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.

Aug 11, 2015

St. James Building

In July, Rizzoli Bookstore opened after much anticipation on the ground floor of the St. James Building between 25th and 26th Streets. Rizzoli’s opening was followed by La Pecora Bianca’s inaugural dinner service on August 3rd, and soon INDAY, an Indian fast-casual concept, will complete the transformation of the ground floor retail at 1133 Broadway. With these new beginnings at the St. James Building, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership takes a look back at the history of 1133 Broadway, and its surrounding area.

The Broadway corridor once encompassed sites such as the world's first kinetoscope (an early motion picture device) parlor, at Broadway and 27th Street in 1874; the construction boom of high-profile hotels and theaters during the mid-1800's; and the rise of New York's earliest office skyscrapers at the beginning of the 20th century. The St. James Building figures among these pioneer/initial skyscrapers and is today owned and operated by Kew Management.

Constructed for the St. James Building Company of Philadelphia between 1896 and 1897, the 16-story plus penthouse property was designed by architect Bruce Price. A native of Maryland, the Princeton-educated Price was best known for creating "hotels, office buildings, churches, educational buildings, and residences," wrote the Madison Square North Historic Designation Report: New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in June 2001. 

"Price relocated his large and flourishing practice to the building, where the firm stayed through 1907," noted the Report about the location that would become a hub for noted architects such as "Daniel H. Burnham (1908), Aymar Embury (1907-11), J. August Lienau and the firm Lienau & Nash (1902-06), Henry C. Pelton (1898-1907), and John Russell Pope (1901-07)." According to the Report, the building was home to the "famous cigar store, the Havana Tobacco Company, [which] occupied the first floor in the early 20th century. Other tenants included merchants of woolen goods, hosiery, glass and china, as well as dolls and masonic articles."

Prior to the construction of the St. James Building, the fashionable St. James Hotel occupied the 1133 Broadway since the mid-19th century. The hotel was the "resort of the better class of sporting men, especially those interested in the turf," reported the King's Handbook of New York in 1893. However with a new century on the horizon, and the increasing shift of hotels and residential homes to Midtown and beyond, the area grew into a predominantly commercial business locale.

More than a century later, a vibrant real estate tradition on Broadway continues with a cross section of businesses that include The NoMad Hotel at 1170 Broadway and 28th Street; 10 Madison Square West condominiums; and now new neighbors, Rizzoli Bookstore, La Pecora Bianca and INDAY in street level retail spaces at the St. James Building. 

Image from "The Tall Buildings of New York." Munsey's Magazine. March 1898: 833-848. via Collecting Old Magazines.

Mar 31, 2015

212 Fifth Avenue

As 212 Fifth Avenue makes its move from commercial structure to luxury residential building, the BID takes a look back at the history of the 26th Street site whose diverse past occupants included a high-profile restaurant, a dance school, and a café.

The current building at 212 Fifth Avenue was built between 1912-1913 by the architectural firm Schwartz & Gross and is a 20-story, neo-Medieval style property with a steel frame and brick, limestone, and terra-cotta facing. It was constructed during one of Flatiron's major economic transition periods, with office space replacing a vast number of homes and hotels and redefining the area as primarily a business district. During this time Simon I. Schwartz and Arthur Gross, who met as students at the Hebrew Technical Institute in Lower Manhattan, designed not only lofts and offices in Flatiron but many of New York City's most recognizable apartment buildings during their nearly 40-year business partnership.

The reported cost construction for 212 Fifth Avenue was $1 million dollars and was promoted as a project that "will present an advance in many ways in the best store and office planning," according to the feature "A Newcomer on Madison Square" in the Real Estate Record and Builders Guide on March 22, 1913. The article also unveiled some of the site's details such as six high-speed passenger elevators, unobstructed floor plans on all stories that would be clear of columns, and each floor furnished with ice water. One of the building's earliest tenants was Exchange Buffet Lunch, which paid $300,000 to rent the entire basement for 10 years. Upper floor occupants included woolens firm S. Steen & Co. and clothier B. Kuppenheimer & Co.

Prior to the construction of the Schwartz & Gross design, other notable businesses of the time had called the site at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 26th Street home. One such business was the Dodworth Dancing Academy, which in the mid-19th century prepared many of the city's upper class and their children, reportedly including one young Flatiron resident and future US President -Theodore Roosevelt, for society balls. Participants were instructed in "series of measured steps that emphasized discipline for stately dances such as the court quadrille, the minuet, and the polonaise," according to City Folk book author Daniel J. Walkowitz. The facility had "reached the height of popularity as the nouveau riche wanted their children to acquire the proper cultural capital," wrote Hilary Levey Friedman in Playing to Win, however, "economic difficulties" forced the Academy to close.

In 1876, legendary New York City restaurant Delmonico’s opened in the then five-story brick property which featured "a café and table d'hote room sitting five hundred persons and eight private dining rooms decorated in various styles, from Japanese to Art Nouveau," according to the June 26, 2001 edition of the Madison Square North Historic Designation Report issued by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The invention of legendary dishes such as Eggs Benedict, Baked Alaska, and Lobster Newburg are attributed to Delmonico’s.

By 1899, Delmonico's decided to move farther north on Fifth Avenue to 44th Street, and their former site became a café when it was sold two years later to Martin Hotel owner John B. Martin. Café Martin was known as "the Frenchest French restaurant," wrote author William Grimes in his book Appetite City. The menu included "Marenne oysters, French sole, pre-sale lamb, and Bigareau cherries, as well as exotic international dishes like pilaf and moussaka. Best of all New Yorkers beginning to find Delmonico's just a little stuffy, was its 'polished suggestion of naughtiness.' The construction of Schwartz & Gross’ 212 Fifth Avenue replaced Café Martin and operated as a commercial office building for approximately a century.

In early 2015, it was announced that the building will be converted into a 48-unit residential condominium, including a tri-plex penthouse. The conversion is joint venture between Robert Gladstone’s Madison Equities, Joseph Sitt’s Thor Equities, and development and property manager Building and Land Technology (BLT).

Image via Thor Equities.

 

Jan 14, 2015

William Van Alen

While William Van Alen is best known as the architect behind Midtown Manhattan's iconic Chrysler Building, it was the Flatiron District where the innovative designer launched the blueprint for one of his earliest creations - the Albemarle office building at Broadway and 24th Street.

Van Alen was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1882. The aspiring architect attended public school and studied at Pratt Institute. At the age of 16, Van Alen landed his first job as an office boy with row house developer Clarence True, and later worked as a draftsman at the Hotel Astor in Times Square. 

For the next few years, Van Alen would design Classical Revival style tenements in Brooklyn while also studying his craft. He was awarded the Paris Prize in Architecture in 1908 by the Society of Beaux Arts Architects and decided to attend the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. In a 1930 edition of The American Architect, critic Kenneth Murchison characterized the upcoming Van Alen's thoughts as "No old stuff for me! Me, I'm new! Avanti!" 

Upon his return to New York City, Van Alen opened his Flatiron practice in the Metropolitan Life Tower in 1911. Three years later, he formed a partnership with another young designer, H. Craig Severance; however, the independent-minded Van Alen reportedly kept his distance with most colleagues. "I am not particularly interested in what my fellow men are doing," he once said. "I wish to do things original and not be misled by a lot of things that are being done by somebody else." 

Van Alen’s design for the Albemarle office building was built in 1915, where the 16-story property occupied the former site of two prominent hotels, the Hoffman House, and its neighboring annex, the Albemarle. In the mid-19th century, Flatiron had been known as a high-profile hotel hub that welcomed a diverse clientele who included actress Sarah Bernhardt, showman William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, and newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. But as the city entered the 20th century, most hotels were exiting the area to move uptown, and the area increasingly became a gateway for offices and showrooms, especially for toy marketers. Then dubbed "Toy Building North," the Albemarle is now known as 10 Madison Square West and is undergoing a transformation into luxury residential condominiums.

By 1924, Van Alen ended his 10-year partnership with Severance due to conflicts and found work as a designer of storefronts, restaurants, and prefabricated housing. But it would be a commission from auto icon Walter Chrysler in 1928 to construct a tall building that led to the architect's greatest achievement during the commercial real estate boom of the Roaring Twenties.

Described by a colleague as "the Ziegfeld of his profession," Van Alen's Art Deco Chrysler Building made its public debut in 1930. The property was then known as the world's tallest building before the arrival of the Empire State Building on New York City's skyline one year later. Initially, the Chrysler site made Van Alen's name a sought-after brand, but the lucrative demand was short-lived because of the decline in skyscraper development and the economic toll of the Great Depression. 

Van Alen died in 1954, and following the 1970 death of his wife Elizabeth, whom he married in 1916, half of the architect’s estate was bequeathed to the National Institute of Architectural Education (NIAE), formerly known as the Society of Beaux Arts Architects.  In 1995, the NIAE was renamed the Van Alen Institute to honor its benefactor.

These days, the Van Alen Institute is a nonprofit design collaborator of public programs and competitions and is located at 30 West 22nd Street in the Flatiron District. In December of 2014, a new street-level floor space was unveiled. The Institute’s mission is "to explore projects that improve people's lives," says Executive Director David van der Leer. "Today, we work in three clear strands to initiate, promote, and evaluate design ranging from cities to landscapes and regions. It's important to show all of the cool things design can do!"

Image via archhitectuul.com

Oct 29, 2014

Rubie's Costume Co.

Halloween 2014 is big business, with an anticipated record $2.8 billion in costume sales, reports the National Retail Federation, and one of the most prominent forces in costumes is located in the Flatiron District: Rubie's Costume Co.!

Billed as the world's largest designer, manufacturer, and distributor of Halloween items, Rubie's Costume Co. is offering more than 150 licensed products to retailers this holiday season. Guardians of the Galaxy and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 are among the many movie inspired costume collections featured in the company's Flatiron showroom at 1115 Broadway and 25th Street.

Howard Beige, Rubie's Executive Vice President, considers his company's 24,500 square foot, single-floor property one of the businesses that make Flatiron the "Halloween center of North America." Acquired in 2006, Rubie's showroom is used for the firm's global wholesale trade. "We meet and greet not only our U.S. customers, but customers from all around the world," says Beige. "Part of the appeal is the fact that other people in the Halloween industry also have offices in this building, so it is convenient for our customers to see multiple vendors while they are visiting."

Earlier this year, the company, which began as a mom-and-pop candy store operated by the Beige family in Queens more than 60 years ago, renewed its Flatiron showroom lease for five more years. "Rubie’s is very fond of this area for many reasons," notes Beige. "The building is only one block from where the Toy Building used to be located at 200 Fifth Avenue. All customers who were coming to that building for decades are very familiar with the local area and what it has to offer. It is a busy area in Manhattan, yet parking is still convenient, and there is less vehicle traffic than most other places in the vicinity. This is also a very nostalgic area with a lot of natural charm."

Image courtesy of Rubie's Costume Co.

Aug 13, 2014

Discover Flatiron: History of Learning at 127 East 22nd Street

To celebrate this year's back-to-school season, the BID takes a look at the Flatiron property where three innovative institutions of learning — Manhattan Trade School for Girls, Mabel Dean Bacon Vocational High School, and School of the Future (SOF) — got their start at 127 East 22nd Street and Lexington Avenue. 

Established in 1902, the Manhattan Trade School for Girls was the first of its kind in New York City. "The immediate purpose of the school was to train the youngest and poorest wage-earners to be self-supporting, as quickly as possible," wrote Director of Manhattan Trade School for Girls Mary Schenck Woolman in The Making of a Trade School (1909) about the year-round, tuition-free vocational school for young women who were primarily between the ages of 14 and 17. 

Support for the school was funded by philanthropists, through events such as polo matches and garden parties, for an educational curriculum that included the craft of dressmaking and use of the foot and electric power sewing machine. This type of instruction offered graduates a way to "someday allow them to leave the tenements behind," according to The New York Times in an October 9, 2007 review about the trade school's restored 1911 fund-raising film.

The first location for the school was a private home at 233 West 14th Street. On its first day, there were 20 students enrolled; within a few months, the school reached its 100 student capacity; and by September 1905, 169 students were enrolled. In 1906, it was forced to move to an office building at 209-213 East 23rd Street in order to accommodate the skyrocketing number of students, now 500 girls attending the school. Soon thereafter, a much larger space was in demand. And by 1915, the school, now under the jurisdiction of the City's Board of Education, relocated to a new site under construction at 127 East 22nd Street and Lexington Avenue.

Made of brick, limestone, and terra cotta, the building's costs were approximately $500,000, which included furnishings and equipment, reported the Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide on May 12, 1917. The designer of the 10-story Gothic style fire-proof structure was Charles B.J. Snyder, a Stillwater, New York native and noted architect of more than 300 New York public schools. He was also the City's Superintendent of School Buildings. By 1918, Snyder's Manhattan Trade School for Girls, equipped with a rooftop for recreation and classrooms for now more than 1,000 students, opened the doors at its third and final destination. 

For the next couples of decades, the School went through a series of brief name changes before its designation as Mabel Dean Bacon Vocational High School, where subject courses would now focus on practical nursing and cosmetology among others. With the changing times, however, the City's vocational schools had often received a reputation as "dumping grounds for less capable students lock-stepped into a trade while they were still too young," wrote The New York Times on May 8, 1973. 

The publication also cited the criticism of such schools as "expensive, incompetent and obsolete, sometimes teaching skills for jobs that longer exist." But according to the numbers, noted the paper, the schools proved to be operating at "120 per cent capacity, with far more applicants than they can accept." Two decades later, however, it would be budget cuts and changing priorities that would force Mabel Dean Bacon Vocational High School to close and be replaced by School of the Future in 1992.

Today, the School of the Future serves grades 6-12. The 700-plus student body, which is made up of boys and girls, who each receives a 21st century global curriculum of "rigorous academics geared toward college expectations," according to SOF's website. "The vision of our school is to help each student determine and reach their individual potential in math, science, humanities and the arts as well as social areas." 

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