The dog days of summer right now have many of us zipping between the air-conditioned sanctuaries of home-car-office-supermarket-home in the game to stay cool as much as possible. Even the New York City subways are blessedly chilled these days.
But an effect of living in mechanically air-cooled environments 24/7 has been the rise of the raspy condition known as the A/C dry cough -- modern air conditioning systems suck up moisture as they chill. Living within forced cool air spaces all day also can spawn dizziness and nausea, trouble concentrating, fatigue, and sensitivity to odors. And air conditioning systems that haven’t been regularly cleaned can cause serious respiratory complications.
Whatever lengths folks resorted to in the summertime to feel cooler way back in the days before central air conditioning were certainly more inventive and less ruinous to one’s health. One particularly New York City proletarian custom for beating the heat was sleeping on apartment building roofs at night – the so-called “tar beaches” -- or hanging out on “sky porches,” otherwise known as fire escapes.
Visitors to the city these days are often enchanted by the looks of those ubiquitous iron fire escapes clinging to the outside walls of the many older, prewar brick apartment buildings. “They’re so New York!” they exclaim, snapping photos on their phones. Visions of “West Side Story” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” dance in their heads.
But they would be surprised to learn that the prototype fire escape as we know it was patented in 1898 by one Henry Vieregg who installed it on a hotel in – of all places -- Grand Island, Nebraska. It was an exterior-mounted, sliding iron ladder. Who knew? Henry Vieregg is truly an unsung hero to thousands whose lives were saved as a result of the development of his original invention.
Before New York City laws required the familiar iron skeleton fire escape, one’s options for evacuating the upper stories of a burning building were perilous: jump out a window and pray you hit the canvas life net held taut by the firemen below, scramble down a rope of knotted bedsheets, or leap to the rooftop of a neighboring building. And those were the better options.
In 1860, New York City legislators passed the Act to Provide Against Unsafe Buildings. It called for the construction of exterior fire-proof stairs, “in brick or stone” for residences of more than eight families. Lax enforcement led to shoddy construction of the stairs or elimination of them altogether by crooked developers, especially in tenement buildings.
Meanwhile, various fire safety contraptions were keeping the U.S. Patent Office busy, like Joseph Winters’ wagon-mounted scissor stairs and Anna Connelly’s swinging iron rooftop bridge for quick egress to another building. Then there were the truly hare-brained inventions like Benjamin B. Oppenheimer’s (no relation to the 1945 atomic bomb Oppenheimer) parachute hat and cushioned shoe set, and Pasqual Nigro’s fire evacuation glider wings. One shudders to imagine any of those dangerously impractical ideas being put to an actual test.
After the disastrous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 garment workers, city laws became stricter and the exterior iron fire escape as we know it became the popular means of secondary egress. Laws required two means of escape in case of fire, generally the main, interior stairwell, and the increasingly popular iron fire escapes bolted to the sides of tall structures.
In the 1930s, firewalls and enclosed interior stairwells became standard safety features of new construction in multistory buildings, and fire escapes increasingly became relics. Which is not to say they didn’t save thousands of lives, as well as becoming iconic balconies where the working class hung out laundry or just plain hung out and relaxed.
“A hot night reveals hundreds of east siders sleeping alfresco” on their escapes and that “with many families camping out, each family on its own level, laughter and the latest gossip float pleasantly up and down,” according to the New York Times in 1927.
Recently, Zhou Miaorong, a retired Chinese machinist, invented a new form of interior fire escape: the fold-down stairwell slide. “It takes only two to three seconds to slide down each story,” he says. It has already been installed in a five-story building in Shanghai. This seems like the funnest way to exit a building, fire emergency or not!
Photos (from top): Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria’s (Natalie Wood) tryst from West Side Story, NYHabitat.com; New York City fire escape, Envato Elements; Oppenheimer’s parachute hat and padded landing shoes, 1879, Google Patent archive; Fire evacuation wings, 1908, Google Patent archive; Fold-down stairwell slide, Economictimes.com.