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.

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."

Jan 15, 2014

23rd Street Subway Mural

National Hat Day is January 15th. Here's our brief look back at the District's historical role in the mosaic glass tile hats that now appear on the platform walls of the 23rd Street and Broadway N/R subway stop.

To pay homage to Flatiron's era as a fashion and cultural hub from the 1880s through the 1920s, award-winning graphic designer Keith Godard created "Memories of Twenty-Third Street" in 2002. The mosaic glass tile installation depicts hats in styles that may have been worn by notables who reportedly visited the area a century ago. "I've actually had people say, when you get off the R train, get off at the hat stop," noted the British-born and former 23rd Street resident Godard in an online interview.

The eclectic lineup of celebrity toppers include then First Lady of New York Eleanor Roosevelt, Oscar winner Ethel Barrymore, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, novelist Henry James, actress Sara Bernhardt, arts patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, composer Scott Joplin, soprano Lillian Russell, journalist Nellie Bly, suffragist Maud Nathan, and illusionist Harry Houdini. 

Selected from an open call held by the MTA's Arts for Transit and Urban Design program, Godard has acknowledged his tile inspiration came from research findings that many of the men and almost all the women wore hats as outerwear during that time.  

Declared Godard in an MTA.info interview, "In addition to bringing back memories of the specific time period and people and appealing to the viewers on a more common level as fascinating hats, this design can also serve as an interactive, playful, and witty landmark."

The images also incorporate the actual height of the individual who would have worn a specific hat. Added the artist, "As a diversion, passengers waiting for the subway train might try to picture people on the opposite platform wearing the hats they are standing beneath!"

Nov 1, 2013

Diana

This week, we celebrate the debut of Diana, the statue that stood atop Madison Square Garden from 1893 - 1925 in the Flatiron District.

The 13-foot tall nude sculpture of Diana often attracted gasps and whistles from onlookers. In addition, her "perch was so high that she was the first thing the sun's rays touched at dawn and the last at the fall of night," wrote Burke Wilkinson in his book Uncommon Clay about the Augustus Saint Gaudens weathervane copper statue that made her entrance 120 years ago on November 18th at Madison Square Garden's 26th Street Flatiron location.

Garden architect Stanford White considered his vision of Diana, which depicted the Roman goddess of the moon, a beacon and pinnacle marketing tool for the $3 million, 12,000-seat venue. The sweeping arc lights and incandescent lamps surrounding Diana also alerted those in the District and beyond about ongoing Garden events. Commissioned by his friend White for the project, Saint Gaudens had created an 18-foot version of the statue in 1891, but it proved to be, according to Wilkinson, "out of proportion to the slender summit of the tower" where Diana would stand for the next three decades.

During Diana's tenure at the top, she gained the nickname "Diana the Huntress," as well as a following among some celebrities who regarded her as a lucky charm. Oscar-winning actress Ethel Barrymore reportedly carried a small bronze replica of Diana, while lightweight boxing champ Benny Leonard glanced up at Diana hoping for a win in the arena.

Diana's own good fortune at the Garden, however, ended in 1925 when the property was demolished to make way for the New York Life Insurance Company building. Later that year, a new Garden would open in Midtown Manhattan on Eighth Avenue, between 49th and 50th Streets.

Placed in a Brooklyn storage warehouse and wrapped in burlap, it took several years before Diana would be unveiled again. The Philadelphia Museum of Art persuaded then Diana's legal owner, the New York Life Insurance Company, to sell the statue to the cultural institution, where she has been on display at the top of the museum's Great Stair since 1932.