“Man Struck and Killed by Falling Debris from New York Building Fire Escape,” read the headline from an online paper covering the incident in Soho earlier this year. The irony is all too obvious. The structure that was meant to save lives ended up taking one—because of neglect. The most infamous example of a failing fire escape was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, where a poorly supported stair led to two dozen additional deaths. Fire escapes are an ubiquitous part of New York’s built landscape and most residents have come to accept them as another unsightly necessity. Few realize that they were outlawed in 1968 for new constructions, except group homes.
To make matters worse, fire escapes are not easy to get rid of. These structures are expensive to maintain and few landlords want to spend the money on an appendage that does not increase the value of their property. In order to remove an exterior escape, owners must provide a second means of egress internally or file for a Construction Code Determination (CCD1) with the New York City Department of Buildings, to show that the building is either too small to provide another stairway and/or other means of protection for occupants, such as sprinklers have been installed.
Nevertheless, some architects, like Joseph Lombardi, have valiantly tried to remove them. Lombardi initially secured Landmarks approval in 2015 to get rid of the exterior escapes on two historic buildings in Soho. The decision was overturned, however, after tenants, citing life safety concerns objected to the removal.
Today fire escapes serve many purposes, most of which have nothing to do with life safety. With a paucity of balconies in older buildings, tenants have taken to extending their lives onto these much-maligned structures. Take a stroll through the Village on a Saturday and you will see the landings serving as outdoor extensions of indoor soirees. For those who don’t have stoops, the fire escape provides a nice vantage point from which to soak in the City, with a glass of wine or cigarette in hand, and dream of life on a real balcony or deck someday. There are also some creative examples, like the fire escape at the Bakery Building (42 West 13th Street), a well crafted exterior stairway, that adds character and depth to the façade.
Architecture is one of the few professions that excels in inertia and fire escapes are a sad reminder of this. Someday, when flying cars are the norm, we will have figured out a way to be rid of these unreliable structures.