The first New York tenement is on Mott Street

The orange building in the middle of the photo below, 65 Mott Street, looks like an ordinary Manhattan tenement.

It lacks a cornice, sure, and a renovation at some point in its history has erased any ornamental features on the facade. But that’s no different to countless other 19th century tenements across the city.

Aside from this, you’d never know that this walkup has one distinction that makes it different from its neighbors.

65 Mott Street “was apparently the very first New York building built specifically to serve as a tenement,” wrote historian Tyler Anbinder in his 2001 book, Five Points—his study of the horrific slum neighborhood this stretch of Mott Street used to be part of.

“Historians have generally cited a building erected on the Lower East Side in 1833 by iron manufacturer James P. Allaire as the city’s first designed tenement…” Anbinder wrote. “But the building at 65 Mott almost certainly predates Allaire’s structure by nearly a decade.”

Anbinder noted that an article in an 1879 trade journal stated that 65 Mott had been occupied for 55 years, which means the tenement was constructed in 1824.

“Its seven stories—a height then unprecedented for a dwelling place—dwarfed the surrounding wooden two-story homes and must have made quite a spectacle when it was first built.”

Tenements, of course, are a New York City invention.

Short for tenant houses, tenements started out as subdivided single-family homes or back houses meant for the city’s growing working-class and poor city residents. (Above, Mott Street in 1911, lined with similar tenements.)

As the city’s population boomed in the first half of the 19th century, unscrupulous builders began constructing substandard multi-family dwellings, knowing they could find plenty of desperate people willing to live in them even thought they lacked basic amenities like natural light and fresh air.

“Tenements built specifically for housing the poor originated at some time between 1820 and 1850….By the end of the Civil War, ‘tenement’ was a term for housing for the urban poor, with well-established connotations for unsafe and unsanitary conditions,” according to NYPL.

From 1868 to 1901, the city enacted a secession of laws mandating that tenements be outfitted with safety features like fire escapes, indoor plumbing, and windows in every room.

Without photos, it’s hard to know when 65 Mott Street was updated and modernized so it looks like any other New York tenement.

A peek inside shows the same kind of tile design in the hallway so common in other late 19th century tenements. Anbinder estimated that the building probably had at least 34 two-room apartments in this 2450-square-foot property.

I wonder if any of the apartments still have bathtubs in the kitchen, or “tuberculosis windows” in the rooms.

[Third photo: George Bain Collection/LOC]

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6 Responses to “The first New York tenement is on Mott Street”

  1. Ann Haddad Says:

    Wow, 1824! I had no idea a tenement could have been constructed that early. Surely must have stood out. Also, I have found trade journals to be wonderful primary sources !

  2. Joe Fliel Says:

    Firstly, this building doesn’t date to 1824 because structures, such as apartment buildings weren’t constructed of brick until after the Great Fire of 1835. Also, the architectural features weren’t incorporated into buildings until the mid-late 1840s. Secondly, 65 Mott hasn’t changed much since it was constructed. It didn’t have a cornice or ornamental features on its facade. Look at the 1940 NYC Tax Photo:

    https://nycma.lunaimaging.com/luna/servlet/detail/NYCMA~5~5~213471~483583?sort=borough%2Cblock%2Clot%2Czip_code&qvq=w4s:/where%2FMott%2BStreet;sort:borough%2Cblock%2Clot%2Czip_code;lc:NYCMA~5~5&mi=53&trs=187

    • Greg Says:

      Good work, but keep in mind lots of cornices had been stripped even as early as 1940. I’m sure this building had something.

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I agree it seems hard to believe that this tenement dates to 1824. But Anbinder is a reputable historian, and his research suggests it does predate the 1835 fire.

  4. Antoinette Truglio Martin Says:

    I love your blog! I am writing a fiction account of my grandmother’s story who grew up in the LES on Mott STreet (1903-1920). I am looking for the public school she may have attended briefly (1911-ish). Would you have information on the resources I can use to find out this info?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks Antoinette! I would for old NYC directories in Google Books and search the archives of the NYT or newspapers.com. These are good starting places!

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