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The Decorated Tenement: How Immigrant Builders and Architects Transformed the Slum in the Gilded Age
by Zachary J. Violette
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.