Urban Planning

Dumbbells

by Don Friedman on March 18, 2019


One of the archetypical New York buildings is the “dumbbell tenement,” which was named after its shape, not its occupants or owners. It’s worth looking at what these buildings are and why the gradual reduction in their numbers is not a bad thing.

That’s the corner of 19th Street (left) and Eight Avenue (right), looking east. (As always, click on the picture to enlarge it.) I want to discuss the five-story building just east of the one-story empty corner retail building and the two  five-story buildings that are three buildings south of the corner (one with Murphy Bed Express in the ground-floor retail space, the other with the Square Deli). These can best be described as “partial dumbbells,” but they illustrate the issues nicely.

The basic problem is that NYC lots tend to be narrow (along the street front) and deep (perpendicular to the street) and that, until the 1900s, the majority of residential buildings covered one lot. The standard lot is 25 feet by 100 feet (7.6m by 30.5m) but a lot of rowhouse lots are narrower because developer bought a bunch of lots and redivided them. If you had four standard lots, you could combine them into one big 100 foot square and the redivide them into 5 lots (giving 20 foot wide houses) or 6 lots (giving 16 foot, 8 inch wide houses). Tenements typically were one standard lot wide but could be narrower. In order to fit more people into a tenement, you want to construct the building deeper, but with windows only on the front and rear facades, minimizing the size of the rear yard meant that a building had extremely limited provisions for light and air.

Someone had the bright idea of carving away at the sides of the building – the windowless lot-line walls – to create air shafts that were ambitiously called “light courts.” This idea was enshrined in 1879 in what has become known as the Old Tenement Law, which required that every room have a window to the outside, even if it was only in one of those narrow shafts. It’s worth noting that, prior to the 1879 law, it was legal to have interior rooms without windows. If you carve out a shaft on each side of a rectangular building, the building plan is shaped like a dumbbell – wide at each end and narrow in the middle – and the building type got a nickname. Narrower tenements might only have a shaft on one side, leading to the partial dumbbell shape I mentioned above. Let’s look at the examples on an 1895 map:



North is up the page, Eighth Avenue on the left, West 19th Street at the top, and West 18th Street at the bottom. The numbers written in the street are the addresses and the numbers written in the corner of each building are the heights in stories. The three buildings I mentioned in the photo are 278 West 19th Street, and 168 and 170 Eighth Avenue. For 278 West, you can see the deeper shaft in the middle and the entire rear portion is slightly narrower, so that there could be side-wall windows. The problem was that most of those extra windows originally faced another brick wall less than three feet away. The demolition of the top two stories of the corner building has opened things up a bit, but that corner could be built higher again at any time. In 1895, 168 and 170 were on a single lot, showing how developers would combine and redivide lots. Again, they have narrow side “yards” in the rear: 170 facing south toward 168, and 168 on both sides. If you live in the rear of either of those buildings, a bunch of your windows face the other building very close by.

Take a look at 251, 237, and 235 West 18th Street to see the classic dumbbell shape.

It took 22 years to get the law replaced with what’s called the New Tenement Law, which encouraged combining lots and creating real light courts. But the city is stuck with tens of thousands of these buildings with horribly inadequate windows. They were cheaply built and many are past the end of their useful life spans, but they serve now, as they did when built, as effective ways to squeeze a lot of people onto single lots.

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