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Over one million New Yorkers — seventy percent of the population — lived in apartment buildings by 1893, most of them overcrowded tenements with small light wells, cramped rooms and communal toilets and sinks. The most important architectural work in Manhattan in the 1890s was therefore the efforts to improve the New York apartment house.

The Shively Sanitary Tenements, also known as the East River Houses and the Cherokee Flats, were model apartments in the courtyard tradition developing in the city. Designed by Henry Atterbury Smith, they were built from 1908 to 1909 under the direction of Dr. Henry Shively, with the sponsorship of Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt.