In the late nineteenth century, the United States faced a housing crisis on its East Coast. A stream of immigrants from Europe, fleeing political and economic upheavals, needed somewhere to stay. They gathered together in ethnic slums. The standards of living for these ghettos sank steadily downward as more and more new arrivals packed into their filthy confines. The situation grew dire enough to attract the attention of the normally indifferent municipal governments, which established bare minimum standards of lighting and ventilation. Constructors now faced a problem, as they needed to make as efficient use of space as possible without violating the codes. The solution was the dumbbell tenement.

A New York magazine, The Plumber and Sanitary Engineer, sponsered a contest for a tenement design. The winner was James Ware, whose "dumbbell" tenement (so called because of its shape) was designed to pack a maximum amount of people into a minimum amount of space while still complying with sanitary standards. The dumbbell tenement had four apartments to a floor. At the very outer edges were parlors, then living rooms and bed rooms behind them. The building grew narrower as one moved inwards, threaded through the center by a public hall with two public bathrooms for the apartments. Between each tenement was a shallow air-shaft, 50 feet long and about 10 feet wide at its greatest. Though these were supposed to provide ventilation, they tended instead to be dumping grounds for garbage. Thus the breathing conditions inside the tenements were worse than they would have been without an air shaft. Each dumbbell tenement was six stories tall and designed to house three hundred people in eighty-four rooms. More were often packed in to maximize landlord profits.

As immigrant families rose in income, they fled the dumbbell tenements of the inner city for less disgusting housing, yet there were always more to take their place. Thousands had been built by the turn of the century. As World War I came and went, the decrepit buildings were eventually replaced according to newer standards of sanitation. The age of the dumbbell tenement ended.

A picture of a dumbbell tenement's floorplan is available at

Bailey, Thomas A., Kennedy, David M., Cohen, Lizabeth. The American Pageant: A History of the Republic, 11th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998

"New York >> 1870s," The Living City. <>