Day 389: The Savory Slice On 23rd Street

originally published January 23, 2013

Growing up in a city where most of the local skyscrapers feature all the flourish and architectural zeal of a Lego brick, I was always fascinated by New York City’s style-salad of motif integration. From the glimmering ornateness of the Chrysler Building to the bulbous Guggenheim to the triumphant Empire State, New York is a visual feast. When I finally got to visit, I soaked it all in like a… like a sponge who had never been to New York and really loves architecture. A lucky, lucky sponge who lacks the instinct for a good simile.

There was one historic structure that eluded my itinerary when I finally visited though, and that was the Flatiron Building, wedged between the crossfire of Broadway and 5th Avenue, less than a dozen blocks south of the Empire State Building, on 23rd Street. The Flatiron is the ideal scrunching of space and style, still towering over the district of Manhattan that was named after it. And the joint has a little history too.

When Amos Eno, inventor of the self-seasoning steak (not really, but how cool would that be?) bought the wedge of land where the Flatiron now stands, it contained a four-story heap of bricks called the St. Germaine Hotel. He ripped it down – probably with his bare hands; the article doesn’t specify – and put up the Cumberland Hotel, pictured above. A handful of insignificant smaller buildings filled up the point of the wedge, which left a massive slab of empty brick wall facing north. Eno did what any enterprising New Yorker would do: he turned it into a giant billboard.

Not just any billboard – Eno rented the space out to the New York Times, who set up an electric-light advertisement that pierced the New York sky at night. Up until Eno’s intervention, the intersection was known as the ‘Cowcatcher’, because escaped cows from nearby farms would often find their way to this little wedge in order to escape traffic – back when ‘escaping traffic’ was a possibility in Manhattan. It also might have snagged that name from the lot being shaped like a cowcatcher on the front of a locomotive. But Eno’s billboard helped to banish this rural nickname, bringing New York’s surge of urban modernity to the area.

For a while he projected images onto the flat slab of building, using a magic lantern. This was kind of like an early slide-show experiment – the Times and the New York Tribune made use of the magic lantern for news bulletins, election results, and so on.

Eno passed away in 1899, and his son William picked up the wedge of land for a reasonable $690,000. The land changed ownership a few more times, landing in the hands of Harry S. Black, CEO of the Fuller Company, a company responsible for a number of 19th century architectural jewels in Chicago and New York. Black wanted a new company headquarters. He also wanted to build the first skyscraper north of 14th Street. To honor his deceased father-in-law and the founder of the company that presently paid his bills, Black named his new creation the ‘Fuller Building’. The public, who didn’t really care about Black’s familial devotion, dubbed it the Flatiron Building, because it looks kind of like a flatiron.

A huge difference in skyscraper construction between New York and Chicago at the time was that New York buildings tended to be towers emerging from a clunkier mass near the bottom. The Flatiron, designed by Chicagoan Daniel Burnham, follows the sleeker Chicago style. Burnham didn’t want any retail space to just out at the bottom; he’d envisioned two magnificent columns at the base of the building’s point, not a cigar stand. But Burnham wasn’t paying for the damn thing – Harry S. Black needed the income to offset the costs of building something this massive.

The Fuller Company knew the secret to building a 22-story building without having it collapse upon itself: steel. The steel frame – courtesy of the good people at the American Bridge Company in Pennsylvania – allowed builders to aim higher without sacrificing safety. The penthouse level, which was built after the fact, was designed to house art studios. As a gaggle of pulp publishers snatched up the space in the lower floors, their artists took up deskspace upstairs. It was a snazzy little setup.

Of course, not everyone was impressed by this new building. The editor of Architectural Record stated of the 6.5-foot wide tip that it “seems wanton aggravation of the inherent awkwardness of the situation.” I have no idea what that means, but it doesn’t sound good. Writer H.G. Wells was, on the other hand, in awe of the Flatiron. Sculptor William Ordway Partridge called it “a disgrace to our city, an outrage to our sense of the artistic, and a menace to life.” Sounds like Partridge had a flair for the dramatic.

One demographic who really warmed up to the new addition to what would then be called the uptown Manhattan skyline was horny men. Locals thought the wind would topple the building within weeks, but Burnham knew that his steel structure would stick around. What no one counted on was the way the wedge-shape would deflect the wind. Scooting from the north, the building would split the wind down its sides, downdrafts shooting from above, updrafts flying up from the street, creating an unpredictable swizzle of air. These breezes would send women’s dresses flailing in odd ways, giving men a scandalous glimpse of ankle. This brought about the expression “23 skidoo”, which is what cops used to yell at guys who stood there leering. That was how cops talked back then, before TV and movies taught them better.

The Flatiron has stood in its little slice of turf for 111 years. At present it’s owned by an Italian real estate group, who aims to turn it into world-class luxury (probably overpriced) hotel. That will have to wait until at least 2019 when current lease agreements are up. For now, it’s valuable office space inside an official national landmark.

The Flatiron was April’s workplace in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it housed the Daily Bugle in the Spider-Man movies, and it was accidentally destroyed by the US Army in mostly unpleasant 1998 Godzilla movie. As far as New York icons go, it’s one of the heftiest glops still clinging to my bucket-list, along with the Museum of Modern Art, Lady Liberty’s crown and the Cyclone at Coney Island.

If nothing else, it’s a reason to go back.

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