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First Tenement House Act

Tenement House Competition

Jacob Riis publishes "How the Other Half Lives"

: Tenement House Act

In 1879, sparked by the increasing shortage of adequate housing for New York's poor immigrants, the magazine The Plumber and Sanitary Engineer sponsored a design competition. The dual objective was to create more housing and maximize landlord profits-both of which were constrained by the Manhattan lot size of 25 by 100 feet. It was pointed out by a newly recruited health officials that "Man's inhumanity to man," is nowhere more "observable than in this sacrifice of human life for the sake of gain." The prizewinner was James Ware's "dumbbell" design, so named for its narrow airshafts running through the middle of the building on each side, yet it was essentially a front and rear tenement connected by a long hall. Each dumbbell reached six stories and housed 300 people in its 84 rooms.

Although the dumbbell did provide one window per room and airshafts admitted light and air into the floors of tenement buildings, because of the narrowness of the shafts and the height of the buildings, the shafts "simply [became] a stagnant well of foul air." More seriously, "tenants often use the air shaft as a receptacle for garbage and all sorts of refuse and indescribable filth thrown out of the windows, and this mass of filth is often allowed to remain, rotting at the bottom of the shaft for weeks without being cleaned out."

Water-closets posed a second hazard in the new dumbbell design. Even as late as 1900, it was not unusual for a family of four to share one water-closet. Reported one female tenant, they "stink horribly. So, we use it as little as possible." Describing life on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, another tenant explained that mothers usually began their day by cleaning house. The "garbage" problem was usually solved by either "throwing it out the window on to the street below, or down the air-shaft." One woman maintained that "in some cases it is almost a necessity to throw it out, the premium on space is so high in their tiny kitchens, which hold wash-tubs, water-sink and chairs and just room enough to turn about." It thus became evident by the turn of the century that the new dumbbell tenements had only succeeded in exacerbating the very problems it was created to solve. "Dumbbell" tenement construction ballooned after an 1879 housing law set new minimum standards for lighting and ventilation. Thousands had been constructed by 1901.