Ornament and Identity in the Immigrant-Built Tenements of Boston and New York, 1870-1920


Luce/ACLS Dissertation Fellowships in American Art


American and New England Studies Program


This project interrogates the immigrant-built and highly-ornamented tenements constructed in Boston and New York at the turn of the twentieth century. These “decorated tenements” confound the usual class-based hierarchy in which elaborate decorative forms are associated with the elite; they were built in spite of the progressive reform advocacy of strict simplicity in the material culture of the working class. To reformers, the decorated tenements were cheap shams and bad housing, making these buildings a site of contested meaning over questions of taste and propriety; workmanship and honesty; and class, ethnicity, and control of the built environment. This study focuses on the way immigrant tenement builders and architects used architectural ornament to create meaning in a rapidly evolving urban environment.