Flatiron Building turns 100

Three-sided structure is one of New York's oldest skyscrapers

October 03, 2002|By Glenn Collins | Glenn Collins,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - The most subversive of all the fun facts about the Flatiron Building, which marked its centennial Oct. 1, is that it does not truly replicate the shape of a turn-of-the-century household flatiron - which would have been curved at the sides like the prow of a ship.

Instead, the famous three-sided building at the intersection of Broadway, Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street - one of New York's oldest surviving skyscrapers - forms a geometrically perfect, straight-edged right triangle.

Still commanding the streetscape with its presence at the locus of two of the greatest thoroughfares in the world, it devolved into a sad outlier of a scruffy, sinking neighborhood.

But now, thanks to a decade of gentrification, a recent refurbishment under new owners and last year's $5 million reconstruction of the six-acre oasis of Madison Square Park, the building is the flagship of the reborn Flatiron district of upscale fashion merchandising and famous kitchens.

307-foot height

And although its 307-foot height is puny in comparison to the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, according to Roberta J.M. Olson, co-curator of a Flatiron exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, "its popularity was never eclipsed, because it is the only famous Manhattan skyscraper that enables tourists to take a picture of the entire building from the ground up."

Early in the last century, tour buses brought visitors to the Flatiron, so they could ascend to the Flatiron Restaurant and observation deck on the 21st floor.

For decades the landmark building commanded images on postcards, mugs, plates and commemorative tchotchkes. The building inspired unforgettable photographs by Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz.

Sometimes, though, it was hardly a utopia for tenants. In the early days, women were unamused to learn that the Burnham firm had not thought it necessary to design any ladies' rooms.

Then there was the bank of original water-powered elevators, a relic of Manhattan's early hydraulic-lift era. Beyond the fact that pipes could burst and drizzle water into the cabs, the elevators' slowness and unreliability were notorious. "I lived directly across the street," said John J. Murphy, a vice president at St. Martin's, the trade publisher that moved there in 1959, now occupies 12 floors and is celebrating its 50th anniversary. "But I had a 20-minute commute to my office."

Now that the elevators are electrified and efficient, "a lot of people aren't in the shape they were then," Murphy said.

According to Faith Hope Consolo, vice chairman of Garrick-Aug, the Manhattan retail brokerage firm, the Flatiron is the real estate anchor for the whole neighborhood.

The current transformation was fueled in part by fashion-forward shoppers and insatiable eaters bent on high-end cuisine. But even in the bad years, the building lent its tenants cachet, and it still does.

Opened Oct. 1, 1902

The building of the Flatiron was such a prolonged affair that historians still debate exactly when it opened. For doubters, Berman has a picture of the Flatiron sporting two signs announcing the building ready for occupancy Oct. 1, 1902.

There is also all that lore about the phrase "23 skiddoo," attributed to the fierce Flatiron winds that raised skirts and attracted the interest of passing gentlemen. Police officers there kept the gawkers moving along by saying "23 skiddoo," the equivalent of "scram."

Evidence to support this windy legend includes Library of Congress film footage from 1903 that shows Flatiron gusts, billowing skirts, male sidewalk superintendents and a flatfoot on the Flatiron beat.

Among the building's peculiarities is the cowcatcher, the protruding street-level glass gazebo added shortly after it was built.

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