Revisiting the Iconic (and Photogenic) Tenement Fire Escapes

Posted on: October 23rd, 2014 at 10:10 am by

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Photo: Chien-Chi Chang

Ah, the iconic New York City fire escape. Sitting out on your “escape” really is just that.

The breeze. The city below your feet. The views. The sounds. The smell (to each their own). Fire escapes have always been crucial to New Yorkers for a variety of reasons, least of which, surprisingly, was escaping fire. Despite how much we love them, fire escapes are not balconies, so put your potted plants away and check the history.

In the 19th and early 20th century, the fire escape was, in reality, an extension of a small tenement apartment. Items like bedding were placed outside on the escape during the day to make more room inside.

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Harper’s 1898, Collection of Maggie Land Blanck

During warmer months, the fire escape acted as an outdoor bed for the tenants. Should they become too crowded, you need only go up on the roof to find the collective tenant slumbering sans party.

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Despite the existence of playgrounds, fire escapes were the go-to jungle gyms for tenement kids. Dangerous, shifty, corroded, rusty – innocence truly blissful.

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Museum of the City of New York

Mandated fire escapes were one of the earliest and most substantive building reforms of the nineteenth century. This change was a initially a product of the state building code revision of 1860, a regulation that required a fire-proof “stair-tower” or fire-proof balconies on each floor (all variations were considered fire escapes). The 154-year-old law allowed quite a bit of latitude for inspectors to determine what exactly constituted a “fire escape.” Ladders on wheels or even wooden ladders generally passed the test. (Y’all know wood isn’t fireproof right?)

Landlord resistance to fire-safety regulations was widespread because it cost money. A lot of money. Fret not for the landlords – they were assisted by their close ties with the city’s Buildings Department, a notoriously corrupt agency charged with officially “certifying” that a tenement met new legal requirements. Would LOVE to tell you that they are no longer notoriously corrupt, but that has not changed to date and neither have landlords.

From John W. Cramer, “The Story of a Tenement House” Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine:

As required by the 1860 law an iron fire escape was originally attached to the front elevation. The type of fire escape was the metal fire ladder, a vertical ladder attached to the building.  While more than the minimum, many reformers considered vertical ladders to be unsafe since children and the elderly often found them difficult to use. Moreover, vertical ladders also placed relatively greater stress on their mounts to the building, leading to fire escape collapses during times of intense use – such as during actual fires.

Such collapses were not uncommon. For instance, the tragically horrifying fiasco that was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The fire escapes at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (1911) became overburdened with fleeing workers, and completely detached from their anchors. Victims plunged ten stories to street level.

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Triangle Fire Escapes Aftermath

It was a landmark event that became catalyst for safety laws with respect to workers’ conditions, sweatshop laws, and egress. Eventually building inspectors were required to measure the thickness of the metal used in fire escapes to ensure that the escapes were strong enough to bear the weight of several adults. Rather than replace escapes that failed to pass these tests, landlords would sometimes coat their escapes with multiple layers of thick, black paint to create the appearance of metal support. Look closely – in certain instances this “metal” still exists.

In compliance with the subsequent 1867 regulations, rear tenement apartments had a “party wall balcony” that linked to the adjoining building.  In case of fire, the residents were to climb onto the balcony and escape by entering the apartment next door through their window.

Brilliant.

Are fire escapes generally safer now? Oh yeah. That first law has since been anted up. If you fancy yourself a legal nerd, then go check out New York’s Multiple Dwelling Law (section 53). Cross-eyed, but satisfied once we finished reading through.

Every fire-escape erected after April eighteenth, nineteen hundred twenty-nine, shall be located, arranged, constructed and maintained in accordance with the following provisions: 1. Access to a fire-escape shall be from a living room or private hall in each apartment or suite of rooms at each story above the entrance story, and such access shall not include any window of a stairhall…

Most are pretty sturdy almost to a fault. Seriously, ever try pulling down the vertical ladder to the street? Not an easy feat, my friends. Despite some of the dark history, fire escapes are so beautifully New York.

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