The Washington Post
The Flatiron: The New York Landmark and the Incomparable City That Arose with Itby Alice Sparberg Alexiou
The marvelous story of the Flatiron: the instantly recognizable building that signaled the start of a new era in New York history.
Critics hated it. The public feared it would topple over. Passersby were knocked down by the winds. But even before it was completed, the Flatiron Building had become an unforgettable part of New York City./p>/b>/i>
The marvelous story of the Flatiron: the instantly recognizable building that signaled the start of a new era in New York history.
Critics hated it. The public feared it would topple over. Passersby were knocked down by the winds. But even before it was completed, the Flatiron Building had become an unforgettable part of New York City.
The Flatiron Building was built by the Chicago-based Fuller Company--a group founded by George Fuller, "the father of the skyscraper"--to be their New York headquarters. The company's president, Harry Black, was never able to make the public call the Flatiron the Fuller Building, however. Black's was the country's largest real estate firm, constructing Macy's department store, and soon after the Plaza Hotel, the Savoy Hotel, and many other iconic buildings in New York as well as in other cities across the country. With an ostentatious lifestyle that drew constant media scrutiny, Black made a fortune only to meet a tragic, untimely end.
In The Flatiron, Alice Sparberg Alexiou chronicles not just the story of the building but the heady times in New York at the dawn of the twentieth century. It was a time when Madison Square Park shifted from a promenade for rich women to one for gay prostitutes; when photography became an art; motion pictures came into existence; the booming economy suffered increasing depressions; jazz came to the forefront of popular music--and all within steps of one of the city's best-known and best-loved buildings.
The Washington Post
“Alexiou -- a native New Yorker and the granddaughter of a man who for a time owned the Flatiron Building in partnership with Harry Helmsley -- has written an engaging and informative account of the building's construction and its lasting place in New York's lore.” The Washington Post
“Alice Sparberg Alexiou's The Flatiron joins such books as Jill Jonnes's Conquering Gotham (2007), about Pennsylvania Station, and Gail Fenske's The Skyscraper and the City (2008), about the Woolworth Building, in a budding genre that we might call biographies of buildings.” The Wall Street Journal
“Though she ends on a note of permanence, as the landmarked and restored Flatiron is here to stay, Ms. Alexiou's book is ultimately about the never-ending change that rushes by in the city, and, in evoking that, she succeeds.” The New York Observer
“The first history book about The Flatiron, one of New York City's first skyscrapers, built in 1902, and still a favorite sightseeing stop for tourists.” Deseret News
“[Alice Sparberg-Alexiou] brings the building alive by profiling not only its owners and tenants but also the city's mixed reaction to it.” The Christian Science Monitor
“Alice Sparberg Alexiou elucidates the complex web of human relationships built around the Flatiron, bringing life to the poignant and tragic story of the skyscraper, its creators, denizens, and critics in New York 1900--a rich and contentious setting shaped not only by buildings, streets, and squares, and the popular arts of music, theater, and film, but also by unbridled speculation, gambling, corruption, conflict, and intrigue.” Gail Fenske, author of The Skyscraper and the City
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Read an Excerpt
GEORGE ALLON FULLER
IN 1876, TWENTY-FIVE-YEAR-OLD George Allon Fuller arrived in New York with his pregnant wife, Ellen, and their three-year-old-daughter Grace. He was tall and lean, with a high forehead, and a long, jutting jaw. His heavy black eyebrows, veering down over piercing dark eyes, gave his face a permanent scowl, indicating the intense nature of his character.
George Allon Fuller, undated.
After studying architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he had joined the firm of Robert Swain Peabody and John G. Stearns soon after the pair had started it, in 1872. Peabody and Stearns designed and built palatial residences in Newport, Rhode Island, and other favorite locales of America’s fabulously wealthy. Fuller worked as their chief draftsman, a task that Peabody, who had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, considered crucial. “Sketch, sketch!” he often told Fuller. “And if you can’t find anything else to sketch, sketch your boots!”
Fuller worked on everything from fussy Victorian interiors to designing building frames. It was the physical aspect of erecting buildings that fascinated him. After long days at his office spent standing over his drawing board, he went home at night and unwound by working on a two-story wooden apartment house that he was building himself. Occasionally he varied his routine by attending a Gilbert and Sullivan performance. He loved their music, and often sang bits from their operas to himself as he worked.
Fuller’s work, and his work ethic, impressed his bosses immensely. Their firm was doing well, so well that they made him a partner. And now they were putting him in charge of their New York office. What a coup this was for the young man, to be practicing his profession in the world’s fastest-growing city, where everybody, and everybody’s money, was heading. Since the end of the Civil War, land values had been constantly escalating, and, most people believed, always would. However, the severe economic depression brought on by the panic of 1873 had lately caused the market to cool down considerably. Still, construction activity was continuing. And some of the new buildings rose nine or ten stories, heights never before imaginable, but now made possible by Elijah Otis’s recent invention, the elevator.
Owners were willing to build high because land costs were so high; tall buildings would maximize the return on their investments. Down in the financial district at Manhattan’s southern tip, and a short walk from Fuller’s new office at 21 Cortlandt, stood the 230-foot-tall Western Union Telegraph Company’s new headquarters, completed in 1875. The Western Union Building was at Broadway and Dey. Nearby, on Newspaper Row, next to City Hall Park, was Richard Morris Hunt’s ten-story Tribune Building, which housed Horace Greeley’s influential newspaper. The “Trib” Building, also completed in 1875, measured 260 feet high, almost as high as the city’s tallest structure, which, appropriately enough, was a house of worship, the 284-foot Trinity Church. Built in 1846 by Richard Upjohn, Trinity Church would remain New York’s tallest building until 1890, when it would cede its place to George B. Post’s massive Pulitzer Building. With its dome, the Pulitzer Building would measure over 300 feet high.
The new, tall buildings threw shadows on the street, and dwarfed the neighboring structures, which at the most had four or five stories—as that is how many stair flights a person could be reasonably expected to climb. Architects hated the tall buildings, and the man on the street feared them. “Some structures have been run up to so great a height that the thoughtful passerby feels apprehensive of his security while in their vicinity,” The Phrenological Journal and Science of Health reported in 1874.
But not Fuller. The tall buildings thrilled him. He loved the materials that held everything together: the brick and timber and, especially, the iron beams and columns. He also loved the machines used in constructing them. And he had no interest in what chiefly obsessed his colleagues—the aesthetics of exterior building design. For inspiration, they looked to the old world. Victorian Gothic, French Academic, and Queen Anne were just some of the styles that Peabody and Stearns were incorporating into their buildings. But why, Fuller thought, use the past as a basis for new structures? Especially here in America, where everything looked toward the future?
The problem of load—that is, what supports the weight of a structure’s bricks, beams, walls, windows, roof (dead load), along with the people and objects inside it (live load)—especially intrigued Fuller. New York was the first city in the United States to have laws regulating how buildings could be constructed, altered, or demolished. Such laws were first passed in 1860. They were badly needed: the value of New York real estate was rising, but the only construction regulations on the books concerned preventing the building of wood-frame structures downtown, because of the fire hazard. The new laws created the city’s first Buildings Department. Up to then, building inspections were carried out by local fire wardens, who had highly discretionary powers, and, therefore, were easily bribed.
New York’s first building code included strict rules mandating the thickness of a structure’s supporting walls. The taller the structure, the thicker the walls had to be. And now, in the 1870s, as buildings were rising higher, the walls had to be made so thick in order to conform to code that they were eating up nearly half of the ground-floor space, and much of the offices on the floors above, although less so as they were built higher, until, typically, by the top floor, the walls were fully one-half as thick as on the ground. All of which translated into a lot of wasted space, and therefore less rental income for the owner. The Tribune Building’s walls at grade level, for example, were made of brick and measured more than five feet deep. Moreover, the wall requirement resulted in tall buildings that appeared clunky and awkward, without what architects today call verticality.
But brick or stone walls were not the only possible means to carry load. You could also incorporate iron as a supplement, something the Greeks were already doing thousands of years earlier, when they inserted wrought-iron bars inside the marble columns of their temples. But the use of structural iron did not significantly progress beyond what the ancient Greeks had done until the eighteenth century, when the English began experimenting with iron framing in industrial buildings.
In the United States, builders first began using iron in the form of columns and beams in the 1820s. By the 1840s, cast-iron fronts had become all the rage in New York’s commercial buildings, such as the department stores located in an area called “Ladies’ Mile,” between Fourteenth and Twenty-third Streets along Broadway and Fifth Avenue. Cast iron was light, strong, and durable. And it didn’t burn, so it was thought to be ideal. That is, until Chicago’s “Great Fire” of 1871 proved that cast iron melted under extreme heat, as described in the 1898 History of Real Estate, Building, and Architecture in New York: “Entire building fronts expanded and buckled and fell into the street from the effects of the intense heat radiating from burning buildings on the opposite side of the street, before their combustible interiors had taken fire.” So during the 1870s, the cast-iron front fell out of favor. Architects were now making their commercial building fronts all-brick, except for the first story, where often they placed vertical cast-iron columns. Often they also placed such columns in a building’s interiors, where they not only added visual interest, but functioned as additional load support. Architects also incorporated horizontal wrought-iron beams into building frames, to help support the floors.
As Fuller embarked on his architectural career in New York, he was probably wondering why even more iron wasn’t being incorporated into building design. Perhaps you could rest a building’s entire load on an iron frame; that way, you could eliminate the space-wasting masonry walls, and build high, even higher than Trinity Church. Obsessed with such engineering questions, Fuller fiddled around with calculations and built models.
He also forced himself to settle into the considerable work his Boston partners had given him immediately upon his arrival in New York. The firm had just received a plum assignment, and one that Fuller surely hated: to submit a design for the new Union League Club House, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-ninth Street. Despite his antipathy, Fuller’s drawing—a Queen Anne-style mansion of brick and Belleville stone—won out over eight other competitors. They included Richard Morris Hunt, who had designed the Tribune Building, and Charles McKim in collaboration with William Mead, both of whom later, with Stanford White, would found one of America’s most influential architecture firms. At the same time Fuller worked on another commission that was somewhat of a consolation, the United Bank Building, at the northeast corner of Wall Street and Broadway. Fuller designed a nine-story building of brick and brownstone, with cast-iron columns on the bottom story. Perhaps he even suggested to his partners that they try substituting steel for some of the iron in the framing; that way, he would have argued, the building wouldn’t need such thick walls. But they would have surely refused. They would have pointed out to Fuller that reducing the walls’ breadth would have required special permission from the Buildings Department in the form of a variance. And besides, nobody at that time was using steel in building construction. Not only was steel far more expensive than iron, but it was also feared that steel was not safe, that it wasn’t as strong as iron.
But Fuller thought such fears irrational. Steel was in fact stronger and more flexible than iron, so much so that steel was now replacing iron in the manufacture of T-rails for railroad ties. The results were so excellent that the old iron rails, always breaking and needing replacement, were becoming obsolete. So, Fuller no doubt was thinking, why not also use steel in buildings? And there was yet another reason to do this: steel manufacturing, up to now almost exclusive to England, was now booming in America, in part because Congress had imposed a heavy tariff on imports in 1870. So really, there was no reason not to use steel in building construction, save one: most people’s tendency to instantly dismiss any new idea, and instead cling to what, no matter how bad, they know.
In fact, the so-called “East River bridge”—that would later be renamed the Brooklyn Bridge—was using steel, not iron, the usual material up to then for bridges, for its suspension cables. Fuller’s office was located just a few short blocks from the riverbank. No doubt he walked down there often, to observe as the bridge’s four huge, heavy cables were being spun right on the site. The newspaper Brooklyn Eagle likened the construction process to “a giant spinning machine.” Into each cable went 600 one-eighth-inch-diameter threads of galvanized steel wire, so tightly bound that you couldn’t fit a needle in between. The wire—3,400 miles worth, to be precise—had been manufactured to specification, and carefully tested before it left the factory to verify what the bridge engineers’ careful calculations had showed: that the steel wire would support six times the bridge’s actual load. The wire had been delivered from the factory in coils, each a few hundred feet long. When unrolled, it lay straight, with no kinks.
The spinning process started in a huge shed that sat on top of the Brooklyn anchorage. Inside, workers were dipping each coil into a vat of boiling linseed oil, which protected the steel wire from rusting. Then the coils were hung up on hooks. When the coils were dry, the process was repeated. Finally, each coil was straightened out into one long steel wire, to receive yet a third coat of oil that a worker rubbed in with his hands. He then spliced the wire with another already oiled wire by means of a special coupling machine, thereby forming one continuous length of wire that was next spooled onto a ten-foot-diameter wooden drum, from which, through a complicated process involving wheels, derricks, and castings, it was strung clear across the river. This process would be repeated 299 more times, before workmen, either standing atop one or another of the bridge’s two massive granite towers, each measuring nearly 277 feet high, or inside “cradles”—narrow wooden platforms hanging at intervals on wires stretched above the river—gathered the 300 wires needed to form a single strand. The wires had to lie absolutely straight; any twisting would weaken them. Twenty strands were then gathered together to form each of the four cables, which then, by a special machine, was covered with wire wrapping. And now, a reporter for Appleton’s Journal wrote in 1878, the cables “will be ready for a few centuries, let us hope, to take the responsibility of trans-fluvial communication between New York and Brooklyn.”
Most of the bridge workers were sailors, used to working at sea and scaling terrifying heights. They gained access to the cradles via a temporary foot path made of wooden slats four feet wide that stretched from anchorage to anchorage, and in between angled steeply up to each of the towers. Soon after the paths were erected, people began to venture out on them, a pastime that became so popular that the bridge company had to give out permits. Even if you only made it up to one of the towers, you were rewarded with a spectacular and formerly unattainable view. Up to then, only birds could see New York from above. Now, from the Brooklyn side, you could see clear across the tip of Manhattan, all the way to New Jersey.
Fuller probably was among those who climbed the foot path up to the tower, and then clear across the river, along the way observing the bridge workers up close as they bound the thousands of individual wires, which together would be able to support a load of up to 49,200 tons.
In 1880, after spending four years in New York with Peabody and Stearns, Fuller decided that he had had enough of them and their antiquated ways. He left New York just as work on the United Bank Building was beginning. With his wife, Ellen, and their two daughters, Allon and Grace, ages three and seven, Fuller, now twenty-nine years old, boarded a train and went to Chicago. There, he entered into a partnership with another Boston architect, a man named C. Everett Clark.
Fifty years earlier Chicago had not even been a city, but just a stinking fur-trading post, its only structures log cabins and taverns. But now it was an industrial powerhouse, and growing faster than any city in the world, even faster than mighty, snooty New York. So if you were looking to make money, Chicago was the place to go. Especially if your business had anything to do with construction, because in 1871, nine years before Fuller’s arrival, on a hot, windy October night, the entire city, then consisting mostly of low wooden buildings, had burned down. The Great Fire, as it came to be called, was one of the worst urban disasters ever. It had reduced Chicago to mud and ashes, and created all kinds of opportunities for architects.
William Le Baron Jenney, Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, Daniel Burnham and John Root were some of the men remaking the city. Except for Jenney—who had served as an engineer in the Union army during the Civil War, and afterward gone to Chicago, where he opened an architectural office—all were young, at the most in their thirties. Sullivan, describing Chicago in 1873, the year of his arrival there, wrote: “The sense of ruin was … blended with ambition of recovery.” Chicago was, Sullivan would later write in his Autobiography of an Idea, “magnificent and wild: A crude extravaganza: An intoxicating rawness: A sense of big things to be done. For ‘Big’ was the word. ‘Biggest’ was preferred, and the ‘the biggest in the world’ was the braggart phrase on every tongue. Chicago had the biggest conflagration ‘in the world.’ It was the biggest grain and lumber market ‘in the world.’ It slaughtered more hogs than any city ‘in the world.’ It was the greatest railroad center, the greatest this, the greatest that.” No doubt about it, Fuller had come to the right place. Chicago needed rebuilding, and also to be invented. The city had virtually no past, architectural or otherwise. But now, the convergence of catastrophe, capitalism, and the talents of young Americans were encouraging new architecture styles and new ways of building, all distinctly American. And there was something else: Chicago had far fewer building regulations than New York. Here, the law didn’t force you to use thick walls to support the weight of a high building. In Chicago, you could experiment.
Fuller’s ambitions soon overwhelmed Clark. After two years, the men dissolved their partnership. Fuller then raised $50,000, equivalent to about $1 million in today’s money—how exactly he got the money is not known—and set up his own company. The year was 1882, and Chicago was now filled with architecture firms. One of the first had been William Le Baron Jenney’s, established in 1867. There Jenney had trained many of Chicago’s brilliant young architects, who were now striking out on their own. Jenney’s protégés included Louis Sullivan, now a partner in the firm of Dankmar Adler; Daniel Burnham, who had opened an office in 1873 with John Root; and the team of William Holabird and Martin Roche, who had just started their architecture practice the previous year, in 1881.
But there was something different about Fuller’s company. At that time, to be an architect meant that you were also de facto a builder and engineer. Architectural firms handled every aspect of building, from making the first sketches to supervising construction. But the new Fuller Company would handle only the construction aspect of buildings, designed by architects who came from elsewhere, because the firm would not employ any architects. Let somebody else, Fuller thought, do design. This was a radical idea.
And it was a brilliant one.
Fuller’s timing was perfect. During 1882, the Fuller Company’s first year of operation, the number of buildings constructed in Chicago reached a record high—3,113, to be exact. One of Fuller’s first commissions was the Chicago Opera House, at the corner of Washington and Clark. He worked with architects Henry Ives Cobb and Charles S. Frost, who designed a gorgeous building, with floor-to-ceiling windows in the front. Along with the theater, the Opera House also contained a block of offices. Its load was carried in the traditional way, on masonry walls.
But Fuller did something daring: the floor beams were made of steel. This was the first time that anybody had used steel in buildings, even though its cost was dropping, due to the ever-increasing amounts being produced in the United States. Even in Chicago, a place known for taking risks, many architects were still afraid of steel.
Critics were now calling Fuller a capricious fool. He in turn called them Luddites, and began incorporating more and more steel in his buildings. He worked obsessively, juggling multiple projects that constantly overlapped. His workload would have killed some men. The pressure only made him thrive, and work harder. With each project, Fuller used more and more steel.
With Holabird & Roche, Fuller built the twelve-story Tacoma Building, which was completed in 1889; immediately afterward, the three also collaborated on the fourteen-story Pontiac Building, and a portion of the Monadnock Building. He constructed an earlier portion of the Monadnock with architect John Root. Fuller also built the ten-story Rand McNally Building with Root along with Root’s partner, Daniel Burnham. Just how far Fuller was ahead of his time is evident by what American Architect and Building News had to say about the use of structural steel in 1889, as the Fuller Company was finishing construction on the Tacoma Building:
Very little is really known today of the properties of steel and new facts are coming to light every day … and though events point strongly to steel becoming the metal of the near future, there exists among many reasonably conservative men, a wide and well-grounded distrust of its use in the higher engineer or architectural structures, on account of its mysterious behavior, and frequent erratic and inexplicable failures.
Monadnock Building, Chicago, undated.
Meet the Author
ALICE SPARBERG ALEXIOU is the author of Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary. She has been an editor of Lilith magazine and written for The New York Times and Newsday, among others. She is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and has a Ph.D. in classics from Fordham University. She lives in New York.
ALICE SPARBERG ALEXIOU is the author of Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary and The Flatiron: The New York Landmark and the Incomparable City That Arose with It. She is a contributing editor at Lilith magazine and written for The New York Times and Newsday, among others. She is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and has a Ph.D. in classics from Fordham University. She lives in New York.
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As an architect thibook was full of new information I did not kno
New York City never fail to amaze. There is so much history in this building and this book. Very well written.