Friday, February 12, 2016

Personality, humor and taste

A quick post today on the signatures of tenement designers. The Herter Brothers were German-Americans who worked for many Jewish clients although they themselves were not Jewish. Kerri Kulhane, in her superb historic district survey of the Chinatownn & Little Italy, points out that it was often the immigrant landlords who preferred the gauche and splashy ornaments, while Protestant elite landowners like the Astors, avoided it as poor taste beneath them. The Herters not only included terra cotta masks and rinceaux panels, they developed themes so distinctive that anyone can recognize their imaginative hand and eye instantly. We've already seen the Moses
Although the bust of Moses is unique, the image of pharoah appears on Orchard Street tenements as well, and the Star of David and half shells became a frequent element on their buildings. 
Photo: Stefania Zamparelli

60 Bayard St. (1 Elizabeth St.) immediately above holds a particular fascination. The half shells contain horned gremlins with Chinese faces. The Star of David is displayed prominently as well. Bayard Street was a Jewish neighborhood when the building was constructed in 1888, but the Chinese demographic was beginning to grow as well. You'll notice that the brick and terra cotta match. The lintels are red sandstone, and the columns of red granite, also matching. Looking across the street, the terra cotta, the brick and the stone are all of different colors highlighting the different architectural materials, one of the points of the using different materials. 60 Bayard is a kind of clever -- and elegant -- joke: all these different materials, all matching and almost indistinguishable from one another.

The Herters also designed the Eldidge Street Synagogue, all in sand-tinted terra cotta. There it lends a dignity of uniformity. On the tenement, it's wry.

All the buff color tenement's masks are gremlins -- a kind of Walpurgis Nacht fantasy with late Renaissance ornament.
Photo: Stefania Zamparelli

Next up, the most sophisticated aesthetic statement from the German community

Thursday, February 11, 2016

And don't believe the know-it-alls

We began this series on tenements with the question, "why are some tenements so ornate?" Why would the tenement owner bother with all that terra cotta? Along with the irrational answers to that question, there's an additional response: terra cotta is a molded ornament, so it lends itself to mass production.

You can see what's going on with this repsonse. One, there's an expression of inside historical, artistic knowledge about terra cotta and how its made. But also there's an attempt to explain away the ornament question by disparaging the tenement-as-art, describing it as cheap, common and unoriginal. Why did the owner bother with ornament? -- because it was no bother. I've even heard these know-it-alls discredit the tenement as not even designed -- the landlord went to the warehouse, ordered a dozen of these, half a dozen of those, and had the construction crew install them over all the windows.

As you probably expect by now, I'm going to bury these self-servers of little knowledge. While it is true that terra cotta can be mass produced, and certainly was for the spectacular, lush and expansive New Law tenements (which no one complains of as mass produced, so easily are we impressed), the Old Law single-lot tenement almost always has at least some distinctive terra cotta piece unique to itself. Sometimes it is all covered with unique pieces. And sometimes still, it is structurally displayed with undeniably complex design. Ecce, demonstrare:


What you see here is a truly bizarre design. The squat columns do not need to be squat. They could have been traditional columns and the arch could have started higher up. It would have been cheaper to have no arch at all, and no interrupting band along its way up, except that would have exposed the cut bricks. The careful thought in this design is everywhere apparent. But that's just the start.

The masks atop the two pilasters are different -- one sports only a mustache, the other a beard. On each floor, there are two masks. No two of them are alike.


The windows alternate between segmental arches and flat ones, and the ground floor has broader segmental arches over bay windows. Way up high, there are terra cotta caryatids -- full body figures, both unlike, one female, one male.


The entire structure forms a columnial rise to an arch at the top, with a rectangular cornice. As you look at the all the elements together you can see that the design plays out as a counterpoint between the rectangular and the arched. You can see it in the entry (virtical pilasters and horizontal bands cutting across the segmental arch) as well as in the choice of rectangular cornice over the arched top floor. Three colors of terra cotta, tinted brick, diverse bands and plaques of terra cotta -- "mass produced" doesn't explain any of this diversity. The caryatids are unique to this building, as are most of the masks. And the squat columns are the proof of design. This tenement was built around the same time as Henry Hardenbergh's prestigious, elegant and fashionable Schermerhorn Building on Lafayette Street, about eight blocks away. The Schermerhorn is also multi-colored, covered with terra cotta. Most distinctive are its columns. They are squat.


The masks are wildly mustachioed, just like our tenement example, and the female face are like too. 



The tenement is of course far more modest. It's constrained by a 25' frontage and no corner to wrap around. But the designer has set out to reconcile those limitations with harmony of forms -- the arch as a unifying, harmonizing principle balanced with the rectangular shape of the building. What he came up with has the feeling of an experiment with all the elements drawn from the most fashionable design of the day. All built for immigrant labor. 

Or take a look at a Herter Brothers building: 
These are all unique masks and panels, not found on any other buildings. But just as the designers added something distinctive to (just about) every building, the Herter Brothers also added elements that identified the building as one of theirs. Those will be the ones repeated in more than one building. These designs were the architects' signatures. When you walk through the Lower East Side, you are looking at the portfolios of Gilded Age architects. 

Prior to the 1880's and the appearance of terra cotta, designs were all alike. After 1901 and the emergence of the City Beautiful Movement, design was ruled by Parisian models and architects who studied in Paris. It's only between around 1880 and 1900 that we see this efflorescence of originality in the streets, this display of personality and diversity and originality. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Don't trust historians

Here's an easy quiz. You'll find the cornice bust below on Broome Street. It was built in the 1890's when the neighborhood was largely Jewish and Italian. It's the largest bust on the Lower East Side. Who is this man with the flowing beard?


If you need a hint, notice the stars of David:


Well that was easy. Obviously, it's Moses. But why is it obvious? It isn't to historians, because...they're historians.

When you first see this from the street, you immediately recognize Moses, but maybe you wonder, what's he doing there? Was this a religious building? What's the back story? When you get home you google up the address and look for clues. You access the social historians, the preservationists, the architectural historians. They all concur. There's no evidence that this is Moses. Usually it's "The bust may be a representation of Moses, but we cannot confirm." "We don't know for sure who is represented." "It may be Moses or it could be Abraham."

You turn from your computer thinking, if the authorities don't know who it is, then it must be quite a mystery. I thought it was Moses, but now who knows? This is where professionalism misleads. If there's no documentation, the historian can't commit to speculation. That's what historians are for. Reliable research. But notice, research does not equal truth. It's just one means to it, and not always the most reliable.

So first, let's settle the facts. It's Moses. How can you tell? Because it doesn't say "Moses" on it. Because it's obviously Moses, and anyone placing a bust of Moses would know that everyone seeing it would recognize it as Moses without a name.

But what if it wasn't Moses? Well, consider if it was the landlord's cousin Seymour. You can be damned sure that Seymour's name "SEYMOUR" would be up there because Seymour and his whole landlord family would know that if "SEYMOUR" weren't up there, everyone looking at the bust would mistake it for Moses.

So the fact that there's no record of it not only doesn't cast doubt on Moses' identity, it substantiates that the bust is Moses. The absence of record is the evidence.

But what about Abraham? Couldn't it just as well be Abraham?

No way. When you think of Moses, what image do you see? Wise-looking, dynamic old man w/flowing beard. There's a ton of iconography for Moses and it's all wise, dynamic old man w/flowing beard. This is not Charlton Heston's invention or Cecil B. DeMille's. It's all over the Renaissance, and the most famous, Michelangelo's, has the same sideward glance as 375 Broome.




Now, when you think of Abraham's face, what image do you see? Um, nothing. There's no facial iconography for Abraham and for good reason.

Abraham's mythic, not heroic. Everything about him is beyond the human and not even quite humane. He's somewhere beyond the human scale. His faith is an ideal aspiration, not a graspable possession. No father wants to be Abraham, and you can be damn sure no son wants Abraham as a father.

Compare Moses. He abjures his privilege, power and wealth in the establishment culture to go seek out his Jewish roots (every assimilated Jew will resonate with this one), returns as defender of his people to speak truth to power and lead his people in victory. And he's human -- he stutters, makes mistakes, and pays for it by never seeing the land he brought his people to. What a story! Who doesn't love Moses? Who doesn't want to be just like him? He's the rock star of the Old Testament, and the moral, humane center of it. The only hero comes close is Esther. David is cool, but what a mess that man is. Nope, Moses is the model.

It's worth reflecting that it actually wouldn't matter if the landlord wanted it to look like Seymour. It wouldn't matter if the artist used his brother Irving instead of Seymour as a model. It wouldn't matter if, after it was unveiled, the four of them bickered over who it really was. What matters is that the bust had no name, so it was given to the viewer in this culture to decide, and that's going to be Moses. There are multiple truths. The answers you find depend on the questions you ask. The question, "Who is it really?" hides a bunch of assumptions that research alone can't tease out.

So there he is, high above Broome Street, still looking over his people, though they've long since gone astray. Under the bust there's a mask of another old man. It appears in several Herter brothers buildings (375 was designed also by the Herter brothers -- non Jewish Germans who built many tenements and the Eldridge Street Synogogue for Jewish clients). Whomever it represents in the other buildings, here it fits right in with the iconography above it


Now tell me that man isn't your angry pharaoh dad who totally disapproves but's got to give you grudging respect. You win Moses.

Next up, don't believe the know-it-alls.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Don't believe what you read

A few years back, Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, one of the city's preeminent preservationist organizations, drew up a letter boasting the extraordinary historical buildings in the East Village, based on the results of a $13,000 research grant. Prominently mentioned in the letter is this little building, 165 Avenue B:


described as "an 1890 Katz building." Why 1890? Because


See? It says "1890" right there! Impressive research, well worth $13,000, I say. 

Well. Anyone who knows anything about tenements -- which apparently is no one, given that the preeminent authority on preservation doesn't (and this is one of the reasons for this series -- to educate, thank you very much) -- would easily recognize that that little building 165 --


predates the others on the block and was built prior to the 1860's. Compare the 1860's
with the pre 1860's


I've chosen a townhouse because, remember, architectural style does not respect class, only purpose. 

You don't have to rely on the external form, by the way. The internal principles coordinate perfectly with the external ones. Looking at a googlemap overhead, you can see that the original structure was extremely shallow


But what's the thing at the back of the building? And how do you know that that wasn't part of the original building? 

If you've been looking at these overheads for a while, you know a late extension when you see one. It's just a matter of corroborating it. If you've been reading this series, you already have recognized that the shallow rectangle looks just like the oldest of the footprints (that's #1 and #2 below)
So let's look at old real estate maps, now that we know what to look for. You can find these on line at the NYPL, among other sources easily googled. Notice first that a shallow structure had been built at 165 by 1853


at a time when almost the entire block had been developed.


Recall that the city in the 1880's saw a huge increase in immigrant labor spurring a development craze of Old Law 6-story tenements built deep into the lot. By 1897 most of the buildings on this street had been redeveloped into Old Law Tenements, and by 1911 -- ten years past the New Law -- all of them had been with the exception of 165 and the corner lot which, because it could be built over the entire lot and not need a large courtyard carve out of it. You'll notice also that the Old Law tenements are built further out to the street, leaving 165 a little recessed. 

Deeply built Old Laws surrounding 165, and the New Law on the corner by 1911.
In other words, this block was being redeveloped in the tenement boom of the 1880's-90's. 165 was the last remaining pre-law tenement on the block, when in 1901 the New Law cut off all redevelopment for midblock single lots. The corner lot went on to become a New Law Tenement, the landlord buying the lot next door to maximize his rental space. 

165 missed its chance for redevelopment. It's still here today. Preservation of small lots was one of the unintended consequences of the New Law. By 1916, the landlord made the best of a poor lot by extending the rear still complying with the New Law courtyard requirements. 


The coloring, which you can clearly see was done by hand, covers the recess. The recess is represented by the line where the width footage number lies. Now take another look at the googlemap overhead. Can you see the recess?


If not, then look at the front again. The space that the drainpipe occupies is that little recess. 


But wait, wait, wait just a minute! The cornice says "1890," damnit. 

When I gave this talk at the Janina, this old guy -- must have been 90 if he was a day -- in the front with a big smile and a guffaw said, "The cornice is from 1890!" 

Jacob Riis, in his classic How the Other Half Lives, written in 1890 (!) mentions this towards the end of the book. 
The practical question is what to do with the tenement. I watched a Mott Street landlord, the owner of a row of barracks that have made no end of trouble for the health authorities for twenty years, solve that question for himself the other day. His way was to give the wretched pile a coat of paint, and put a gorgeous tin cornice on with the year 1890 in letters a yard long....That was a landlord's way, and will not get us out of the mire.
Replace "Mott Street" with "Avenue B" and you've got the story of 165. Most likely the landlord bought the building that year. His cornice may have persuaded prospective tenants that the building was new, or it may have been a convenient means, along with a small bribe, for the buildings inspector to overlook any violations and record the building as newly built and therefore compliant with the law -- the cornice covered him in case anyone asked.

Apparently $13,000 is not enough to pay for a reading of a classic that is online for free. All the important preservation organizations, btw, signed on to this letter which then went to the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission. If they ever bother to investigate the building for landmark designation, I'm sure they'll be lenient with GVSHP -- after all, anyone can make a mistake. But what will they think about the rest of their claims? At least the mistake was in the right direction. LPC will be pleasantly surprised that the "1890 Katz" building, although neither 1890 nor Katz', is in fact one of the oldest tenements in the neighborhood.

This kind of mistake is all too common in the understanding of tenements. The city's documentation doesn't record construction dates prior to around 1910. If you look up the PLUTO (Primary Land Use Tax Lot Output) data or map, you'd think that the entire Lower East Side and East Village were all built in the year 1900. It doesn't take more than a moment's thought to figure out that they haven't transferred the construction data from the Municipal Records into digital form. "1900" is a default indicating "sometime prior to 1900." Why PLUTO doesn't say that explicitly is a matter people should take up with them. A few years ago, they had the grace to add the letters "est" (estimated). But that's yet another misrepresentation (not to say "lie"). They've made no estimate of say, this building was built prior to 1830, compared with another built around the 1880's or 90's. This is a default value, not an estimate. Arrgh.

One last anecdote. I once pointed out to the GVSHP director that 1st Avenue was older than most of the rest of the East Village -- most of the buildings were already standing during the Civil War. He responded that he thought I'd overestimated the age of the buildings. Now you know where he got his information. Not from looking at the buildings.

So: don't believe everything you read, whether it's a city document or a cornice. You need knowledge first before reading, since documents lie for all sorts of reasons. Who wrote the document and for what purpose? What were the tacit assumptions under which the document was made? What were the biases? Knowledge is an integral acquisition through experience of all aspects of human activity. Which leads us to the next piece.

Next up, don't believe historians either. 

Monday, February 08, 2016

New Law, Old Law, Pre-Old Law, Lawless

Tenement styles coincidentally coordinate with housing laws. Prior to any housing law, tenements were built like townhouses but a bit taller -- shallow, not deep into the lot, and plain on the face except for minimal Greek lintels (eyebrows over the windows).
Around the 1867 law that required windows in every room, tenements began to be built a bit deeper into the lot, always five stories (at least on the Lower East Side -- Brooklyn tenements of the same period are often only four stories, a not surprising indication of lesser housing demand). The Greek motifs were traded for "Italianate" ones -- arched instead of horizontal lintels, otherwise still plain unornamented facades.  (#4 below)


The 1867 law was universally unpopular. The landlords cut windows into every internal room, but facing the interior hallway-stairwell, so no fresh air or natural light came in through them. They merely robbed the immigrant tenant of privacy. The law was a burden to the landlord and a disservice to the tenant. Nevertheless, it took the city gov't twelve years to improve the law. (Compare the one year that the city took to fix the shadow problem for the real estate industry between 1915 and 1916.)

The 1879 Tenement House Act (now called the Old Law) required windows facing fresh air and natural light. A trade journal, Sanitary Engineer, hosted a competition for the best design. The winner's design conceded the least to the law, the most rentable space to the landlord, and allowed the footprint of the building to extend into any lot without bound. It was the dumbbell tenement, named for its distinctive footprint which allows minimal light and fresh air all along its side abutting the adjacent building. The dumbbell tenement appeared on the scene coincident with the sudden rage for terra cotta, making it easy to identify them. If you have any doubt, you can always look at the footprint from google maps.

The dumbbell had literally fatal flaws. In a fire, the airshaft acted as a flue spreading fire to the upper floors and to the adjacent building. Even worse, the airshaft was dug down to the foundation with no convenient egress. It was not designed for garbage removal. If any garbage accrued, the tenants assumed that garbage was its purpose -- people usually learn from example, and who would educate them otherwise? The result was an unsanitary nightmare. Parts of the immigrant ghetto were virtually quarantined, they were so unhealthy.

Again, it took the city decades to fix. During a progressive age of good gov't -- a moment when the elite Republicans recognized that they couldn't regain political control over a majority labor city without serving labor better than the Democrats -- a New Tenement House Act not only fixed the problem but also changed the face of the streetscape with several unintended consequences. The New Law required that each building have a large courtyard for garbage storage and removal. This yard had to be so large that single-lot landlords couldn't redevelop their buildings without losing space. In effect, the New Law forced the preservation of single-lot buildings throughout the city. The exceptions was the corner lot, which can be built more deeply into the lot and which benefits more from the open interior of the block to allow window access.
If you look at the streets of the East Village or Lower East Side, you'll often see rows of five story buildings between spectacular corner buildings, six stories tall, like bookends.

The five story buildings were probably all owned by different owners who couldn't redevelop because of the New Law courtyard requirement. If you go to Washington Heights, what you first notice in the neighborhood is the scale of the buildings, much more expansive than the LES. Washington Heights was built after the New Law. 

Next up, don't believe what you read. 

Saturday, February 06, 2016

The market lesson in brick

The oldest existing tenement is also one of the tallest and may be the first tenement as well, 65 Mott Street in the heart of the NY original immigrant ghetto Five Points neighborhood which is today Chinatown, seven stories, built around 1820. It's something of a puzzle. All the other tenements from 1820 to around 1880 are only five stories tall.

I once asked Tyler Anbinder, the great authority on Five Points, why it is so tall. He responded candidly that he didn't exactly know, but maybe it wasn't originally seven stories and was later expanded. I asked him then why tenements weren't built seven stories back then. Again candid, he suggested that he could only imagine that seven stories, given the architectural materials or methods, would have been unstable. I've asked at least one other historian who gave pretty much the same answer -- it couldn't have been originally seven stories.

And I'm pretty sure they are wrong. Here's why. First, there was at least one other building seven stories tall built even earlier -- five stories and two stories of attic -- the Rhinelander sugar factory that was built up on the hill that City Hall and the Municipal Building stand on. (One window of it has been preserved with a plaque.) Later in the the early 19th century it was expanded to eight stories. So it was possible to build sound seven story buildings in 1820.

More obvious, the 65 Mott still stands today, so whether the seven stories were an expansion or original, the original was perfectly able to support seven stories. There aren't even any structural supports that you occasionally see in old buildings. It was and is sound.

Second, since buildings between 1820 and 1880 were only five stories, why would anyone expand an existing five story building to a seven story one? It could only have been expanded after 1880. But take a look at a 1897 real estate map:
There it is. The little "7" indicates that by 1897, it was already seven stories tall. Now look at a googlemap overhead view of the rooftop:
The dotted lines trace the building and its smaller back tenement. Notice that it is built on the model of an early box tenement, without any airshaft or window space on the sides. (The 1879 law would probably have required more window space even if the structure contained only four rooms per floor.)
That's #3 above. The 1879 law would have required more window space than the building offers. So if it had been expanded, it would have been expanded prior to 1879, when, again, buildings were only five stories. 

So if expansions to seven stories wouldn't happen until after 1879, and its current structure could only have been built prior to 1879, how did it get to be seven stories? 

To answer this dilemma, consider a new market, like the dot.com boom. When a new market first appears, it bursts into a frenzy of speculation. Not everyone jumps on the band wagon, but some people do. Remember that the landowners did not build on their land themselves; they contracted with entrepreneurs who were looking to make their wealth on the rental market. In 1820, suddenly there was a new rental market, not houses, but multiple dwellings for the surge of immigrant cheap labor. To cash in on poverty, volume is always essential, since the immigrants individually have limited disposable income. 

Now consider such an construction-rental entrepreneur. He has, say, one lot to make his way to wealth. There's a new market the potential of which no one really knows. No one really knows how much rental space the market will bear. But since the immigrants keep coming, the demand seems unlimited and not likely to stem. Our one-lot entrepreneur makes a fully rational decision to build as high as any building has been built -- the steeples of churches except -- as high as the sugar factory. 

In a way, it's a crazy scheme. Who will climb six flights of stairs? Certainly not the gentry. That's one reason why townhouses and business establishments were only four stories -- and the fourth story of a town house was for the house servants. Only immigrants would be expected to climb three flights. But the tenement house was for immigrants. Even the six flights of stairs of the Sugar House, after all, was only for immigrant labor. 

So our ambitious contractor builds to the max. Just one problem. Lots of other entrepreneurs also have the same idea, building similar structures. And as he tries to rent out the top floor, he finds that the market has already shifted. Supply has increased and the marginal value of a sixth floor has collapsed. The only people who will rent there are the most desperate of the poor, only the most undesirable. Instead of becoming a source of wealth, the top two stories become a lesson to the contractors: the market will sustain only five stories. 

And so the structure remained the tallest residential structure in New York City from 1820 to around 1880. And the construction market remained five stories with this one and only exception, the lesson of a bubble speculation, and an early if not the first tenement built. That five-story market didn't change until the Eastern European and Italian immigration in the 1880's, when to accommodate the increased demand suddenly the tenements bumped up to six stories, where it remained until just before the New Law in 1901. At that moment, you'll see a few seven story structures built an the assumption that the neighborhood will continue to grow more dense, and since the New Law would require less density -- less rental space-- small lot owners would build on speculation, to build more densely prior to the law. Ironically, a few decades later, the subways took the density out of the neighborhood, and now those seven story walk-ups are the legacy of another speculative promise that never happened.