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Home Wreckers: 1941

Home Wreckers: 1941

December 1941. "Employees of a wrecking company eating lunch. New York, New York." Medium format negative by Edwin Rosskam. View full size.


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Dumbbell Tenement Exposed

The demolition here affords us a rare "inside look" at the air shaft and party wall of a notorious "dumbbell" tenement. This "model" apartment design for the poor was the subject of a competition held in 1878 by Plumber and Sanitary Engineer Magazine and won by architect James E. Ware. The dumbbell design was considered an improvement over the then widespread "railroad" tenement, which had no space at all between adjacent units.

The dumbbell design was squeezed in the middle to permit a narrow air shaft (with windows) between each pair of structures. Since the air shaft was totally inaccessible (no doors opened into it), five stories high, and usually piled high with garbage, it was not a pleasant space, to say the least.

[There is an access door at the bottom of this shaft. - Dave]

The air shaft utterly failed to achieve its purpose of providing direct sunlight and fresh air to the interior rooms of the tenements. The dumbbell tenement became the standard design in New York as a result of New York State's Tenement House Act of 1879 (the "Old Law"); it was then rendered obsolete by the "New Law" of 1901.

Note to Dave: That wooden board at the bottom of the stairwell, which is barely one foot wide in my estimation, does not look like an access door to me. There are bricks visible behind it. Are you referring to something else?

Things to Come

NYC began building its first public housing projects around that time, and it's possible that this neighborhood was undergoing renewal. It would be interesting to know the exact location.

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