Life In The Tenements Discussed 1898


Alfred T. White, Former Commissioner of City Works, delivered an interesting address on "Tenement House Life, Legislation and Outlook," at the annual meeting of the All Souls' Universalist Women's League, held in the parlor of All Souls' Church, South Tenth street, yesterday afternoon. In the absence of Mrs. J. Coleman Adams, who was ill, Mrs. S. McVey presided.

Mr. White began by saying that tenement house life was not ideal and never could be, because the ideal was that every man should live in his own home, and, if possible, in a home owned by him. Although all people hoped that tenements might some day be done away with, still they could not be abolished in the immediate future and the best thing for the present was to consider whether they could not be improved. There was a movement in France, which a friend of his was studying, which had for its object the transmission of electrical power long distances with the view of scattering population over greater areas, and that movement might possibly lead to the undoing of the densely populated centers of American cities where factories were located. Much progress, however, had been made at home during the past twenty-five years. it was a reproach to this country that the subject had been delayed so long. It had been taken up in England in 1840 although not successfully studied until 1850.

The first designedly constructed tenement house erected in this country was located in Cherry street, Manhattan, in 1838. By the close of the war half of the population of the neighboring borough, as well as one-fifth of that in Brooklyn, were living in what the law recognized as tenements houses occupied by over three families. Since the close of the war three laws had been enacted looking to the improvement of the tenement houses. The first, in 1867, provided that no tenement should cover more than 90 per cent. of the lot on which it was built and for transom windows affording interior light, if not on the outside; a second in 1876, provided that not more than 60 per cent of a tenement lot should be built upon, while in 1894 that admirable commission, with Mr. Gilder as chairman, was appointed which resulted in the enactment of laws providing that in houses of five stories the staircases should be fire proof, in three stories of a material that was not easily susceptible to the ravages of fire, and containing another provision which was entirely new to this country which empowered the Board of Health to order the demolition of unsanitary buildings. In England public sentiment in all large cities had pushed the reform right ahead. Why not in America? the speaker asked. In the matter of legislation, we had almost caught up with England, but in the protection of the new reformed tenement and in the care of the present good tenements, we were behind.

Miss A.M. Locke described the playground experiment tried in the City Park of this borough last summer. She said that its future success would depend on circumstances. The Rev. Dr. Adams, replying to Mr. White, as to the lack of interest in improved dwellings in this country, said that the general public would have to be educated up to it.

These officers were elected for the ensuing year: President, Mrs. MacVey: vice president, Miss Mary C. Hawley; secretary, Mrs. G. H. Austin; treasurer, Mrs. White; musical director, Mrs. G.H. Hotchkiss; executive committee, Mrs. Alfred Metcalfe, Mrs. Richard Hill and Mrs. J. Coleman Adams.


Website: The History
Article Name: Life In The Tenements Discussed 1898
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The Brooklyn Eagle April 6, 1898
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