Richard Sloat
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The New York Times, Friday, May 3, 2002
Antiques section: "Location, Location and Shape"
by Wendy Moonan

The Flatiron Building was certainly not New York's first skyscraper, but it has outlived most of its contemporaries, and its distinctive wedge shape has helped ensure its special place in the cityscape ever since its opening in 1902. The New York Historical Society is celebrating this landmark with "Building on the Flatiron: The Centenary of a New York Icon, 1901-2002," until Aug. 31.

The exhibition includes materials from the society's collection that have never been published or displayed before, along with whimsical Flatiron memorabilia: cast-iron banks, souvenir spoons and a sampling of the 500 postcards that have depicted the building over the years.

Long before there was an Empire State Building, the Flatiron came to stand for New York. It was in advertisements for the Southern Pacific Railroad and on the covers of cigar boxes and popular sheet music. Robert Bracklow, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen photographed it, and painters immortalized it.

"It holds a place in the history of American Art," said Carol Willis, the director of the Skyscraper Museum in New York. "It is so aesthetic, and beautiful the way it stands there against the sky. We see it as a silhouette, an independent building, separate and distinct." Or as Stieglitz once said, "It's like the bow of a monster ocean steamer -- a picture of a new America still in the making."

Roberta Olson, the Historical Society's associate curator of drawings, pointed out: "It became synonymous with New York and glamour. It was equated with modernism."

The Flatiron Building may look like a household steam iron, but its name comes from its site. "The land was always referred to as the flat iron because of its shape," said Ms. Olson, who organized the show with Valerie Komor, head of the society's department of prints, photographs and architectural collections.

The wedge-shaped piece of land on 23rd Street where Broadway and Fifth Avenue cross was once farmland. An 1866 oil by Alex Matthew, "The Madison Cottage," depicts a large farmhouse that was moved there in 1839 and later became an inn. The area rapidly evolved and became the center of the theater district. In 1853, Franconi Schottisch built a 10,000-seat hippodrome there. It was torn down in 1856 to make way for the Fifth Avenue Hotel (demolished in 1909), which was the northern border of Ladies Mile, a smart shopping district stretching north from 14th Street, bounded by Broadway and Sixth Avenue. An anonymous photograph from 1901 captures a throng of carriages in front of the Stern Brothers department store: here, truly, was the carriage trade.

By the 1860's, the site was also a transportation hub, a beehive of coaches, cabs and public hacks. An anonymous gelatin silver print from 1896, "The Cowcatcher Building at Broadway and 23rd Street," shows the ticket offices of the Erie Railroad and Wells Fargo on the northern, or cowcatcher, point of the building. Nearby were the depots of the New York and Harlem and the New York, New Haven and Hartford railroads (later the site of Madison Square Garden).

In 1900, Samuel Newhouse, a New York developer, bought the land to build a modern office building. He hired Daniel H. Burnham, who had been an architectural consultant to the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and was part of the Chicago School of Architecture. Burnham's genius was to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the stand-alone site. Following his motto, "Make no little plans -- they have not the power to stir men's blood," Burnham chose a noble geometric form and then raised it 21 stories.

"What the Flatiron does is go beyond being simply a tall building; it's a new aesthetic type," said Thomas Mellins, a New York architectural historian. "It transforms a tall loft building into a skyscraper by virtue of the site, a full block that borders a park and is at the intersection of two broad streets, and functions as a free-standing tower. Though the use of historical vocabulary is not new, the way the facades are handled celebrates its height. It seems to soar, like a beacon or a secular campanile for the city. It starts to do something radically different."

The engineers were the George A. Fuller Company of Chicago, which moved to the building in 1903. "Even though the limestone and terra-cotta facade has a French Renaissance architectural vocabulary, it was the latest in steel construction," said Ms. Olson of the Historical Society.

The Flatiron Restaurant and the observation deck made the building a popular meeting spot. "You could see the Statue of Liberty and get a panoramic view of the whole city from the deck," Ms. Olson noted.

The building was also the embarkation point for the See New York company. "People would take a tour and have lunch," Ms. Olson said, pointing out the exhibition's display of china, linens and silverware from the short-lived restaurant.

The Flatiron was initially criticized by some. "It stands there as an example of the greed of the corporation controlling it and owning it," the artist Charles Lamb wrote in 1903. "Architecturally, it is unfit to be in the center of the city."

Nonetheless, it immediately became a favorite pictorial subject for artists. Steichen's 1904 photograph "The Flatiron" shows it in the fog, seen behind barren tree limbs and the silhouette of a man in a top hat. When the building was criticized, he famously responded, "The Flatiron is to the United States as the Parthenon is to Greece."

An anonymous 1915 photo shows how it stood out apart from its neighbors. Its isolation did have one negative: the building created strong wind drafts. Those may be what inspired Richard Sloat's woodblock print "Not So Flatiron," which portrays the building as an animated belly dancer. The wind is memorialized again in John Sloan's "Dust Storm, Fifth Avenue" (1906) and a cartoon of policemen shouting "23-skidoo" to men ogling women's ankles as hems were kicked up. "People even sued for damages caused by the wind," Ms. Olson said. "One man was blown into Fifth Avenue and killed."

In recent years, the Flatiron has become a prestigious address for publishers like Springer Verlag and St. Martin's Press. It was landmarked in 1966 and renovated in 1990. "Eternal Light, Madison Square," a 1937 etching by Edith Nankivell in the show, depicts a large star mounted on a 115-foot pole on Fifth Avenue with the Flatiron in the background. Designed by William Hastings of Carrère & Hastings, the glass star was installed in 1923 to commemorate the heroes of World War I. Last month, Con Edison removed it because it wasn't functioning well. Peter Jacobson, a lighting specialist with Con Ed, said they were upgrading the star and it should be up by Memorial Day.

This show, while not large, does explain how one building captured the public's imagination and never lost it.

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