Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 56, Part III

By Holice and Debbie

The Lenox Library is a fine building, located near Fifth Avenue on Seventieth Street, and cost to build and furnish nearly one million dollars. The main portion is set back from the road, and there is an extending wing on each side enclosing a space in front. The material used in its construction is white marble, and the style of architecture is classical, treated somewhat freely. The building was first opened in 1877, and contains a unique collection of valuable literature, including a large number of Shakespearean works.

Perhaps the most important structure devoted to educational purposes in the city is the fine Gothic building of the Normal College on Sixty-ninth Street. It is three hundred feet long and one hundred and twenty-five wide, and contains accommodation for fifteen hundred people.

The present New York Hospital is located on fifteenth Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenue, and was opened in 1876. It forms a most striking erection, six stories high, with a large projecting portion in the center, and a prominent high pitches roof. The whole building is admirably conceived to admit light, air and sunshine, and the ventilation and heating of the building are as nearly perfect as may be. Twenty large windows are placed on each of the upper floors, without counting those in the central projection. The approach to the building is through the main entrance hall in the center, which is one of an imposing size and appearance.

Perhaps the most marked feature of the new architecture, as compared to the old, is in the erection of the apartment houses throughout the city. Broadly speaking, they may be said to have been erected on about the same lines. There is generally a large main entrance-hall, with a courtyard at the back, which, in the better class of them, is covered with grass.

This description of house is rented off in suites of apartments, and the rents paid are often extremely high, being not frequently placed at auction they become so valuable. The Osborne Flats, illustrated on another page, is a typical example of a building of this character. The building is twelve stories high, and ranks among the highest of its class in the world.

Among others of these remarkable structures, which so characterize the residential part of the city, are the "Spanish Flats," located in a fine position opposite central park on fifty-ninth street and Seventh Avenue. These consist of three enormous buildings built in one block, each being nine stories in height. The architect has dealt with the difficult problem which high buildings present in the elevation in a remarkably successful manner, and has produced a pile of much beauty and attractiveness. This has been effected by breaking up the front with recessed and arched spaces, informing balconies, bays and oriel windows, and in placing bold turrets on the opposite corners of the building.

The Gramercy, on Gramercy Park, the Chelsea, on Twenty-third Street, and the "Dakota," on Eight Avenue, and Seventy-second Street, are other fine buildings of the same class.

But beyond these examples of the more spacious erections of the apartment house description of dwelling, there are a number of other very fine buildings of the same class distributed throughout the city, and although space will not permit of more particular mention here, they form prominent and notable features in the architecture of New York City.

Then we have other forms of the same order of dwelling, comprised and included in the terse phrase of "flats." It was in the year 1878 that the first dwelling of this description was erected in New York city. the notion of this manner of living was probably borrowed to a great extent from the French, many of whom have lived in houses or flats for the past two or three centuries. At the time of its introduction, the idea was quickly caught on, and what amounted almost to a craze for building flats became apparent, as may be witnessed by the large number of such buildings at the present time existing, and all of which have been erected during the past few years.

Many arguments have been presented, pro and con, as to the advantages of such buildings, but it is probably that the scheme has reached its culmination, for it is more generally understood now what serious disadvantages there are attending such a system of living.

Not the least among these is that of the danger attending a conflagration, and although happily the actual loss of life in such buildings in past years has not been large, it cannot be denied that the fact is almost entirely due to the efficiency of our fire and hook and ladder companies.

Taking cases where losses of life has been occasioned, a single case may be mentioned which occurred in March, 1883. This was a fire in which two lives were lost. It was one of the description of buildings generally known as a tenement house, and the usual fire escapes fixed to the building were provided.

The law on the subject of fire escapes, as amended by the Act passed June 5, 1885, in all dwellings, says:

"All dwelling houses now erected, or that may hereafter be erected, more than two stories in height, occupied or to be occupied by two or more families, on any floor above the first, and all buildings already erected more than three stories in height, occupied or used as a hotel, boarding or lodging house, or any factory, mill, offices, manufactory, or workshop, shall be provided with such good and sufficient fire-escapes, or other means of egress in case of fire, as shall be directed by the Superintendent of Buildings, and said Superintendent shall direct such means of egress to be provided in all cases."

In the building referred to, fire escapes were duly provided, and yet two lives were lost. It should not be forgotten that such means of escape being special, are to a very great extent unfamiliar to the persons who have to use them, so that on a fire occurring, they are often little better than useless. There is a provision in the same Act, a that from which the above extract was taken, to the effect that all these fire-escapes shall be kept clear and free from obstructions. Among the lower class of tenants the custom is largely prevalent of using them as convenient store places and unless the janitor of other person in charge is very vigilant, they soon become crowded and therefore wholly unfit for use. The anger of such habits is sufficiently obvious, and is well illustrated by the case above mentioned.

Since the years 1879-90, the construction of all apartment houses has been regulated by the Board of Health, and although many of them as at present erected leave much to be desired, the improvements upon the style at first adopted is considerable and undoubted.

As showing the height of perfection which some of the dwellings of these days have reached, the subject of electric lighting may be referred to connection with the illumination of streets and for domestic purposes. Previous to the year 1761, the lighting of the public street of new York ws not attempted. at all in any systematic manner, although lanterns were fixed at a few of the more important points in the city. It was the custom for some of the generous-hearted inhabitants to place lights in their windows for the purpose of enabling pedestrians for find their way.

The home of Mr. A. M. Hoyt, which was erected by Mr. Hoyt in 1882-1883, is thoroughly fire-proof, built of brick and with iron beams and partitions all through the brick. the style is old Colonial and finished in hard wood.

In about the year 1761 provision was made by the authorities of light the streets by means of oil lamps at the public expense. These were usually fixed on iron or wooden brackets projecting from the walls. The appearance of the streets at that day must have been peculiar in the extreme. The low-framed dwellings with their overhanging gables, and the more important brick structures with the characteristic feature of the Dutch style in the turreted or stepped gables, dimly lighted by the oil-lamps placed few and far between, forms a striking contrast with their present condition.

In the year 1825 gas was first employed in the city, when the house No. 7 cherry Street, then a fashionable locality, was fitted with it at a cost of $10 per 1,000 feet. A few years afterward it became generally employed for street illumination, and gas mains were laid down in some of the principal streets. This steadily progressed, as required by the growth of the city, until a special provision was made by the Board of Aldermen for lighting the whole of the upper portion of the city up to and including the extensive district to Yorkville, Manhattanville, Harlem, and Washington Heights.

But of recent years the science of electricity has made a very rapid advance, and the electric lights have become to be used in preference to any other. The beautiful clear, white light in all sections of the city is now on of the most striking sights which meet they eyes of a stranger entering New York for the first time.

Electric lights for illumination in the city are so far all of the "arc" description, or those in which candles of carbon are employed, in contradiction to the lamps in which the light emanates from a incandescent wire. Almost without exception the power from which the light is obtained is derived from engines turning enormous dynamos located at various convenient stations throughout the city. The plan of sub-letting lights by he company to stores, factories, dwelling-houses and other buildings on the route is very successfully worked, a shunt wire being taken from the main cable as required. Other of the large factories and stores have their own electric plant upon the premises.

It has already been pointed out how largely the efficiency of the fire department, as at present constituted, depends upon electricity to aid it. The system of signalling the fire alarms, and the other important adjuncts, depend almost wholly for this efficiency upon electricity, while for lighting purposes it is becoming more generally employed day by day.

In Private dwellings the electrical system of lighting by incandescent lamps has become very popular, although, of course, the cost of fitting and maintaining the apparatus precludes its general employment.

There is certainly one private dwelling-house which has a complete set of electric plant upon the premises, and this is in East Thirty-sixth Street at the house No. 139. There electricity is employed not only for producing the light for illuminating purposes, but for various labor-saving appliances, for assisting in the decoration and as a protection to the house in providing safeguards against burglars, and in other ways. The owner and occupier of the house is himself a practical electrician, and the apparatus are exceedingly ingenious and probably unique in their way.

For lighting purposes, specially designed chandeliers are provided, fitted with small incandescent lamps, which have a remarkably pretty appearance and answer admirably the purpose of illumination. The arms of the chandeliers are formed to represent flowers, and the globes are tinted. In the hall is fitted a lamp of a somewhat similar kind, and an apparatus is provided by which this lamp is automatically lighted late at night when the remainder of the house is in darkness. This is effected by opening the hall-door. On an upper floor is provided a switch to turnoff the light, so that a person coming home late after the people in the house have retired for the night, he Is enabled to light the hall lamp by opening the front door, and to turn it out when he gets up-stairs.

In every room of this house is fitted an automatic fire alarm, by which an alarm-bell is caused to ring when the temperature rises above 110 degrees, so that the risk of the building being burned down is very slight. Burglar alarms are fitted to every window, and are of a peculiar kind. They consist of simple mechanism. On the adjustment of which every electric lamp in the house is lighted when a window is opened.

Most of the larger buildings throughout the city are protected in the same way by automatic fire alarms being placed in positions where a high temperature will operate on the mechanism, and making electrical contact will send an alarm to the station. Other apparatus of the kind are provided in which there is, in addition to the mechanism for ending the alarm, an appliance whereby a stream of water is turned on at the same time. For the most part, all these fire alarms are exceedingly effective for they send the signal at the most important time, when the fire is only in its incipient stage, and when efforts to subdue and extinguish are of much more value than when it has once obtained a fair hold on the building.

The subject of the construction of the buildings of new York city to resist the action of fire, is an interesting and important one. As it has already been shown, the city hs suffered from at least three great conflagrations, the extent of which was sufficient to destroy property valued in the aggregate at $36,000,000. Then, in addition, there are the unnamable smaller fires, of more or less extent, which bring the value of property destroyed up to a very high total.

Many of the larger buildings are specially designed and constructed to render them fire-proof; but I must be remembered that no material can be absolutely fire-proof, and hence such buildings are at the best only safeguards if a desperate description.

As a rule, iron and brick play the most important part in the construction of this description of fabric. It is well understood, however, by firemen how little reliance is to be placed upon iron during a burning of a buildings, and it has often been remarked that they will go into a wooden building at such a time without hesitation, while in the case of an iron construction, they will show far greater reluctance.

Wood, then, although appearing at the first flush to be essentially a combustible material, really forms, under some circumstances,, a good material to prevent the spread of fire. A system of this kind, patented a few years back, may be here referred to as being substantially what is required in the erection of the less important of our structures. The objection to the use of fire-proof floors, as ordinarily built is, that the iron which usually forms the framework of the construction bends or breaks when subjected to an intense heat.

In this system, instead of building in joists or beams, twelve or sixteen inches apart in the ordinary way, they are placed close together side by side, and are firmly connected by iron spikes. This forms what is practically a solid piece of timber, some none inches deep, according to the depth of the floor, and is finished underneath with a plastered ceiling in the ordinary manner. As the inventor points out, it would take longer and require a greater heat to burn through a solid piece of timber of this depth, than it would to completely injure, if not destroy, many of the floors constructed in the ordinary way of iron.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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