While its traditional construction date of 1824 may be apocryphal, the Jacob Weeks Tenement is typical of the early forms of purpose-built working-class housing on New York’s Lower East Side. It was likely built sometime in the second quarter of the nineteenth century by Jacob Weeks, who grew up on Mott Street about a block south of this building, where his father ran a grocery store. Jacob Weeks, along with this brother Samuel, soon became engaged in the real estate and retail coal business. The family followed the northward movement of many of the middle and upper classes in Manhattan over the course of the nineteenth century, relocating to an elegant Greek Revival townhouse near Gramercy Park in the 1840s, a time when the Lower East Side began attracting a large immigrant population. By 1880 Weeks was living in a five-story townhouse on 58th Street and 5th Avenue, where he was neighbor to Cornelius Vanderbilt. Yet the family continued to own the Mott Street tenement until the early twentieth century. It was precisely this movement of the middle and upper classes away from the dense downtown wards (where many workers boarded with their employers) that necessitated the development of specific working-class housing types of which this building was an early experiment.
The Weeks Tenement is perhaps the first example of the double-decker tenement that became the standard working-class housing type in New York throughout the nineteenth century. The seven-story, red-brick building is 25 feet wide and 45 feet deep, with a ground-level storefront and four units on each of the upper levels. Each of these units originally had two rooms: a combined kitchen/living room of about 12 by 16 feet with two windows facing the street or rear yard, and a small windowless bedroom of about 7 by 8 feet. A second building stands behind it in the rear yard. Dubbed a “rear tenement,” this building is five stories tall and originally contained a pair of two-room units on each floor. Its rear wall, set five feet from the lot line, meant the back bedrooms did not receive natural light. The front tenement is unusually tall for the era and may represent a vertical expansion, although the building was this height as early as 1856. It has a wall of common brick along Mott Street, with flat stone window lintels. Unlike many later tenements, such as the 1870s and 1880s buildings that flank it, this structure never had an overhanging cornice. Typical of modest Federal-era architecture, a shallow band of brick corbel work, as well as brick blind panels over each top-floor window, marked the cornice. These were removed when the parapet was repaired in 2008.
Living standards were poor even when the building was new. Sanitary arrangements were initially earthen privies in the rear yard. After 1905 these were replaced by a complex of shared flush toilets that were retrofitted in the first-floor unit of the rear tenement. The front fire escape was added in the late nineteenth century to comply with new building codes.
The traditional 1824 construction date, which would make it among the earliest purpose-built, multi-family buildings in the United States, came from an 1879 article in the Plumber and Sanitary Engineer. In an article exploring the history of the tenement in New York, the author writes:
At 65 Mott Street stands a tenement house. It is seven stories high, contains 28 families and has been occupied for some 55 years. There is a rectifying distillery on the first floor. Dark interior rooms are abundant. The owner is a rich man. He complacently says ‘the building doesn't owe me anything.’ But what does it and its self-satisfied owner owe its occupants and the community?
This reflection on the tenement’s history and place in urban society was part of the publication’s interest in the sanitary conditions of working-class housing in the nation’s largest city. The publication invited architects to devise plans to help ameliorate the perceived deficiency of the double-decker tenement, which were by then frequently 70 or 80 feet in depth, sometimes with three windowless interior rooms per unit. The competition resulted in the development of the famous “dumbbell” plan, in which the sidewalls of the tenement were indented to create narrow air shafts that lit the formerly windowless bedrooms and kitchen. These later and somewhat improved types of tenements now adjoin the Weeks building.
Units in the Weeks Tenement did not receive private bathrooms until 1928, the point at which they became mandatory in order for the building to remain occupied. Units within the building appear to have been combined around this time to form larger apartments. Both the front and back building remain in use as a tenement in a location that has become the heart of New York’s Chinatown.
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