- The Decorated Tenement: How Immigrant Builders and Architects Transformed the Slum in the Gilded Age by Zachary J. Violette
The Decorated Tenement: How Immigrant Builders and Architects Transformed the Slum in the Gilded Age
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019
280 pages, 130 black-and-white illustrations,
22 color plates
ISBN: 978151790413, $39.95 PB, $120 HB
The colorful illustration on the cover of The Decorated Tenement presents a compelling metaphor for Zachary J. Violette’s premise. Like the ornamented façades that appealed to the city’s newly arrived immigrants, the book’s eye-catching cover draws the reader into the world of these previously overlooked and under-studied buildings. Violette thoroughly examines these “feast for the eyes” tenements in New York City and Boston and makes a convincing case for their importance within the study of working-class urban housing.
Why were these tenements built with so much applied ornament and stylish interiors? Why did builders and architects of the day scoff at their appearance, dismiss their popularity, and label them “ugly . . . with hideous terra-cotta” (173)? Why were they commonly found in immigrant neighborhoods? Who were the designers and builders? Violette tackles these questions, and more, with a refreshing approach that sheds light on how these speculative buildings stood apart from the reform-inspired model tenements of the day.
The introduction lays out the rationale for the book’s argument and methodology. Violette’s goal is “to personalize and contextualize the Gilded Age tenement and those who built it, and to understand the cultural processes that resulted in its physical form” (21). Although there have been excellent works on the history of multifamily housing, previous studies have emphasized the period’s reform movements, city regulations, and social policies.1 Reviewing related scholarship, Violette asserts there has not been a “systematic survey of the architecture of the nineteenth-century speculative tenement” that predates his work (20). Indeed, his exhaustive survey, meticulous archival research, and rigorous analysis validate the decorated tenement’s role within the Gilded Age.
Violette clarifies the use of the sometimes-misleading word “tenement.”2 Many architectural historians avoid the term altogether because it has become associated with slum housing. The Decorated Tenement uses it simply as “purpose-built multi-family buildings for the working class” (31). Within this category of purpose-built tenements is a highly ornamented type, the primary subject of this book. The author also addresses the issue of a building’s particular style in the introduction. Decorated tenements as a rule do not fit into an easily defined category. This book argues that “the fundamental question that tenement builders had to answer was not in what style to build but how much of the [End Page 110] newly available ornament to use” (23). Consequently, Violette focuses on the expressive qualities of the façades rather than particular stylistic labels.
To illustrate the book’s central premise, Violette contrasts two tenements four blocks apart in New York City. One is an 1899 decorated tenement designed and built by a relatively unknown architectural firm, Hornberger & Straub. The other is a 1901 model tenement commissioned by a wealthy reformer and designed by the better-known architect Ernest Flagg. In the first example, the “facade was exuberant with classical terra-cotta ornamentation in high relief, with a tall sheet-metal cornice stamped with gilded letters” (2). Each unit had five rooms, including a dining room, parlor, and full bath. In contrast, the façade of the model tenement was devoid of ornament and each unit consisted of two rooms in an attempt to discourage boarders and home businesses. Both tenements provided improved housing for city dwellers, but each was designed with a different conception of working-class housing.
The Decorated Tenement is organized into seven topical chapters. Chapter 1, “Dens, Rookeries, and Hovels,” discusses the history of the tenement streetscape as a slum, a term used long after many immigrant neighborhoods became “regular, purposeful, substantial, and responsive to the needs and desires of their residents” (39). Nevertheless, a number of long-term residents in the city viewed the tenements through the eyes of Jacob Riis and other...