Fighting the “white plague” on Cherokee Place

The charming Cherokee Apartments on 77th Street and Cherokee Place—a sliver of a block between York Avenue and John Jay Park—have wrought-iron balconies, tiled tunnels leading to a central courtyard, and large windows. Another lovely 20th century apartment complex, it seems.

Not exactly. They were originally built as the Shively Sanitary Tenements (some sources call them the East River Houses) in 1910 for poor New Yorkers suffering from the deadly white plague—tuberculosis.

cherokeeapts Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt put up the money for the tenements. She got the idea from a doctor who ran the TB clinic the Vanderbilts funded at Presbyterian Hospital, Henry Shively. 

At the time, the only treatment for TB was fresh air and light. So the tenements were built close to the East River, where residents could catch cool breezes. All windows faced outward for maximum air and light exposure. 

The balconies encouraged the sick to be outside; wide corridors and stairwells made it less likely that healthy family members of the sick would catch TB too. Chairs built into landings at the top of each set of stairs helped easily winded residents go up and down.


 The whole idea was great in theory. But by 1912, the tenements were declared a failure, mainly because the rent was too high for poor, tuberculosis-stricken families.

In 1924 they were sold to a private developer, and at some point renamed and turned into co-ops.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

16 Responses to “Fighting the “white plague” on Cherokee Place”

  1. Quid plura? | "Midnight, headlight, find you on a rainy night..." Says:

    […] Ephemeral in New York recalls the tuberculosis of yesteryear. […]

  2. Joe R Says:

    The apartments are also interesting. The kitchens are large by Manhattan standards, the living rooms very sunny, but the bedrooms are tiny – just wide enough to fit a bed laterally. I’m not positive but I think that these houses went co-op in the seventies.

  3. petey Says:

    my aunt lived in a studio there. verrrrrry small. the layout of the building is attractive tho’.

  4. Bill Says:

    My family moved into 508 E. 78th Street in June, 1941. We lived on the fourth floor. I was raised in that apartment until I moved out on my own in 1955-56. As a kid we played in the cellars and on the roofs of my building, the buildings on 77th and across 78th. There were also empty lots for us to play in. Find one now.

    There was an iceman who had his ice in the alley in between the two buildings on 78th. People would leave notes on a pad for him to bring them ice for their iceboxes. He also kept track of where we kids were. When our folks were looking for us, they would ask him. When he saw us, he would tell us to go home because our parents were looking for us.

    There was a blacksmith on 78th Street just west of York Avenue on the north side of the street. We kids would go over and watch him shoe horses. He did a good business during WWII because horses were commonly used instead of cars and trucks. Gas and rubber were rationed.
    During the war, we had air raid drills and there would be a blackout in the entire city. My mother was an air raid warden and when blackouts happened, she would go out on the street and make sure no lights were on.
    If she saw a light in an apartment, she’d yell “Shut out that light” until it went off. All-in-all, it was a great time to be kid in NYC.

    • Eff Says:

      Bill, tell us more!!!

      What were the roofs like? Any other memories of the Cherokee? What were the old apartment like inside? Any funny stories? Or other interesting trivia about the surrounding blocks/businesses?

    • John J. Says:


      I lived in 509 East 77th St. from March of ’44-April ’48. My father was on active duty with the Army from ’41-’46; my parents were married in Nov. of ’41 and had an apt. in Parkchester that they planned to move into after their wedding. When my father, who joined the National Guard in ’39, was called for actibe duty, they had to put their furniture in storage and move in with her parents. I was born in ’44.

      I have memories of playing in the tunnel entrance to the building and sitting on the seats going up to the outdoor “hallways/landings’ in front of each apartment. There were 4 staircases in each courtyard; each one had a glass canopy on the top landing reminscent of the ones over the entrances to the Paris Metro. I remember going to John Jay Park and watching people crossing the footbridge over the East River Drive at 78th st. to catch the ferry going to “Welfare Island”.

      The buildings across the street from 509 were older and had wooden storefronts on the ground floor. My mother and father grew up in Yorkville. My father attended the public school on York Ave./formerly Ave. A. He remembers attending the school on York Ave. bet. 77th-78th Streets opposite the library. They had a walkway to the roofs of the Cherokee Apts. where he went to an open air classroom on the roof of the Cherokee Apts. A woman brought them soup in the cold weather. The classrooom had a roof but the walls on the side had openings on the top and bottom to allow for air circulation. My father said they even had classes in cold weather wearing coats, hats and gloves. Fresh air was an integral part of their education.

      One event stands out in my memory. After Christmas in 1947 we were all set to make our annual visit to my father’s mother and sister in New Jersey. We never made it. The snow was so high we could not get out of the tunnel due to the Blizzard of ’47.

      We eventually moved to Stuyvesant Town in April of ’48. Whenever I am in the neighborhood I always make it a point to visit visit 509 East 77th St. By the way, the opening scene in “The Boston Strangler”, 1968-Tony Curtis, is a dead ringer for 509 East 77th Street.

      • Pete Says:

        This is fascinating to hear. I lived at 508 East 78th Street on the 5th Floor in 2 separate apartments in the 90’s. More films that used the Cherokee: Stay, The Good Shepherd…

        Can you tell me about the glass structures on the roof. They were gone by the time it went Co-Op (In fact they wouldn’t even let us on the roof.)

        As for the apartments across the street: some real trivia. The woman know as the multiple personality Sybil lived there.

  5. wildnewyork Says:

    Thank you for your wonderful description of life on East 78th Street. The small details about the neighborhood during World War II–the air raids drills, the blacksmith–are priceless. Feel free to send in more.

  6. rbka Says:

    Bill – excellent tidbit about Yorkville and what it was like. I sure would be interested in ANYTHING more you have to share about yorkville, or life in manhattan from that time frame. I frequent the pool at Cherokee Place and would love to hear stories about that pool. I actually was asking around, while swimming, just in general about the area, and a lifeguard mentioned the apartments across from pool, the “fancier” ones -not the ones on 79th -were at once an old-age home. I find that hard to believe.
    Question- are the 78th st apts the same original bldgs as the 79th street apts? I ask, bc the ones on 78th look a little “fanicer”….
    all interesting stuff!

  7. Helena Librett Says:

    Great Blog….

  8. A new kind of tenement on East 31st Street | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] 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.  […]

  9. New York Architecture Photos: Cherokee Apartments Says:

    […] Ephemeral New York blog […]

  10. The coral model tenement on an East Side corner | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Phipps model tenements were down in the East 30s and the West 60s, and the Shively Sanitary tenements, designed for people with tuberculosis, occupied a site on Cherokee Place in the East […]

  11. The most spectacular mansion on Sutton Place | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] was a philanthropist who helped finance a development of open air tenements for tuberculosis sufferers not far away on Avenue A (today’s York Avenue) and 77th […]

  12. How NYC taught school during a lethal outbreak | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] A cure for TB wasn’t developed until the 1940s. In the 1900s and 1910s, treatment meant fresh air and sunlight. Prevention efforts included public health campaigns against spitting and building apartments and hospitals that allowed for better ventilation and light. […]

  13. The Fifth Avenue mansion of a millionaire who built houses for the poor | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] that, Phipps’ model tenement movement unfortunately fizzled out. As other idealistic builders of model tenements discovered, it seems that middle class folks ended up moving in. Inevitably the rent on a flat […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: