, houses of worship, and even banks were established within the neighborhoods and provided residents with camaraderie, community, social support, and sometimes even financial support. While the cultural and social landscape of New York City reflected what was happening in other US cities, a unique physical difference differentiated the city from others of its’ time and that was the introduction of the “Dumbbell” tenement building.
In 1879, a magazine entitled The Plumber and Sanitary Engineer sponsored an architectural design contest with the objective of maximizing landlord profits on a lot size of twenty five by one hundred feet. The winner of the contest, James Ware, was the creator of what would forever be known as the dumbbell tenement3. A tenement house in New York City was
“any building or part thereof which is occupied as the residence of three families or more living independently of each other and doing their own cooking on the premises”. 4 It included apartment houses, flat houses, and all other houses of similar character. The dumbbell tenement structure was distinctive to other tenement houses due it its’ one of a kind design. Blueprints for a dumbbell tenement building appeared strikingly similar to a “dumbbell” weight, hence the origination of the name. Within a dumbbell tenement building each floor had four apartments, two airshafts of fifty feet each, and two common toilets. These buildings were six stories high with a total of eighty four rooms.5 The largest and most infamous tenement of the late eighteen hundreds was the substantial brick structure, prison-like in appearance, known as “The Big Flat”. Six stories tall, covering six city lots, ran through block 96 and 98 Mott Street to 47 and 49 Elizabeth Street and was the largest multiple dwelling built in New York before the eighteen eighties.6 In 1886 a sanitary inspector reported “dust and dirt covering stairs like carpet”7 , “dampness and vegetable organisms on the walls of the inner rooms”8. Prostitutes rented out most of the ground floor apartments at the Big Flat and drunks were often found sleeping in the main hallways. In 1883-1885 when the average death rate in the city was twenty-six per thousand, the average for the big flat was forty-two per thousand.9
Tenement buildings dominated immigrant neighborhoods throughout the city. The densely populated buildings and neighborhoods easily became breeding grounds for disease and crime. Two toilets, shared by forty plus residents, were often overworked and inoperable. It was not uncommon for twelve people to be living in a single unit within a tenement, as many families took in boarders to offset the cost of rent. Raw sewage drained in plain sight onto city streets. City trash pickup was sporadic, at best. The two feet wide air shafts often served as a dumping