Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss in The NYT:
OFFICIALLY, of course, the urban fire escape is primarily an emergency exit, but in New York, this prosaic adornment of countless five- and six-story apartment houses has assumed myriad other functions: faux backyards, platforms for criminal getaways, oases for marginalized smokers and makeshift bedrooms popular during an age before air-conditioning.
And they are often visual knockouts, too. Strikingly designed fire escapes have complemented some of the city’s grandest structures, like the Puck Building on Lafayette Street, and enhanced even the dreariest structures.
First built in New York well over a century ago, mandated by the 1867 tenement law, fire escapes soon became a canvas for the virtuosity of local foundry workers, including recently arrived European immigrants. Throughout the city, these artisans created ornate objets d’art constructed and molded from wrought and cast iron. The designs that resulted present a decorative smorgasbord, and include such rich details as arabesques, filigree lacework and rosettes.