By Dr. Zachary J. Violette
Sometimes important historical evidence — evidence that can allow us to question dominant narratives — can be hidden in plain sight. It can even be part of our daily lives, so common that it easily escapes our grasp. But it is the fundamental premise of vernacular architecture studies that the built environment encodes meaning for their builders and occupants that are often absent in written, published sources, which often reflect an elite view. Close looking at, and dogged exploring in, the built environment can lead us to ask important historical questions and to challenge paradigms we might not even realize are pernicious.
The research that became my new book, The Decorated Tenement: How Immigrant Builders and Architects Transformed the Slum in the Gilded Age (University of Minnesota Press, 2019), started with just such an observation, that led me to question long-held assumptions. On a walk in the supposed former “slum” of the North End of Boston (now, like many others, popular with tourists), the summer before I started grad school, I noticed building after building with elaborate sheet metal and terra cotta ornament. These were the tenements that urban history made out to be the site of unmitigated squalor? Similar, even more elaborate buildings were throughout the notorious Lower East Side of New York. But, why? And many of them had surnames proudly cast or stamped on them: “Segel,” “Fine,” “Di Steffano.” I could not square the appearance of these buildings — nor the names on the fronts — with the familiar narrative on housing in either city.
That narrative goes something like this: housing conditions in the nineteenth century city were terrible, especially for the immigrant working class. As neighborhoods became overcrowded under mass immigration, and the existing housing stock could hardly handle the new crowds, and rapidly deteriorated into horrific conditions. That the landscapes produced economic disparities were the salient visual characteristic of the Gilded Age. This, as far as it goes, is undoubtably true.
And as the usual story goes, housing reformers, prominent citizens, many of them inspired by the muckraking of Jacob Riis and others, with a genuine desire to ameliorate truly wretched conditions – intervened with new laws and model tenements, even if only a limited number of those were built. This story is also important, and true, leading to many of the important social innovations of the twentieth century, like urban planning and public housing. It laid the ground work for the highly specialized, technocratic culture of housing production, and related fields of social science, that marked much of the twentieth century.
But what this usual narrative leaves out is that there was a widespread culture of building improved tenements — in places like the North End of Boston and the Lower East Side of New York from the 1880s through the 1910s. This construction was carried out almost exclusively by recent immigrant developers — Germans, Eastern European Jews, and Italians, primarily — who built buildings designed by immigrant architects, and who were closely attuned to the tastes, desires, and aspirations of their immigrant working class tenants. In an era when the needs and desires of the immigrant working class were routinely disdained or ignored, these buildings represented a vast physical, technological, and aesthetic advancement over the iconic slums that they replaced, even if they did not meet middle-class expectations (or subsequent ideals). Much of the landscape that Riis and others like him were most concerned about was rapidly disappearing just as they were becoming interested in it. What replaced it were substantial new buildings like the ones I saw in my walks. All of this happened in spite of, indeed quite in opposition to, the housing reform movement. The reformers loathed these buildings, dismissing them as a cheap sham.
Part of what is significant about these buildings — and why the book was called The Decorated Tenement — was that they looked substantially different than the sort of buildings elite housing reformers promoted. Indeed, through the divergent appearance of these buildings we can read many of the class and cultural conflicts at the heart of the Gilded Age city. The fact that tenements intended for some of the poorest citizens were ornamented to a level at least equal to — if not higher than a middle class flat — was a profound achievement, one that touched on the bettering and leveling forces of industrial production. The improvement was more than skin deep: many had formal parlors and even dining rooms — cherished markers of gentility — as well as modern amenities, like kitchens with hot water boilers and dumbwaiter access, and full private bathrooms. These were improvements that even a generation ago the urban working class could not have dreamed of.
But these sort of buildings were really antithetical to the sort of reform that most elite reformers were promoting: a reform not just of housing standards but of morality, culture and taste. Immigrant tenants needed, at best, to be kindly educated in proper taste and living standards. The reform tenement was meant to serve a didactic role; the private commercial tenement, on the other hand, was meant to accommodate, within the constraints of the urban land market, the tastes, desires, and aspirations of the immigrant working class and to profit the builder.
So our usual reform-centric story privileges the interventions of the comfortable, well-established American elites, while it ignores, or even denigrates those immigrants who were trying to improve the conditions of their neighborhood, largely from the bottom up. Recovering their stories is exactly the promise of vernacular architecture fieldwork. Sometimes the real meaning is hidden in the details.
Zachary J. Violette is an architectural and social historian and the author of The Decorated Tenement: How Immigrant Builders and Architects Transformed the Slum in the Gilded Age (University of Minnesota Press, 2019] ). He is a lecturer at Parsons/The New School in New York.