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The Decorated Tenement

How Immigrant Builders and Architects Transformed the Slum in the Gilded Age

2019
Author:

Zachary J. Violette

The Decorated Tenement

A reexamination of working-class architecture in late nineteenth-century urban America

Zachary J. Violette reexamines urban America’s tenement buildings borne of the housing reform movement embraced by the American-born elite in the late nineteenth century, centering on the immigrant neighborhoods of New York and Boston. Drawing on research and fieldwork of more than three thousand extant tenement buildings, Violette uses ornament as an entry point to reconsider the role of tenement architects and builders in improving housing for the working poor.

Shifting the focus away from the era’s frequently studied housing reformers, Zachary J. Violette instead explores distinctive ‘decorated tenements’ in New York and Boston. The result is a rich array of unique historical insights into market-driven design, urban building and financing practices, and the consumer desires and aesthetic preferences of immigrant renters grasping for modernity in America.

Donna Gabaccia, University of Toronto

As the multifamily building type that often symbolized urban squalor, tenements are familiar but poorly understood, frequently recognized only in terms of the housing reform movement embraced by the American-born elite in the late nineteenth century. This book reexamines urban America’s tenement buildings of this period, centering on the immigrant neighborhoods of New York and Boston.

Zachary J. Violette focuses on what he calls the “decorated tenement,” a wave of new buildings constructed by immigrant builders and architects who remade the slum landscapes of the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the North and West Ends of Boston in the late nineteenth century. These buildings’ highly ornamental facades became the target of predominantly upper-class and Anglo-Saxon housing reformers, who viewed the facades as garish wrappings that often hid what they assumed were exploitative and brutal living conditions. Drawing on research and fieldwork of more than three thousand extant tenement buildings, Violette uses ornament as an entry point to reconsider the role of tenement architects and builders (many of whom had deep roots in immigrant communities) in improving housing for the working poor.

Utilizing specially commissioned contem-porary photography, and many never-before-published historical images, The Decorated Tenement complicates monolithic notions of architectural taste and housing standards while broadening our understanding of the diversity of cultural and economic positions of those responsible for shaping American architecture and urban landscapes.

The Decorated Tenement

Zachary J. Violette is a preservation consultant and lecturer at Parsons/The New School of Design.

The Decorated Tenement

Shifting the focus away from the era’s frequently studied housing reformers, Zachary J. Violette instead explores distinctive ‘decorated tenements’ in New York and Boston. The result is a rich array of unique historical insights into market-driven design, urban building and financing practices, and the consumer desires and aesthetic preferences of immigrant renters grasping for modernity in America.

Donna Gabaccia, University of Toronto

Americans have long regarded the tenement as an unmitigated scourge while celebrating efforts by housing reformers to contain it. In this astonishing study of the architecture of tenements in New York and Boston (and of the architects and developers who built them), Zachary J. Violette topples the familiar narrative, revealing how the tenement represented not just immiseration but betterment: an effort by immigrants, for immigrants to rebuild neighborhoods like the Lower East Side and West End on their own terms. Along the way, Violette brilliantly highlights the role that xenophobia played in housing reform and the degree to which well-meaning experts dismissed the agency of those they sought to help.

Matthew Gordon Lasner, author of High Life: Condo Living in the Suburban Century

With a penetrating analysis into the way average apartment buildings were constructed, especially by little-known ethnic builders, Zachary J. Violette introduces us to the under-documented process of building design usually associated with the construction of upper-class apartments. Violette’s well-researched book gives us fresh, surprising insights into the tenement and challenges our understanding of this monolithic building type.

Thomas C. Hubka, author of Houses without Names: Architecture Nomenclature and the Classification of America’s Common Houses*