A History of Tenement House Legislation in New York 1852-1900 Part I

By Lawrence Veiller
Most of this legislation is to be found in the different tenement house acts, in the general building laws of New York and Brooklyn, in the health laws of these cities, and also in the charters and local ordinances. THIS history embraces all legislation in New York State in relation to tenement houses up to 1900. It purposely does not include those provisions of law which relate to general powers of city departments in regard to tenement houses in common with other buildings, nor such general questions of building construction as thickness of walls, quality of building materials, etc. It also does not include the laws in relation to tenement house labor, as these are more properly labor laws than tenement house laws, nor does it include certain minor provisions of the New York Charter which do not directly affect this inquiry.

In preparing this history, the different provisions of law have been classified with reference to their purpose, as " Fire Provisions," " Health Provisions," " Light and Ventilation Provisions," etc.

Following the general description of the changes that have taken place in reference to these different subjects, will be found in small type, in each case, the text of the different enactments upon this subject, arranged chronologically.

The present law (in 1900) upon each point will also be found in the enactments of 1897 and 1899, indicated by an asterisk placed before these sections.

At the end of this history will be found a list of all laws with their exact titles and the dates of their enactment, for purposes of reference.


Since 1647 there have been laws relating to buildings in New York City. In that year, an ordinance was enacted, appointing surveyors of buildings to regulate the erection of new houses within or around the city of New Amsterdam. This ordinance dealt chiefly with chimney fires, seeking to minimize the dangers arising from improperly constructed chimneys.

From this time up to the year 1849, numerous ordinances of different kinds were adopted, relating to the construction of buildings, nearly all of them for the purpose of reducing the danger from fire. The first important piece of legislation, however, in reference to buildings, was not enacted until 1849, when an act was passed, entitled " An Act for the more effectual prevention of fires in the city of New York."

In 1852 the first building law in reference to the city of Brooklyn was passed, forming the basis of the Brooklyn building law. In this law are to be found the first provisions in reference to furnishing means of egress in case of fire in buildings, applying to tenement houses as well as to buildings of other kinds. The word " tenement house," however, does not occur in the statutes until the year 1862, when it is found for the first time in Chapter 356 of the laws of that year, although there had been numerous provisions before that time, between 1852 and 1862, in reference to houses occupied by more than three families, as will be seen from a study of the different provisions contained in this report. The first tenement law was passed in 1867.


— The enforcement of the building laws and ordinances was originally vested in the fire wardens of the city, a number of men appointed in each ward for the purpose of preventing fires and performing in certain respects functions analogous to those now performed by the building inspectors and the fire marshals.

In 1844 the fire wardens were abolished, and their duties and powers were transferred to the Police Department. In 1849 they were conferred on the assistant engineers of the Fire Department, where the responsibility for enforcing the building laws remained until 1862, when these powers and duties were transferred to the newly created "department for the survey and inspection of buildings." The duty of enforcing the building laws remained in this department until 1880, at which time the department was abolished and once more made a bureau of the Fire Department. The Fire Department retained these powers and duties until 1892, when the Bureau of the Fire Department was abolished and a new Department of Buildings was created. This is the department at the present time vested with the responsibility and duty of enforcing the building laws.

THE TENEMENT HOUSE LAWS.—The first tenement house act, which was the Act of 1867, placed the responsibility for its enforcement upon the newly created Metropolitan Board of Health, and the Board of Health since that time until 1892 has had almost entirely the sole responsibility for enforcing these laws. Such provisions of the general building laws as affect the construction of buildings, especially with a view to the prevention of dangers from fire, have always been enforced by the Building Department or its equivalent — the Bureau of Buildings of the Fire Department.

The second tenement house act, in 1879, amended the Act of 1867 and still left the responsibility for its enforcement with the Board of Health. In 1892, however, when the Building Department was created, besides transferring the powers and duties of the Bureau of Buildings of the Fire Department to the newly created Department of Buildings, the powers and duties of the Board of Health in relation to the plumbing and drainage, and the light and ventilation of new buildings were also transferred to the Building Department, simply leaving with the Board of Health jurisdiction over these subjects as they affected old buildings already constructed. The new tenement house act of 1895 placed the responsibility for its enforcement, so far as it affected existing buildings, upon the Board of Health, and in relation to new tenement houses upon the Department of Buildings, and this division of responsibility remains at the present time, having been continued in the Greater New York Charter. Certain laws in relation to tenement houses, however, also place the responsibility for their enforcement upon the Fire Department — as for example, the provision that fire-escapes shall not be encumbered; here there is a divided responsibility for the enforcement of the statute, both the Police Department and the Fire Department being directed to enforce this provision.

THE HEALTH LAWS — From 1804 to 1850 the duty of enforcing the health provisions in reference to all buildings in the city of New York was lodged with the " City Inspector" and the health wardens of the city. The health wardens were men appointed in each ward, charged with the duties of general sanitary inspection, and in the early years, the Board of Health, as it was then constituted, was also charged with the responsibility for cleaning the streets, and had several other powers, which it does not now possess. In 1850 an act was passed transferring all the powers then vested in the local Board of Health to the Mayor and Common Council of the city. In 1866, as a result of the terrible disclosures of the sanitary condition of the city, made by the Council of Hygiene, the first health law of the city was enacted. This law took away from the local authorities all jurisdiction over the health of the city and vested all powers and responsibilities of this nature in a newly created state board, known as the Metropolitan Board of Health.

*This law is one of the most important laws that has ever been enacted in this State and is the basis of all subsequent health and sanitary laws, not only in New York, but in most of the other American cities. Under the provisions of this act, the Governor was directed within fifteen days after its passage to appoint, with the concurrence of the Senate, four persons, who should be residents of the metropolitan district, three of whom were to be physicians and one who was to be a resident of Brooklyn. These four, with the Health Officer of the Port of New York, were constituted, for the time being, the Sanitary commissioners of the metropolitan district, and with the Commissioners of the Metropolitan Police, who should never exceed four in number, they constituted the Metropolitan Board of Health. The Sanitary Commissioners were to hold office for the following terms: One for one year, one for two years, one for three years and one for four years, and until their successors were appointed. After the expiration of these terms the term of office of future sanitary commissioners was to be four years, and they were to be appointed always by the Governor, with the concurrence of the Senate. Any vacancies in their number that might occur were to be filled in a similar manner. Each Sanitary Commissioner was to receive a salary of $2500 a year, and each police commissioner was to receive, in addition to his regular salary, the sum of $500 a year for his service as a member of the Board of Health. In order to insure a full attendance at all of the meetings of the Board, it was provided that for every regular meeting that any commissioner should fail to attend, the
sum of $10 was to be deducted from his salary.

The President of the Board was vested with all the powers previously given to the City inspector in reference to the cleaning of the streets, and the Board was authorized to appoint a chief executive officer, who was to be an experienced and skilful physician, to be known as the Sanitary Superintendent. The Board was also authorized to appoint two assistant superintendents, one of whom should be a resident of the city of Brooklyn, and who was to perform his duties in that city; also, it was provided that not more than fifteen sanitary inspectors might be appointed by the Board, and the Board was authorized to prescribe their duties and the salary of each. At least ten of these inspectors were required to be physicians of skill and of practical professional experience, and the rest were to be selected in reference to their practical knowledge of scientific or sanitary matters. Each inspector was required to make a written report of his work to the Board twice a week and was also required to call the attention of the Board to such facts as came within his personal knowledge that he deemed worthy of their special consideration. The Board was also authorized to employ clerks and other subordinates as well as retain attorneys and rent and equip offices, etc.

It is interesting to find that in this act the Board of Health was authorized to condemn buildings that were unfit for habitation if they were likely to prove injurious to the public health, whether they were so unfit from the drainage or ventilation thereof, or from lack of repair, or any other cause; and the Board was given very large powers to order any building or part of a building to be cleaned or altered or improved as might be necessary. It was also distinctly specified that it should be the duty of every owner or part owner, and also of every lessee, tenant and occupant of any room or apartment or building to keep the same thoroughly clean. Any person violating any of the provisions of this act or the provisions of any law or ordinance adopted by the Board of Health was liable to arrest, and such violation was constituted a misdemeanor.


Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: A History of Tenement House Legislation in New York 1852-1900 Part I
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: The Tenement House Problem; Including the Report of the New York State Tenement House Commission of 1900. By Various Writers; The MacMillan Company-New York 1903
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