One facet of the streetscapes that we encounter each day but may not give much thought to are the fire escapes that weave their way up the facades of so many neighborhood buildings. If you just look up throughout the Village, you’ll be treated to both dainty floral flourishes and rusting utilitarian forms. Whether intricate or angular, the installation of these staircases in the sky was ordered by the City for a very basic reason—to help provide an escape in the event of fire. Like many of the city’s regulations, the development and installation of iron fire escapes throughout the city arose out of a collective response to tragedy.
As the New York’s population boomed during the nineteenth century and development spread north, multi-family tenement houses began sprouting up across the city. Many were constructed with low-quality materials that were quick to burn, and the cramped interior spaces were filled to well over their capacity. In the early evening of February 2, 1860, at 142 Elm Street, a fire broke out in the basement of a double-wide six-story tenement house in which ten women and children perished. (Elm Street was renamed Elk Street south of Duane Street and merged into the current Lafayette Street north of Duane Street—142 Elm Street would have been located between Howard and Grand Streets on today’s Lafayette Street).
The New York Times reported the terrible scene: “Ladders were immediately elevated to the windows, but the longest of them could not reach above the fourth floor. The firemen rescued some of the occupants, but were obliged to abandon all hope of saving the poor creatures in the two upper stories, and it is supposed that they all perished. As the firemen stood on the ladders, they could see many women and children lying prostrated on the floor, surrounded by the flames, which rendered all attempts to approach them ineffectual. The burning building extended four stories above any of the surrounding structures, and it must have been instant death for any of the poor creatures on the upper floors to have jumped from the roof, where a great many of them had clustered.” You can read the first-hand accounts of survivors here.
In the wake of the disaster on Elm Street, the City passed An Act to Provide Against Unsafe Buildings in the City of New York that same spring to help regulate tenement construction. Among the act’s provisions was the directive that “In all dwelling-houses which are built for the residence of more than eight families, there shall be a fire-proof stairs, in a brick or stone, or fire-proof building, attached to the exterior walls…or if the fire-proof stairs are not built as above, then there must be fire-proof balconies on each story on the outside of the building connected by fire-proof stairs…All ladders or stairs from upper stories to scuttles or roofs of any building, shall if movable, be of iron, and if not movable may be of wood; and all scuttles shall be not less than three feet by two feet.” Revisions to the tenement law in the later nineteenth century would become somewhat vaguer and less restrictive about the physical construction of the escapes, but kept them as a necessary element.
Many earlier fire escape designs consisted of a completely vertical climbing ladder that perpendicularly intersected the landings on each floor. Later amendments brought about the familiar styles remaining today of angled staircases and larger stair tread and landing sizes. Early fire escapes were often constructed of cast iron, which was more weather and corrosion-resistant, but by the twentieth-century, building codes required wrought-iron construction, which has a higher resistance to heat.
Another style still seen today in the South Village are fire balconies. You’ll notice that there are no connecting vertical stairways between the balconies. The structures were constructed across two different buildings and the idea was that in the event of fire in one building, residents could evacuate to the safety of a neighboring building. 25-29 Jones Street retains several original fire balconies, as does 55 and 55 1/2 Downing Street, and 63-67 Sullivan Street.
A rare example of a spiral fire escape can be found along the Fourth Arts Block (FAB) in the East Village. Recently, the fire escape and theater building at 62 East 4th Street were lovingly restored by FAB.
Also in the East Village, if the decked-out partygoers at the Pyramid Club at 101 Avenue A look up, they’ll find some equally primped ironwork along the fire escapes of the apartments above. Over on Avenue C, a Mary Poppins-meets-urban-homesteading vibe dominates the fire escapes at the Umbrella Building.
Though fire escapes were gradually phased out as primary components of fire plans–replaced by more fire-safe interior stairwells and sprinkler systems—you can still find new installations throughout the neighborhood. The new residential development on Avenue D and East 7th Street sports a modern version that brings the fire escape into the twenty first century.