Tag Archives: Flatiron Building

Flatiron Building: A Three-Sided Story

PODCAST For our 8th anniversary episode, we’re revisiting one of New York City’s great treasures and a true architectural oddity — the Flatiron Building.

When they built this structure at the corner of Madison Square Park (and completed in 1902), did they realize it would be an architectural icon AND one of the most photographed buildings in New York City?

1The George A. Fuller Company, one of the most powerful construction firms in Chicago, decided to locate their new New York office building in a flashy place — a neighborhood with no skyscrapers, on a plot of land that was thin and triangular in shape. They brought in Daniel Burnham, one of America’s greatest architects, to create a one-of-a-kind, three-sided marvel, presenting a romantic silhouette and a myriad of optical illusions.

The Flatiron Building was also known for the turbulent winds which sometimes blew out its windows and tossed up the skirts of women strolling to Ladies Mile. It’s a subject of great art and a symbol of the glamorous side of Manhattan.  In this show, we bring you all sides of this structure’s incredible story.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #184: The Flatiron Building: A Story From Three Sides

Below: A cleaned up look at the Flatiron Building, courtesy Shorpy. Click here for a look at the details!

Courtesy Shorpy
Courtesy Shorpy

 

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A dramatic illustration of 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue, where the Flatiron Building would soon stand. From here you can see the taller Cumberland building which would be used for billboards.

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The structures that pre-dated the Flatiron Building, pictured here in 1897.

Courtesy Museum of City of New York
Courtesy Museum of City of New York

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The smaller buildings have already been cleared away for the construction of the Fuller/Flatiron Building, but the taller building remains to some promotion of Heinz products.

Courtesy vintageimages.com
Courtesy vintageimages.com

Construction of the Flatiron, picture from late 1901 or early 1902.

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Courtesy Library of Congress

From every angle, the Flatiron takes on a new shape…..

Courtesy New York Public LIbrary
Courtesy New York Public LIbrary

…inspiring artists like Edward Steichen to frame the building in romantic and even mysterious ways (such as his iconic shot from 1904)

edward

A view, similar to the classic one above, of the Flatiron after a snowstorm in 1905

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

The Flatiron has inspired thousands of photo-mechanical post cards back in the day, highlighting its alluring shape-shifting form upon the changing New  York skyline.

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Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

The cigar store in the narrow ‘cowcatcher’ served as a recruitment office during World War I, topped with military weaponry.

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

Another postcard focused on the Flatiron’s particularly windy properties!

wind

 

American Mutoscope and Biography Co. filmed this humorous look at ladies in the wind on October 26, 1903:

 

A Max Ettlinger illustration from 1915 — Flatiron, you’re drunk!

Courtesy Museum of City of New York
Courtesy Museum of City of New York

 

A July 4th parade, passing up Fifth Avenue.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

The Flatiron in 1935, from an angle that makes it appear almost two dimensional.

1935

 

The Flatiron — still a magnet for budding photographers everywhere! Here a couple modern images from photographers Jeffrey Zeldman, Thomas HawkGiandomenico RicciAnurag Yagnik, and eric molina.

Courtesy Jeffrey Zeldman/Flickr
Courtesy Jeffrey Zeldman/Flickr
Courtesy Jeffrey Zeldman/Flickr
Courtesy Jeffrey Zeldman/Flickr
Courtesy Thomas Hawk/flickr
Courtesy Thomas Hawk/flickr
Courtesy Giandomenico Ricci/Flickr
Courtesy Giandomenico Ricci/Flickr
Courtesy Anurag Yagnik/Flickr
Courtesy Anurag Yagnik/Flickr
Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH
Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

 

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CORRECTION: A small correction to this week’s show. The beautiful Madison Square Garden tower — with the nude Diana statue — is actually in a Spanish style, not an Italian style.

The Arches of Madison Square Park

Memorial arches have been a dramatic way to honor military victories, dating back to the Roman times. Naturally, in a city with abundant Beaux-Arts classical-style architecture, New York has erected its share of grand archways. Two spectacular examples exist today — the Washington Square Arch and the Soldiers and Sailors and Sailors Memorial Arch in Brooklyn.

But the area which has been host to the most arches has been Madison Square Park. Sadly the only arches you can find near here are McDonalds Golden Arches on 23rd Street and Madison.

There are been four total arches here, all of them on Fifth Avenue near the park:

The George Washington Arches – 1889

Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

Two arches celebrating the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration were on Fifth Avenue — one at 23rd Street at the southern side of the park, and another at 26th Street at the northern side.

These, of course, were accompanied by another arch further down Fifth Avenue at Washington Square Park.  That arch, designed by Stanford White, was considerably better received than the Madison Square versions, so much so that White designed a permanent one in 1893.

Below: The 1889 arch up at the northern corner of Fifth Avenue and 26th Street

Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

 

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

The Dewey Arch – 1899-1900

This ornate and exceptionally lavish structure was built to commemorate a then-recent event — the victory of Admiral George Dewey at the Battle of Manila Bay, which took place on May 1, 1898.

The Dewey Arch was far showier than the earlier arches: “The great triumphal arch to be erected in this city in honor of the return of Admiral Dewey will not only be worthy of the occasion, but will be the most elaborate and artistic structure of its kind ever attempted here or in Europe.” [NYT]

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Madison Square Garden, just on the other corner of the park, was closed to construct the statue.  For Dewey’s triumphant arrival in New York in late September 1899, the entire city was lit up with ‘fairy lamps‘ to greet the procession.  The fireworks display for the event would be the greatest the city has ever seen.

It seems, however, that the Dewey Arch was massively rushed, built in hot haste according to reports. Although a great many petitioned for a permanent Dewey Arch in its place that winter, people had moved on by the winter of 1900 when it was unceremoniously torn down. 

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

 

 

Courtesy of Museum of City of New York
Courtesy of Museum of City of New York

Victory Arch — 1918-20

By 1918, the area around Madison Square Park was quite a transformed place with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower and the Flatiron Building now in attendance to witness the fourth arch, built to honor those in New York who had died thus far in the battles of World War I.

This arch was equally as ornate as the previous arch occupant, designed by Thomas Hastings (co-architect of the New York Public Library). It was built in wood and plaster and also, apparently, in haste.

Below: The ‘Altar of Jewels’ glowing to signal victory

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At the completion of the war, It was the focal point of a gigantic parade greeting arriving troops on March 25, 1919, a parade which turned quite rowdy. “The greatest crowd that ever gathered in New York City upon any occasion, and the most difficult to handle,” was how the New York Times described it. “The worst point of disorder was the district around the Victory Arch at Twenty-Third Street, where thousands and thousands fought among themselves or combined against the police in an effort to get a vantage point.” [source]

This arch was not spared either. It was soon villified as an icon of wasteful spending by no less than future mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. “The Altar of Liberty was renamed the “Altar of Extravagance,” the Victory Arch “Wasteful Arch,” and the Altar of Jewels — the “Arch of Folly.”  It was ripped down in the summer of 1920, although the damage to the park would last throughout the year. [source]

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

The Tallest Building In New York: A Short History


Postcard from the past: When the Singer Building was the world’s tallest (NYPL)

PODCAST One World Trade Center was declared last year the tallest building in America, but it’s a very different structure from the other skyscrapers who have once held that title. In New York, owning the tallest building has often been like possessing a valuable trophy, a symbol of commercial and social superiority. In a city driven by commerce, size matters.

In this special show, I give you a rundown of the history of being tall in New York City, short profiles of the 12 structures (11 skyscrapers and one church!) that have held this title.  In several cases, these weren’t just the tallest buildings in the city; they were the tallest in the world.

At right: The Metropolitan Life Building, the tallest building in the world in 1909

Skyscrapers were not always well received.  New York’s tallest building in 1899 was derisively referred to as a “horned monster.”  Lower Manhattan became defined by this particular kind of structure, creating a canyon of claustrophobic, darkened streets.  But a new destination for these sorts of spectacular towers beckoned in the 1920s — 42nd Street.

You’ll be familiar with a great number of these — the Woolworth, the Chrysler, the Empire State.  But in the early days of skyscrapers, an odd assortment of buildings took the crown as New York’s tallest, from the vanity project of a newspaper publisher to a turtle-like tower made for a sewing machine company.

At stake in the race for the tallest is dominance in the New York City skyline.  With brand new towers popping up now all over the five boroughs, should be worried that they’ll overshadow the classics? Or should the skyline always be in a constant state of flux?

ALSO: New York’s very first tall buildings and the ominous purpose they were used for during the Revolutionary War!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #169 The Tallest Building In New York: A Short History
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CORRECTION: Ack, I keep saying Crystal Palace Exposition when it’s actually Crystal Palace Exhibition! I mean, they basically mean the same thing, almost, right?
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Photo courtesy Huffington Post

The current tallest buildings in New York City are

1) One World Trade Center — 1,776 feet
2) 432 Park Avenue — 1,394 feet
3) 225 West 57t Street — 1,394 feet
4) Empire State Building — 1,250 feet
5) Bank of America Tower — 1,200 feet
6) Three World Trade Center — 1,171 feet
7 tie) Chrysler Building — 1,046 feet
7 tie) New York Times Tower — 1,046 feet
9) One57 — 1,005 feet
10) 4 World Trade Center — 977 feet

It should be noted that eight of these buildings didn’t exist 10 years ago

Statistics courtesy the Council On Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
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The sugar houses owned by the Rhinelander family. Others owned by the Van Cortlandts and the Livingstons would have all been the tallest structures in the city.

Trinity Church in 1889, the final year that it was the tallest permanent structure in New York City. (NYPL)

Trinity would be unparalleled in the New York skyline by any permanent buildings for almost 46 years.  But the Latting Observatory at the Crystal Palace Exhibition for a short time allowed New Yorkers the highest vantage on the island.

Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World Building, in context with its surroundings, including its proximity to the Brooklyn Bridge. This location would be its undoing, as the building was demolished later to make way for an automobile ramp.  (Courtesy Rotograph Project)

The Manhattan Life Insurance Building became a new neighbor for Trinity Church in 1894.  Its lantern top served as a lighthouse and an office for the New York Weather Bureau. (NYPL)

The Park Row Building, the original ‘twin towers’ of lower Manhattan, was criticized for its two-dimensional design but it’s managed to survive into modern times.  It used to host J&R Music World on its ground floor until that business closed last year.

The extraordinarily unusual headquarters for the Singer Sewing Machine Company.  The Singer Building has the rare distinction of being the tallest building every purposefully torn down when it was demolished in the 1960s.

Madison Square was already graced with both the Flatiron Building (below) and Madison Square Garden when it finally got its tallest skyscraper….. (NYPL)

…the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower, pictured here with an early airplane above it, in a postcard produced by Underwood & Underwood. (NYPL)

The Woolworth Building (featured here on a cigarette card) is one of the greatest extant examples of pre-zoning law construction with no setbacks along the front side.

The Manhattan Company Building (or 40 Wall Street) sat among a host of other skyscrapers and was only briefly the city’s tallest building until Walter Chrysler and William Van Alen debuted their surprise uptown.

The Chrysler Building in 1930 with its spire freshly attached to the top, making it (for a little over a year) the tallest building in the world.

The Empire State Building became the tallest building — and the defining symbol of New York City — thanks to a determined executive from General Motors and Al Smith, the former governor of New York.

The World Trade Center returned attention to lower Manhattan and set a new record for height, literally leaving other former record holders in its shadow. (Photo courtesy Life Magazine)

SOURCES and RECOMMENDED READING

AIA Guide To New York City 2014
Empire State Building: The Making Of A Landmark — John Tauranac
Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City — Neal Bascomb
Manhattan Manners — M. Christine Boyer
Pulitzer: A Life In Politics, Print and Power — James McGrath Morris
Rise of the New York Skyscraper — Sarah Bradford Landau
Skyscrapers:A Social History of the Very Tall Building In America — George H. Douglas
Supreme City — Donald Miller
and resources from the Landmark Preservation Commission and the New York Skyscraper Museum

Pictures courtesy New York Public Library

The sumptuous story of Ladies’ Mile: Traces of cast-iron grandeur, the architectural delights of the Gilded Age


The opening of Siegel-Cooper department store, 1896, created one of the great mob scenes of the Gilded Age.  Today, TJ Maxx and Bed Bath and Beyond occupy this once-great commercial palace.  

PODCAST  Ladies’ Mile — the most famous New York shopping district in the 19th century and the “heart of the Gilded Age,” a district of spectacular commercial palaces of cast-iron. They are some of the city’s greatest buildings, designed by premier architects.

Unlike so many stories about New York City, this is a tale of survival, how behemoths of retail went out of business, but their structures remained to house new stores. This is truly a rare tale of history, where so many of the buildings in question are still around, still active in the purpose in which they were built.

We start this story near City Hall, with the original retail mecca of A.T. Stewart — the Marble Palace and later his cast-iron masterpiece in Astor Place. Stewart set a standard that many held dear, even as his competitors traveled uptown to the blocks between Union Square and Madison Square.

 Join us on this glamorous journey through the city’s retail history, including a walking tour circa 1890 (with some role play involved!) of some of the district’s best known buildings.

PLUS: Why is Chelsea’s Bed Bath and Beyond so particularly special in this episode? You’ll never buy towels there the same way again!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #1645 Ladies’ Mile

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America’s first department store — A.T. Stewart’s Marble Palace, near City Hall. The building is actually still there today! The address is 280 Broadway. (Courtesy NYPL)

Stewart’s even more celebrated department store at Astor Place, nicknamed the Iron Palace with its cast-iron construction. Unlike Stewart’s first store, this one is no longer there. (NYPL)

1903: Ladies on a freezing day, surrounding the 23rd Street entrance to the Sixth Avenue Elevated Railroad, placing them just a few blocks from the biggest department stores in the world. (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

 6th Ave & 23rd St.

 The entrance to Stein Brothers on 23rd Street. There’s a Home Depot in this building today, but you can still see the SB insignia over the door. And below, the street scene in 1908.(Photo: Edmond V Gillon, MCNY)

[32-46 West 23rd Street.]
[West 23rd Street from 6th Avenue East.]

Adams Dry Goods, decades after the shop at closed. In later years, it was a Hershey’s plants and a military storage space. Today, on the ground floor, there’s a Trader Joe’s grocery store. (Photo: Edmond V Gillon, MCNY)

  [675 Sixth Avenue.]

1901: Women in front of the Church of the Holy Communion, the elevated train in back of them. (MCNY)

Street Scenes, Sixth Avenue at 20th Street.

The windows at Simpson Crawford Co. at Sixth Avenue and 20th Street, 1904. (MCNY)

Simpson Crawford Co. 

The Siegel-Cooper department store fountain, with a statue of Republic (by Daniel Chester French) and electric lights in a kaleidoscope of colors. And, below it, another view of Siegel Cooper from the opposite side of the tracks. (MCNY)

  Siegel Cooper

Retail Trade - Dept. Store 1896. Siegel Cooper Co. (Exterior) 6th Ave at 18th St.

Ladies in the Siegel Cooper canned goods department. The store canned its own food. Very organic! (MCNY)

  Retail Trade Dept. Store.

An overhead shot of Macy’s at 14th Street and the Sixth Avenue elevated railroad station. (MCNY)

[6th Avenue and 14th Street.]

Lord & Taylor’s, at Broadway and 20th Street, 1904. (Wurts Brothers, MCNY)
Broadway and East 20th Street. Lord and Taylor, old building.

Inside WJ Sloane, Carpets Rugs and Furniture, at Broadway and 19th Street (MCNY)

W.J. Sloane, Carpets Rug & Furniture, 19th St. & Broadway.

The Flatiron Building, completed in 1902, is considered part of the Ladies Mile Historic District, even though it was never a department store.

Decorating the Flatiron Building with cannons and silver coins

At the very first-floor corner of the Flatiron Building once sat the trusty United Cigar Store.  Being so striking a location in such an unusual building, the cigar store was often decorated occasions.

For instance, one hundred years ago today (April 1, 1914), the windows were filled with 7,150 silver dollars as part of a promotion by the New York Tribune for a newspaper quiz.

“The money is in shining, new silver dollars, and the glittering pile possessed marked magnetic qualities, drawing thousands of shoppers and business men.  The situation of the window gave Broadway and Fifth Avenue equal and simultaneous opportunities to gaze at the treasure.” [source]

Something more unusual arrived atop the little cigar store a few years later.  With America’s entry into World War I, the patriotic owner of the cigar store donated the space for a recruiting center for the U.S. Navy.  Atop the store were decorative flags and replicas of naval cannons.  A war-stamps salesman would stand astride the cannons and beckon pedestrians to purchases war stamps.

The flamboyant show had a profound effect, as illustrated in this front-page anecdote from March 20, 1918

For a time, the cigar store was one of New York City’s centers for the war effort, an ideal and attractive spot in one of New York’s busiest intersections.  During one such campaign drive, society ladies operated the booths inside while the military band played on the roof, between the cannons.  During the day, there were various demonstrations on front of the cigar store, including one for the Browning machine gun!

To give you a little bit more context of how dramatic this all was, down the street in Union Square sat a wooden Naval battleship, the U.S.S. Recruit.  (Read more about New York’s World War I efforts in my article last year on the history of the wartime doughnut.)

The horror of moving to Brooklyn — from a 1905 comic strip

Above: Food can do strange things to you at night: an excerpt from McCay’s January 7, 1905 strip, published two days after the one printed in full below.

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend was one of America’s first great comic strips and easily one of the weirdest. Each eight-panel or nine-panel strip featured an individual trapped within a situation nightmarish for its day, only to be woken up in the final panel.  The cause for the dream was almost always the same — a meal of rarebit the night before.

Written by Winsor McCay (of Little Nemo fame), this extraordinary oddity ran in various New York newspapers starting in 1904, with various spin-offs and revivals well into the 1920s.  McCay was a favorite of publisher William Randolph Hearst, who often stifled the illustrator’s unrelated endeavors to keep the popular artist loyal to Hearst’s publications.

You can find the entire collection of these fascinating little adventures here.

Rarebit — a hot cheesy sauce poured over toasted bread — seems to have had profound effects on the subconscious.  It was able to vividly extract the fears of New Yorkers at night.  While most were magnificently surreal, others touched on modern issues like crowded trains, uncontrollable automobiles and fast streetcars.

Another such fear, according an entry from January 5, 1905, was the disgrace of moving to Brooklyn.

You can read this particular strip below with the panels broken out.  Read the strip in its original form here.

 

I found this comic thanks to the guidance of Gawker commenter raincoaster. Thanks for the inspiration!

The first-ever film of a New York City blizzard

What storm is this? The horrific blizzard that hit New York on February 17, 1902.  It would be considered the worst snowstorm to hit the metropolitan area since the Great Blizzard of 1888. (Read all about it here.)  I assume we’re actually in the aftermath of the blizzard here, as the snow shovels are out, and the kids are playing.

What area is being filmed?  Madison Square Park (near 23rd Street), with the Worth Memorial in the background of some angles

Who made this?  Edison Manufacturing Company. Their Manhattan studio was nearby, at 41 East 21st Street.

Who’s the director? The head of Edison’s film division Edwin S. Porter, considered by most to be the first real movie director, inventing basic techniques used by subsequent filmmakers.

What are we seeing?  Trolleys, cabs, carriages and other unusual vehicles, braving the icy conditions and dodging pedestrians at the intersection of Broadway, Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street.  At one point, you almost see a team of horses slide off the road!

Below: An illustration from 1899, showing cabs parked along Madison Square (courtesy NYPL)

Why aren’t they showing the Flatiron Building?  It’s not completed yet!  The Daniel Burnham-designed office building would be opened by the summer, to great fanfare.  But as an open construction site, it would have been dangerous to linger anywhere around it.  I believe the slanted beams you see at the very end are part of the construction site.

It would have looked something like this (picture courtesy the New York Public Library):

This is the first film of a New York blizzard?  This is probably the first film of any American blizzard. Primitive film technology had only recently allowed for outdoor filming.  Porter and his crew would have been brave indeed dragging Edison’s equipment even two blocks through these conditions.

What’s that statue at the 1:15 mark?  The seated, snow-covered figure of William Seward.  The statue has sat at that corner since 1876. (More about that here.)

What’s that big building at the end?  The Fifth Avenue Hotel, once considered the greatest accommodation in New York City and a headquarters for backroom politics in the 1870s and 1880s.  Its glory days are long passed by the time of the blizzard.  Six years later, it would be torn down and replaced with the building that stands at that corner today — the International Toy Center.

As the camera pans around, you can see the Fifth Avenue Hotel street clock, a replica of which still sits in that very spot.

Is this the first movie ever filmed in Madison Square?  No.  That distinction goes to a boxing match filmed seven years earlier at the top of Madison Square Garden between ‘Battling’ Charles Barnett and Young Griffo.

The Fifth Avenue Hotel: Opulence atop a potter’s field, and accommodations for heated Republican power brokering



By the date of this photo (1890), the Fifth Avenue Hotel, facing Madison Square Park, had already seen its share of American political drama.


The double-breasted, cigar-chewing gentlemen who gathered in the sumptuous rooms of the Fifth Avenue Hotel were occasional connoisseurs of New York City history, and in particular, these amateur historians spoke of the very street corner where their hotel stood.

Before Madison Square, when the area was a barren parade ground, one Corporal Thompson opened a roadhouse and stagecoach station in the area that was to become 23rd Street and and Fifth Avenue. Many spoke fondly of Thompson’s establishment, called Madison Cottage, because they remembered the place as young boys. They recalled the area’s rural quality, with carved rectangular blocks carved into the land and a dirt-road Broadway meandering north.

But that was the 1840s. Forty years later, Madison Square Park was the center of New York, a focal point of class, business and luxury that stretched south to Union Square, through that attractive collection of fine stores known as Ladies Mile, and up Fifth Avenue into the fabulous mansions of the rich. And dead center of all that activity was the Fifth Avenue Hotel, not only the “finest [hotel] in this metropolis”, the “leading hotel of the world ,” but quite simply one of the most surprising stages for American politics of the mid and late 19th century.

Hotels were fast becoming the center of New York life from at least the days of the Astor House, located near City Hall, in the 1830s. Within two decades, trendy new hotels (such as the St. Nicholas and the Metropolitan) spread up along Broadway and eventually clustered around Union Square. By the Civil War, the thrust of New York society was so defined by them that Confederate conspirators tried setting fire to a several of them.

The Fifth Avenue Hotel opened in 1859, the venture of wealthy merchant Amos Richards Eno, who accurately gambled that the center of city commerce would soon settle at 23rd Street. So confident a speculator was Eno that he moved from his brownstone at 74 Broadway (the first New York brownstone, he claimed) to a massive home nearby the hotel.

Some thought it unwise to build so far north, and when workers unearthed dozens of skeletons during construction — the area once being a potter’s field — the corner was even considered cursed. Eno defied the naysayers, pouring his wealth into the hotel to make it the most modern, most luxurious accommodation of the day.

The Italian exterior was awash in five stories of imported marble, while austere, carpeted interiors of French design drew comparisons to European palaces. Guests enjoyed reading rooms, a luxurious bar, a barber shop, a dedicated telegraph office, and a variety of dining and drawing rooms, not to mention the first passenger elevator ever built in the United States, a steam-powered monstrosity whisking passengers to their floor.  The private quarters were soundproofed, fixtured with the modern innovations in plumbing, and lavishly decorated, becoming to many “the safest, the most healthy and most comfortable hotel in the world.

As the finest hotel in the city in the post Civil War years, it naturally became a magnet for politicians and financiers. Of all the ‘backrooms’ of American politics, none were as gleaming as the Fifth Avenue. Bankers huddled in the legendary ‘parlor D. R.’ during the tense days of the financial panic of 1873. In particular, the hotel became a de facto headquarters for New York Republicans. While often secondary to the city’s Democrats — this being the era of Tammany Hall‘s swelling power — Republicans were frequently in control of state government, and the Fifth Avenue Hotel became a smoky center of political wheeling and dealing.

During the 1870s, New York republicans became national power brokers and frequently hashed out crises here at the Fifth Avenue. In the years before the Waldorf-Astoria, presidents and dignitaries all stayed here during visits. Seamier political maneuvers took place in the chambers of prominent politicians who held court here, including the inimitable Roscoe Conkling (at left), senator of New York and leader of the Republican faction known as the Stalwarts.

When fractured Republicans at their convention in 1880 nominated non-Stalwart James Garfield for president, the nominee had to basically grovel for their support by symbolically ‘kissing the ring’ of the Stalwarts during a visit to the Fifth Avenue Hotel, partially agreeing to their system of patronage and taking Conkling ally Levi Morton as a member of his cabinet. (Garfield later backed out on this arrangement.)

Another frequent guest here was Chester A. Arthur, Garfield’s eventual vice president. When Arthur became president after Garfield’s assassination by Charles Guiteau (who had himself wandered the hotel’s hallways in delusion), he would set up his entire administration here during visits to his adopted city.

By the 1890s, a corridor of the hotel known as the ‘Amen Corner‘ was a famous congregation spot for Republican political bosses and reporters. As they frequently powwowed here on Sundays, gatherers would caustically shout ‘Amen!’ during heated discussions.

The hotel became a magnet for shenanigans of all varieties. In 1893, a couple hundred proponents of a U.S. monetary silver standard erupted into a riot that included two U.S. senators. The bank robber Robert Montague was arrested here in 1896 thanks to a tip-off from a chambermaid. An early vestige of baseball’s National League met here annually, and the national pool competitions were held in the hotel’s billiard room.

By the new century, of course, the locus of New York activity was hastily moving uptown, and the Fifth Avenue Hotel was deemed a relic, even as a brand new structure across the street — the Flatiron Building — was being proclaimed the finest building in the city. In 1908 the Fifth Avenue Hotel was torn down and replaced by the 16-story Toy Center (called the Fifth Avenue Building back in the day), the epicenter of toy manufacturing for much of the 20th century.

Pictures courtesy New York Public Library (source)

Let There Be Light: Brooklyn illuminates Manhattan with a spotlight that ‘will burn your skin at three hundred feet’


That Gotham glow: The powerful Sperry searchlight drapes the dark city in light. The Woolworth Building is lit up like a candle.

A thin, bright streak of light brushes across the sky and dances off the clouds above. With few buildings over fifteen stories and the city’s electrical lights at a fraction of the intensity that they are today, the white piercing beam would have awakened the night sky, the most powerful illumination in the sky with the exception of the moon.

It was March of 1919, and the device creating this expressionistic Gotham nightscape was the Sperry Searchlight.

Since the first arc lights installed along Broadway in 1880, New Yorkers had grown accustomed to electric light. In fact, Times Square and the stretches of Broadway had become New York’s entertainment capital because of it. But searchlights were still a bit of a novelty, devices more associated with wartime. Innovations in electrical light changed how wars were even fought; combatants in World War I aimed spots to the skies to search for enemy zeppelins and scoured the grounds below for encroaching forces.

New Yorkers would have been used to seeing searchlights atop the city’s newest, tallest buildings. The first New Year’s celebration at One Times Square used a searchlight to blanket stunned crowds below. Both the Flatiron Building and the Metropolitan Life Tower in Madison Square were equipped with searchlights during elections. They were an effective way to present information. For the 1908 presidential election, the New York Herald announced that a searchlight atop the Met Life building would swing north if William Howard Taft won and south if the victory went to William Jennings Bryan. That night, the beam turned north.

But the Sperry Searchlight was different. The powerful device, created in the mid 1910s, was described by a science journal of the day in 1917 as ‘the world’s most powerful searchlight’ and as bright as ‘the fiercest sunlight’. “The heat of its focused beam is so intense that it will set paper afire at a distance of two hundred and fifty feet …. It will burn your skin at three hundred feet.’

This intense searchlight was the product of Brooklyn innovator Elmer Ambrose Sperry, whose greatest invention, the gyrocompass, was quickly adopted by the United States Navy and almost immediately changed sea travel forever.

From the Sperry Gyroscope Companythe ten-floor building still stands at 40 Flatbush Avenue Ext. by the Brooklyn entrance to the Manhattan Bridge — the inventor and his team created a host of new items, many for the military. (Did you know that the Sperry Company created the first airplane autopilot?)

In 1919, one version of his new and improved searchlight made a test run, presumably atop the roof of the Sperry building. If you look at where the building is on a map, you can almost trace the beam from the roof along the line of its projection.

Over the Brooklyn Bridge, bouncing off the first line of buildings along the east of Manhattan, and illuminating three of New York’s tallest and best known buildings of the day — the Singer Building (center left), the Park Row building (center right), and the majestic Woolworth Building (the tallest beacon-like structure, center right).

Images like this one weren’t just documents of technological success. (Although good night photography itself was a pretty nifty trick, even in 1919.) They helped build the mythology of the city, which in 1919 was about to go down the rabbit hole of Art Deco and inspire new architects to populate the skyline with more ambitious and futuristic towers.

Three photographers, and three views of the Flatiron


Edward Steichen, The Blue-Green Flatiron (courtesy the Met)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s new exhibit on three masters of early 20th Century photography “Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand” says as much about New York as it does the three subjects themselves. And many pictures have nothing to do with the city.

Alfred Stieglitz became the maestro of the new medium of photography and encouraged its inclusion into the discussion of modern art when he opened his 291 Gallery (located at 291 Fifth Avenue). The other two photographers here expand on Stieglitz’ stark, sometimes abstract style, especially Paul Strand, whose images of the city would fit comfortably among the new century’s modern art painters and sculptor.

But I predict you’ll be most taken by Edward Steichen and in particular his most famous picture — his mysterious 1904 photograph of the Flatiron Building.

It’s the star of the show here because of its presentation, three different versions with slight color differences. Steichen used one negative to make the three images which he then daubed with various “layers of pigment suspended in a light-sensitive solution of gum arabic and potassium bichromate.” The manipulation only brings out new details, and each print evokes a different emotion.

Equally as well known is Stieglitz romantic view of The Street, Fifth Avenue, a snowy covered mystery with a cloaked silhouette that’s fueled more than one storyteller with dreams of old Gotham.

My favorite New York image from the Strand collection, called Office Buildings from Below, from 1933, seems to squeeze architecture together like a scene from ‘Inception’. In presenting the city as a garden of lines and shapes, it’s as though Strand manipulated the city itself for his photo, not the other way around.

Of course, New York is only a featured player here and the city is mixed in with an assortment of abstract bodies, rippling pools and fascinating portraits. Stieglitz’ simple portrait of an elevator operator is probably the one that stopped every person who walked by it.

As a bonus, the museum has parked a small exhibit on photography from the 1910s next door, called ‘Our Future Is In The Air’. It’s a total grab bag, but don’t leave it until you check out a few lovely shots by a frequent photographer I use here on the blog, Lewis Hine.

Both shows are open at the Met and run through April 10, 2011. A separate show on Stieglitz’s New York photography is also exhibiting through the month at the South Street Seaport Museum.