The Flatiron Building

May 1, 2008

It is one of the earliest romantic symbols of New York City, an icon that has appeared in countless movie and television productions and on more postcards than perhaps any other modern building. It was immortalized in early photos by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen and since its completion in 1902, it has been recorded by millions of lesser-known photographers and painters. The Flatiron Building is hardly a “hidden gem,” but here are some details about it that might not be common knowledge.

Designed by the renowned architect Daniel Burnham of Chicago, the Flatiron Building was not exactly an instant hit. Sidewalk superintendents rolled their eyes and laughed while it was under construction, taking bets on when it would collapse. The New York Times called it a “monstrosity.” Other critics labeled it “Burnham’s Folly” and one likened it to “a stingy piece of pie.”

Years before the building went up, the triangular plot of land on which it stands was known as the “flat iron.” Once farmland, it later held the St. Germaine Hotel, then the Cumberland Apartments, whose northern face was regarded as prime advertising space and was used by The New York Times to promote itself as the repository of “all the news that’s fit to print.” The slogan appeared there, glowing in electric lights, before it was ever published in The Times.

Its first formal name was the Fuller Building, named for George A. Fuller, head of the construction company that built it. Fuller died in 1900, two years before the Flatiron was completed, but Fuller Construction maintained offices in the building for 20 years. In 1925, it moved uptown to the new Fuller Building at 57th Street and Madison Avenue. When it was completed, the Flatiron Building could be clearly seen from the 59th Street entrance to Central Park. Its street address is 175 Fifth Avenue, but mail addressed to “Flatiron Building” will reach its destination just as quickly. The Flatiron Building is a right-angle triangle, not an isosceles, as many people think. The 90-degree angle is at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 22nd Street. It once had a restaurant and observation deck, and was originally designed to hold a clock face, an idea that never reached fruition.

Its façade is rusticated limestone and glazed terra cotta. The monotony of its tall midsection is interrupted by undulating bays, a design influenced by trends introduced by Burnham at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It is also one of the first skyscrapers to use a steel skeleton. At its tip, the building is only 6.5 feet wide.

Two popular misconceptions: It is the oldest surviving skyscraper in Manhattan and when it was completed, it was the world’s tallest building. The Park Row Building on Ann Street is three years older and almost 100 feet higher. The building is credited in popular lore with inspiring the phrase “23 skidoo.” It became a New York City landmark in 1966 and a National Historic Landmark in 1989.

Its appearance as it cleaves the space where Broadway and Fifth Avenue intersect has been most often compared to a great ship as well as a symbol of an evolving young nation. As Alfred Stieglitz famously put it: “It appeared to be moving toward me like the bow of a monster ocean steamer – a picture of a new America in the making.”


Image via Windowsace

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