‘Old law’ tenements on New York’s Lower East Side. Theo Mackey Pollack.
My recently published piece highlights how architects and builders used resourceful massing devices to save scarce urban land when developing many of the Late Victorian apartment buildings in New York City. So I was intrigued by a journal article I recently found that examines the city’s massing in the same period from a different angle: the restrictive height regulations that governed buildings and even, in the pre-zoning era, placed artificial restrictions on builders that may have exceeded the requirements of safety. In Keeping the Tenants Down: Height Restrictions and Manhattan’s Tenement House System, 1885-1930, Professor Michael Montgomery highlights the history of tenement laws and other safety codes in New York City during that time, shining a spotlight on how they limited the ability of the market to respond to the demand for more and better inexpensive housing units.
A bunch of examples of pre-law, old-law (dumbbell/airshaft), and new-law (courtyard) tenements can be found in my photo galleries of Chinatown and the Lower East Side.
I’m happy to report that The American Conservative, in its New Urbs feature, has just published my article about the land-use efficiency of New York’s turn-of-the-century apartment houses. My piece focuses on the period before zoning — although building safety codes did impose some limits on construction — with an eye to the simple, practical measures such as courtyards and alleyways that builders of the time used to make efficient use of small parcels — and to make room for more people to live comfortably in New York City. Hope you enjoy.
Incredible. The Museum at Eldridge Street, located near the base of the Manhattan Bridge is a restored 1887 synagogue — the first house of worship built by Eastern European Jews in New York City. The block on which it is located is now very much Chinatown, but in the late 19th century it was at the heart of the Jewish Lower East Side.
The synagogue was almost lost to abandonment in the 1970s, but has now been meticulously restored. I walked in on a lunch break last week, expecting just to look around and take some pictures. Instead, I was lucky to coincide with a scheduled tour with an incredibly knowledgeable docent, Ester, who told the story of the congregation from its founding in the late Victorian period through the neighborhood’s transition, the synagogue’s decline, and finally the building’s beautiful restoration.
The blue stained-glass window is recent; the rest of the details are original. Most of what looks like marble or masonry is actually wood. Very much worth a visit.
My favorite of the city’s Art Deco skyscrapers, this soaring Pine Street tower was built as the headquarters of the Cities Service Company, predecessor of Citgo. The Cities Service logo — a pyramid within a cloverleaf, usually black or green in trade dress — can be found pervasively worked into the concrete and metal exterior details, and the interior details, as well. Designed by architects at Clinton & Russell and Holton & George, the 952-foot tower opened in 1932.
Last year, I posted a batch of pictures that I had taken of the exterior details at ground level; and of the tower within the skyline of Wall Street. It is a striking tower, sleek and tapered at the top. But given the dense cluster of tall buildings that now characterize the neighborhood, it is a challenge to find a clear shot of more than its very top. Fortunately, an outside detail (above) provides a scale model of the complete tower in clean, white concrete — like the building itself.
A residential conversion was recently completed, which includes a beautiful top-to-bottom restoration of the landmark skyscraper. I doubt the building could have looked much sharper in 1932, when it opened amid the Great Depression, having been on the drawing board before the fortunes of Wall Street turned dark. The redeveloper, Rose Associates, has really done an incredible job.
Here, I include a number of new pictures of the grand lobby, the basement, and various stairwells and corridors.
Hope you enjoy. I love this building, and think you will, too.
Hard to believe that it has been 16 years since that morning. I was in my second year of college at The New School. A few lines from a piece that I wrote shortly afterwards (mostly for myself, so that I would be able to remember exactly what I’d experienced):
I went upstairs to class and took a seat. My advisor, Henry, was already there, getting organized. A minute later the second professor showed up. A small argument ensued between the two.
“Do you know what’s going on out there?” said Stuart.
“Yes, but I think we need to go on with class,” said Henry.
“A lot of people are out there watching…. We may not have everyone.”
“Well, I’m not much for that. We should go on with who we have.”
“Well, it’s pretty hard not to watch … the fucking World Trade Center is on fire. Another plane just crashed into the South Tower.” Everyone in the room was jarred.
“Oh my God. Some kind of … attack?”
“Oh yeah, it’s definitely an attack.”
“Well, what do you think? I mean, it’s important … but I think what we are doing here is important, too.”
“I mean poetry isn’t the least important thing.”
“No, definitely not. I guess we should go on.”
“Yes, I think that would be the right thing to do.”
Later, after the class had finally been dismissed:
I turned left and walked on through the grid of streets, up through the warehouses and housing projects beyond Ninth Avenue. I wasn’t sure where I was going; I just gravitated in what seemed to be the right direction. I lived in Brooklyn Heights that semester, but I was walking the opposite way. Getting back to my room would have involved either a long detour through Williamsburg, or a trip straight through the scene. Instead, I thought I might have to walk all the way to my uncle’s apartment on 207th Street — and I didn’t know if anyone would be home, if I did.
I managed to stay cool-headed, but I was really unsure of what I should do. I kept going north and west. Getting out of the heart of the city seemed like the main idea. At some point, it occurred to me that a ferry might be crossing to New Jersey, so I made my way west to the Hudson River. If I went back to the town where I had gone to high school, I would find someone to put me up overnight. It wasn’t far away; just across the river from the city. But it was a different world. By that point, I was sure that I didn’t want to go back to Brooklyn….
There were thousands of people walking up Twelfth Avenue. Most of them had walked all the way up from the site. People were sort of talking to each other briefly and moving on. It was strange. You don’t usually talk to strangers in a moving crowd, but everything was different then. Normal street smarts seemed useless. The ethos of minding your own business and ignoring anything out of the ordinary? I knew that would not work anymore. But how could you replace it with something else?
There was a middle-aged man in a suit who told me he worked at the World Financial Center. His hair and jacket were covered with gray ash. When the first plane smashed into the North Tower, he began to leave, but his boss said, in all seriousness: “That’s a World Trade Center problem. This is the World Financial Center. Get back to work.” I laughed, and he moved on.
There’s more, but it’s not really in any shape to be posted. Maybe one day I’ll clean it up and share it here as a single piece of writing.