Fire Escapes Are Evocative, But Mostly Useless

In the 19th century, fire escapes saved tenement dwellers from peril. Today they are more likely to cause harm than to prevent it.

An antique photo of families and children looking out the windows of an apartment building and standing on a fire escape
Library of Congress / Marjory Collins / Emily Jan / The Atlantic

Tony wooed Maria from one in West Side Story. Rosario Dawson belted from one in Rent. They became just another piece in a gritty urban jungle gym for the kids in The Get Down. Police procedurals regularly feature guys fleeing (or entering) by means of them.

Fire escapes, the clunky metal accessories to buildings constructed in response to industrial building-code reform, have become an iconic part of the urban landscape. They serve purposes as numerous as their pop-cultural cameos. Part emergency exit, part makeshift patio, the fire escape has played an integral role in shaping the development of the cities whose buildings bear them. It continues to impact the urban landscape today, in ways that few could have imagined when they were first thought up. And despite having been invented expressly for public safety, the fire escape always created as much danger as it replaced.

By the mid-19th century, New York City was overcrowded, oppressively loud, and unequipped to support the flood of new arrivals to the industrializing city. Cheaply built tenements stretched higher into the air than ever before, filled with people who worked in equally overfilled factories. These buildings were firetraps, made of cheap materials that burned easily. They grew more deadly the higher they climbed. When fires raged, there were typically only two forms of escape: narrow interior stairs, or the roof. The stairs sometimes burned away, as they did in an 1860 fire that started in a building’s basement, where dry hay and shavings from a bakery’s storeroom had ignited. Those who were trapped had only one option: to wait, hoping the overtaxed fire departments would turn up swiftly and with a ladder tall enough to reach the upper-floor windows. That is, before the building collapsed, or they were killed by the flames. “The burning building extended four stories above any of the surrounding structures,” The New York Times wrote of the bakery fire. “It must have been instant death for any of the poor creatures on the upper floors to have jumped from the roof.” Thirty people died in the blaze.

The body count spurred the creation of building codes. Deadly fires ripped through the tenements in the poorest and most underserved neighborhoods, wreaking havoc and taxing city resources. The population of New York doubled each decade from 1800 to 1880, and the scale of the challenges the city was facing was both monumental and unique.

The first rules were imposed in the early 1860s when the New York City Department of Buildings ordered the implementation of an additional form of egress on tenements with more than eight families above the first floor. Landlords didn’t want to add a set of fire-resistant interior stairs, because such a structure would reduce the amount of rentable space. The simplest solution was to find a way to get people out through their windows. The order called for a set of iron or wood stairs affixed to the exterior of a building, but this wasn’t enforced, and the concept of a “fire escape” was approached with a significant amount of creative license.

Some early renditions resembled the structures people know from West Side Story, but other types were also common. Some hid ropes and ladders in false refrigerators or bolted-down blanket chests to throw out of the window in case of emergency. There were pulley systems with baskets meant to lower tenants to the ground, and a patent was even issued in 1879 for a parachute hat, with an accompanying pair of rubber shoes, a solution that seems to trade the risk of flames for the peril of descent.

Early regulations in New York and Philadelphia paved the way for most major U.S. cities to enact fire-escape legislation by the 1890s. These two cities were growing (and dealing with problems) on a much larger scale than others of the time, so they set the pace for fire-escape safety. The real boon for fire escapes arrived in 1901, when a new set of regulations, passed with that year’s revision to the Tenement House Act, defined the structure with greater precision. A “fire escape” would now require an extra set of stairs, either inside or outside of a building, that was fireproof. If external, they had to be on the street-facing facade, and there were strict rules about the size of the balconies, the angle of the stairs, and the connections between them.

There was a problem with these exterior fire escapes, however. They were (and remain) tempting to repurpose for everyday use. In the early 20th century, blocking fire escapes was punishable by a fine of up to $10 and 10 days in jail—no small sum in those days. But the risk didn’t outweigh the benefits; fire escapes had already become an extension of tenants’ homes. They were transformed into porches, gardens, no-cost storage units. They offered outdoor respite from the oppressive heat of city summers. Fires still seemed hypothetical, and interior space was at a premium. Why let such valuable square footage go to waste?

So city dwellers reshaped the fire escape, and in so doing it changed urban life. Fire escapes became makeshift jungle gyms for kids and offered a place to catch a breeze while hanging the wash to dry. Today it’s uncommon to hear of people dying after rolling off of a fire escape in their sleep, but it’s normal (if still illegal) to see fire escapes turned into vegetable gardens, smoking patios, and makeshift bike racks.

Repurposing fire escapes is one timeless tradition associated with these architectural structures. Another ritual: drawing the ire of landlords. When the 1901 restrictions required that fire escapes become larger, they had to cover more of a building’s facade as a result. This created even more space for tenants to expand, while building owners worried that the fire escapes would reduce the value of their investments.

Yet with new fire escapes climbing up buildings like invasive ivy, it was some consolation to know that they would be a shared inconvenience. Hotels, factories, and schools also found themselves looped into the fire-safety trend, although hotels fought determinedly to shield their guests from what they argued were vacation-ruining additions. What guest, proprietors reasoned, would stay in a hotel that constantly reminded them of a potential catastrophe? Their initial solution—more of the cleverly hidden ropes—didn’t work well for anyone, let alone ladies in long skirts. Eventually hoteliers were forced to adopt the metal structures. There is little evidence that any subsequent vacations were ruined.

Despite their claims to safety, even these heavy metal fire escapes failed quite frequently. A famous fire-escape disaster, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, took place at the Asch Building in Greenwich Village. On March 25, 1911, 146 workers, mostly women, were trapped by fire and died. The doors were locked, and the stairs were inaccessible, but a fire escape was present and should have provided egress for the workers. But it was so flimsy that the panicked workers who were able to reach it overloaded the structure. It peeled off from the building, trapping those above and sending the workers who had reached it plummeting toward the street.

There have always been questions about how much urban dwellers can trust external fire escapes. A New York Times editorial published on March 21, 1899, worried that they offered “little or nothing” in the way of precaution. “A burning tinderbox is no safer for being [enclosed] in a cage of red-hot ladders,” the editorial continued. By 1930, fire escapes were still being constructed, but few people saw them as safety devices first. They had become architectural accessories that might be repurposed for escape, not the other way around.

Even so, for nearly a century the exterior fire escape persisted as the preeminent mode of fire safety for mid-rise buildings in American cities, especially the nation’s oldest, like New York and Philadelphia. But few pedestrians today may realize that much of the iron and steel that hangs above their heads on city streets is often original. A 1968 change in New York building codes banned the construction of external fire escapes on almost all new buildings. What is there now has been there for a long time. The metal vines have seen the city grow, seen it change, and they have played an integral role in its evolution. The seeds of contemporary New York germinated on fire-escape balconies and grew below their entwining shadows.

It suggests a question: Are fire-escape structures a significant enough part of the city’s history to qualify them for historical designation and protection? Most fire escapes have the sharp edges of utilitarian simplicity, but many are ornate works of decorative art designed to be functional jewelry, albeit for urban infrastructure. In a 2006 graduate thesis on historic preservation, Elizabeth Mary André describes a 2003 hearing of the Historic Districts Council of New York before the Landmarks Preservation Commission, where fire-escape advocates made their case. The fire escapes on a street in the Tribeca East Historic District were not original to the buildings, but they were deemed a key part of the New York landscape, worthy of protection. In this neighborhood, mentions of “historic fire escapes” in the Landmarks Preservation Commission records go back at least to 1992. Similar debates are taking place across the country, including in San Jose, California; Cumberland, Rhode Island; Salt Lake City; and Seattle.

The architect Joseph Pell Lombardi is passionate about conserving historic structures. But Lombardi made headlines in 2015 when he clashed with the pro-fire-escape crowd. After being issued initial permission to remove fire escapes from two historic buildings in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, he was ordered to stop after tenants complained that removal of the escapes would make the building unsafe.

When I asked him, Lombardi insisted that the fire escapes that were in question are “very different than the fire escapes that are on late-19th-century buildings, and they do detract from the historical aspects of the building.” As post-regulation add-ons, they didn’t keep with the ornate style of the buildings’ facades—they were simply thrown up to comply with code. More importantly, he argued, they aren’t reliable even if maintenance is regularly performed. Fireproof stairs are preferable, but with external fire escapes still so common, people sometimes feel unsafe without them. Eventually, Lombardi was forced to give in to pressure from the tenants, but he has successfully removed fire escapes from at least three other historic buildings. In all cases, Lombardi says, a better form of egress was supplied.

André disagrees with Lombardi’s assessment about the historical significance of fire escapes. “The rationale that the fire escape is not original to the facade,” André writes, “fails to consider the nearly 150-year history the building has undergone behind its iron mask.” In historic preservation, the significance of a structure or its elements changes over time, and some of those changes themselves become historically significant. Fire escapes weren’t original to many 19th-century buildings, but they might have initiated new historical significance through their later addition to them.

Historic or not, it does seem like the age of the fire escape is coming to an end. Marco A. Dos Santos, the owner of Atlantic Ironwork Restoration in Ludlow, Massachusetts, estimates that he’s installed only 10 new fire escapes during a decade in business. Repairs to existing systems, he tells me, are constant and costly. But full replacements are exorbitantly expensive, and rarely allowed anyway. Many local city building codes, including those in New York, allow for the maintenance of the existing exterior balcony fire escapes, but put strict limitations on erecting new ones.

The most common issues with these existing structures, according to Stu Cohen, the founder of the City Building Owners Insurance Program, are the same ones that have plagued them from their earliest implementation: lack of maintenance and human obstruction. “Over time,” Dos Santos says, “no one has been taking care of these systems because they don’t want to put money into it.” They are infrequently used for their designed purpose—if ever—so there is no sense of urgency, and a glut of deferred maintenance. The results can be deadly.

Rust and corrosive oxidation eat away at the structures and can destroy the bolts that keep them affixed to a building. Collapses are not uncommon, and when they happen the results are tragic, as powerfully captured in the 1976 Pulitzer Prize–winning photo “Fire Escape Collapse.” Since the 2014 collapse of a fire escape in Philadelphia left one man dead and two women injured, Dos Santos has been flooded with requests for repair estimates. Building owners will spend upward of $60,000 to bring their fire escapes up to code. The desire to avoid harm, liability, and citation could change both regulatory and maintenance practices across the country.

On February 18, 2018, a man died after being hit on the head by a falling piece of a fire escape while walking in the very SoHo neighborhood where exterior fire escapes had initially developed and matured, where Lombardi has fought to remove them, and where they remain today. Fire escapes, initially invented to save people from danger, have become the cause of new peril.

And yet, to many people, fire escapes still offer a promise of safety. Following the Grenfell Tower Fire in London, which resulted in the deaths of 71 people, there was a call for the installation of exterior fire escapes on large apartment blocks as a way of reassuring the residents of high-rise apartment buildings. More generally, the mythology of the fire escape probably makes it feel like a security crutch, even for people who never intend to use one. Given improvements in building codes, construction, and manufacturing practices, today a fire escape is more likely to cause harm than to prevent it. A place for a romantic rendezvous can quickly become a coroner’s scene.

“Arguably, no other form of emergency egress,” André writes, “has impacted the architectural, social, and political context in metropolitan America more than the iron balcony fire escape.” It’s a bold claim, but not an entirely incredible one. Fire escapes encapsulate 150 years of city life in America, touching immigration, industrialization, public safety, popular culture, daily life, and urban mythology. The fire escape is antiquated and vestigial, but it also represents, in a way, the beginnings of architectural modernism. The harsh lines of these utilitarian metal structures anticipated the straight edges of the glass-and-steel skyscrapers that would erupt around them. Like so many aspects of the modern city, the fire escape promises a better, safer future. And yet, it also can’t be counted on to follow through.