Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

Balcony Seats to the City

March 28, 2016

Even in quickly evolving New York City, there’s something romantic about slowing down, stepping out of the fast currents of foot traffic, and looking up. Few neighborhoods will disappoint. Look up high, especially in Manhattan, and you can see the built history of the big city play out in the architectural details and ornamental facades of buildings, awnings and balconies standing out like grooves in record, ready to reveal the story of each block. Within the skyscraper canyons of Midtown, you can spot the pinnacles of great towers, and the cranes of greater towers in the making. But look a little lower, around the corners and in the alleyways, and you’ll see a structure with a romantic connection to an older New York City, zig-zagging down towards the streets.

Fire escapes have a fairly straightforward purpose, designed for the noble role their name implies. But for much of their history, in cities across the world, they’ve served altogether different roles. Tenement dwellers slept on them, bickered on them, turned them into literal community grapevines. For the optimistic and dirt-poor trying to eke out an existence in a dense city, the iron grates offered a blank canvas to conjure unaffordable luxuries; a mattress became an extra bedroom, especially before the comforts of air conditioning (“whole families lay on those iron balconies in their underwear,” wrote playwright Arthur Miller about growing up on 110th Street); a flower pot was as good as a garden, and the stairs offered an easy way to the roof, “tar beach” during hot summer days. “The greatest thing I remember about wintertime,” Chicagoan Bill Bailey once told Studs Terkel, “you’d reach out on the fire escape and pull in some snow, put condensed milk on it, and you had great ice cream!”

Fire Escape Immigrant
A newly arrived immigrant eats noodles on the fire escape in New York City. © Chien-Chi Chang/Magnum Photos 1988

“They hearken back to a time when the barriers between your and your neighbor’s lives and physical space were much more tenuous than now,” says Andrew Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, who’s spent his whole adult life in a pair of Hell’s Kitchen buildings with fire escapes. “This was an era when people had communal bathrooms and lots more shared space. It was time when there was an expectation, at least for many of us of modest means, that our lives would be much more intertwined and interdependent.”

For many, fire escapes exist somewhere between the practical and the aesthetic. And while everyday citizens made them part of their homes, artists and intellectuals made fire escapes romantic symbols. Photos and films have caused fire escapes to be intertwined with urbanity, as attached to our collective imagination of cities as they are to the sides of buildings.

Consider how fire escapes make it into the foreground and background of the New York City’s creative culture: surreal, black-and-white symbols of alienation in film noir, the modern balcony in West Side Story’s interracial spin on Shakespeare, the workplaces of crime fighters and comic book heroes, framing devices for Hitchcock’s exploration of voyeurism, Rear Window.

Rear WIndow Still

Rear Window; James Stewart, Grace Kelly, 1954. Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

Rear WIndow Movie Poster

A poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 mystery film ‘Rear Window’ starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Movie Poster Image Art / Getty Images

One of Andy Warhol’s first videos was shot on a fire escape, a short of his boyfriend, scissor in hand, giving Edie Sedgewick a pixie cut. An impossibly young Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe posed next to the iron railings in ripped jeans and white tees, punk poet and photographer in repose. On Wu-Tang’s song “C.R.E.A.M.,” Raekwon raps about “running up in gates, and doing hits for high stakes/Making my way on fire escapes.” James Baldwin’s short story The Rockpile, the two main characters, a pair of stepbrothers in Harlem, survey the landscape below them from the fire escape outside their window. Paul Simon looks out from a fire escape on Crosby Street on the cover of Still Crazy After All These Years. Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs dueled over Greenwich Village neighborhoods such as Hell’s Hundred Acres, where fire escapes with pots of geraniums signaled the home of an artist, likely an illegal squatter.

Fire escapes have seen so much. And sadly, in their extreme age, they’ve gone from a safety solution, to a symbol of the city’s romantic past, to worn, often unsafe landings and occasional eyesores—the antithesis of their roles as protective devices. Francisco “Cisco” Meneses, who repairs fire escapes and runs the National Fire Escape Association, a nonprofit that trains fire departments to investigate and spot these rotting structures, has found that rust, corrosion, and general neglect has turned many of these external stairs into potential dangers.

“Many of the connections for these fire escapes haven’t been examined for decades,” says Meneses, who calls the escapes “rusty gold” due to the potential number of repairs and upgrades needed across the country. “When I examine them, 75 percent aren’t up to code, and 50 percent could cause safety incidents. These are still up because people have maintained old buildings. Fire escapes are just along for the ride. Ask a fireman; they avoid fire escapes as much as possible.”

A fire escape has meant different things during different times, but since they were created in 18th-century England, they’ve always been a result of urban living, mankind building together, then building up. Simple structures didn’t require complicated means of egress, but as soon as cities began rising a few stories off the ground, fire became a massive threat, especially when the most common construction material was wood (the Great London Fire, which spread due to the capital’s densely packed wooden buildings, exemplified the dangers). Common tools such as fire hooks, axes, and buckets, tools of a decentralized and disorganized effort, wouldn’t suffice.

One of the first ancestors of fire escapes, a kind of rope ladder that unfurled from a window and allowed someone to climb down, rung by rung, was invented by Englishman Daniel Maseres in 1784. An associate of his wrote that, “having let myself out of window with one or other a great number of times; and am persuaded that, if there were a necessity for it, I could safely bring down a child in my arms.”

Maseres’s invention was soon superseded by others. The term fire escape was first popularized in England in the 1820s, a reference to extendable ladders, fireman would roll or truck toward a blaze and extend to rescue those stranded on burning buildings. Private firemen would wheel these ladders up to burning buildings to reach the roof, a more advantageous position to battle blazes; at the time, a simple ladder was normally sufficient for the two- or three-story structures of the day. The concept of a public metropolitan organization to fight fires was then unknown; ever since the London’s Great Fire of 1666, the city and its businesses and property owners were more interested in fire insurance than fighting fires. Owners took out policies to protect their investments, but the duty of battling fires fell to brigades funded by insurance companies, who, in the words of historian Roger Mardon, “saw the folly of standing by while buildings burned,” since ever charred square foot of space represented a higher claim. In 1836, one of these Brigades, London’s Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire, began using six-wheeled ladder wagons set up around street corners, to be deployed in case of a fire.

Player's Cigarette
Collectible cards from Player’s Cigarettes depicting different fire escape methods. Courtesy New York Public Library
Fire escape drawing
Fire escape diagram
Fire Chute
Clockwise from top left: Wrought iron balcony fire escapes with ladders. Publisher: J.L. Mott Iron Works. Courtesy of the New York Public Library. Ornamental wrought iron balcony fire escapes with ladders. Publisher: J.L. Mott Iron Works. Courtesy of the New York Public Library. Vintage postcard showing the fire escape on the Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, and two tubes of the fire escapes, a tubular type and spiral type with cut-away views to show how they work. Credit: Education images/Getty Images

These movable escapes were part of a wave of inventions in the 19th century meant to help those escape from increasingly taller structures, which, as the century advanced, continued to stack up, especially with new steel frames.  Scuttles (means to escape to the roof of the building next door), slides, and even parachutes were patented and advanced as solutions, but they proved whimsical at best, and dangerous at worse, especially as a wave of fatal factory, hotel, and apartment fires in the later half of the century shocked city governments into action. As height and density increased in both European and American cities, buildings became more and more dangerous, and relying on simple staircases and firemen simply wasn’t enough; better technology, and regulations, were required.

Scuttles, slides, and even parachutes were patented and advanced as solutions, but they proved whimsical at best and dangerous at worse.

During the second half of the 19th century, due in part to the proliferation of cheaply built, densely packed tenements, New York became an unfortunate laboratory for regulations and innovations to assist in the fight against urban fire. In his book Out of Mulberry Street, social reformer and journalist Jacob Riis spends pages talking about the bravery of firefighters, mostly because they faced such a dangerous job with reckless courage. Sometimes held aloft on ladders, they’d enter burning structures and try and pull people out of rapidly burning buildings.  More than half of all fires occurred in these tenements, he wrote, a situation rife with structural risks. The great air shafts between tenement buildings contributed greatly to the fireman’s risk, acting “like so many chimneys carrying the fire to the windows opening upon them in every story.” Rushing into buildings, firemen would face smoke filled rooms, with “the backdraft like a clap of thunder,” blowing through poorly constructed structures.

It took a series of tragedies to reform building codes in New York and elsewhere. One of the first incidents to galvanize public attention was a blaze at 142 Elm Street in New York on February 2, 1860, when the bakery at the ground floor of a six-story, wood-framed tenement house, home to 24 families, caught fire. As Elizabeth Mary Andrerecounts in her paper “Fire Escapes in Urban America: History and Preservation,” the fire, which killed ten women and children, was far from the first of its kind, but it generated public outcry and calls for change, including a Letter to the Editor of The New York Times that offered a solution: “Let an iron ladder be permanently annexed to the side-wall of the tenement house, thus connecting the roof of the tenement house with the roof of the adjoining house.”

Phil Mason Fire Escape

The resulting debate led to a law in the state legislature empowering cities to write their own laws of egress, and the city swiftly passed the Act to Provide Against Unsafe Buildings in the City of New York in April of that year. The law called for the construction of fire-proof stairs, “in a brick or stone,” and said any ladders or stairs from upper stories, if movable, be made of iron, and if not, be made of wood. As good as that sounds, the Act was just one of many over the ensuing decades that, due to vague wording, lax oversight, and insufficient penalties, didn’t make much of a difference. Laws such as the 1867 Tenement Act didn’t stem the tide of poorly constructed buildings, or change the calculations of landlords and property owners willing skimp on safety to save money.

During this time, the exterior fire escape as we know it became the popular means of secondary egress. Laws required two means of escape in case of fire, generally the main, interior stairwell, and the increasingly popular iron fire escapes grafted or bolted to the sides of tall structures.

But, still, tragedies struck in numerous cities, in hotels, factories, and housing, mostly due to the insufficient or poorly installed means of escape in the rapidly expanding number of large factories and multi-story hotels and buildings in northeast cities such as Boston and Philadelphia. The Fall River Factory Fire at a textile factory outside Boston in 1874 claimed 40 lives, with many plummeting to their deaths when small cotton ropes hanging outside windows—a surprisingly, and sadly, common means of escape—proved insufficient.

Kids on fire escape 1916
August 4, 1916 Children sitting on a fire escape on the 3rd Floor of a building on Allen St. The tracks of the elevated railroad are visible to the left of them. New York (N.Y.). Tenement House Dept. / Museum of the City of New York
Fire escape as playground
Social conditions in Manhattan (East side tenements – Use of fire escape as playground.) Brown Brothers / Courtesy of the New York Public Library

The full scope of the issue in New York was laid out in a 1901 report by the recently formed New York City Tenement House Department. As part of a sweeping investigation into the safety and sanitation of tenements, Commissioner Robert W. De Forest and First Deputy Commissioner Lawrence Veiller discovered that thousands of buildings had inadequate means of egress. Alternating between stark facts and gruesome stories—”one woman was roasted to death on the landing of a fire escape, because the fire escape stopped at the second floor”—the report painted a picture of serious neglect. During their investigation, according to Andre’s figures, “1,701 fire escapes were constructed; 4,024 fire escapes were ordered to be constructed; and 10,600 wooden fire escape floors were replaced with the proper iron floors.” The same year their report was released, the city passed the Tenement House Act, which mandated more fixed, safe, and sufficient fire escapes.

By the turn of the century, fire escapes had become common fixtures in large American cities, companions to urban construction and the rise of skyscrapers and towers that dominated the 20th century. By 1910, New York had roughly 1,000 buildings over 10 stories tall, all in need of proper means of exit, such as fire escapes. While many were placed in back alleys and out of sight, for certain buildings, they became part of the facade, ornamental strands of iron that, like ivy, gave life and character to a bare wall. Various designs, made in foundries across the country, including variations on slanted stairs, balconies, drop ladders, and handrails.

Asch Building Triangle Shirtwaist
Fire Escape of Asch Building After The Triangle Fire, New York City, 1911. Courtesy of the New York Public Library

But even during their period of prominence, their demise had already been spelled out. The tragic 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City, which killed 146 people, was remembered as a galvanizing moment for Progressive activists that led to more stringent factory and labor laws, also showcased the danger of fire escapes. During the fire in the Asch Building in Greenwich Building, according to historian Sara E. Wermiel, many workers perished while trying to use the fire escape. While dodging flames that leapt out nearby windows, they fell to their deaths when the iron stairway buckled. The Asch Report issued that year by the National Fire Protection Association called fire escapes a “pitiful delusion,” and began to systematically study better ways to get out of burning buildings.

Many a human being has grasped the hot rail of such a fire escape only to release it with a scream and leap from it in agony. Its platforms are usually pitifully small, and a rush to them from several floors at once jams and chokes them hopelessly.

Years earlier, in 1885, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia had conducted a study on the efficacy of fire escapes after a gruesome factory fire, and their conclusion—buildings should have multiple interior exits and better insulated/protected stairways—would eventually become the accepted modern solution.

Fire Escape WPA Poster
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Beginning in the ‘20s, firewalls and protected interior stairwells became the standard solution to the problem of egress, and fire escapes increasingly became a relic. When New York City passed a new building code in 1968 that banned exterior fire escapes on new buildings, it was codifying a decision many organizations, such as the National Fire Protection Association, had made years ago. The organization’s Life Safety Code of 1927 recommended protected interior stairwells for all new construction, a concept that’s become universally accepted. Along with numerous technological advances, has dramatically reduced deaths by fire in the ensuing decades.

One of the last architecturally important buildings to include fire escapes was the Commonwealth Building, now known as the Equitable Building, designed by Pietro Belluschi and completed in 1948. Ironically, the pioneering glass tower, which became a model for postwar construction, included old-fashioned fire escapes outside the glimmering, modern curtain wall because the owner wanted to maximize rentable floor space.

Like the exterior metal stairs on the Equitable Building, fire escapes are more romantic relics than functioning safety devices, and according to fire officials, accidents waiting to happen. In 1975, the Pulitzer Prize for photography was awarded to Stanley Forman, who caught a woman and her goddaughter in mid-air, plummeting after a fire escape snapped during their escape from a fire in Boston. Meneses, who refers to the escapes as the “bastard child of egress,” says it just takes one person going out on a balcony to have a smoke for one to potentially break. The National Fire Protection Association recommends better inspection, and suggests architects and designers remove them whenever possible during renovations. Despite updates to the 2012 International Fire Code suggesting more frequent inspection,  “we risk a major tragedy by allowing them to hide in plain sight,” the organization stated in a 2014 article.

Officially, as New York Fire Department spokesman Jim Long told the New York Post,  “those fire escapes are going the way of the dinosaur,” and recent events have only reinforced the notion of these contraptions unreliable nature. During the 2015 gas explosion in the East Village, a video showed someone unsuccessfully trying to use a fire escape, unable to lower the drop ladder to the street, who was eventually assisted by someone on the street.

But many cities and preservationists see them as important parts of the character of the cityscape that should be preserved. In Seattle’s Pioneer Square Preservation District, rules state that “proposals to remove or alter fire escapes shall be reviewed on a case by case basis with special consideration given to safety issues. However, as a general rule, fire escapes shall be retained.”  Genna Nashem, the group’s coordinator, says that while safety is a primary concern, many rehabbed structures include a new interior stair, so fire escapes are not a means of exit but an “architectural remain.”

Fire escape in Harlem
USA. New York City. 5th Avenue. Harlem. © Rene Burri/Magnum Photos 1978

According to Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the danger of fire escapes disappearing from New York are overstated, for reasons that apply to other cities, as well. Many of the building they’re attached to are historic, and as long as they’re protected, fire escapes will likely remain a (decorative, non-functioning) part of the urban landscape. According to Andre’s paper, several other urban historic preservation commissions have included fire escape protection into their plans.

“While there are some wouldn’t mourn the loss of, there are some I’d go to the barricades to save,” he says. “When we talk about certain parts of the city we seek to have landmarked or listed on the National Register, fire escapes can be an integral part of what we talk about, the design and aesthetics of what makes them valuable. It can be an integral part of what we highlight, representing an important period of the city’s development, and what that life was like at that time.”

No less an authority than Weegee, famous crime photographer, said as much. In an interview, he said one of his favorite photos, “Balcony Seats At A Murder,” was taken during a trip to Little Italy one balmy summer night, when he found a man killed in the doorway of a candy shop. Another photographer took a photo of just the deceased, but Weegee backed up, and with a burst of flash powder, caught five stories of people on their fire escapes; kids are even reading comics, he said. “This was like a backdrop.”

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