A QUANTUM LEAP IN MULTIPLE-DWELLING FIRE SAFETY

BY FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN, SFPE (Fellow)

Editor’s note: Francis L. Brannigan had submitted this column, and others, before his sudden death on January 10.

A century ago, a revolutionary housing code change provided millions of New Yorkers with fire-safe, sanitary multiple dwellings.

In the early 19th century, thousands of immigrants started to pour into New York City. The supply of deteriorated private housing, which historically becomes housing for the poor, was woefully inadequate. To house them, multistory flats, as high as eight stories, were built. They were simply enlarged private homes with every possible fire-life hazard in which every tenant was at the mercy of every other tenant’s carelessness or evil intent. Terrible multiple-death fires occurred.

The buildings had windowless rooms and backyard privies, both health hazards. About 1875, some improvements were instituted. Platform steel fire escapes were run across several buildings so tenants could get to the next building. Alternatively, a vertical ladder was provided to the second-floor level with a drop ladder to the street.

To get light to the dark, windowless, interior rooms, a hexagonal air shaft was required to be shared by two adjacent buildings. It provided three windows to each floor of each building. This well-meant “improvement” was and is a potential fire disaster; it provides a ready path for vertical and horizontal out-of-sight fire extension. Garbage and trash were often thrown down the airshaft, providing fuel for fires.

Indoor public toilets were provided on each floor, a slight advance over the outside privy. Many fire defects were built into the buildings.

THE TENEMENT HOUSE ACT

In 1901, after what we would call a “Fault Tree Analysis,” each of the defects was remedied in a revolutionary law called “The Tenement House Act,” which was denounced as an economic disaster in an architectural magazine.

I asked our son John, whose life work was in the Collections Division of The Library of Congress, to find me an article that said this bill would be a disaster. He found “Effects of the New Tenement House Law in New York City” (American Architect, June 8, 1901; 72: 75).

It said that grass would grow in the streets because no buildings would be built and that the requirement for windows was ridiculous because “these people do not open windows.” The Statue of Liberty’s “welcome” was not universal.

Any multiple dwelling (three or more units) is a tenement under the law, a fact that would shock the occupants of luxury high-rise buildings built before the law went into effect, which were known as “Old Law Tenements.” High-rises built in conformance with the act were known as “New Law Tenements.”

The fire-related provisions included the following:

  • The basement ceiling was “fireproofed.” Basements had high fire loads of tenant storage.
  • There was no inside stairway to the basement. The basement access was from the outside only.
  • All interior surfaces were heavily plastered. Wooden wainscoting was out.
  • Noncombustible stairs in a brick fire tower continued to a roof penthouse (a structure above the roof) with a glass skylight with a wire screen below it, for catching glass if broken for ventilation by the fire department.
  • Apartment doors were to be self-closing and metal clad, so called “kalamein,” which can be a trade name or a generic.
  • The Old Law apartments had two or three doors to the hall so one could go from the kitchen to the parlor by way of the public hall instead of going through the bedrooms, where a night worker who rented a bed for daytime sleeping might be asleep. These doors had frosted glass windows; there was no barrier to hold the fire in the apartment of origin.
  • The single self-closing metal door to each apartment in New Law tenements cut off this avenue of fire spread.
  • Dumbwaiters had the same required masonry enclosure and self-closing metal doors.
  • There were stairway-type (not vertical ladder) fire escapes front and rear with direct access from each apartment.1
  • Height was limited to six stories, the reach of an aerial ladder, for a third escape route.
  • Central heating was required.
  • One of the many health improvements was a requirement for a window on an open courtyard in each room. This eliminated the serious problem of the fire’s autoextending up enclosed airshafts.

Writing in the 1930s, Fire Department of New York Assistant Chief Thomas Dougherty stated there had been no loss of life from fire in such buildings (except for the apartment of origin).2

Unfortunately, there was a delay in the application of the code, and developers filed hundreds of plans for Old Law tenements in the interim.

I was reared in a New Law tenement on W. 148th Street in Manhattan. Amsterdam Avenue was lined with Old Law tenements, in which a number of my friends lived. So, I had an understanding of the difference between the two early on. I saw a number of fires in such buildings. Afterward, there was a characteristic odor of wet burned wood. One multifatality fire occurred on Easter Sunday morning. Tenements on main streets often have stores on the first floor. In this case, it was a paint store. A family of six was killed. The only “fire precaution” was an embossed steel (tin) ceiling in the store that was considered a fire barrier by the code writers.3

Multiple units were built with one common entrance. Originally, the fire walls were carried up only to the top-floor ceiling; this system was presumed adequate for safe exit. Experience with cockloft fires brought a change to the underside of the roof and then to parapets.

In the building boom of the 1920s and 1930s, racketeers would torch the building just as the wood lathing was completed. The building would be completely involved on the fire department’s arrival. These totally combustible buildings were made quite safe by an adequate code.

Endnotes

1. The fire department had found it better to raise a ground ladder at a slope to the fire escape to bring the tenants down instead of using the vertical straight drop ladder. At a fire I attended, a large and loudly lamenting woman had gotten onto the ladder, but she refused to move. The building had a first-floor store. Dark red fire (oxygen starved) was seen coming up from the basement in the rear of the store. An engine company was crouched in the doorway, waiting for the ladder company to take out the store’s front window to vent the heat. The order was held up because venting the window would send a ball of fire up the fire escape and would engulf the woman and the firefighters. The chief ordered, “Take the ladder down.” The ladder was lowered by men (I was one) shoulder-to-shoulder alongside it, with the screaming woman aboard. When the woman was on the street and the firefighters on the fire escape had retreated into apartments, the window was taken out. The engine company moved in, and a ball of fire went up the fire escape.

2. A personal note, but firefighters should know this. I was a kid at the scene of a fire in an Old Law tenement. A woman was crying and showing a can to people. It contained a roll of heavily scorched bills. I told her to shut the can, take it to a bank, and ask them to help her get it to the U.S. Treasury, which would carefully separate the bills and give her their value. This is the first useful thing I did in fire protection. Shortly thereafter I installed a homemade automatic fire alarm at the head of the basement stairs in my grandparents’ wooden row house. My grandfather had a huge pile of scrap wood to save on coal. Failure of a fusible link allowed a weight to close a knife switch, which caused a battery-operated doorbell to ring on the third floor, where my grandparents slept.

3. In Panama City, Roosevelt Park, there were multiple casualties in an apartment house fire. The first floor was used as a film exchange, where the then-still-in-use deadly nitrocellulose motion picture film was stored. In 1929, stored cellulose nitrate X-ray films burned and killed 125 people at The Cleveland Clinic.

FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN, SFPE (Fellow), the recipient of Fire Engineering’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, devoted more than half of his 63-year career to the safety of firefighters in building fires. He was well known as the author of Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition (National Fire Protection Association, 1992) and for his lectures and videotapes. Brannigan was an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

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