Creative ways to use a tenement fire escape

fireescapecoupleIn February 1860, a swift-moving evening blaze raged through a tenement on Elm Street—today’s Lafayette Street.

Ten women and children died, largely because firefighters’ ladders didn’t reach past the fourth floor.

The Elm Street fire certainly wasn’t the first to kill tenement dwellers. But thanks to newspaper coverage and the high death toll, it prompted an enormous outcry from city residents for building reform.

So a law was passed two months later mandating that city buildings be made of “fireproof” materials or feature “fire-proof balconies on each story on the outside of the building connected by fire-proof stairs.”

fireescapenypljunkThis regulation, and then the many amendments that came after it, was the genesis of the iconic New York fire escape—a sometimes lovely and ornate, often utilitarian and rusted iron passageway that helped cut down the number of casualties in tenement fires.

But as anyone who has ever lived in a tenement knows, fire escapes have lots of other uses aside from their original purpose—and you can imagine how handy they were in an older, poorer, non-air conditioned city.

First, storage. For large families sharing two or three rooms in a typical old-law tenement flat, fire escapes functioned as kind of a suburban garage or mud room, even though by 1905, clutter was outlawed.

It was an especially good place to keep an ice box in the winter, where food that had to be kept cold could be stored until it was time to eat.

fireescapesleepbettmancorbisThe railings off of a fire escape also made for a handy spot to air out bedding and mattresses and hang laundry to dry after it was washed by hand.

Playgrounds arrived in the city at the turn of the century. But fire escapes doubled as jungle gyms and play areas, where kids could burn off energy close to home yet away from the eyes of parents.

During what was called the “heated term,” fire escapes became outdoor bedrooms, the summer porches of the poor.

Families dragged out mattresses and tried to catch a faint breeze on steamy summer nights, when airless tenements felt like ovens. Sadly, it wasn’t unheard of for someone to fall off while sleeping and be killed.


But on the upside, there’s the most romantic use for a fire escape: as a private space for couples, where darkness and moonlight turn even the most depressing tenement district into a wonderland under the stars.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverFire escapes didn’t have to be as beautiful as the one on the Puck Building, above, to have some magic and enchantment.

Fire escapes and the tenements they’re associated with are icons of late 19th century metropolis, and The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910 offers a first-person feel for what it was like to live in one.

[Top photo: Stanley Kubrick; second photo: MCNY; third photo: NYPL; fourth photo: Bettman/Corbis]]

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12 Responses to “Creative ways to use a tenement fire escape”

  1. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    What a clever composition you have created on Fire Escapes!

    One more added feature for the out-of-doors-attachment to apartments — they held ‘tiny gardens in the sky.’ Planter-boxes of soil produced blossoms and raddishes, tomatoes, leaf lettuce, etc… when placed on these exterior metal safety devices.

    These generally remained in place till the New York Fire Department took note of too much loot blocking an easy / safe escape route and demanded they be cleared. Too much added weight also made the escapes feeble contraptions as well. All in all, everyone had a unique scheme for Fire Escapes (besides offering an exit from a dangerous building).

  2. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    Fire Escapes also make for terrific movie locations.

    Remember when ‘BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S’ own Holly Golightly sings ‘MOON RIVER’ half -in-her-window and half-on-her-fire- escape?

    Lots of innocent damsels feld from evil-doers via Fire Escapes.

    I suppose my favorite Fire Escape movie scene was not in NYC but in Calif. (Sorry!) It was near the end of ‘ITS A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD’ when too many characters are on a tall building’s fire escape. It breaks free of the building and then the fun begins! Since it is a comedy, wild action ensues. The fire escape then sways back and forth throwing off people into great distances, or nearby fountains, etc…while a marvelous song plays in the background (generally accompanied by ‘a serious amount of laughter!’)

    Fire Escapes can also be beautiful works of metal artwork. The designs were often well considered adornments instead of just iron cobwebs for fleeing smoke ‘n sparks or the tax collector knocking at the door!

  3. Keith Says:

    When I first moved here 19 years ago, I was damned well going to be out on the fire escape reading a book or enjoying a drink as often as I could. Then I got old, and the metal slats started to hurt. Plus, I share a fire escape with my neighbor’s bedroom window, and I’m not she’s cool with me lurking around out there. But there are still few things as quintessentially New York. They’re our version of Italy’s old ladies leaning out of their window, just looking around (or yelling to someone on the street).

  4. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    Keith honey,
    That wasn’t just the ITALIAN old ladies.

    The most famed hang’n-out-the-window character was ‘MOLLY GOLDBERG’. That marvelous figure eventually had a TV show back in the days of B&W sets. Previously, she had the starring role in one of the very first radio serializations of a continuing story, ‘THE RISE OF THE GOLDBERGS’ (produced by a friend, Hi Brown – a famed name in the Golden Age of Broadcasting). The very popular GOLDBERGS were NOT Italian… Pass the Kosher pickles, please!

    • bob Says:

      regards. some missives. im 74 remember molly on b and w tv and sitting on stoops and leaning on window sills to see st activity, esp my uncles apt on w54st man. watched buses alot as garage was at 9th ave and 54st as matter of fact was still old horse/trolly barn across from him, at my time i believe used for buses for awhile, today tel bldg. no fireplaces in the way thwy were in backof bldg, this i believe was possible in bldgs like his where there was only 1 or 2 apts perflr and they were what ws known as railroad apts, rooms, etc. one room to anotbher like being on a train. 1950s but hiss bldg was still old style, bathroom fixtures letsm say were wood, piping in apt was brass/copper (turned green) big old blk wood/coal stove in kitchen, but i guess his bldg was modern for time as my grandmmother lived in bldg orig, no privvie-in yeard i guess, later in hallways with keys, also water out i yard i guess and eventually put in apts and tub if you called it that kitches near sink and the kicker is although not functional gas lt fixtures. good old days?

  5. Dymoon Says:

    Reblogged this on dymoonblog and commented:
    romantic old NY =^_^=

  6. Anthony Says:

    My mother grew up in Williamsburg and during the hot summers said they would sleep on the fire escape. Though the truly hot and more adventurous would bring a foldable chase lounge onto the pedestrian walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge and sleep up there.

  7. Michael Meehan Says:

    I grew up in a tenement on Amsterdam Ave. and 62nd St. (now Lincoln Center). It was a railroad flat 2 windows in the front room and 2 in the kitchen. No widows in the bed rooms. My mom protected us from the perilous thought that we were poor. She was tough and always told us there are people much worse off than we were. Had a fire escape but no ladders. The fire escape led to the apartment in the next building. Guess the builders thought it was a good escape route. Duh !
    We had very cold winters without heat or hot water. Problems with the furnace in the basement where winos hung out. If the furnace was in good repair there was no one to stoke it. The winos were in the way and scared everyone away. Cats all over the hallway, pew !
    Handicapped people were in real danger; no provision for them to get out of the house if a fire happened. But mom told us to be thankful for what we had. And we were. Did not know any better except for the Projects across the street. They were poor people but had heat, hot water, elevators, maintenance men in stylish blue uniforms clipping hedges, raking leaves, washing the halls. I used to think if they are poor what the hell are we?
    Had “nothing” to complain about. Absolutely “nothing”! Am now 75 and still have “nothing” to complain about.
    Now, how is your day going?


    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Mickey, this is a wonderful picture of life in a NYC tenement and a devoted mom who seemed to raise her kids right. Thanks for sharing it.

  8. ssbohio Says:

    Cheddar just did a video on the fire escapes of New York City, which is how I found this wonderful piece of writing on their more casual uses.

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