These days if an architect were to ask a developer “What’s your sign?” they probably wouldn’t be taken very seriously. But in the early 1900s, it was an entirely different story.
A century ago, wealthy industrialists, bankers, businessmen and civic planners were erecting opulent buildings with the help of top architects and artists. And in addition to elaborate ornamentation, celestial ceilings with zodiac symbols were also requested in a number of iconic building designs. Ahead we point out six historic New York area buildings where you can still encounter these celestial vestiges.
Long before the Dutch arrived in New Amsterdam and brought exciting things like brownstones with useful stoops, ancient civilizations were trying to devise rational ways to measure the irrational concepts of space and time. Since they had more time on their hands than today’s horologists, watching the sun, moon and stars was as good a place as any to start.
The origin of zodiac symbols is believed to have come from Babylonians. The Greeks later adopted them with some small changes, like dropping off the thirteenth sign. From there, the twelve remaining symbols made their way into other cultures around the world.
As it goes, each zodiac symbol coordinates with a constellation in the sky, the constellations themselves providing a celestial coordinate system (a stable point of reference) that travels through the sky at the same time every year. Essentially the zodiac is the circle of twelve 30-degree divisions of celestial longitude—the apparent path of the sun across the celestial sphere over the course of the year.
In terms of architecture, zodiac symbols were already being used in other parts of the world appearing in the ornate ceilings, floors and the stained glass of churches and cathedrals, like the Chartres Cathedral in France built in the 12th century. In the early 1900s they became more visible in New York, and they are still apparent if you know where to look for them.
In 1906 Piermont Morgan had a personal library built to accommodate his growing collection of books, historic manuscripts, medieval works of art, along with old master drawings and prints. Designed by Charles McKim from the architecture firm of the day, McKim, Mead & White, the library epitomized America’s Gilded Age.
The result was an Italian Renaissance-style palazzo with three stunning rooms of both size and elaborate interior design. The scheme by H. Siddons Mowbray’s for the lunettes incorporated two series of figures: representations of muses and their attributes (copied from the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome) and cultural luminaries of the past.
Starting on the right of the fireplace, cultural luminaries include Dante Alighieri (comedy) Sandro Botticelli (painting), Michelangelo (architecture), Antonio da Sangallo (poetry), Socrates (history), William Caxton (music), Herodotus (science), Galileo Galilei (astronomy) and Christopher Columbus (tragedy).
Adding to the intricate ceiling, zodiac signs accompanied by their ruling deities from the Roman calendar appear in the hexagonal spandrels above the men and their muses. The zodiac signs on the ceiling were arranged according to their influence on Morgan. The two isolated signs above the doorway are Aries and Gemini which correspond to his birthday and the date of his second marriage. For Morgan, the placement symbolized walking past his two lucky stars each time he entered the room. Opposite Aries is Libra, the sign Morgan assumed as a member of the “never secret, only private” Zodiac Club, and opposite Gemini is Aquarius, the sign his first wife passed away under.
Eleven years after Piermont Morgan passed away, his son J.P. Morgan, Jr. decided it should be available to all. It was turned into a public library in 1924 and remains open to the public.
The year after the Morgan Library was built, the Surrogate’s Courthouse was completed in 1907. Originally called the Hall of Records, it is still considered one of the finest examples of Beaux-Arts architecture in the city. The austere exterior seems to protect the lavish interior; a level of opulence not usually found in civic architecture. Designed by John R. Thomas, the atrium is highly decorated and covered with pink, beige and sienna marble carvings, capped by an arched bronze skylight.
Often overlooked, the glittering ceiling of the main entrance is the opening act for the spectacular atrium. Glass tiled mosaics depicting stylized zodiac symbols and ancient deities were designed by William de Leftwich Dodge, who also worked on the Algonquin Hotel. With the stoic appearance and warm lighting, the atrium has become a TV star in its own right with frequent appearances on Law and Order’s SVU series.
You can check this area out by entering from Chambers Street, but if you want to go into the atrium, you’ll need to pass through a security check point with a reason for your visit.
3a. Grand Central Station, NYC. Ceiling w/zodiac symbols. Photo: WikiCommons
Grand Central Terminal
The belle of the celestial ball arrived in 1913 as Grand Central Terminal, a transportation and architectural masterpiece. One of the most iconic landmarks in New York, the elaborately decorated ceiling of the main concourse was the collaboration of artists, astronomers and painting assistants.
There has long been chatter of the constellations of being laid out incorrectly from an earthly view, but correctly from a heavenly view (the heavenly view was often used in medieval art). There is also confusion about its accuracy, as Taurus and Gemini are reversed in their relationship to Orion, meaning they were painted from a heavenly view and Orion was painted from the earthly view.
3c. Grand Central Station. Detail of ceiling, Cancer zodiac symbol 2016
Whether or not the astronomical charts were intentionally misinterpreted is still unclear. But with no interest in rewriting history, the ceiling has never been changed to correct the constellations. And with plaster repairs made in 1930 and a 12-year restoration effort undertaken in the 1980s, Grand Central remains a sublime example of a celestial ceiling used as a canvas for representing the concept of time and space through the zodiac symbols.
4c. Salmon Tower (11 West 42nd St). Detail of December and zodiac symbol, facade ornamentation. 2016
The Salmon Tower
The Salmon Tower was designed by York & Sawyer, another one of New York’s early top architectural firms, and completed in 1927. The formal name was dropped and now its referred to simply by its address 11 West 42ndStreet. The H-shaped building sits in the middle of the block so 43rd street is accessible by continuing north through the lobby, which is also noteworthy because of its blue Guastavino ceiling tiles. The façade on both sides of the building include bas-reliefs representing each month and their corresponding zodiac signs.
You can enter the lobby freely from 42nd or 43rd, but will need to pass a security checkpoint to get on the elevators. The building doors are also recessed from the facade, making this is a cool place to wait for someone or ride out the rain.
The Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower (a.k.a. One Hanson Place)
The Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower in Brooklyn was built 1929 and continued the celestial trend of the time. Representing the heavens, a blue groin-vaulted mosaic ceiling arches over the lobby. Punctuated by gold mosaic stars, the area is a visual introduction to the colossal 63-foot-high banking hall.
The soaring ceiling was painted by Angelo Magnanti and is a muted rendition of zodiac constellations with their mythological figures in gold. In the vaults, on either side of the arched painted ceiling, mosaics of zodiac signs can be seen, although not easily. The metallic ceiling feels light and airy which can cause the immense vertical space to warp perceptions of the space.
At one end of the hall a wall mosaic depicts early settlements in Kings County including Breuckelen (Brooklyn), Boswijck (Bushwick) and Midwout (Flatbush).
Most recently recognized as the location for the Brooklyn Flea market, the space is now dedicated to events and the upper floors have been turned into 178 market-rate residential units branded as One Hanson Place. 6b. Pennsylvania Station, Newark, NJ. Photo by Jerome Gouvernel, 2016
Pennsylvania Station in Newark, New Jersey
The other Pennsylvania Station in Newark, New Jersey has a spectacular art deco waiting room worth an in-person visit because clear photos of the zodiac wrapped globes are hard to come by. When it was completed in 1935, the station boasted 232 trains between Newark and NYC running on a daily basis. Typical of art deco design, the evolution of transportation found its way into the ornamentation, and includes things like a canoe, covered wagon, electric locomotive and airplane.
The ceiling is covered with blue Guastavino tiles in a herringbone pattern dissected by undulating brass lines embedded into the tile. The twist away from the modern architectural style can be found in the zodiac symbols that encircle each of the four globe chandeliers. Made from opal glass, each chandelier weighs 800 pounds, but the streamlined design makes them look weightless.
This celestial ceiling is more abstract, mostly because of its simplicity, which is not seen in the other buildings, but the elements are still there. The blue ceiling represents the sky, four globe chandeliers could be interpreted as the sun or moon and/or the four seasons, and the zodiac symbols connect earth and the cosmos. As with Grand Central, using zodiac symbolism to quantify time and space seems to work well in a transportation hub.
The connection to the cosmos, ideas of time and space, and an awareness of ancient zodiac symbols were important design elements in the past. They may have slipped to the side, as with so many other historic symbols (cornucopia, lions, owls, Roman gods, gargoyles) but at least you can still spot some of these remnants in New York and New Jersey.
These days if an architect were to ask a developer “What’s your sign?” they probably wouldn’t be taken very seriously. But in the ...
An estimate by the New York Building Congress has construction spending in 2016 at more than $43.1 billion, beating the $41.6 billion high of 2007 and reflecting a 26 percent increase from last year’s $34.4 billion, the Wall Street Journal reports. The surge in construction, led by mega-project Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s West Side and public projects like the Second Avenue Subway, has led to rising construction costs and an attendant surge in the demand for skilled labor, bringing workers to the city from all over the U.S.
According to the industry group’s report, construction spending in the city will hit $127.5 billion in the next three years. Office construction is in the spotlight with over 20 million square feet of new space predicted over the next five years, again much of it in Hudson Yards.
Non-residential construction shows a 27 percent projected spending increase from last year to $17 billion. Until this year, private projects–like apartment buildings and office towers–led construction spending; but a rebound in government construction spending in 2016 has had more of an impact recently though government spending still lagged 39 percent below a 2007 peak. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey also contributed to the spending uptick.
Residential construction is up to record levels again for the third year in a row, set to hit $13.4 billion in 2016, up from $12.7 billion in 2015. Building congress president Richard T. Anderson said the building industry “is clicking on all cylinders,” but questions whether the pace can be sustained, particularly “without a renewal of the 421a tax reduction program or better progress on the de Blasio’s administration’s efforts to rezone areas of the City to accommodate greater density and more affordable units.”
An estimate by the New York Building Congress has construction spending in 2016 at more than $43.1 billion, beating the $41.6 ...
Each decade in the New York metropolitan area about 500,000 people are buried in cemetery plots, taking up a dwindling amount of land and outputting cremation smog into the air. With this growing issue in mind, a trans-disciplinary research and design group at Columbia University known as DeathLab has been working for the past five years to reconceive “how we live with death in the metropolis.” One of their proposals is Constellation Park, a system of hundreds of burial pods suspended under the Manhattan Bridge that together create a twinkling public park. Atlas Obscura shared the design, which, if built, could reportedly accommodate around 10 percent of city deaths a year.
The idea for Constellation Park came from environmental engineer Kartik Chandran, “who has been working on an anaerobic microbial digestion for corpses in which microorganisms consume bodies without the need for oxygen, reducing them to light.” Not only is this responsible for the shiny nature of the pods, but it’s a way to keep the body’s energy alive even after death.
An article in Columbia Magazine explains how the team feels the idea encompasses all their goals: it’s accessible (you can even see a loved one from miles away); it has no additional footprint, as it’s integrated into existing infrastructure; and it’s renewable. Since the bodies will naturally decompose “through microbial digestion,” loved ones will be able to take a small amount of their remains, and the pod will then be ready for a new body (if you’re wondering about traditional cremation, DeathLab says that is actually quite un-evironmentally friendly since the process uses a great deal of energy and non-renewable fuels and releases sometimes-toxic gases).
The park is made up of a tensile steel and recycled plastic matrix that supports the pods. Throughout is a series of plazas and staircases for people to pay their respects.
Each decade in the New York metropolitan area about 500,000 people are buried in cemetery plots, taking up a dwindling ...
There’s nothing that makes a New Yorker jealous like a sprawling, decked-out backyard. And this one at 11 Charlton Street in Soho is sure to induce plenty of envy. It’s a 1,000-square-foot “garden oasis” (as the listing dubs it) outfitted with a koi pond, Magnolia trees, two outdoor sheds and a BBQ. With two big windows between the garden and this one bedroom, now asking $1.56 million, the apartment pulls a little of the outdoors inside.
Here’s another shot of that garden, off the ground floor of the co-op building. Talk about a major perk of moving into a ground floor apartment!
Inside, there’s about 750 square feet. The combined living and dining area exits out into the garden and looks out onto the koi pond.
The open kitchen, which has a breakfast bar for some extra seating, is situated right behind the living room.
The bedroom also comes with garden views. It’s a tight space now outfitted with a murphy bed. But there’s an adjacent walk-in closet that’s large enough to be converted to an office space, the listing says.
Charlton Street is only three blocks long, running through west Soho. This co-op building is right on the corner of Varick Street, two blocks south of Houston. It’s not particularly impressive from the outside– apparently its charms are most evident out in the back.
There’s nothing that makes a New Yorker jealous like a sprawling, decked-out backyard. And this one at 11 Charlton Street in ...
In 2010, fashion designer Alexander Wang bought his Tribeca loft at 39 Worth Street for $2 million from former New York Times Style writer Holly Brubach. He then undertook a gut renovation with decorator Ryan Korban that resulted in an “industrial chic” space that embodies his love of black and his line’s signature minimalist, urban vibes, as seen through details like a furry furniture, zebra rugs, leather pillows, and mirrored wall panels. Wang listed the 2,550-square-foot home for $3.75 million in May, and the Observer now reports that it’s gone into contract for $3.5 million.
The home retains historic loft details like oversized mullioned windows, 12-foot ceilings, and restored tin ceilings, but also features more contemporary takes on the warehouse style such as ebony-stained wood floors and whitewashed brick walls. The 30′ x 85′ main space is divided into three functional zones–a large living room, dining room, and a den. There’s also an open kitchen, which has stainless steel cabinetry, white marble counters, and a large island.
Though the home is currently configured as a one-bedroom (with, fittingly, a giant walk-in dressing room), there is plenty of space to create more bedrooms. There’s also two white marble bathrooms and a large laundry and utility room with a washer-dryer.
As the Observer explains, Wang stepped down as the creative director of Balenciaga in 2015, and recently announced that he’d be taking over as CEO of his namesake line. His former position required him to split his time between New York and Paris, so perhaps now he’s looking for larger digs in NYC.
In 2010, fashion designer Alexander Wang bought his Tribeca loft at 39 Worth Street for $2 million from former New York ...
Ashley Olsen went into contract on a luxe two-bedroom spread at 37 East 12th Street in May. The Greenwich Village apartment had been listed for $7.1 million, but the Observer confirms that the single twin has now closed on the home for $6.75 million. The 19th century cast-iron building was converted to six full-floor boutique condos, and this privacy is what reportedly enticed Olsen. The prime Village location probably didn’t hurt either considering she and sis Mary Kate named their clothing line The Row after the famous stretch of rowhouses along Washington Square Park.
The listing described the 3,000-square-foot home as having “a gracious, Old World sensibility, reimagined for contemporary living.” Though it’s been outfitted with modern updates like chevron-patterned walnut flooring and a sleek living room fireplace, the condo retains original details including barrel-vaulted ceilings, large picture windows, and exposed cast iron columns.
The steel and restoration glass doors that separate the kitchen and dining room are definitely the centerpiece of the space. The kitchen boasts custom rift white oak cabinetry, hones marble counters, and Spanish crackle-glazed subway tiles on the backsplash and arched ceilings.
The though bedrooms are fairly understated, the bathrooms really go all out. The master has honed Calcutta marble walls, custom mosaic floors, a freestanding polished-metal soaking tub, separate toilet, and rain shower. The powder room has cast Moroccan tile floors and a custom vanity with reclaimed Museum of Modern Art marble.
As 6sqft previously explained, “This is not the 29-year-old Olsen’s first foray into downtown real estate. In 2004, she and twin sister Mary Kate bought a $7.3 million penthouse at 1 Morton Square to serve as their NYU ‘dorm,'”selling it in 2010 for $7.7 million.” Ashley won’t be too far from her twin; Mary Kate and husband Olivier Sarkozy bought painter David Deutsch’s magnificent Turtle Bay townhouse in 2014 for $13.5 million.
Something is in the air at luxury apartment buildings looking for new ways to charm residents. The idea of “aromatizing” building common spaces to entice buyers and renters with seductive scents is gaining popularity among developers, according to The New York Times. A growing number of the city’s rental and condo buildings have begun to infuse their halls with fragrance via building ductwork or standalone scent machines. With any luck, the result will be something far, far away from the smell of your subway stop in August.
Lobby at 21 West End Avenue, presumably scent-infused
The premise is neither new nor trivial; the strong associations we make when confronted with various scents–à la Proust–can conjure the warmest of memories and the most joyous of moods. Hotel lobbies don’t smell like an elegant life of not having to make the bed by accident. And the old real estate agent trick of popping a batch of cookies in the oven before an open house is eerily foolproof.
Included among the rental buildings and condominiums that have begun using scent in their lobbies, fitness centers and hallways is 21 West End Avenue. The Upper West Side rental building opened in September, and while residents may have noticed the lobby smelled like a day at the beach, few of them knew the source was a fragrance called Ocean Mist, which was being pumped in through the building’s ductwork.
A sampling of scents available from fragrance provider ScentAir
Management plans to tweak the fragrance choices seasonally, with Seasons Greetings on deck to conjure hot apple cider and cinnamon, all provided by ScentAir, a North Carolina-based company that counts the Coors Brewing Company among its clients. The company provides scents for 67 residential buildings in the New York area and says that multifamily properties represent the largest amount of business growth in recent years.
Some of the scents used in residential aroma campaigns are pre-existing versions chosen from collections of thousands, others are completely original. 12.29, the fragrance design company begun by Dawn and Samantha Goldworm–they’ve created scents for Lady Gaga and Valentino among others–whipped up a signature scent for developer DDG, who now uses the bespoke scent, called Craft, in the lobbies of all of its buildings including the condos XOCO 325 at 325 West Broadway and 41 Bond in Noho.
By now this attempt to bring as many senses as possible into the branding process should be starting to make…sense. 12.29 scent director Dawn Goldworm reminds the Times that smell is deeply interconnected with our emotions. “If you walk into a building that has the most beautiful architecture and the most incredible design you’ve ever seen, and it smells like the pollution and the trash outside in New York City, you’re not having a luxury experience.” Manhattan rental building 535W43, for example, isn’t taking any chances; they’re double-barreling the premises with two fragrances (sandalwood in the lobby, lavender in the fitness center).
But what if you you don’t like what you smell? Worse, what if it reminds you of something awful? Clearly not everyone is going to have the same reaction to every odor. Scent experts hope that creating a custom signature fragrance helps head off this problem; if the scent is brand new, no one can associate it with a bad blast from times past. But even that strategy is no guarantee that a resident won’t inhale while having a bad day and be forever biased against a well-intentioned aroma. Others just resent the olfactory onslaught altogether. Jonathan Miller of appraisal firm Miller Samuel says the trend is merely a gimmick used by developers “trying to one up each other to make the most noise.”
Image: John Watson via flickr. Something is in the air at luxury apartment buildings looking for new ways to charm ...
Imagine you’re strolling though your neighborhood or favorite city park and a coyote crosses your path. Would you know what to do—aside from snapping a pic, of course? Answering that question is just one goal of the newly launched education and awareness campaign WildlifeNYC, which aims to teach New Yorkers about living among “urban fauna.”
Imagine you’re strolling though your neighborhood or favorite city park and a coyote crosses your path. Would you know what ...
6sqft revealed last month that the W train would be making its triumphant return on Monday, November 7th, restoring service from Astoria to Lower Manhattan. Now that the date is only a couple weeks away, the MTA is putting up flyers touting the new re-instated line, reports Pix 11. Designed to look like a flashy Broadway marquee, the poster was spotted by a Reddit user over the weekend at the 34th Street-Penn Station platform of the A,C,E train.
As 6sqft previously explained, “The line was taken out of service in 2010, along with the V train, due to MTA budget cuts, but the idea to revive the line came about last summer as a way to better connect Astoria when the Q train is rerouted once the Second Avenue Subway opens.”
The posters want to make commuters aware of the following service changes:
W trains will run on the Broadway line, making all local stops from Astoria-Ditmars Boulevard to Whitehall Street, replacing the Q line in Queens
Until the Second Avenue Subway is complete, the Q line will terminate at 57th Street-7th Avenue; after that, it will run from 96th Street in Manhattan to Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue in Brooklyn
N trains will run express from 34th Street-Herald Square to Canal Street
R service will remain the same
The changes will go into effect at 6:30am on November 7th. The MTA also announced today that the Second Avenue Subway is on track to open its first phase in December.
Before being ousted from “Today,” Billy Bush bought a Chelsea townhouse so he could relocated from LA. But amid the scandal, sources ...
Halloween is a lot like real estate; Both the holiday and the industry place a premium on size and neighborhood, it’s not unheard of to hear phrases like “tons of it” and “prime location” used to describe trick-or-treating or a new listing, and when it comes down to it, apartment hunters and trick-or-treaters want the same things: the best block, thoughtful exteriors, attention to details, and most importantly, value. Ahead, 6sqft has put together a list of some of the best blocks across the five boroughs to score sweets and scares. Just remember to bring along your broker parent and to count the square feet pieces of candy.
Each year, West 69th Street between Broadway and Central Park on the Upper West Side gets decked out and welcomes kids of all ages. Highlights from previous years include an inflated Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (a Halloween essential), fog and smoke, and of course, classics like spiders, zombies and graveyards. It’s worth the trip west and might leave you wanting an apartment on the block to participate next year.
Halloween on West 69th Street. Image courtesy of the West 69th Street block association
Trick-or-treating on theUpper East Side means heading right between Park and Lexington Avenues. 78th between Park and Lexington and 94th between Park and Lexington are rumored to yield the most bang when compared to neighboring blocks.
On the other end of Manhattan, a downtown source tells us 21st and 22nd streets between Ninth and Tenth Avenue are wonderful. With the number of family-filled townhouses in Chelsea, we have no doubt these are busy, fun streets.
Other Brooklyn highlights include Halsey Street, Jefferson and Putnam Avenues between Tompkins and Throop Avenues in Bed-Stuy, and Garden Place and Grace Court Alley in Brooklyn Heights.
Our Halloween tipsters in Queens recommend getting dressed up and trick-or-treating through Forest Hills Gardensalong Greenway North and Greenway South. The neighborhood is known for its large and beautiful homes and incredible decorations.
Queens Mama also points out a few other the top spots in the borough including Flushing on 166th Street between 45 and 46th Avenues, and Kew Gardens where a number of apartment buildings host trick-or-treating. For the latter, look for buildings numbered 33-83 on Austin Street and those near Hillside Avenue.
For those in southern section of Queens, head to Howard Beach. We don’t have specifics on streets, but we’re told the neighborhood is quite popular.
Tenbroeck Avenue in the Morris Park section of the Bronxis a go-to destination for families in the borough. As local resident Stephanie Hoina tells us:
“Tudor-style homes decorated with spooky graveyards, friendly pumpkins, and terrifying monsters all add to the allure, making this bucolic street a must-visit Halloween destination for young and old alike. Which is why year after year, even after purchasing hundreds of dollars worth of candy in advance, many of the residents still find themselves making mad dashes to the local CVS to keep up with the ever-growing rush of trick-or-treaters arriving at their door throughout the day and night.”
City Island was mentioned on several “best of” Halloween lists so there is no doubt this is hot spot. This island in the Bronx kicks off festivities with a parade down on Hawkins Park, followed by trick-or-treating that goes from one front porch to the next.
For trick-or-treating on Staten Island, head to the North Shore. Residents of Morrison Avenue between Broadway and Bement Avenue take Halloween very seriously, decking their homes out in all sorts of spooky decor and even creating soundtracks for trick-or-treaters as they roam the neighborhood. For kids looking for a good scare, or a bit of theatre, there is plenty of it here—residents are known to dress up in scary costumes and entertain the kids. But more importantly, this neighborhood is quite generous with candy distribution.
If you end up heading to the South Shore, Chesterton Avenue is great location with lots of young families.
Whether you’ll be trick-or-treating in Clinton Hill, the Upper East Side or on Staten Island, remember to be safe and have a good time. And of course, report back to us on size and location for a future listing!
Halloween is a lot like real estate; Both the holiday and the industry place a premium on size and neighborhood, it’s ...
Image: The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1902 – 1914
If you’ve ever bemoaned the fact that you share a bathroom with several family members or housemates, you’re not alone. Most New Yorkers live in apartments and most units have just a single bathroom. A hundred and fifty years ago, however, the situation was much worse. At the time, New Yorkers had just a few choices when it came to taking care of their lavatory needs and by modern standards, none of the options were appealing—visit an outhouse or use a chamber pot. Nevertheless, indoor toilets proved slow to gain popularity when they were first introduced in the second half of the nineteenth century. Initially, many residents feared the newfangled invention would bring poisonous gases into their homes, leading to illness and even death.
Outhouses and Chamber Pots
Until the late nineteenth century, most New Yorkers relied solely on outhouses located in backyards and alleys. While some residents had their own private outhouses, anyone living in a tenement would have shared facilities with their neighbors. The outhouse/resident ratio varied, but most tenements had just three to four outhouses, and as reported in Jacob Riis’s “How the Other Half Lives,” in the nineteenth century, it was not uncommon to find over 100 people living in a single tenement building. This meant that people often shared a single outhouse with anywhere from 25 to 30 of their neighbors, making long line-ups and limited privacy common problems. As one might expect, most tenement outhouses were also teeming with rats and other vermin and were a major source of disease.
Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. “Row of outhouses” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1902 – 1914.
If bathroom breaks were undesirable in the daytime hours, at night, especially in the dead of winter when running down several flights of stairs to street level posed additional dangers, most city residents turned to their chamber pots. Chamber pots, usually earthenware vessels, were typically stored under beds. Since most tenements had little or no ventilation, however, the stench from the chamber pots could quickly become unbearable. To help control the stench, chamber pots had to be emptied into backyard outhouses on a regular basis. Unsurprisingly, carrying pots full of human waste through the dark and narrow halls of a tenement was also no one’s favorite chore.
The Business of Removing the City’s “Night Soil”
Outside the city, outhouses were usually temporary structures built over a hole in the ground. As the holes filled up, the outhouses were simply moved to a new location and the holes covered over with fresh soil. In urban areas, limited space meant that most outhouses were permanent structures. This also meant that removing human waste was a thriving business in the nineteenth-century New York.
At the time, human waste was euphemistically known as “night soil.” This is presumably because the so-called night soil cart men, who worked for companies that had been lucky enough to win a coveted city contract for waste removal, made their living largely after dark. Their unenviable job involved shoveling waste from the city’s outhouses into carts (sometimes other garbage and animal carcasses would also be collected) and then disposing of the contents.
A night soil man. Images WikiCommons
So where did the city’s night soil go?
Although at least some of New York’s night soil ended up being dumped in empty lots on the Upper West Side (some of this human excrement was reportedly even used as fertilizer during the construction of Central Park), most of the city’s night soil was dumped into the city’s surrounding waterways. At best, the night soil was placed on steamboats and dumped far out in the harbor (this form of dumping was legal at the time). At worst, the night soil was simply dumped off the side of piers located on the East River and Hudson.
On March 30, 1878, a report in the New York Times described a scene that took place on the East River at the foot of 95th Street. In this case, two police officers reported seeing a man on deck of a boat just off shore “who, with a crank, was unloading the boat and allowing the contents to run through the side into the river.” The officers, who later testified to the Board of Police, explained, “they saw the boat rise in the water gradually as the contents flowed into the river, and the stench during the operation was intolerable.” Unfortunately, such incidents were by no means uncommon at the time, since dumping night soil into local waterways was far less expensive than using steamboats to cart the waste out into the harbor.
The Arrival of Indoor Toilets and Fear of Sewer Gases
By the time indoor toilets arrived in New York City, they were far from new. The first patent for a flushing lavatory was issued in 1775 to Scottish inventor Alexander Cumming. In the coming decades, Cumming’s invention would continue to be perfected, but still, indoor toilets did not become the norm in most cities until the late nineteenth century and did not reach many rural areas until decades later. In New York, two obstacles slowed the arrival of indoor toilets.
Science, Industry and Business Library: General Collection, The New York Public Library. “Demarest’s Patent Water Closet Apparatus.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1888.
First, there was the problem of creating a sewage system in an already developed urban area. Today, New York is home to over 6,000 miles of mains and pipes with some of the pipes dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. Laying sewage pipes under an already existing urban area, however, proved to be a difficult, costly and at times politically contentious endeavor. For this reason, Brooklyn, which developed later, had a distinct advantage and outpaced Manhattan on the sewage front.
The other obstacle was an at-the-time broadly accepted theory about sewer gases. Given the health concerns and unpleasant smells associated with outhouses, one might assume that city residents would have rapidly embraced indoor toilets. In fact, indoor toilets were met with mixed reviews in the mid to late nineteenth century and many residents initially viewed this advance in sanitation as a potentially deadly conduit of disease. Notably, the fear of dangerous gases rising up from the city’s sewers and resulting in serious illness and even death was driven both by urban legend and by the medical professions’ alleged findings. While sewer gases are a nuisance (modern plumbing usually prevents the gases from seeping into homes), in the nineteenth century, many physicians and the general public believed that if inhaled, the gases could lead to severe illness and even death, because there was a strong conviction that the gases carried disease.
In the pointedly titled 1881 publication, “Sewer-Gases and Its Dangers,” George Preston Brown warns, “Wherever there are sewers, it is certain there will be sewer-gas. If confined to the sewer, it can do no harm…it is only when it finds its way into houses…that it becomes the enemy of the human race.” Among other ailments, Brown reports that sewer gases carry into people’s homes diseases ranging from typhoid, typhus, and scarlet fever to cholera, dysentery and croup. In an 1882 address to the Academy of Medicine, Dr. Frank H. Hamilton sought to send a similar warning to his audience, but unlike Brown, who appeared to believe that proper plumbing could solve the problem, Dr. Hamilton advised that closets, drains, and pipes be put in an annex outside one’s living quarters: “Not a few of our lately constructed and most elegant mansions have not an inch of plumbing in those portions of their buildings which are usually occupied by their families.”
Legislating Indoor Toilets
It was not until the turn of the 20th century that most people in the medical profession agreed that sewer gases were not a source of disease and that on the contrary, continuing to deny city residents access to indoor toilets was contributing to the spread of deadly diseases. With this realization, the push to install indoor toilets and running water across New York City intensified. The Tenement Act of 1901 clearly states, “In every tenement house here after erected there shall be a separate water-closet in a separate compartment within each apartment.” Although new tenement construction had to comply and nearly all buildings erected after 1910 were built with indoor toilets, many existing tenement owners were slow to come into line with the new regulations. Indeed, in 1937, an estimated 165,000 families living in tenements were still without access to private indoor toilets.
Today, anyone with an address in New York City should have access to an indoor toilet, but there is one resident who is likely more grateful for indoor toilets than anyone else. The New York Post recently reported that Vincenzo Giurbino, an NYC Housing Authority “toilet tech,” made an impressive $228,633 in overtime during the last fiscal year. This means that in New York City, a toilet tech who is willing to spend up to 70 hours per week unclogging NYC Housing Authority toilets can take home over $375,000 per year—this tops Mayor de Blasio’s annual take-home salary by more than $100,000.