Posts Tagged ‘New York tenements’

Faded street signage of an older Manhattan

May 24, 2012

On a rundown tenement in Harlem, this street address affixed to the building as kind of a scroll is a bit of random loveliness and a reminder of a more fanciful city.

The other corner should have one that says “Fourth Avenue,” the old name for Park Avenue, where this residence is located.

It’s awfully hard to see this faded cross street carving, found on the Soho-Tribeca border. Look closely and you can make out “Greenwich S.” and “Spring S.”

The curious case of two neighboring tenements

May 24, 2012

Did these two buildings, on Third Avenue near 57th Street, start out as twins?

They’re about the same size and width, and it makes sense that both began their life a hundred years ago or so as typical five-story walkup tenements, the kind New York is famous for.

Unfortunately at some point—the 1950s? 1960s?—the one on the left underwent a serious facelift and had its lovely windows and ground-floor space modernized and uglified.

The only old photo I could find captures the building on the right—a classic Berenice Abbott shot from 1936, when the ground level of this now-restored beauty housed an antique shop.

[Photo link courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Gallery]

The solitary view “From Williamsburg Bridge”

November 21, 2011

“‘From Williamsburg Bridge’ is a city scene without noise or motion,” explains a page devoted to this 1928 Edward Hopper painting on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.

It looks like the Delancey Street approach to the bridge, a row of tenement tops that may still be there today.

“The light on the buildings is bright and steady, and the only person visible is a woman sitting in profile in a top-floor window,” states the Met site.

“The broad format of this painting implies the continuation of the scene beyond the limits of the canvas: we can imagine the street, the girders of the nearby bridge, and perhaps other, identical brownstone buildings with solitary tenants lost in reverie.”

Scary posters aimed at 1930s tenement dwellers

November 9, 2011

The 1930s and 1940s seem to be the dawn of the public-health poster—those often corny and over-the-top reminders to wash your hands, eat healthier meals, stop spitting, learn to swim, even get tested for gonorrhea and syphilis.

Created by Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project artists between 1936 and 1943, they’re little gems offering insight into the urban health issues that preoccupied the era.

One common target for department of health bureaucrats was the overcrowded, airless tenement apartments still home to so many New Yorkers.

These two posters drive the point home pretty well. Clutter and trash on fire escapes contributed to fire, and unsanitary conditions helped spread disease and contribute to infant mortality.

Check out more New York City WPA posters at this Library of Congress link.

The strange and scary faces of Chelsea

June 15, 2011

Every city neighborhood has its share of fascinating figures and faces carved into buildings.

But the ones staring out from the 19th century tenements of Chelsea have got to be some of the oddest.

On some blocks, it seems like every other residence has a few—like this woman at left, on 21st Street off Seventh Avenue, with vacant eyes and fruit around her neck.

This mustached man (top right) peers down from a doorway on 22nd Street off Seventh Avenue.

The grayish-blue head (at right) is also from the same stretch of 22nd Street. His wide eyes and open mouth give the impression that he’s frozen in fear.

I love the helmet-clad soldier who looks to at his head-scarfed partner across the facade of a 22nd Street building. They’ve been meeting each other’s eyes for probably a century.

New York’s distinctive tenement tiles

July 2, 2008

The city is filled with them: 6-story walkup “new-law” tenement buildings, usually four or six apartments per floor with the stairwell in the middle. Built in the early years of the 20th century after the 1901 Tenement House Act was passed, they were a vast improvement over the “old-law” tenements that didn’t always have ventilation, water, or indoor toilets.

They all seem to have one decorative feature in common: colored tile patterns in the lobby and on each stairwell landing. I’ve lived in a few of these buildings, and I often wonder if the patterns are symbols of some kind. Probably not; perhaps the builders simply wanted to give these solid, no-nonsense structures a small, ornamental touch.


A tenement lobby on Bank Street, above, and a 5th-floor landing on 13th Street. What do these similar-yet-slightly-different patterns mean?