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At a Glance

The Flatiron Building

175 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York

No observation deck or top floor restaurant, but check out the historic photos in the lobby and shops on the ground floor.

 


 


 

 


 

 

 

 

A Love Triangle, Architecturally Speaking

Little-Known History

The Flatiron Building, New York City

By Richard “Zippy” Grigonis — January 3, 2011

“I found myself agape, admiring a sky-scraper—the prow of the Flat-iron Building, to be particular, ploughing up through the traffic of Broadway and Fifth Avenue in the afternoon light.”
            —H.G. Wells, The Future in America: A Search After Realities, 1906.

Long before the Empire State Building was completed in 1931, New York’s visually striking Flatiron Building was the visual icon representing New York.

The Flatiron building, completed in 1902, sites on a triangular block in manhattan where 23rd street, fifth avenue and broadway come together. (Photo © richard grigonis.)

The Flatiron Building is situated at 175 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, on a triangular island block at 23rd Street, Fifth Avenue, and Broadway, facing Madison Square Park. Completed in 1902, it was originally called the Fuller Building, after the Chicago-based George A. Fuller Company, which built and developed the building. Sadly, founder George A. Fuller himself died in 1900; the building’s construction was financed by the company under the auspices of Fuller’s son-in-law, Harry St. Francis Black. The Fuller Company was an initial occupant of the building and stayed there until 1929 when it moved to a 40-story skyscraper at 41-45 East 57th Street and Madison Avenue (that structure is still known as the Fuller Building). Aptly, Fuller was a construction company, and the original building was their showcase as they supervised construction of other skyscrapers in New York and other cities. (The Fuller company was liquidated and sold in 1970.)

The great myth is that the the Fuller Building was almost immediately called “the cowcatcher” or “the flatiron” by locals, owing to its triangular shape resembling a flatiron for clothes—ironically, the Flatiron building is not an isosceles triangle like a real flatiron, but a right triangle, owing to the constraining shape of the block on which it was built. In reality, the triangular lot bounded by Broadway, Fifth Avenue and 22nd and 23rd Streets had been called the “Flat Iron”' for years prior to the building's construction, and some of the few early drawings of the building that exist already used the name “Flatiron.” The New York Times eventually christened this part of Chelsea the Flatiron District, though photographers have long called it the Photo District, and real-state agents call it Midtown South.

In any case, the “Flatiron Building” moniker stuck, and in fact the whole surrounding neighborhood is called the Flatiron District.

floorplan of one of the flatiron building's floors from a 1902 issue of architectural digest. NOte that the building is not an isosceles triangle (equal sides) but is a right triangle. fifth avenue is at left, broadway is at right, 23rd street is at the top.

There are a number of myths about the Flatiron Building. It was not New York’s first skyscraper. Upon completion, it was not the tallest building in New York, let alone the world—that was the 29-story (391-foot) Park Row building of 1899, built on Ann Street. Nor was it by any means the first building with a triangular ground-plan: Some ancient Roman temple structures were triangular, as was the 1892 Gooderham Building of Toronto, Canada and the 1897 English-American Building in Atlanta. The Flatiron Building was the first triangular skyscraper, however, and its dramatic design made it perhaps the most discussed and photographed building of its era. It is still one of New York City’s most recognized landmarks and a romantic icon.

the gooderham building of toronto, canada, was a small, early flatiron-like building. it is less famous than New York's, but it is 10 years older, dating from 1892. (photo © Peter Spirer | Dreamstime.com )

The Flatiron Building was designed by Chicago's Daniel Burnham, an architect who worked on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and was a fan of Beaux-Arts classicism, which influenced the “City Beautiful” movement, wherein wheel-like urban planning (as found in Paris and Washington, D.C.) involved radial avenues intersecting with the street “spokes” forming triangular-like blocks.

A series of images (1901–1902) chronicling the construction of the Flatiron Building, from the New York Times photo archive, credited to the Library of Congress—cropped. (Photos are in the public domain.)

Other New York steel-frame skyscrapers at the time were essentially skinny towers rising from a pedestal-like blocky mass, such as the Singer Building (1902–1908). The Flatiron Building, on the other hand, embodies the Chicago School architectural sensibility that Burnham and his colleagues introduced at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago—a tripartite form vaguely resembling a classical Greek column (a base, shaft and capital), the distinctive richly-detailed rusticated three-story limestone facade at the bottom changing to a repetitive and glazed light monochrome terra-cotta midsection with gently undulating bays to break the sense of sheer wall as the floors rise to the continuous, triangular crowning cornice that runs around the building. Interestingly, unlike the prominent multistory oriel windows in Burnham’s Chicago buildings, these oriels just barely project from the wall in the busy midsection. And instead of an actual Greek column motif, the Flatiron is more of a vertically-stretched Renaissance palazzo with Beau-Arts styling/Italian and French Renaissance motifs, such as Greek faces and terra cotta flowers.

Daniel Burnham’s earliest sketches of the building included a clock face and a more elaborate crown with many setback near the pinnacle than was finally executed. Burnham’s former Chicago partner John Wellborn Root advised that this clock be removed from the design, and so it was. Indeed, Burnham found himself steering the project as one would a large ship—he had overall control of the design process, but was not supervising work on all of the details. One uncredited person associated with the project was the Pennsylvania-born architect Frederick P. Dinkelberg (c 1859—1935), who first worked for Burnham during the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Flatiron Building’s working drawings are apparently lost, though renderings were published in articles about the building that appeared in American Architect and The Architectural Record.

the northern pointy tip of the flatiron building results in offices that are only 6.5 feet wide, but offer spectacular views uptown, especially the empire state building, to which the structure practically points. (Photo © Spectrumoflight | Dreamstime.com)

Use of a steel skeleton enabled the Flatiron Building to be easily constructed without setbacks or massive walls to a height of 22 stories (285 feet). At the northern vertex or “point,” of the building, the tower is a mere 6.5 feet (2 meters) wide; viewed from above, this “pointy” end of the structure describes a 25 degree acute angle. (Amusingly, offices at the building’s vertex are called “point” offices, and though narrow they are much coveted today, since they offer a spectacular view uptown, in particular of the Empire State Building.) The thinness of the building (it was called the most slender building in New York), with all three façades facing streets, enables many employees there to enjoy well-lit office space.

The building rose 20 stories to 285-feet. In fact, a 21st floor or attic story was added in 1905, three years after the building was supposedly completed, bringing the building’s height to 307 feet (93 meters). To reach this new top floor, visitors and employees must take a second elevator from the 20th floor. On that floor, the bottoms of the windows are chest-high. The 21st floor originally housed a restaurant and an observation, but both of these were closed down many years ago. Also, interestingly, the building’s bathrooms are apportioned such that the men’s rooms on even floors and the women's rooms on odd ones.

photograph of the flatiron building taken shortly after its completion in 1902. lady passersby on 23rd street were discovering how the building could direct swirling gusts of wind to lift their skirts, much to the delight of young male observers. (Photo in the public domain.)

The Flatiron Building’s Broadway front is 190 feet wide, The Fifth Avenue front is 173 feet wide, and the 22nd Street side is just short of 87 feet wide.

a view of the flatiron building from the corner of 22nd street and fifth avenue. the very light Tan monochrome terra cota exterior of the building has darkened a bit over the years.
(Photo © richard grigonis.)

The skin of the building is heavily ornamented and although the building could have been constructed with large windows (owing to the steel frame) as found in Burnham’s Chicago work, the windows on the Flatiron Building are rather conservatively sized, thus giving the façade a more solid, heavy appearance. Burnham and his associates may have done this deliberately as a psychological trick, to make the 3,680-ton steel building appear even more substantial, as would be the case if load-bearing walls had been employed. This design feature did not stop the public from worrying about the building’s precipitous height and unusual shape, which led many to believe that the structure would be unstable and was destined to fall over in a high wind. Indeed, during construction the Flatiron Building was nicknamed “Burnham's Folly.” Bets were placed on how far the building’s debris could be found after the wind toppled it. People lined up after the building’s completion to finally see it fall over after the first wind gust. The gust came and went, and the building still stood.

a view of the flatiron building from broadway between 22nd street (at left) and 23rd street (at right). (Photo © richard grigonis.)

The editors of the Architectural Record knew better. In 1902 they wrote, “...Quite the most notorious thing in New York and attracts more attention than all the other buildings now going up together... We have to congratulate the architect on the success of his detail… of giving appropriate texture to his walls... The manufacturer has managed exactly to match the warm yellow-gray of the limestone base in the tint of the terra cotta above.”

However, the Flatiron Building’s vertical face did intensify wind gusts at ground level. It is said that the winds by the building on 23rd Street would catch women’s skirts and raise them, exposing what was then a daring view of female ankles and legs. In 1905 Crescent Films made a titillating docu-drama entitled The Flatiron Building on a Windy Day, that “gives one a general idea of what women experience on a windy day around this noted corner,” according to a film catalog of the day. A multitude of young men would position themselves on 23rd Street to watch the notorious spectacle. In the past this wouldn't have been unusual, since this intersection of Broadway, Fifth Avnue, and 23rd Street had been a favorite corner for “people watching” during the Gilded Age, as the adjacent Madison Square was the northern terminus of the so-called Ladies' Mile of shops, galleries and interior decorator offices that lined Broadway between 9th Street and 23rd. Now, however, Police regularly dispersed these ogling onlookers by yelling to them, "23 Skidoo!" Some lexicographers believe that the modern word “scram” is descended from this expression. (Yours Truly thinks the term "skedattle" or the modern urban "skedat" may trace its origins to this location.)

various architects worldwide have been inspired by new York City's flatiron building. here, for example, is The Triangular Building (Flatiron) in the Gastown district of Vancouver in British Columbia, Western Canada. Built in 1908, it is now called The Hotel Europe.
(Photo © Steve Allen | Dreamstime.com)
The Flatiron Building became a favorite subject of photographers, both professional and amateur (tourists love to photograph it). Edward Steichen took a misty, atmospheric shot of it on a wet wintry late afternoon in 1905. Alfred Stieglitz also took a famous photo of it, commenting that the building, "...appeared to be moving toward [him] like the bow of a monster ocean steamer—a picture of a new America still in the making," adding that what the Parthenon was to Athens, the Flatiron was to New York.

In the Spider-Man movies, the Flatiron Building is the home of the fictitious Daily Bugle, or DB, the tabloid newspaper published by J. Jonah Jameson. Amusingly, Marvel Comics has since 2006 published a monthly edition of a real Daily Bugle newspaper for its fans that keeps them informed as to the company’s publications and authors. (In the Spider-Man comics, however, the Daily Bugle was originally situated in the imaginary 46-story “Goodman Building” on 39th Street and Second Avenue, later “relocated” to a corner of Madison Avenue and a street in the East Fifties.) In the world of Marvel Comics, the Flatiron Building “actually” houses not the DB, but Damage Control Inc., a construction and engineering firm that repairs buildings damaged as a result of battles between Super Heroes and Super Villains.

Since 1989, the Flatiron Building has been a U.S. National Historic Landmark. It remains an office building, however. The headquarters of various Macmillan-brand publishing companies held by Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck of Stuttgart, Germany can be found there, such as Henry Holt and Company, St. Martin's Press, Tor/Forge and Picador.

In 1991 the firm of Hurley & Farinella was hired to restore the Flatiron Building’s façade. In January 2009, The Sorgente Group S.p.A., an Italian real estate investment firm based in Rome, acquired a majority stake (just over 50 percent) in the Flatiron Building using their Historic and Trophy Buildings Fund, which has bought and sold stakes in such prestigious structures as New York’s Chrysler Building. Sorgente Group plans to convert the office building into a unique, world-class luxury hotel. The zoning allows the building to be used as a hotel, but don’t pack your bags just yet—the current tenants’ leases don’t run out until about 2020. The value of the building itself was estimated (in 2009) to be $190 million.

new York City's flatiron building continues to grab the attention of visitors as well as long-time manhattan residents and workers. Note the small “cowcatcher” display enclosure at the left sidewalk level.
(Photo © richard grigonis.)

Dutch architects in the Netherlands appear to have taken the Flatiron Building design to heart: Het Strijkijzer (Dutch for “flatiron”) in The Hague and the Vesteda Toren in Eindhoven are clearly influence in their designed by the venerable American skyscraper.

Although it was quickly dwarfed by other skyscrapers, the Flatiron Building’s attention-grabbing triangular ground plan led its appearance on more postcards and photographs than any other building of the early 20th century. Next time you plan a trip to New York and/or Ground Zero, why not pause at the Flatiron Building, check out the shops on the ground floor and view the historic photographs in the building's lobby? end of article dingbat

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