The Decorated Tenement: How Immigrant Builders and Architects Transformed the Slum in the Gilded Age

Reviewed by Paul Ranogajec

The Decorated Tenement: How Immigrant Builders and Architects Transformed the Slum in the Gilded Age  By Zachary J. Violette University of Minnesota Press, 2019 280 pages

The Decorated Tenement: How Immigrant Builders and Architects Transformed the Slum in the Gilded Age
By Zachary J. Violette
University of Minnesota Press, 2019
280 pages

Violette’s important book opens a new chapter on urban housing in architectural history and helps the reader understand a whole set of buildings—indeed, whole swathes of the cityscapes of both New York and Boston—that are prominently visible but often overlooked. Amplifying elite architects’ and reformers’ disdain for so-called tenement “skin-builders,” architectural historians have studied in detail bourgeois design but have paid much less attention to buildings built by and for the working class. The Decorated Tenement helps to correct the historical record, treating the immigrant-built tenement commensurate with its prominence in the two cities. It is a timely book for that, even if the author does not explicitly make the connection to today’s immigration debates.

The long introductory chapter is a substantial precis for the book. Violette sketches the historical context of these buildings and their designers, builders, financiers, and tenants, and situates the book against his academic discipline’s biases. He writes that he is interested in “the cultural conflicts inherent in the built environment” and argues that “the tenement does not need to be good, or even almost alright, by present standards for us to take these buildings seriously as works of design that encoded much more than just the oppression and inequalities of urban industrial capitalism.” Instead, Violette presents a largely positive story of immigrant identity-formation and community-building, including, especially, that of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side, through tenement building. As such, the book stands in vivid contrast to the overwhelmingly negative coverage of the tenement by reformers of the period and by critics and historians since.

Violette’s first task is to describe the “slum landscape” of the two cities over the course of the nineteenth century as the reuse of old buildings for working-class housing dramatically transformed large areas of both cities. The slum landscape, in his telling, denotes “the package of stereotyped verbal and visual images that were employed by outside observers to describe the living conditions of the working class.” Jacob Riis’ famous photographs stand as exemplary models of these stereotypes. In Violette’s view, this slum landscape was largely rebuilt in the last quarter of the century as a “tenement landscape” of decorated and substantially improved buildings largely by the initiative of immigrant builders and architects he profiles such as Harris Fine and Peter and Henry Herter (no relation to the famous interior arts firm). Riis and fellow reformers often missed the differences between old slum and new decorated tenement and thus failed to appreciate the substantive changes that had taken place in working-class districts. What was especially galling to outside reformers and moralists was the “layering of differing housing solutions, representing different aesthetic and living standards”—different, that is, when compared to single-family rowhouses or free-standing mansions of bourgeois districts.

The middle chapters of the book closely examine tenement buildings in their technological, aesthetic, and functional aspects, as elements of immigrant entrepreneurialism, and as architectural objects that sometimes do and sometimes do not fit into standard narratives of modern architecture. Violette systematically guides us through the tenement building and its construction, quoting period sources, describing typical floor plans, and helping us see how the buildings were used and looked at by their builders and tenants. One of Violette’s most surprising arguments is that the combination of how a building looked and the amenities it offered held more importance to the builders and tenants than the so-called sanitary improvements sought by reformers, which often contradicted the ways in which tenants used their apartments. For instance, the provision for large light courts was one of the major points in the 1901 Tenement House Act in New York, spearheaded by Progressive reformers. But immigrant builders understood that tenants’ desires for separate living and dining spaces and full baths outweighed their interest in access to wider lightwells.

Violette shows that the decorated tenement has formal and aesthetic integrity. While outside observers often found the decorated tenement “distressing” or aesthetically offensive, builders and tenants prized the decorative embellishments of their facades, which borrowed promiscuously from contemporary architectural trends. For instance, in one illuminating section, Violette shows how certain decorative elements traveled from synagogue architecture to tenement facades, citing the Herter Brothers’ 375 Broome Street and their spectacular Eldridge Street Synagogue (both extant). He shows that tenement facades appropriated visual markers previously reserved for bourgeois and upper-class buildings, arguing that “they connected working-class residents to the practices of signaling fundamental to urban bourgeois culture. The class position of a building’s residents could no longer simply be read by the extent of its exterior ornamentation.” He goes further, in fact, to suggest rather tantalizingly that the flowering of decorated tenement facades was a factor in the gradual simplification and abstraction evident in mainstream architectural practice in the same years. This is a fascinating idea that could be developed further with more research.

The book’s central chapters, covering the identities of the builders, architects, and financiers of tenements as well as the process of construction, contains a wealth of new information. Among the important themes are builders’ and designers’ ethnic backgrounds, education, and class position; tenement construction as part and parcel of industrial architectural production; and the process of building the tenement from site selection and financing through design, construction, and occupation. Violette provides substantial discussions of all these issues, giving the reader a rounded understanding of the tenement as an architectural object, a piece of urban real estate, and a component of cultural identity. There is some repetition across chapters as certain themes and topics come up in several places, but as a whole the book cogently articulates the aesthetic, entrepreneurial, and social factors of tenement building as never before.

Although it is an academic book with the expected apparatus of notes (but unfortunately lacking a separate bibliography), it is accessible across disciplines and to a larger audience interested in the built environment, New York history, and the immigrant experience. Images are well chosen and generally of high quality. The small section of color plates with photographs by Sean Litchfield and several period illustrations and architectural drawings is an integral part that brings these buildings vividly alive. If the book serves to stimulate further research on the topic of tenements and the full spectrum of urban architecture around 1900, it will have done an important service to the disciplines of architectural and urban history. The Decorated Tenement deserves a wide readership and engagement by academic colleagues and by a broader public.

Paul Ranogajec is an independent art historian in New York. He is currently completing the manuscript of his first book, Classicism and the Liberal Metropolis: Scenographic Architecture in New York Around 1900.