Revisiting the Iconic (and Photogenic) Tenement Fire Escapes

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

This image has been archived or removed.

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.

This image has been archived or removed.

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.

This image has been archived or removed.

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

This image has been archived or removed.

This image has been archived or removed.

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.

This image has been archived or removed.

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.

This gallery has been removed.

Recent Stories

One Week After Reopening, Nathan Straus Playground is Again Locked

Not so fast. One week after the Parks Department unlocked Nathan Straus Playground to the public, it’s again gated. Readers report that the padlocks returned on Tuesday without any communication from the city. As reported, the Lower East Side park, which abuts the Attorney Street cul-de-sac, had been closed without notice for nearly a month […]

Parisi Bakery Building on Elizabeth Street Listed for $5.99M

The NoHo building housing Parisi Bakery is up for sale, and the store may not survive. Robert Parisi – building owner and former head baker of the family business – listed 290 Elizabeth Street on the market. He’s seeking $5.99 million for the seven-unit, mixed-use tenement. Parisi purchased the property in 1983 for $200,000, property […]

Astor Place Hair to Close Permanently Next Month Due to Pandemic

You’ve seen, you’ve read, you’ve heard. News broke over the weekend that Astor Place Hairstylists, a bastion of affordable cuts, is closing down for good. Barring some miracle, the 74-year-old business will be another victim of this dreadful pandemic. Apparently, management informed staff last Friday. Its final day on the namesake block is at the […]

See the Subways with the MTA’s Live Subway Map

It’s been a long time coming, but the MTA map is finally going digital. Now officially in beta, the MTA’s “Live Subway Map” is a dynamic interface showing real time train locations, arrival times, and service alerts, among other pertinent info for New York denizens. And it arrives at a time when subway ridership numbers […]

When a Rat Skeleton Falls through Your Ceiling

This is not a Halloween story, but may as well be. As reported yesterday, deaf and hearing-impaired tenants living at 174 Forsyth Street are demanding remedy for deplorable living conditions. Those affected allege years of neglect that led to extreme disrepair and lack of security, and are holding a press conference this morning to train […]