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 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

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