Architectural richness and the romance of a time gone by help to define today’s Flatiron District. Since April 2007, the BID staff has been highlighting the area’s most historic structures as well as some of the people and businesses that have either thrived here for decades or are noteworthy for other reasons.

Oct 26, 2016

Armory Murals Mark 80th Anniversary

When artist Earl Lonsbury painted nearly 1,000 square feet of oil on canvas murals in 1936, the yearlong project was a labor of heroic love. The Bayonne, New Jersey native was commissioned to create a series of reenactments from the 69th Regiment's most notable missions for their Lexington Avenue Armory headquarters, between 25th and 26th Streets, in the Flatiron District.

Lonsbury was employed by the Federal Art Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration, a relief agency established for Depression-era artists by President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal program. During this period, more than 118,000 paintings, sculptures, and murals were produced for public facilities such as libraries, post offices, and armories.

"A series of timeless, priceless murals," notes Bert Cunningham, the Lexington Avenue Amory's Regimental Historian and a former 69th Regiment officer, about the featured images in the 1906 Beaux Arts building. "Generations of Regiment members, veterans, families, and the public have viewed the early saga of America’s most famous military unit of Irish heritage." 

Initially formed in 1849, the 1st Battalion 69th Infantry was comprised of Irish immigrants. By 1851, the unit had become part of the New York State Militia and officially named the 69th Regiment. The soldiers soon gained recognition as "the heart of the historic Irish Brigade of the Union Army" during major Civil War battles, including Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1862, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1863. Confederate General Robert E. Lee reportedly dubbed the Regiment "The Fighting 69th," and Hollywood subsequently used the name as the title for a 1940 James Cagney film based on the troop's service during World War I.

Lonsbury's role as Regiment storyteller appears on four basement walls in the Armory's designated Mural Room. His portrait of Marye's Heights on the East wall "depicts the Irish Brigade, including the 69th, led by General Thomas F. Meagher, making one of its six frantic dashes against withering Confederate musket and cannon fire from the sunken road and heights above the line at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862," describes Cunningham. "The Irish fought valiantly and lost many, but did not breech the defense. The Confederates hailed their fearlessness."

The West wall features Battle of the Ourcq. "It was at this battle in France, in July 1918, in which [Trees poet and 69th Regiment enlistee] Joyce Kilmer was killed by a sniper while out scouting the battle area," says Cunningham. "This was also the battle where Father Francis P. Duffy was actively out on the battlefield pulling in wounded soldiers to safety and for medical attention, which was in violation of Army regulations prohibiting chaplains from being at the battlefront. Father Duffy was always at the battlefront with the troops, which is one of the reasons he was so admired." 

The mural scenes on the South wall are The Wheatfield at Gettysburg in 1863, a New York welcome home parade in 1865, Camp Life in Tampa, Florida, during the 1898 Spanish-American War activation, and Over There, which is the largest of those panels, explains Cunningham. "It shows the infantry being transported in November 1917 to France on the S.S. America, once the luxury German passenger liner Amerika, which was impounded in a U.S. port at the outbreak of  World War I in 1914."

The three panels on the North wall, Lexington, Valley Forge, and Yorktown, "capture the Militia's role, later in history to become what is now the citizen soldiers of the National Guard, in the American Revolution," reveals Cunningham, who also conducts the Armory's appointment only tours. "All the murals are unique treasures and we need to have them preserved, restored, and kept in the best shape possible for future generations. I have a true love for the Regiment and its history and I enjoy sharing it with others."

Image: Battle of the Ourcq mural
 
Image Credit: Photograph by Steve Shilling,
Steve Shilling Media.
Sep 21, 2016

September 20, 2016 - 50th Anniversary of Flatiron Building Landmarking

Built in 1902 and initially called the Fuller Building, because of financial support by construction company owner and architect George A. Fuller, it was the building’s similar appearance to a traditional laundry flat iron that launched its name change to what we know it by today – the Flatiron Building. At the time, initial reviews of its architecture and design were mixed. "None more remarkable," declared The New-York Tribune; a "monstrosity" said The New York Times. However, it would be ongoing public sentiment for the Beaux Arts building throughout decades that led the then newly created Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to convene a public hearing in 1966 to determine the property's architectural relevance.

 

"As seen from the north, it has been compared, by many writers, to a great ship sailing up the Avenue," wrote LPC in the March 8, 1966 hearing report. "Whether seen at night, reflected in the glistening pavement during a thundershower, or fighting for its life in a blizzard, it has a quality of directional motion with its prow-like mass towering above the beholder. It is a building whose walls are covered with ornament, not one square inch remaining flush and plain."

 

During the Commission's hearing, just three witnesses spoke in favor of landmarking, with no testimony in opposition. In addition, a letter presented by the building's then owner, Flatiron Associates, headed by real estate developer Harry Helmsley, also expressed agreement for the designation.

 

On September 20, 1966, the Commission officially granted the Flatiron Building with New York City landmark status by stating, "On the basis of a careful consideration of the history, the architecture, and other features of this building, the Flatiron Building has a special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City." The Commission also noted, "At some time in the future this building may be in jeopardy. Our designation will be especially helpful in alerting New York City's elected representatives in Washington the importance of saving this building."

 

LPC is nation's largest municipal preservation agency and was created in 1965 due to the increasing demise of distinctive New York City properties. Today, the Flatiron Building is one of 1,364 individual landmarks in New York City. As an example of LPC’s forward thinking for the preservation of the building, it was not until 1979 that it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1989, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

               

Jun 29, 2016

Delmonico's 140th Anniversary

In anticipation of the semiannual Restaurant Week promotion, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership takes a look at the former site of the legendary Delmonico's. In 1837, the Swiss-born owners opened in the country's first restaurant in Lower Manhattan before débuting a subsequent Greenwich Village location in 1862 and then, in 1876, relocating to this neighborhood. September 2016 marks the 140th anniversary of the opening of the 26th Street location.

Delmonico's is known for its classic chef creations such as Eggs Benedict, Baked Alaska, and Lobster Newburg, and now-common “inventions” that included printed menus and private dining rooms for patrons. "No noblemen of England--no Marquis of the ancienne noblesse--was ever better served or waited on in greater style than you will be in the private room at Delmonico's," reported The New York Times on January 1, 1859 about the Lower Manhattan location. "The lights will be brilliant, the waiters will be curled and perfumed and gloved, the dishes will be strictly en régle and the wines will come with the precision of clock-work that has been duly wound up."

By the mid-19th century, the area around Madison Square was flourishing as New York City's residential and social hub for the wealthy and high-profile visitors who stayed at the neighborhood's luxury hotels. Many were also Delmonico's devotees. The restaurant decided to leave their Greenwich Village venue at 14th Street and Fifth Avenue and reopen at 26th Street between Broadway and Fifth Avenue in the heart of what is now the Flatiron District.

The new restaurant would occupy a five-story brick building, which had previously housed a dance studio. Neighborhood-native and future U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt once took lessons there as a boy, wrote William Grimes in Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York. "A renovation... reestablished the note of elegance," explained Grimes, "and without missing a beat, the Delmonicos were open for business yet again."  

Prolific architect Griffith Thomas, co-creator of the 1859 Fifth Avenue Hotel between 23rd and 24th Streets, was in charge of Delmonico's redesign. An end lot on the narrow block accommodated a blueprint showcasing 155 feet of frontage on 26th Street, 56 feet on Fifth Avenue, and 60 feet on Broadway. "The first, second, and third floors will be given up to gastronomic uses," stated The American Architect and Building News on March 25, 1876. In addition, the proposed construction plans featured a 36 x 70-foot street café, 33 x 60-foot restaurant, and several dining halls, the largest of which measured 25 x 57 feet.

"This Delmonico's was the grandest of all," noted Robert P. Marzec in The Mid-Atlantic Region: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Regional Cultures. The lavish location not only occupied the entire south side of the street, but offered extraordinary views. "The windows overlooked a lawn," said Marzec, "that served as a foreground for the trees and flower beds of Madison Square."

And the property's interior décor was equally impressive. "On the first floor of the restaurant, silver chandeliers hung from a frescoed ceiling, mirrors lined each wall, and the furniture was all mahogany" remarked Marzec. "The second floor housed a ballroom, decorated in red and gold, and four private dining rooms, each decorated in a different color of satin. More dining rooms and a banquet hall, each decorated in different colors and styles, were on the third floor, and living quarters for a few single men and restaurant employees, as well as storage rooms and laundry, could be found on the top two floors."

When Delmonico's made its debut alongside Madison Square on September 11, 1876, "For a while, the outlook was foreboding: the morning patronage was thin, and there were empty tables at luncheon," according to Lately Thomas in Delmonico's: A Century of Splendor. "But with the cocktail hour, patrons began to crowd in, until both restaurant and cafe were filled, and the verdict was–a complete success."

Delmonico's would also be the site of numerous elite events, including cotillions where "many of the belles of the ‘Four Hundred’ have made their débuts," wrote Moses King about the area's young socialites in King's Handbook of New York City: An Outline History and Description of the American Metropolis. "The place is the social centre of the wealthy and exclusive portion of New York." 

By the end of the 19th century, New York City's cultural destinations were continuing their relentless march northward towards what is now considered “Midtown.” And once again, Delmonico's took a cue from its customers. The self-described "first fine dining restaurant in the country" closed the doors of its much-celebrated Madison Square location in 1899, outpaced by its newer, two-year-old cousin at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue.

Image via The Illustrated American.

May 23, 2016

Big Apple Barbecue Block Party

Billed as the nation’s largest culinary and music festival featuring the best in barbecue, the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party will make its annual return to Madison Square Park from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on June 11th and 12th, 2016. At the 2015 event, more than 125,000 diners devoured 14,000 pounds of ribs and 7,500 pounds of pork! And to date, that savory taste has earned more than $1.3 million in proceeds for the Park's Conservancy.

A total of 14 pitmasters and chefs from across the nation plan to participate, including Executive Chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois of Blue Smoke in the Flatiron District. "We are most excited to showcase the next chapter for Blue Smoke with an awesome chicken option this year, our smoked Alabama White Wings!" says Bourgeois. "The jumbo chicken wings are first brined, seasoned and then smoked before they’re grilled and sauced. The result is an extremely moist chicken wing with subtle heat and tons of umami. Get excited--these wings are not to be missed!”  

Admission to the event is free; a plate of barbecue costs $10. All food, beer, wine, sides, and dessert are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Extra-hungry visitors can purchase a limited number of expedited service tickets—the FastPass (starting at $125) and Big Wig VIP Pass (from $275). In addition, diners will be entertained with live music performances, activities for children, and product demonstrations.

The Big Apple Barbecue Block Party was merely a single-block event when it began in 2003. Restaurateur Danny Meyer and his team launched the event in front of their palace to Southern cuisine, Blue Smoke, on 27th Street between Park Avenue South and Lexington Avenue. Meyer leads Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) as its Chief Executive Officer.

“It’s hard to imagine today, but when Blue Smoke opened in 2002, New York City was unfamiliar with the world of barbecue," recalls Mark Maynard-Parisi, USHG's Senior Managing Partner and a Big Apple Barbecue Block Party co-founder. "We wanted to share with NYC the hospitality, spirit, food, and music we had experienced in our travels throughout the South. We asked some of our new barbecue friends and mentors to come to Manhattan to show New Yorkers their craft. It took some serious arm-twisting, but that first year was magical. And despite two days of torrential rain, we served over 6,000 people!”

The growing success of the event compelled Union Square Hospitality Group to relocate its party a few blocks over to Madison Square Park in 2005. "We realized there was an even greater appetite for ‘cue than we had anticipated," says Maynard-Parisi, "and we really wanted to ask more pitmasters to join us. By that time, the event had already garnered serious press, not to mention a cult following. So we decided to double the event’s size."

And the expansion also proved to be a game-changer, notes Maynard-Parisi. "We were able to include more [culinary] regions, different styles of barbecue, and even some sweets," he explains. "More participants also meant more funds raised for the Madison Square Park Conservancy! There is nothing like cooking in the shadow of the Flatiron, MetLife, and Empire State Buildings, and we’re thrilled to see the Conservancy running the event this year.” Adds Bourgeois, “I expect this year to be the greatest block party to date! I’m most looking forward to the mix of old and new pitmaster friends. It’s a great indication of how this event has grown and evolved!"

Image via Brian Killian/Getty Images.

May 18, 2016

The Center for Book Arts

As the first-ever nonprofit in the country dedicated to cultivating the book as an art object and preserving traditional bookmaking techniques, the Center for Books Arts has been a bestseller since 1974. "The book is a malleable object that can be engaged in an extraordinary amount of ways," says Anne Muntges, Education and Studio Manager, at the Center's 28 West 27th Street loft in the Flatiron District. "From formats like pop-up to adding electronics to pages or even using nontraditional materials like fabric for pages, there are many ways to play with the book."

A variety of Center activities are open to the public Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. "We offer workshops weekly that teach our core curriculum, where we highlight techniques of bookbinding and letterpress printing, and weekend classes focus on special projects like making cards or special bindings," notes Muntges. "Our instructors are extraordinary artists who, in addition to their teaching, have vibrant practices with works in major collections across the world. We also have rotating exhibitions in our gallery space, which is surrounded by an active artist workspace, so there is always something happening here."

The 5,000 square-foot facility features equipment such as a complete letterpress print shop with six Vandercook proof presses, a 19th century Washington hand press, a composing room with cabinets of foundry type, a Charles Brand etching press, and a 36-inch guillotine paper cutter. In addition, there are two binderies that include nipping presses, standing presses, two board shears, and a three-ton Kensol hot stamping machine. Printmaking artist books and a fine arts collection of artist books and prints are a number of the reference materials available at the Center's on-site library.

Business began on a much smaller scale for the Center when it debuted as a Greenwich Village storefront at 15 Bleecker Street. A decade later in 1984, it relocated to nearby 626 Broadway, before moving to the Flatiron District in 1999. Since then, the Center has occupied the third floor of a 12-story office property constructed between 1908 and 1909 by the architectural firm of Neville & Bagge. The August 28, 1909 edition of the Real Estate Record and Builders Guide indicated that one of the building's initial owners was S&H Green Stamps, a business co-founded by a gentleman named Thomas A. Sperry.

Now, more than a century later, the Flatiron community and its properties still appeal to many. "We love the vibrancy of this neighborhood and look forward to being a part of it for years to come," declares Muntges. "We are close to the Chelsea art district. We like being a link between that space and serving the art scene in Flatiron. It is also great to be in close proximity to places like Rizzoli Bookstore, the National Museum of Mathematics, and colleges like the New School and the Fashion Institute of Technology." And, adds Muntges, the Center plans to offer free bookmaking sessions on the Flatiron Plaza this summer. "If you see our table," she says, "stop by, make a book, and find out what’s going on at the Center!"

To learn more about workshops at the Center for Book Arts, click here. To see their schedule of exhibitions, click here.

Images via the Center for Book Arts.

Mar 29, 2016

Pen and Brush

In celebration of Women's History Month, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership takes a look at Pen and Brush, the only global non-profit to offer a broader spotlight on the works of emerging women artists and writers. Pen and Brush recently moved into their new state-of-the-art gallery in Flatiron at 29 East 22nd Street.

 

In 1893--nearly three decades before American women were granted the right to vote—Pen and Brush launched in the New York painting studio of sisters Janet and Mary Lewis. The organization began as small informal meetings for women in the literary and visual arts. By 1894, its growth led to its first official gathering at Flatiron's Fifth Avenue Hotel on 23rd Street.

 

"We believe that art and literature created by women deserves to be recognized and valued on its merit–not judged by the gender of the maker," notes Janice Sands, Pen and Brush's Executive Director. "We aim to debunk the misconceptions that there isn’t enough consistent or compelling work by women artists and writers. We showcase visual art, poetry, and literary fiction that has been selected by industry influencers simply because it’s outstanding work, and not because it was created by a woman." 

 

Pen and Brush's innovative vision has attracted high-profile membership throughout its 123-year history. Two U.S. First Ladies--Eleanor Roosevelt (wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt) and Ellen Axson Wilson (the first wife of President Woodrow Wilson)--joined the group, as did Nobel and Pulitzer Prize literature winner Pearl S. Buck and award-winning photographer Margaret Bourke White. Writer Ida Tarbell, the investigative journalism pioneer, also served as the president of Pen and Brush president for 30 years.  

 

In 1923, the organization secured its first permanent headquarters at 16 East 10th Street in an Italianate-style townhouse. "It was a gracious building and connected us in a concrete way, no pun intended, to the history of the organization," recalls Sands. "It was a beautiful example of one aspect of the social and cultural environment at the time of Pen and Brush’s founding–beautiful parquet floors, elaborate ceiling moldings, and a great library, originally built as a chapel in the Gothic style." Despite these qualities, says Sands, the property "was a residential building that limited the number of works that could be properly displayed," and subsequently compelled Pen and Brush’s move to the Flatiron District during the fall of 2015. 

 

Former home of Pen and Brush on 10th StreetThe former home of Pen and Brush on 10th Street.

 

The 5,500 square-foot space Pen and Brush now occupies is a commercial property constructed in 1907. Area architect and original owner Frederick C. Zobel designed the structure as well as numerous buildings throughout the Ladies' Mile Historic District in the early 1900s, according to a New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission Designation Report issued in 1989. Zobel's plans for the 12-story store- and loft-building included a "structure to be of steel frame, concrete arches and terra cotta block partitions," wrote Real Estate Record and Builders Guide in 1906.

 

For Sands, the current Flatiron location "offers us fully-accessible street-level visibility with our floor-to-ceiling glass storefront, and more than four times the exhibition space on two levels." And, she adds, "The space is also over 100 years old, and we were able to bring out the wonderful industrial structure by keeping the integrity of the space with exposed riveted-steel columns, original brick walls, and a fabulous 30-foot skylight across the back of the space. What’s more, we enjoy a great volume of the space thanks to the 15-foot ceiling height."

 

Opening night of Pen and Brush's new location at 29 East 22nd StreetPen and Brush's opening night at 29 East 22nd Street. Image via Manny Fernandez.

 

In April 2016, Pen and Brush will unveil a cutting-edge exhibition titled "Broad Strokes," featuring 15 outstanding female artists. "Josephine Barreiro, known for her dynamic paintings and her love for graffiti art, will create a live performance painting right inside our gallery space," explains Sands about the opening reception on April 1st. "The show will celebrate women artists, the richness and diversity of their strokes, and the boldness and feistiness of 'broads' in their creativity and self-expression." 

 

One special VIP at the event may be the ghost who once occupied Pen and Brush's former home in Greenwich Village. "We occasionally heard it walking up the staircase and moving something across the floors of the upper rooms," remembers Sands.  Laughing, she adds, "Now, we hear it going around randomly flushing the toilets. We think it's the energy of thousands of women making sure we know gender equity is not yet achieved and we have work to do!"

Image via Manny Fernandez.