SINCE the destruction of the St. George flats by fire there has been a vast amount of misdirected abuse heaped upon tall buildings, and public opinion seems to unite in declaring that these modern sky-scraping structures “must go.” The legislature considered but failed to pass a bill to restrict the height of dwellings in cities, and our Board of Aldermen has enacted an ordinance to the same effect. Still we predict that propertyowners will continue to erect ten and twelve, possibly fifteen and twenty, story buildings, and that any laws or ordinances placing restrictions on the towering ambition of builders will be dead letters from the day of their enactment, for the voice of the propertyowner is potent in the land. In a sudden gush of loyalty to the public voice, legislators sometimes give heed to its demands, but when the plethoric purse of the propertyowner comes to the front with substantial and convincing reasons in opposition, the average legislator is ready to undo to-day what he did yesterday. Public clamor has no staying qualities, and while it may, after a great calamity, demand a reform of the causes leading thereto, it is easily diverted, and in a very brief period forgets what it was crying about. Indignation regarding tall buildings should be vented rather upon the builders than upon the fact that such buildings are permitted. That such structures jeopard the lives and property of their occupants and of the occupants of buildings contiguous to them is more the fault of architects and builders than mere altitude. It is entirely feasible to make a tenstory building as nearly fireproof as a four or five-story one, and, under similar conditions, it is quite as perilous to human life to be in one as the other in case of fire. If a person is cut off from escape by flames in the building, and has to be rescued by means brought to bear from the outside, or if he has to jump to the street, or if he is doomed to be roasted alive, it is comparatively immaterial to him whether he is placed in an ordinary building or one of uncommon height. The popular demand should not be so much for a limitation upon the height of buildings as that all buildings, of whatever altitude, should be substantially built, that every safeguard against fire should be employed, and every provision made for the safety of its occupants.

When Captain Shaw, chief of the London Fire Brigade, was in this country two years ago, he said a good many more sensible things than he got credit for. Among other things, he told the chief engineers of fire departments, in national convention assembled, that he heard on every side great complaint of the many high buildings that were being erected in the cities, He declared that the same thing was going on in Europe, and it was useless to try to prevent it. What every community should do, he said, was to prepare itself to meet any emergency that might be occasioned by such structures. He declared that he expected to see buildings in London twelve and fifteen stories high. As a matter of fact, a thirteen-story apartment house has been constructed in London since Captain Shaw returned, and there are many buildings in that city that are entitled to be classified among exceedingly tall ones. We hear of no objections being raised there to their construction, but their building laws are more exacting than ours and are more rigidly enforced. Tell an average Englishman that the law is thus and so and, while it may excite his profanity, he will endeavor to comply with it; give an American the same information and he will set his wits at work to find a flaw in the law or to devise some means of evading its operations. At least this appears to be the case so far as architects and builders are concerned, for instances of violations of the building laws can be found by the thousands by referring to the files of the building department. It is a matter of standing complaint with the superintendent of that department that in order to seethe building laws properly carried out he would be compelled to station a deputy at every structure in course of erection. I he great fault with our buildings, of whatever height, is that they are not substantially built, and that in their construction the fire hazard has been entirely overlooked. W ho ever heard of a propertyowner spending any money upon a building owned by him to secure anything in the way of fire protection that he was not absolutely compelled to, either by law, by the fire underwriters, or that more potent influence, self-interest? While there are no penalties enforced for violations of the building laws, it can scarcely be expected that they will be respected by those who regard them as oppressive in any degree. There are builders in this city who recommend themselves to customers because of their skill in evading the requirements of the law and the building department. The worst feature of all this is that public sentiment does not condemn the individual violator of the laws, but is inclined to sympathize with him. Those who are most pronounced in their denunciations of building abuses in general have been found defending and excusing the individuals who were guilty of perpetrating these abuses.

Of course high buildings are objectionable in various ways, but especially because, unless properly built, they are liable to start a conflagration among adjoining houses that they tower so far above. But there are lofty buildings in this city that are so well built that a fire within them is almost an impossibility. Such are the Equitable and Mutual Life buildings, The Tribune establishment, the Mills, Morse, Field, Boreel, Temple Court, Western Union, the new Produce Exchange, and some other lofty structures that might be named. But these were all built for business purposes, and for this reason were made as solid and substantial as possible, for it was to the interest of their owners that they should be so. There is scarcely any combustible material used in them, and it is claimed that it would be almost impossible to start a fire in any one of them that would do any serious damage. When buildings are so constructed it is immaterial to the public, so far as the fire hazard is concerned, how high they are carried into the air. Why should not apartment houses be similarly constructed, with every precaution taken for the prevention and extinguishment of fires? The rapidly increasing demands of commerce and the growth of business of all kinds in the large cities make absolutely necessary the erection of buildings of large areas ; the price of land is so high that builders cannot acquire this needed area upon the surface, but must go above and below it to secure it, and they are likely to go to the full height that safety to the structure itself will permit. The increasing business facilities of the large cities require that residence facilities shall correspond. Modern improvements in elevators render upper stories quite as desirable for occupancy as those lower down. Men must live convenient to their places of business, and if they cannot have a house by themselves, they will share one with others. It is this desire for residences easy of access from the business streets that has made the large apartment houses necessary. They have been found so comfortable and convenient for the occupants and so profitable to owners, that their number is being steadily added to. Some of those of later construction are reported to be well and safely built, and as nearly fireproof as it is possible to make them ; but as this claim is made regarding^ll such buildings, in the light of experience it must be taken for what it is worth. Unquestionably, however, it is just as feasible to build an apartment house properly and well, and to provide it with equal safeguards against fire as it is to build one of a similar character for business purposes. If diversified occupancy is regarded as increasing the fire hazard, the apartment houses have an advantage over such buildings as we have named, for these latter are filled with numerous offices, having all sorts of tenants, conduct ing business of every variety, and who have little care for the fire hazard. The whole problem of tall buildings is simply one of construction, and instead of denouncing them and seeking to prohibit their erection, attention should be directed to making them as nearly fireproof as possible and providing adequately for the safety of the inmates.

It is contended that these high buildings are especially dangerous because their upper stories tower above the reach of the fire department apparatus. Practically a fifteen-story building is no worse off in this respect than a six-story one, for the roof of neither could be reached by streams thrown from the street. In either case it would be a question of accessibility from the outside, and if the taller buildings were well provided with standpipes, fixed ladders, balconies,etc., it would be as well off as its more diminutive neighbor. As to the water supply, as it has to be pumped now to reach even a second story, it would require but little more power to lift it to the top of the tall building, and standpipes would be a necessity. But increased pressure upon the water in the street mains can be provided at little cost, so that every hydrant can discharge one or more serviceable fire streams’. Practical firemen do not particularly object to tall buildings when they are accessible and the water supply adequate. They have given frequent illustrations of what they can do with fires in such buildings even with the conditions against them ; with proper facilities afforded them for getting at the fire they are not particular as to how high up it is. That underwriters do not regard tall buildings as over-hazardous is shown by the activity they display in seeking to insure them. The owner of the tallest of all the tall buildings can get all the insurance he wants at rates so low that he has no reason to complain, however much the companies may grumble. We do not assert that tall buildings are particularly desirable in any city, but that their erection is inevitable we believe to be a fact. The growth and expansion of the business of the country make them necessary, and instead of attempting to prohibit their construction, we would do better by striving to make them as safe as possible.

No posts to display