Fire Escapes and Alleys: Outdoor Living Rooms

Peter Lagomarsino June 1, 2018

From emergency escapes to leisurely retreats: Revisiting the journey of home fire escapes

fire escapes

Today, for many people living in tenements or residential buildings, fire escapes act as nothing more than refreshing balconies. But that’s not why they were constructed that way since they were designed as emergency exits in the case of fire. It is also against the building codes to obstruct egress with things that imply occupation such as plant and grills and the like.

Residential fire escapes aren’t designed with the same kinds of guard railings, balustrades, tread and rise width and depths that a proper balcony or exterior stair would have. However, from the beginning these exits, as well as the alleys meant for escaping fire, gradually started acting as outdoor living spaces as time passed by, even though fines could be levied for doing so by many city codes. Despite the diverse use of fire escapes, by law-abiding tenants, everyone should check their leases as well as city ordinances for restrictions, as many landlords and municipalities strictly discourage any use of these escapes except in emergencies.

Still, there are those who climb onto these escapes to take their first sip of coffee, to check the weather, to gaze at people passing by, to dry laundry, or to cultivate plants. It is almost like residential fire escapes—with their vertebrae of ladders and landings—function as external spines or skeletons, reinforcing safety while nurturing the lives of the dwellers of the buildings. They are indeed America’s gargoyle.  Elizabeth Mary André  from The University of Vermont in her thesis “FIRE ESCAPES IN URBAN AMERICA: HISTORY AND PRESERVATION” tells us a very profound thing “Architectural features frequently evolve from a practical or decorative building appendage to a cultural or social icon. …The wrapping Queen Anne porch and the “widow’s walk” cupola, architectural-turned-cultural constructs of the wealthy, rose up in fashionable residential neighborhoods, while the poor and the immigrant culture wove their own piece of architecture into their lives: the fire escape.”

Here are some of the common ways emergency exits have been used by people who are determined or bound to use that valuable real estate whether legal or not:

  • A fire escape can be used as an extension of a small home when the actual home is occupied. From working on the computer to hanging out with friends—almost anything can be done without overloading the fire escape.
  • It can also make an enticing venue for community art performances. Actual fire escapes were used in outdoor productions of West Side Story, Romeo and Juliet, and other plays; and they can be also used for musical performances and choruses.

Though today, domestic fire escapes have begun to slowly disappear in major parts of rapidly renovated cities since many consider them as ugly white elephants. Because of the difficulty to enforce their occupancy and obstruction of egress, they will, however, always remain an iconic symbol of a city’s urban scene as long as they are maintained structurally sound per the new five year review frequency required by the building code in the 2012/15/18 IFC 1104.16.5.1.  From emergency exits to presenting a refreshing view of the outside for a cramped one-bedroom apartment, they will continue to be loved by many whose lives happen immediately adjacent to their placement.

Do you have fire escapes in your building? How do you make use of it? Share your experience in the comments section below. Connect with me on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads to keep the conversation going. Check my book, The Fire Escape, to know more about these masterpieces.



Smith, S. E. 2013. “Cool Things to Do With a Fire Escape.” Networx, July 9, 2013. Accessed April 10, 2018.

Mitchell, Nancy. 2015. “A History of New Yorker’s Love/Hate Relationship with the Fire Escape.” Apartment Therapy, September 25. Accessed April 10, 2018.

André,  Elizabeth Mary, 2006. “Fire Escapes in Urban America: A History and Preservation.” A Thesis Presented, Elizabeth Mary André , The University of Vermont.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Contact Us

Peter J. Lagomarsino

About the Author

Peter J. Lagomarsino is the author of Confessions in a Crown Vic where he discussed the last century’s development and offered his take on the “American Dream.” He’s the creative dire . . . read more

Twitter Feeds

Recent Posts