A new kind of tenement on East 31st Street

HenryphippsTurn of the century New York had many millionaires. Some built Fifth Avenue palaces for themselves, while others invested part of their fortune in better housing for others.

Henry Phipps did both. A steel magnate with a Fifth Avenue mansion, Phipps constructed model tenements—cleaner, more livable multi-family residences than the typical city tenement, which was a hastily constructed firetrap packing many people in airless rooms.

“I shall like the buildings to have all the light and air possible; to have them fire-proof and thoroughly sanitary, and so far as possible, to have spaces around them in which the children could play,” he said, according to a 1905 New York Times article.

Phippshousesmcny2

This wasn’t a charity; Phipps put up the money hoping for at least a minimal return on his million-dollar investment, which he planned to use to build more tenements.

The first Phipps model tenement went up two years later at 325 to 335 East 31st Street. About 150 apartments housed 800 residents, who enjoyed steam heat, hot water, laundry facilities, tub baths, and rooms with windows that opened to the outside (rather than a filthy air shaft).

PhippsbrochurenyplBy 1912, two more Phipps buildings were built on West 63rd and West 64th Streets; they were occupied mostly by black New Yorkers in what was then an African-American neighborhood called San Juan Hill.

Why only three Phipps houses in Manhattan, especially when two out of three residents lived in a traditional tenement, and better housing was desperately needed?

Perhaps because the market-rate rents ended up attracting middle-class residents, and working-class and poor people were priced out—one reason other model tenements didn’t last long either

The two West Side Phipps tenements still stand, but the 31st Street complex was demolished decades ago.

[Middle photo: Museum of the City of New York; bottom: NYPL Digital Collection]

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3 Responses to “A new kind of tenement on East 31st Street”

  1. RED DAVE Says:

    One of the beneficiaries of the Phipps Houses on West 63rd was the great jazz composer/pianist Thelonious Monk. Monk’s family got an apartment in one of the W. 63rd St. buildings when Monk was about 9. He got his own apartment there when he married. Although, later on, he and his family moved a bit uptown, as far as I know that hung onto the Phipps apartment at least until Monk died.

  2. Pontifikate Says:

    Too bad in this gilded age we have no Phipps to build housing for the working (or non-working) class. Or we have no government that would tax the gilded so that the government can build the housing. Make no mistake; we are in a gilded age with a government that is less liberal than the one that busted trusts.

    Aren’t there Phipps houses on E. 28th street that were built in the 70’s?

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Right, Phipps Plaza is there–Phipps still develops affordable housing.

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