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.

Jul 1, 2014

Metropolitan Life Clock Tower

The Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.’s Clock Tower has been gazing down upon Madison Square Park since 1909, a 700-foot column that once was the world’s highest timepiece as well as its tallest building. It held that title for four years, and even though it was eclipsed by the Woolworth Building in 1913, and later by many other skyscrapers, The Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.’s Clock Tower to this day is special among spires.

The 41-story structure, at 5 Madison Avenue between East 23rd and East 24th Streets, was designed by Napoleon LeBrun, an architect who was inspired by the Campanile di San Marco in Venice. (Oddly, the Clock Tower is actually older than its counterpart in Venice. The original Campanile was built in 1812, but unexpectedly collapsed in 1902. The exact replica that replaced it was completed in 1912 — three years after the Clock Tower sounded its first chimes.)

The clock itself is one of the largest four-dial timepieces in the world. Each of the four clock faces on the tower measures 26.5 feet in diameter. Each minute hand weighs half a ton. The tower’s original marble facing was replaced by limestone as part of a renovation in 1964.

In 2007, the Clock Tower got a new owner, only the third since it went up. It was originally built as an addition to the 11-story full-block office building that served as Met Life’s headquarters and that is now occupied almost entirely by Credit Suisse.

In 2005, the property was acquired from Met Life by S.L. Green, New York’s largest office landlord, for $918 million. Subsequently, Green brought in RFR Holdings and hotelier Ian Schrager as partners. In spring 2007, Africa Israel Investments Ltd. agreed to purchase the tower portion of the property for $200 million. The deal was Africa Israel’s third acquisition of a New York landmark within three months, the others being its purchase of the New York Times Building on West 43rd Street and the Apthorp Apartments, an iconic residential property on the Upper West Side.

Image via Kew Management

Jun 29, 2014

Discover Flatiron: 80's Flashback

As the iconic Flatiron Building marked its 25th anniversary as a National Historic Landmark on June 29, 2014, the BID takes a quick look back at the neighborhood in the 1980's. 

The year 1989 would prove to be a banner one for the Flatiron Building, one of the most recognized forms of architecture in the district and globally. The structure gained status as a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service on June 29, 1989. 

The building's landmark plaque describes the property as a site that "possesses national significance in commemorating the history of the United States of America." Designed by D. H. Burnham & Company of Chicago, the 22 story building was completed in 1902.
Today, the building is the center of one of New York's most dynamic neighborhoods, but what was the area like 25 years ago? Here, we highlight a few notable moments from the decade:
  • Danceteria was located at 30 West 21st Street from 1982 to 1986. It was the site of Madonna's debut performance at the disco, where she also worked as a coat-check girl. Scenes from the singer's breakthrough role in Desperately Seeking Susan, the 1985 romantic comedy featuring Rosanna Arquette and Aidan Quinn, were also filmed by director Susan Seidelman at 30 West 21st Street.
  • By the 1980's, the area was sometimes referred to as the Photo District, following the influx of photographers and artists who had sought out space for both living and working, due in part to the area's spacious, loft-like studios.
  • Flatiron had been the home of the International Toy Center since World War I. Connected by a pedestrian bridge, the buildings of 200 Fifth Avenue and 1107 Broadway reportedly had one million square feet of rental space occupied by 600 toy company tenants in the early 1980's. 
  • By mid-decade, an influx of "advertising agencies, small publishing houses, architects and design firms moved to the area in search of low rents and large spaces,"according to The New York Times. Real estate brokers reportedly adopted a more stylish moniker for the area, now to be known as the Flatiron District.
  • In the late 1980's, one-bedroom condominiums reportedly started at $240,000, with two-bedrooms around $360,000, while rentals ran from $1,100 to $1,600 for studio apartments, $1,600 to $2,600 for one-bedrooms, and $2,600 and up for two-bedrooms. 
  • An apartment of note: in 1986, a 2,000-square-foot duplex loft, with a 1,000-square-foot private roof, reportedly sold for $675,000. Two years later, the price tag had risen to $900,000, noted The New York Times on October 30, 1988.

Photo via @elektrovideo


Jun 10, 2014

Eternal Light Flagstaff

In honor of the June 14th observation of Flag Day, the BID takes a look back at the first illumination of the Eternal Light flagpole in Flatiron's Madison Square Park 90 years ago.

When the star-shaped luminaire atop the Eternal Light flagpole lit the evening sky above Madison Square Park, it marked a momentous memorial for America's military heroes on June 7, 1924. It would commemorate, according to the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation website, "those victorious forces of the United States Army and Navy who were officially received at this site following the armistice and the conclusion of World War I."  

For the Flatiron District, the structure had also become a notable destination highlight. Reported The New York Times on August 22, 1926, "The flagpole in the centre of the Fifth Avenue side of the Square gains point when seen from Madison Avenue across Twenty-fourth Street and acquires a dignity and meaning which none of its neighbors in the Square can boast."

Designed by high-profile architect Thomas Hastings, who built New York City's Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, and sculptor Paul Wayland Bartlett, the flagstaff project received a $25,000 commission from department store heir and PGA founder Rodman Wanamaker. The original Oregon pine pole was situated a top a base featuring a Milford pink granite ornamented bronze cap with images of rams heads and garlands. For a number of years, the light was serviced every 28 days, wrote The New York Times on November 14, 1999, and "it was dimmed intentionally in a blackout drill in 1942, then went dark for several days in 1957 because of a defective wire." After falling into disrepair, the memorial was removed in 1973, to be replaced with a steel flagpole in 1976.

In September 2002, the Eternal Light Star received an electrical update with assistance from the Department of Parks & Recreation, Con Edison, and Sentry Electric Corp., according to the Madison Square Park Conservancy website. The implementation of LED-based lighting, reported Electrical Construction & Maintenance magazine on December 9, 2002, would then support the star’s “unique and continuous lighting requirements” to honor the individuals who fought for America's freedom.

This year, the Madison Square Park Conservancy is working to relight the Flagstaff to mark the centennial of the outbreak of World War I.

Photo via the Madison Square Park Conservancy.

Apr 30, 2014

Ladies' Mile Marks 25 Years as Historic District

Known as the go-to shopping mecca mostly for women during the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, Ladies' Mile featured the finest in high fashion and goods in Flatiron and beyond. The area spanned 28 blocks, between 15th and 24th Streets, from Sixth Avenue to Park Avenue South.

Ladies' Mile emerged when retailers relocated from Lower Manhattan. By 1880, with the installation of the Sixth Avenue elevated train, or El, commerce thrived in Flatiron's Madison Square community and surrounding areas. Many wealthier patrons also arrived by private carriages that would reportedly "line the curb in quadruple lines." 

Blocks of Broadway featured noteworthy businesses such as Lord & Taylor and Arnold Constable. Sixth Avenue had become the major hub for department stores that included R.H. Macy, B. Altman, and Siegel-Cooper, which reportedly had 190,000 visitors a day and employed 8,000 clerks and 1,000 drivers and packers. 

However, shortly after the turn of the 20th century, retailers shifted to the city's next big site, Midtown Manhattan. It would be several decades before advocacy groups would commence a campaign to preserve Ladies' Mile as a historic district. Support came from a number of sources, which included the Historic Districts Council and walking tours to educate the public about the neighborhood's rich history. The promotion paid off in June 1986 when the Landmark Preservation Commission held open hearings for the designation of Ladies' Mile as landmark property.

Three years later, on May 2, 1989, Ladies' Mile was officially declared a historic district. The New York Times reported the next day that "the commission's unanimous vote ended a campaign waged by civic organizations and preservation advocates to insure that the structures from the gilded age between the Civil War and World War I would not be lost to modernity."

Anthony C. Wood, president of the Historic District Councils, told The New York Times, "The nice thing about landmark designation is that it solidifies in people's minds the notion of Ladies' Mile as a destination point, as something worthy of going to see for its own value. This is not only a celebration of the past, it enriches the future."

Photo via New York Preservation Archive Project

Mar 26, 2014

Isadora Duncan's District Dance Studio

As Women's History Month comes to a close, we take a look back at the opening of innovative dancer Isadora Duncan's studio 100 years ago in the Flatiron District.

With her signature style of Grecian-style gowns, flowing scarves, and bare feet, Isadora Duncan brought her method of improvisational dance to the global forefront during the early 20th century. Her expressive modern solo movements were choreographed, Duncan had said, as a way to "rediscover the beautiful, rhythmical motions of the human body." 

Early in her career, the San Francisco native, who was born on May 26, 1877, the youngest of four children to Joseph and Mary Duncan, took her passion to perform abroad after studying ballet and newly devised dance techniques throughout the United States. 

Duncan declared her relocation was due in part to American audiences who were falling in favor of pop culture dance steps such as the Charleston, the Fox Trot, and the Grizzly Bear. Wrote Ana Daly in Done in Dance: Isadora Duncan in America, "To Duncan, the dance mania that had seized New York between 1911 and 1915 was a dance of spasms and angles, not of grace and curves."

During this time, Duncan also had a mission to teach the young about her beloved craft. One of her troupes, Les Isadorables, performed at Duncan's Grunewald, Germany school. She later opened a Paris location, which closed due to the outbreak of World War I.

Duncan returned to America in 1914 along with some of her young performers and with plans to open a free dance school, possibly in Rye, New York. According to The New York Times on November 20, 1914, prospective students were to be selected by Duncan based on a "measure of good looks and an ear for music." However, it was Duncan's final decision that year to choose Flatiron as the site for her studio. Nicknamed "Dionysian," the studio at 303 Park Avenue South, on the northeast corner of 23rd Street and Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue South), would be her new dance home for the next several years. "To dance is to live," she once declared. "What I want is a school of life."

Feb 26, 2014

Local Cinematic History

This Sunday, March 2nd, the 86th Academy Awards will air on ABC at 8:30 p.m. EST. In honor of the occasion, we take a look at the history of filming in the Flatiron District.

On April 14, 1894, cinematic history in New York was about to be made in Flatiron. It was a springtime Saturday in the District when the first commercial motion picture to be seen through a Kinetoscope made its arrival in a storefront at 1155 Broadway, between 26th and 27th Streets. The Thomas Edison invention became a parlor attraction in the arcade comprised of 10 machines, which featured 15- to 20-secondfilmed images such as cock fights, horseshoeing, and blacksmiths.

A year later, the spotlight then shifted to an innovative movie crew, who invited boxing champs Albert "Young Griffo" Griffiths and "Battling" Charles Barnett to reenact scenes from their just fought May 4th match at Madison Square Garden, then located in the Flatiron District. The filmmakers included patriarch Woodville Latham and his sons, Gray and Otway, who served as the movie's director. The team headed to the Garden's rooftop at 27th Street and Madison Avenue, where their new projector invention named the Pantoptikon was introduced and used for the four-minute documentary shoot.

"Although Thomas Edison already had been quoted denouncing the Lathams' projection efforts as a legal infringement on his Kinetoscope, the firm rushed [the movie] to market in New York," wrote Dan Streible in his book Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema. Sixteen days later, on May 20th, came the celluloid release of Young Griffo v. Battling Charles Barnett. The film premiered to a paying public in Lower Manhattan at a makeshift storefront theater.

Four decades later, The New York Times on January 19, 1936 reported that "the Latham Pantoptikon rescued the movies from the penny arcades and raised them to the dignity of the nickelodeon." And, according to Fight Pictures author Dan Streible, the role of the fight film "emerged as the first genre of moving pictures to be distinguished by special forms of production and presentation. In the 1890s, prizefighting and filmmaking shared a milieu: an urban, male community known to its contemporaries as the 'sporting and theatrical' world."