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 23, 2020

Discover Flatiron: Ackerman Institute for the Family and The Audre Lorde Project

As we enter the last week of  Pride Month 2020, and in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership looks back at the early history of two notable neighborhood organizations that provide support to members of the LGBTQIA+ community as a whole, as well as to the  Black LGBTQIA+ community specifically–the Ackerman Institute for the Family and Audre Lorde Project.

When the Ackerman Institute for the Family relocated from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to the Flatiron District in 2006, it pledged continued support in “developing clinical projects that focus on specific populations” at their state-of-the-art facility, according to their website ackerman.org. Located at 936 Broadway, between 21st and 22nd Streets, one of the Institute’s current projects is the Gender & Family Project (GFP), which was initiated in 2010.

The Ackerman Institute is reportedly one of the best-known and highly-regarded non-profit training facilities for family therapists. Founded in 1960 by Dr. Nathan W. Ackerman, who had practiced traditional analysis, he later made an innovative clinical choice to switch to the practice of seeing patients and their family members together in a group session. This method was, in part, instrumental in the formation of Ackerman Institute projects such as GFP.

“GFP empowers youth, families and communities by providing gender affirmative services, training and research,” according to the Institute. The project “promotes gender inclusivity as a form of social justice in all the systems involved in the life of the family.” The Institute also “provides comprehensive multidisciplinary services for gender expansive children, transgender adolescents, their families and communities,” which includes “support groups for caregivers, grandparents, siblings and family members, family therapy and parental coaching, and affirmative psychological and gender evaluation.”

In acknowledgement of the Ackerman Institute’s outstanding supportive achievements, a Proclamation was announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio to designate the date of April 16, 2018 as the Ackerman Institute’s Gender & Family Project Day in the City of New York. “The Ackerman Institute’s Gender & Family Project does incredible work to support transgender and gender expansive youth and promote family and community acceptance of all young people,” said NYC First Lady Chirlane McCray, who launched the NYC Unity Project in 2017, New York City’s first-ever, multi-agency strategy to deliver services that address the challenges of LGBTQ youth.

Now, more than ever, the Ackerman Institute stands committed “to ending violence against the trans community, outlawing conversion therapy, and call out the excessive policing and force against the LGBTQIA+ community. Committed to social justice, we stand in solidarity with the Black community at the Ackerman Institute and the world over. As family therapists, our ethics demand that we care about all people, all families, and act towards social justice. We must demand that Black lives matter and take action, especially those of us who sit with White privilege. We simply cannot be silent.” ⠀

And in 2010, the same year that the Ackerman Institute launched its Gender & Family Project, the Audre Lorde Project opened their Manhattan location at 147 West 24th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, near the Flatiron District. Lorde’s Project is best known as a community organizing center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two Spirit, Trans and Gender Non Conforming (LGBTSTGNC) People of Color in New York City.

Harlem, New York native Audre Lorde was a globally-acclaimed and self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Her writing dealt primarily with issues such as feminism, lesbianism, and black female identity. Lorde once said, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal, and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”

The Audre Lorde Project was created two years after the writer’s death in 1992. The Lorde Project “was first brought together by Advocates for Gay Men of Color, a multi-racial network of gay men of color HIV policy advocates, in 1994. The vision for ALP grew out of the expressed need for innovative and unified community strategies to address the multiple issues impacting LGBTSTGNC People of Color communities.” ALP moved into its first location, the Fort Greene, Brooklyn parish house of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1996, followed by a second location on West 24th Street in Manhattan in 2010.

“While the Audre Lorde Project will keep its church-housed Fort Greene space as a satellite,” wrote Time Out New York on September 9, 2010, “it expects its newly visible, handicap-accessible, closer-to-more-subways home to significantly broaden its reach.” Some of the events held by the Lorde Project’s new 24th Street location included TransJustice Campaign meetings.

TransJustice is a political group created by and for Trans and Gender Non-conforming people of color. “TransJustice works to mobilize its communities and allies into action on the pressing political issues they face, including gaining access to jobs, housing, and education; the need for Trans-sensitive healthcare, HIV-related services, and job-training programs; and resisting police, government and anti-immigrant violence.” 

In November 2019, however, the Audre Lorde Project announced that the organization would now operate out of one office, their location in Brooklyn. During the months of December 2019 and January 2020, the Lorde Project organized a self-described “moving party” and provided food and MetroCards to all those who offered their support.

“Because we know our work to be far from finished,” wrote the organization, “we are making this move back to Fort Greene to save, fundraise, and intentionally plan for a future in a more permanent and accessible home. Through mobilization, education and capacity-building, we work for community wellness and progressive social and economic justice. Committed to struggling across differences, we seek to responsibly reflect, represent and serve our various communities.”

Photo Credit: NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project

 

May 28, 2020

Discover Flatiron: Municipal Lodging House

As part of our Discover Flatiron series about New York resiliency and in observance of National Hunger Awareness Day on June 7th, the Flatiron Partnership recalls the 1909 opening of the Municipal Lodging House located at 432-438 East 25th Street. The property once served as the first-ever temporary housing facility in Manhattan that provided food and shelter to the City’s neediest for 40 years.

For decades, New Yorkers have been known to come to the aid of others. Such actions included those taken by a Flatiron neighborhood native, Theodore Roosevelt, who played an integral role in the development of the Municipal Lodging House for homeless men, women, and children.

Starting in the 1870s, an abundance of wealth flourished during the period known as the Gilded Age, which showcased some of the most expansive and expensive real estate in Madison Square and beyond. But, the era of success was soon marred by an economic depression like no other with the arrival of the Panic of 1893. According to the History Channel, “it was wealthy tycoons, not politicians, who inconspicuously held the most political power during the Gilded Age” and soon “banks and other businesses folded, and the stock market plunged, leaving millions unemployed, homeless, and hungry.”

Roosevelt’s roots in Progressivism had long been established before he took the Presidency in 1901. He had served as Commissioner of New York City’s Police Department from 1895 to 1897. During this time, Roosevelt embraced the philosophies of his friend, Jacob Riis, a housing reform activist and reporter, to establish a temporary housing shelter (Rediscovering Jacob Riis). Roosevelt responded to the Riis book, How the Other Half Lives, by telling the author personally: “I have read your book, and I have come to help”.

Thus, the economic downturn during the late 1800s led to the 1896 opening of the first Municipal Lodging House, which was operated by the New York City Department of Welfare. Situated on East 23rd Street and First Avenue, the facility later relocated to a newly constructed and much larger venue on East 25th Street, between First Avenue and the East River. 

(Bread and Coffee at Municipal Lodging House. Photo Credit: Library of Congress: George Grantham Bain Collection).

When the newly constructed lodging house opened on February 20, 1909, the reported $400,000, the six-story structure featured a disinfecting plant for occupants’ garments, as well as “964 beds–800 iron bunks for men on three floors,” noted The New York Times in 1991. “The rest were for women and children. Three meals a day were served and, to screen out idlers, men had to work five hours a day in a stone yard.” Dorothy Laager Miller adds, women lodgers “were provided a sewing machine for their use and a laundry room where they could wash their own clothes if they wanted to” (New York City in the Great Depression: Sheltering the Homeless). Reportedly, 426 men and 29 women, of whom 20 had children, entered the building on that wintry Saturday evening.

“Talk to the men who come in to dine on the city’s bread and coffee and sleep in the city’s white enameled beds, you’ll find a strange family resemblance in all their stories,” reported The Evening World newspaper on February 22, 1909.

According to The New York Times, “Official reports painted a fairly rosy picture of the lodging house with minimum concerns,” but also featured an incident with a man “who was arrested three times for vagrancy and who organized a boycott in 1910”. In his opinion, the facility was “not fit for a dog. We can't get to bed there until 1 in the morning, and we have to get up at 4 and then do five hours of work for three hours of sleep.”

(Photo Credit: Library of Congress: George Grantham Bain Collection).

The 1910 census recorded that the Municipal Lodging House had a total of 236 residents. But, by 1914, the facility “experienced its first overflow and by 1932, two piers had been renovated to bring the total capacity to 4,500,” reported The Times during the depth of the Great Depression. A new chapter about the building’s survival, however, was soon-to-be written.

After confronting the challenges of the influenza pandemic of 1918, as well as an end to the Great Depression in 1941 and the conclusion of World War II in 1945, the Municipal Lodging House was decidedly demolished in 1949 to make way for a healthcare complex that would now serve the needs of future generations. Today, the buildings include the Manhattan VA Medical Center and the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing, the flagship nursing school of The City University of New York. “It seems strange that the Municipal Lodging House had such a short life, from 1909 to 1949,” recalled The New York Times on December 22, 1991. “What seems even stranger is that it remains an absolutely singular event in the building history of Manhattan.”


Header and Thumbnail Photo Credit: New York City in the Great Depression: Sheltering the Homeless by Dorothy Laager Miller

May 15, 2020

Flatiron Postcards: Flatiron District's Iconic Intersection

As a part of our "Postcard Preview" series, these historical postcards come to us from the personal collection of Miriam Berman, a local NYC historian who is one of the tour guides for our weekly historic walking tours, which are currently on hold due to COVID-19. Miriam walks us through another of her personal favorites depicting the Flatiron neighborhood. 
 

WHAT SURROUNDED THE FLATIRON BUILDING? 

When the Flatiron Building was built in 1902, the famous Fifth Avenue Hotel stood diagonally across the way on Fifth Avenue between West 23rd and 24th Streets. 

(Postcard depicting the Fifth Avenue Hotel in 1905. Publisher unknown. Click here for larger image

The Fifth Avenue Hotel was dubbed ‘Eno’s Folly’ after the savvy real estate magnate Amos Eno erected the hotel in 1859 - a time when the neighborhood was considered a no-man’s-land. Eno shed the hotel’s negative connotation when he invited the Prince of Wales to be a guest at the hotel during the Prince's first trip to America in 1860. The publicity of this event attracted the attention of other real estate moguls who followed Eno’s lead and took interest in developing the area. This led to a string of hotels, restaurants, and theatres opening along Broadway. Eno helped successfully lay the foundation for the vibrant district that we enjoy today. 

(Postcard depicting the Fifth Avenue Building in 1920 by W.J. Roege Publisher. Click for larger image.)

In 1908, the hotel plot became the Fifth Avenue Building, where it has stood for the past 112 years and is now known as 200 Fifth. When the Fifth Avenue Building first opened, its offices and showrooms quickly filled with a diverse array of businesses. By the 1960s, however, the owners began renting exclusively to toy companies. The building then became known as the International Toy Center. The Toy Center grew so quickly it expanded its footprint to include an adjacent building, linked by a street-bridge high above West 24th Street. Toy buyers from all over the world would visit the Center to both view and purchase innovative toy products.

The two buildings later separated, and the Toy Fairs moved on to be hosted at the Javits Center. 200 Fifth continued its fame by becoming home to several prestigious companies — the world headquarters of Grey Advertising, the business offices of Tiffany’sEataly's first marketplace location, Marimekko, and, as a nod to the toy industry, Lego's flagship store. 

The Flatiron Building housed equally eclectic tenants including some toy companies and a number of publishing companies. Some 118 years later, Macmillan Publishing bid farewell after being the Flatiron Building's longest tenants. Currently, the landmarked skyscraper is undergoing an extensive interior renovation and it's next tenant remains unknown. 

Somehow it seemed like the uniquely shaped parcel often referred to as “a stingy piece of pie” was destined for greatness. Before the Flatiron Building's construction, the Flatiron plot was occupied by a series of low buildings. An 1880's image featured in a Harper’s Magazine showed a horizontal banner that was installed on the plot’s lowest building. The banner read, “The Center of the United States — Here.” An appropriate message for its time and one that continues to capture the essence of the area's appeal. 

Header Image: Postcard from 1905 by Bamforth
Publishers, N.Y. City (Click here for larger image).

 

May 8, 2020

Discover Flatiron: Lillian Wald, Founder, Visiting Nurse Service of New York

As part of our Discover Flatiron series about New York resiliency and to honor nurses during the newly renamed annual National Nurses Month, the Flatiron Partnership reflects on the origin of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. The nonprofit, healthcare organization was founded in 1893 by Lillian Wald, who was America’s pioneer public health nurse. She was also a contributing policymaker for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, one of the country’s leading and largest insurance businesses located in the neighborhood at 23rd Street and Madison Avenue.

Cincinnati, Ohio native Lillian Wald was born into a successful merchant family in 1867 that later relocated to Rochester, New York. Wald led a life of privilege through her private school education, but by 1889, she decided to pursue a more meaningful existence. “A nurse came to attend to Miss Wald’s sister, then expecting her first child,” reported The New York Times in Wald’s obituary. “A brief talk with this nurse stirred in her desire to devote her life to the sick.” Wald enrolled in New York Hospital Training School for Nurses, where she also taught women about home care and hygiene and later graduated in 1891.

Wald would soon experience another life-changing event, which led her and friend Mary Brewster to launch the nonprofit, healthcare organization that would become known as the Visiting Nurse Service of New York on the Lower East Side. “One morning, the daughter of one of Wald’s students came into the classroom in tears, saying that her mother was sick,” notes the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. “The child’s mother had been hemorrhaging since giving birth two days earlier. Wald ministered to the woman, cleaned the bed and room, and comforted the family. The family was so grateful to Lillian Wald that as she turned to go, they kissed her hands.” The incident left a lasting impression on Wald and led her to found the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. “Nursing is love in action,” Wald once said, “and there is no finer manifestation of it than the care of the poor and disabled in their own homes.”

Photo Credit: Patricia Corcoran
Photo Credit: Patricia Corcoran 

When outbreaks of polio, influenza, and diphtheria followed by mandatory quarantines hit New York City during the first decade of the 20th century, “Wald’s agency was instrumental in providing nursing care,” states VNSNY. The New York Times reported on November 13, 1926, “The women who go into homes where there may be infection, fearless and eager to serve, have given New Yorkers a sense of deep gratification.”

One health advertisement for the public crafted by Wald and team read in part: “There is nothing in the epidemic of Spanish Influenza to inspire panic... A stern task confronts our women–not only trained women, but untrained women. The housewife, the dietitian, the nurses' aide, the practical nurse, the undergraduate nurse, and the trained nurse herself–all of these are needed.”

By 1909, Wald had expanded her business vision with a proposed partnership with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. “Armed with data to document that nursing care saves lives,” wrote the American Journal of Public Health in December 1993, “Wald urged Metropolitan Life to hire visiting nurses to care for policyholders during illness.” The Claude Moore Health Sciences Library adds, “The company’s agents would notify the Visiting Nurse Association when a family needed help, and the company paid the nursing association 50¢ (in 1909) for each visit ($12 today). The experiment was a resounding success.”

Photo Credit: Archives, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company: University of Virginia: Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library
Photo Credit: Archives, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company: University of Virginia: Historical 
Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Wald had immense pride in VNSNY’s unwavering purpose in helping others. She once indicated that “those familiar with the nurses are amazingly impressed by the quality of their work and the initiative they take, not only in their profession but in the social problems so intimately identified with their service.” When she died of heart disease at the age of 73 in 1940, cites VNSNY, “thousands filled Carnegie Hall to celebrate Wald’s remarkable legacy and to hear messages from leaders, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, commending Lillian Wald’s vision, compassion, and leadership.” 

Currently, VSNY “continues to deliver care to the vulnerable New Yorkers who depend on us, including those with COVID-19, to make sure they safely receive the care they need. We care for patients in the home and community, which helps alleviate the pressure on New York hospitals and makes desperately-required beds available for the critical patients who need them.”


Photo Credit: University of Virginia: Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

 

Apr 10, 2020

Discover Flatiron: The Great Depression and the Iconic MetLife Insurance Building

The Flatiron Partnership is taking a look back at how the Metropolitan Life North Building persevered during the Great Depression that followed. The proposed building was set to become a 100-story skyscraper, competing with the other ‘supertalls’ in New York City for the tallest building in the world. Rather than abandoning the project in its entirety after the 1929 stock market crash, the building’s designers creatively modified their plans and completed the structure that you see today on Madison Avenue.

In 1928 The Metropolitan Life North Building began to rise on a full block lot between 24th and 25th Street and Madison and Park Avenues. It was in the company of several other such skyward bound buildings — 40 Wall Street, the Chrysler Building, and the Empire State Building — in the race to achieve record-breaking height. The giant insurance company hoped to regain notoriety, as MetLife previously held the tallest building record back in 1909 with its slender MetLife Clock Tower until it was surpassed several years later by the Woolworth Building in 1913. 

The North Building was to be the third and final structure to complete MetLife’s enormous building complex alongside Madison Square Park. The first two buildings filled the adjacent block between 23rd and 24th Streets. In the 1890s, MetLife's first 12-story building rose occupying most of the block with the exception of the southeast corner of Madison and 24th Street. At the time, it was home to the Madison Square Presbyterian Church. The president of MetLife was quite enamored by this corner site and offered the church's reverend a deal for a new church that would be located directly across the street. From this site, the record-breaking 700-foot MetLife Clock Tower rose. In the forthcoming years, MetLife was busy acquiring additional properties that filled the entire block between 24th and 25th Streets.  

So, with the same confidence and determination of having achieved their record-breaking goal in the past, MetLife was ready to recapture its place in the limelight. By 1925 the company was at work on plans for their final expansion. They chose the architect Harvey Wiley Corbett who proposed a 100-story building, the rendering of which appeared in the New York Times on November 3, 1929.  

By 1929, Harvey Wiley Corbett brought architect D. Everett Waid aboard and together they embarked on what was to be the first phase of the proposed 100-story vision of their structure, beginning with its massive base which was to be built in 3 stages. The supertall building designers and builders across NYC did not foresee the Financial Crash of 1929, and the devastating Depression to endure for the following 10 years. Their projects were all under construction at about the same time. Work on most of the ambitious building constructions drew to a halt. The Empire State Building, when completed in 1931, remained mostly empty and was often referred to as the ‘Empty State Building.’


(P
hase 2 of the North Building’s construction. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company)

Due to the troubled times, the MetLife North Building found it necessary to scale back its proposal of 100 stories to just 31 stories — the height of its planned building base. Instead of abandoning construction, the architects reinvented the proposed building into a successful venture that met the need to re-strategize. To make it through the financial uncertainty of the time, the revised 31-story construction was stretched over 20 years from 1930 to 1950. The first stage of the base would be the Park Avenue section (1929–1932) which upon its realization was immediately occupied and functional. Then each subsequent third was added — the second section (1937–1940) — and the final section (1946–1950). Upon the completion of the base, its appealing Art Deco style stood in stark contrast to MetLife's original building and its clock tower created in the manner of the Italian Renaissance Revival. In order to make the buildings’ style feel more cohesive, the clock tower was stripped of all its decorative elements, and the facade of the original building was replaced. These adjustments helped the three buildings of the complex appear to have been built closer together in time.

Thanks to the ingenuity of MetLife and its design team, the project was able to stay the course through some of the hardest financial adversity ever faced in the United States. The change was not without sacrifice, as had it been constructed to be its intended height, the MetLife North Building would have certainly given both the Chrysler (77 stories at completion) and Empire State Buildings (102 stories at completion) a run for their money. Even so, by strategically modifying the construction plans and reimagining the ‘base’ into the building as it is today, the structure has retained the capacity to be completed to its original planned 100-story design in the future if ever desired. Next time you pass by this tiered wonder, let it be a reminder of what can still be accomplished when adversity means we must revise or re-envision our most grand plans. 

Header Photo Credit: (Left) Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, (Right) A View on Citie

Apr 7, 2020

Flatiron Postcards: Flatiron Building with Awnings

The postcard (pictured above) comes to us from the personal collection of Miriam Berman, a local NYC historian who is one of the tour guides for our weekly historic walking tours (currently suspended due to COVID-19). Miriam shares, "I find postcards so interesting because of their visual appeal and the historic imagery they have captured throughout the decades. By studying the cards carefully they document changes in the history of transportation—traffic patterns, automobile makers—and even document fashion trends throughout the years." Miriam is thrilled to bring some of her favorites to you. 
 
ABOUT THIS POSTCARD (Click here to view a larger image): 
 
The Awning image on the postcard is from 1905. The image is from a photographic image that has been colorized and screened for postcard reproduction. The Detroit Publishing Company published this image and used their ‘Phostint’ printing method unique to their facilities.
 

HISTORICAL CONTEXT: ARE THOSE AWNINGS?
 
When the Flatiron Building opened in 1902, the advent of the air conditioner was not yet part of our lives, although ironically it was invented that same year by Willis Carrier. Carrier developed the device specifically for climate control of a printing company in Brooklyn, NY to keep paper from wrinkling and the ink aligned. 
 
The Flatiron Building and most buildings in the City attempted to keep comfortable during the summer months by outfitting each window with an awning to shield the bright sunlight from infiltrating workspaces.
 
It wasn’t until 1931 when the individual air conditioner that sits on window ledges was invented that Flatiron tenants were able to enjoy some well-earned climate control. The building finally placed window units in each office.
 
Unfortunately, the effect of their installation competed with the delicate terra cotta elements of the building’s façade and window surrounds. Over time, however, they eventually began to blend-in visually as they took on some oxidation and appeared to almost become a part of the façade.
 
When work began in fall 2019 for an interior renovation, which will include both central air and heating, window units were removed for the first time since the early 1930s. This removal revealed the original unobstructed vision of Daniel Burnham’s splendid terra cotta detailing.
 
 
MORE FROM MIRIAM ON HER COLLECTION: 

What sparked her interest in collecting and researching historical postcards?
 
"My interest in collecting postcards began when I maintained my graphic design studio in the Flatiron Building in the mid-1970s to '80s. A friend invited me to a postcard show which took place in the grand ballroom of an NYC hotel. When I walked in I saw long tables as far as the eye could see upon which stood what appeared to be shoeboxes each filled with postcards with every imaginable subject carefully categorized. I decided to see if there were any Flatiron postcards and low and behold I became an instantaneous collector!"
 
 "There is an added bonus to collecting these vintage cards and that is the handwritten messages to friends, family, business associates, etc. found on the back of the cards adjacent to the recipient’s address. Some of these personal memos can be very revealing."
 
"My collection has grown — subject wise — to include the entire city, and well beyond, many of which in some way can be traced back to the Flatiron and its environs. Collecting and researching so many of these images led to eventually writing my book, Madison Square — The Park and Its Celebrated Landmarks — with the Flatiron featured on its cover and of course an entire chapter devoted to the iconic Flatiron Building itself!"