Cherokee Healing Powers

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This picture is from my visit to the Cherokee on York Avenue and E 78th Street in the Upper East Side in Manhattan some years ago. Originally it was called “The Shively Sanitary Apartments”. “Sanitary” because when built in 1909 with Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt’s money, Dr. Henry Shively’s initiative and Henry Atterbury Smith’s design the buildings were to cure all bad things in city life, and especially tuberculosis. As such it is actually one of the first examples of modern housing design principles.

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Passageway to the courtyard

Despite its romantic looks the building is hard-core modernist: Light and air were the design principles.  It is also one of the first attempts to actually increase the quality of life of the working class. As the only remedy to tuberculosis (and to pretty much every other illness as well) at the time was to sit in the open air the apartments have floor-to-ceiling windows in two or more directions, balconies, outdoor stairwells and pergolas on the roof of each building (these have been later removed). For some time the building also housed a home hospital to treat the residents.

Stairwell bench (photo by cherokee-nyc.com)
Stairwell bench (photo by cherokee-nyc.com)

The stairs in the six-story building have beautiful integrated benches to take a break when climbing up – which perhaps from today’s perspective does not seem as considerate as originally intended.

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Secondary courtyards are spacious by New York standards
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Street front with balconies
shively sanitary tenements
Rendering from ca. 1910, copyright Museum of the City of New York

The philanthropic mission was finally a failure. Apparently they could not cure tuberculosis with architecture. But because of the elegance of its architecture, notably the Guastavino tiled passageways and cast iron balconies it remains a much beloved building and manages at the same time to demonstrate all the good intentions that modernist housing architecture originally had.

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2 thoughts on “Cherokee Healing Powers

  1. Super interesting article. There were actually attempts at healthy housing in Europe which predate this example. It would be interesting to know if there are earlier examples in the US as well.
    I don’t quite understand how the philanthropic mission is deemed a failure? After all, nowadays tb is hardly an issue, due to improvements in accommodations and medicine. Naturally a single building is a drop in the ocean until you multiply such thinking to a larger scale, but I don’t see how the change in use is a sign of failure when the disease has dramatically declined.

    1. Thank you for your comment! The project was deemed a failure financially when the governing trust was dissolved in 1923 and the houses were sold to become regular rental apartments. Also I understood that it was never really affordable for the working class families it was originally intended for. But you are right – although this building didn’t become a architectural model for working class housing at large but remained a single prototype it still is a forerunner in giving architectural expression to modern design ideals (f.e. the Paimio Sanatorium from 1932 comes to mind…)

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